It’s interesting sometimes to go back and revisit the types of books you used to read—note that I said types of books, not actual books. When I revisit books I’ve read before, I carry with me the fond or not-so-fond memories of the previous read, and these affect my subsequent readings. But an entirely new book doesn’t carry that baggage.
Years ago, I used to read lots of books of popular Christian nonfiction. I was a regular visitor to my local Christian bookstore, and my friends and I swapped books and recommendations. A lot of the time, I found the books wanting. They offered formulas to follow or gave easy answers to difficult questions (and don’t get me started on the dating books, which I read a lot of at the time). I do remember, though, that Philip Yancey was a favorite. Yancey seemed to understand how the real world works, and I got a lot out of his books Disappointment with God, What’s So Amazing About Grace? and Soul Survivor. However, since I stopped visiting Christian bookstores, I also stopped running across books by Yancey, and he fell off my radar (although Soul Survivor did show up at Borders and some attention on NPR). I spotted the advance copy of his new book What Good Is God? at the American Library Association conference and decided to take a copy, partly to see whether he still has the same appeal.
The book is a sort of combination travelogue/sermon collection in which Yancey writes about the people and places he has visited for speaking engagements and shares the words of the talks that he gives. Yancey is a popular enough writer with a wide enough circle that he gets invited to all kinds of places. He spoke at Virginia Tech shortly after the shootings in April 2007, he’s spoken at a conference about ministries to women in prostitution, he’s visited underground churches in China, and he happened to be speaking in Mumbai during the 2008 terrorist attacks. Needless to say, he has some fascinating stories to share about the people he has met and the things he has seen. The chapters on sex workers and on Mumbai were especially interesting, and I also liked the section about his own experiences as a student at a legalistic Bible college and the words he shared when invited to speak there years later.
However, the diversity of Yancey’s experiences gives the book a sort of mongrelized feeling. Most of the time it seems to be a book all about people who maintain a belief in God despite the pain they encounter in the world, and how they use that belief to transform the world around them. These stories really are fascinating and inspiring. But then there’s a chapter about C.S. Lewis, which I enjoyed, although it seems out of the spirit of the rest of the book and was only included because Yancey happened to be speaking at Cambridge.
Also, the combination of travel narrative and speech transcript didn’t quite work. The travel narratives were, by and large, fascinating, but most of the talks didn’t do much for me. They were all very much geared toward their particular audiences, as they should be, but I think you almost have to be there to fully feel the energy inherent in these kinds of talks. No matter how great the speaker, reading the words on the page is not the same as being there. Yancey is, I imagine, a pretty good speaker, and the speeches contained some interesting insights, but these speeches were meant to be experienced by particular people in a particular place and time. Something gets lost in the translation.
I think, too, something of myself has been lost over the years. I didn’t disagree strongly with anything Yancey said. I found his spirituality to be as down-to-earth and realistic as ever. He’s able to write in a way that I think would appeal to people across the Christian spectrum. He doesn’t take on hot-button issues but merely asks his readers to be honest about what they see in the world and what the Bible says about life. This is actually a surprisingly difficult thing to do, and I’m glad writers like Yancey are out there making these connections. However, most of what he had to say doesn’t feel fresh to me anymore. I say that not to make myself seem superior but just as a statement of fact. I’ve thought through a lot of the ideas he presents in his talks. I haven’t been able to consistently apply them to my life, but the ideas were in my head before I read this book.
I can see this book being incredibly helpful to me 10 or 15 years ago, when I hadn’t thought about poverty around the world or Jesus’s views on equality and when I was first starting to ask what grace really means in a world where so many people seem determined to inflict pain. Although these questions never go away, my thinking about them has changed enough that Yancey’s message, helpful as it may be for some, no longer has that much to say to me.