Philip Yancey, whose explorations of faith have made him a guide for millions of readers, feels no need to defend the church. "When someone tells me yet another horror story about the church, I respond, 'Oh, it's even worse than that. Let me tell you my story.'I have spent most of my life in recovery from the church."Yancey acknowledges that many spiritual seekers find few answers and little solace in the institutional church. "I have met many people, and heard from many more, who have gone through a similar process of mining truth from their religious past: Roman Catholics who flinch whenever they see a nun or priest, former Seventh Day Adventists who cannot drink a cup of coffee without a stab of guilt, Mennonites who worry whether wedding rings give evidence of worldliness."How did Yancey manage to survive spiritually despite early encounters with a racist, legalistic church that he now views as almost cultic In this, his most soul-searching book yet, he probes that very question.
Fans of Yancey's bestseller What's So Amazing About Grace may not know what to do with this book. In some ways, it is his darkest work ever, chronicling his own lover's quarrel with the institutional church specifically, the church of his childhood that promulgated racism and practiced a pharisaic legalism. In other ways, this book is one of his most hopeful, for in it he charts a spiritual path through all of the muck made by organized religion. As guides, he looks to "a baker's dozen" of thinkers, writers, doctors and activists who have taught him about Christianity. Martin Luther King Jr.'s life shamed Yancey into confronting his own racism and then helped his heart be transformed by Christ's love. Leo Tolstoy taught him self-forgiveness, while Fyodor Dostoyevsky modeled grace as a lived reality. John Donne taught him to wrestle with the ultimate enemy, death; Annie Dillard demonstrated ways to appreciate God in creation; Mahatma Gandhi showed him the power of one individual to change the course of history. The most moving chapter is perhaps the tribute to Paul Brand, an orthopedic surgeon whose work on leprosy helped Yancey to understand how pain can become a gift from God. It's not a perfect book; the chapter on G.K. Chesterton is too short, and the essay on former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop seems superficial in a book with such theological depth. Despite these minor flaws, this multibiography is a much-needed signpost, stubbornly pointing to the life of faith. (Sept. 18) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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December 31, 2000
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Excerpt from Soul Survivor by Philip Yancey
RECOVERING FROM CHURCH ABUSE
Sometimes in a waiting room or on an airplane I strike up conversations with strangers, during the course of which they learn that I write books on spiritual themes. Eyebrows arch, barriers spring up, and often I hear yet another horror story about church. My seatmates must expect me to defend the church, because they always act surprised when I respond, "Oh, it's even worse than that. Let me tell you my story." I have spent most of my life in recovery from the church.
One church I attended during formative years in Georgia of the 1960s presented a hermetically sealed view of the world. A sign out front proudly proclaimed our identity with words radiating from a many-pointed star: "New Testament, Blood-bought, Born-again, Premillennial, Dispensational, fundamental..." Our little group of two hundred people had a corner on the truth, God's truth, and everyone who disagreed with us was surely teetering on the edge of hell. Since my family lived in a mobile home on church property, I could never escape the enveloping cloud that blocked my vision and marked the borders of my world.
Later, I came to realize that the church had mixed in lies with truth. For example, the pastor preached blatant racism from the pulpit. Dark races are cursed by God, he said, citing an obscure passage in Genesis. They function well as servants -- "Just look at how colored waiters in restaurants can weave among the tables, swiveling their hips, carrying trays" -- but never as leaders. Armed with such doctrines, I reported for my very first job, a summer internship at the prestigious Communicable Disease Center near Atlanta, and met my supervisor, Dr. James Cherry, a Ph.D. in biochemistry and a black man. Something did not add up.
After high school I attended a Bible college in a neighboring state. More progressive than my home church, the school had admitted one black student, whom, to stay on the safe side, they assigned to a roommate from Puerto Rico. This school believed in rules, many rules, sixty-six pages' worth in fact, which we students had to study and agree to abide by. The faculty and staff took pains to trace each one of these rules to a biblical principle, which involved a degree of creativity since some of the rules (such as those legislating length of hair on men and skirts on women) changed from year to year. As a college senior, engaged, I could spend only the dinner hour, 5:40 P.M. until 7 P.M., with the woman who is now my wife. Once, we got caught holding hands and were put "on restriction," forbidden to see each other or speak for two weeks. Outside somewhere in the great world beyond, other students were demonstrating against the war in Vietnam, marching for civil rights on a bridge near Selma, Alabama, and gathering to celebrate love and peace in Woodstock, New York. Meanwhile we were preoccupied, mastering supralapsarianism and measuring skirts and hair.
Shortly after the turn of the millennium, in the spring of 2000, I experienced a fast-motion recapitulation of my life. The first day, I served on a panel at a conference in South Carolina addressing the topic "Faith and Physics." Though I have no expertise in physics, I got chosen along with a representative from Harvard Divinity School because I write openly about matters of faith. The panel was lopsided on the science end, for it included two Nobel prize-winning physicists and the director of the Fermilab nuclear accelerator near Chicago.