Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Bible College … a Q&A with Philip Yancey

I don’t read a lot of Christian books.  In a good year, I might read 3 or 4 from beginning to end.

There are a couple of reasons for this, maybe more.

  1. I’m a slow reader.  It’s true.  As an elementary-school SRA reader, I spent a good amount of time on the purple cards.
  2. There are a lot of Christian authors that I should read and that I should enjoy, but for some reason I don’t.  So I avoid them, but I nod and smile when other people mention them.

And so I had to consider carefully when a friend recommended What’s So Amazing About Grace? by Philip Yancey.  This was probably in 2006 or so, and the book had been out for about 8 years.

Now I knew I’d heard of Mr. Yancey before, but I couldn’t quite place him.  Maybe he had crept into my brain during my frequent strolls through the aisles of Borders (the bookstore, now sadly departed).  Or, now that I think of it, I may have seen a copy of The Jesus I Never Knew lying around my parents’ home in Arkansas.  Maybe a volume that Mom had picked up at a garage sale?

Nevertheless … I picked up a copy of W.S.A.A.G. and loved it.  L-o-v-e-d it.

5 stars.  Recommend to friends.  Life-changing.

For some reason, within the first few pages, I thought to myself, “Okay, this is a book I can handle.  It’s not all apple pie and rainbows.  It seems real to me.  This is a guy I can trust.”

And so Philip made it as a regular into my Christian book rotation.  This means, once every year or so, I pick up one of his books and read it, cover-to-cover.

Somewhat recently, I finished What Good is God?  (It does seem like a lot of his book titles end with a question mark), and there was a part in there called “Bible College” which was full of personal connections for me.  Philip did not attend the same college as me (and many of you), but there were similarities:  funny times, good times, growing times … and a good bit of legalism in the mix.  He concluded the section with words of advice for students at his alma mater:

“Above all else, I leave you this word grace, and hope and pray that you will let it soak into you today and the rest of your days.  I pray that while here you will not only believe in God, but also know deep in your soul that God believes in you.”

Amen, brother.

And so I wrote Philip a fan letter and basically said, “Hey, how about a little interview for my little blog?”  And he graciously agreed.


So here you go … Mike and Philip, an email Q&A:

You say that you “have learned to appreciate other traditions of faith,” which includes Catholic and Eastern Orthodox.  How does your view of (the size of) God’s kingdom now compare with your view in Bible college (and before)?

PY:  Mainly, I’ve learned humility.  In Bible college and my childhood church I thought we and only we had a corner on THE TRUTH.  Later I learned that some of the things we believed were flat-out wrong (such as racist theology) and we badly needed other balancing parts of the Kingdom.  For example, when I wrote a book about prayer I was drawn to the commitment of Catholics, who have been doing it for centuries with great energy, and Eastern Orthodox, who have much to teach me about reverence and the role played by sensory aspects like music.  I concluded that all of Old Testament history and New Testament theology did not exist simply to prop up the tiny sliver of faith that is American evangelicalism.

What part did the Holy Spirit play in your life as a young Christian (and/or in your Bible college days)? What part does the Holy Spirit play in your life today?

PY:  Good question.  Most of what the Holy Spirit does is “under the radar” and hard to pin down.  I don’t see the Holy Spirit as some obvious force; it’s simply the Spirit of Jesus, God’s reality acting on people available and tuned in.  When I feel promptings to care about someone and to pray, that’s the Spirit.  When I feel guilt over my behavior, that’s the Spirit.  When I meet with God in personal devotions, that’s the Spirit.

I’ve heard a good number of sermons on hell. I’m guessing you’ve heard a few as well.  Do you think these sermons did more harm than good? What are your current thoughts about heaven and hell?

PY:  In many cases such sermons do more harm than good, mainly because they present God primarily as a hostile force, a stern judge or Policeman.  Also, the group I grew up among, placed so much emphasis on the afterlife that they treated this life as a kind of pre-death experience.  That’s got it all wrong.  If you read the sermons in the Book of Acts, and Paul’s epistles, you’ll see strong promises of heaven, surely, but the main emphasis is on how to live here.  I don’t think we should give the afterlife more attention than the Bible does.

So what’s next for Philip Yancey? A memoir (I hope)?

PY:  Yes, I’ve done a lot of preliminary work on a memoir, though I haven’t written a word yet.  I have a book on “Communicating faith to a culture running away from it” that will come out first, and may also do a small follow-up to Where Is God When It Hurts.  I definitely want to get to that memoir, though.  It will help me stitch my life together.


  1. Hi Mike! It always delights me to read stuff about my fellow Philip Yancey fans.. :D Hehehe..

    I've always followed on Philip's interviews, and this is such a treat to me to know that he actually replies mini interviews as this (i mean, with simple fans like us)! I'm actually now thinking of having my own one with him, heheh.. How'd you get his email address by the way? I've contacted him before but it was through Zondervan. He replied there too though. :)

    Thanks also for that Yancey quote. *sigh* It's very touching to be reminded of that truth again. I wish-pray it will always stick in my brain and heart every day. Press on!


  2. Hi, Hephzibah! Thanks! I think you're on the right track ... emails and letters through his publisher are probably the best way to go. I hope the quote sticks in my brain as well ... grace ... and God believes in us. How true! God bless you.