Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Sex, Lies, and Life on the Evangelical Edge: An Interview, with Philip Yancey, the Best-Selling Christian Author Who Is Surprised at How Much He Gets Away With

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Sex, Lies, and Life on the Evangelical Edge: An Interview, with Philip Yancey, the Best-Selling Christian Author Who Is Surprised at How Much He Gets Away With

Article excerpt

Philip Yancey's books have sold more than 5 million copies internationally. He is an editor at large for Christianity Today magazine. His books include Rumors of Another World (2003), Soul Survivor (2003), Reaching for the Invisible God (2000), The Bible Jesus Read (1999), What's So Amazing About Grace? (1998), and many others. Philip Yancey was interviewed in November by Sojourners editor-in-chief Jim Wallis in Washington, D.C.

Sojourners: Your books have been very successful in the evangelical world. You're able to ask questions that challenge evangelical orthodoxies. How do you do that?

Philip Yancey: I myself have been surprised at what I can get away with. When I sent off the manuscript of What's So Amazing About Grace? I said to my wife, Janet, "That's probably the last book I'm going to write for the evangelical market." It's got a whole chapter on Mel White, who's now a gay activist, and it's got a whole chapter on Bill Clinton, who's not the most favored president of evangelicals.

Instead, it will probably be the best-selling book I've written. Part of it is, maybe through media bias, we typecast evangelicals unfairly. There are some evangelicals out there that don't see things through a grid that The New York Times may put on us. I push the edges at Christianity Today, probably--they come back and say, "Do you really want to say this?"

Growing up in fundamentalism I learned how to talk to fundamentalists--basically, just quote the Bible at them. I am not radical. Jesus is radical!

Sojourners: You write about what you're interested in, what you're struggling or worrying about, so your writing becomes a way to think through issues that are on your mind and heart.

Yancey: I've written pretty openly about my unhealthy church background. I get a lot of letters from people in whom that strikes a chord, even though their own experience may be very different. Mine was specifically Southern fundamentalist--angry, legalistic, and racist. The church had mocked Martin Luther King--the pastor called him "Martin Lucifer Coon" from the pulpit. We would cheer in nay church as they showed the films from Selma of the police dogs and the fire hoses. Later I realized that we were the bad guys.

I went through a period of feeling betrayed. That was the period where I rejected the church. If they lied about this, then maybe they're lying to me about the Bible and Jesus and God and everything else as well.

My pilgrimage as a writer, fortunately, goes step by step with nay pilgrimage as a Christian. In my church growing up they used the same words I use now. They say, "We're not under law, we're under grace." Well, whatever that was, it wasn't grace! So what is grace? It's a good question. I'm not preaching at people. I'm trying to represent the same questions they have.

Sojourners: You have written a lot of books to and for evangelical readership. Does your most recent book, Rumors of Another World, address a different audience?

Yancey: I really wrote this book for people who say, "I'm spiritual, but I'm not religious." What can you say to that group of people? Could I defend my own faith--does it make sense? The year I started writing Rumors, Janet and I had taken four trips to Europe. I'm writing about prayer, about guidance, and in Europe they're not even sure there is a God!

Sojourners: You say there are "rumors of another world" in this world. What are the hints that you find most profound?

Yancey: When I started writing the book I would have said that the three things that brought me back to God were not religious things. They were not Billy Graham rallies or gospel tracts. They were the beauty of nature, classical music, and romantic love. When I encountered those three things, suddenly I had this "ding! ding! ding!" experience.

I discovered that the world is actually a smiling place, not a scowling place; that God wants me to have a full life, not a half life, not a two thirds life. …

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