THE thing about memoirs, reflects Philip Yancey, is that we think we read them to learn more about others, when in fact we read them to learn more about ourselves.
His memoirs where the light fell it took him three years to write, and a draft in 2015 was more than twice as long as the book that was finally published late last year. It reads like the best of fiction, The Ashes of Angela, say, or Oranges are not the only fruit. It’s searing and sensory, brutally honest and often humorous: the story of an impoverished childhood and youth in a fundamentalist church, dominated by the fear of hell and an extremely unpredictable mother (Books, December 17, 2021 ).
His father died of polio, having given up his iron lung in the belief that God would save him. In an “awful vow”, which Philip Yancey and his brother, Marshall, would constantly clash against, his mother dedicated her two boys to God: “He is a ghost figure, summoned by our mother at key moments. Your father is watching you. Your father would have been so proud.
She regularly beat up boys and, in one of the most searing revelations, Mr Yancey wrote: “I want to run up to someone I recognize in church and say, ‘Please, please. please can you help us? I need someone to know what’s going on in my house.
“So I remember my mother’s reputation and I realize that no one will believe me. She’s a saint, the holiest woman in Atlanta. She quotes verses about triumph in Christ, the joy of the Lord. . . She reserves all the darkness, all the anger for us, her sons.
He and Marshall imitate the “angry, heavy-breathing Southern preachers and their soprano wives.” The family lives in a trailer park and moves from a Conservative Baptist church to the 120-member Baptist faith, “too conservative for any denomination.”
Haunted by a graphic childhood incident in which he and another boy wantonly kill turtles, he lives every day in fear that God will send him to hell. “The prospect leaves a sour taste in my mouth and a tight feeling in my stomach.”
The churches he attends reinforce the racial prejudices he grows up with. “Racist from birth”, he has a crisis of faith when he realizes that the Church has lied to him about race.
Books become the gateway to a larger world: lord of the flies tells him “all about depravity without using the word,” and he gets a different perspective on his own “white-racist-paranoid-fundamentalism” community. . . I don’t like what I see.
At the end, he has an encounter with God in Bible college, feeling “a sheepish horror at regaining my faith.” . . But I also feel compelled to admit what caught me off guard, a gift of grace neither sought nor desired. . . In the end, my resurrection of belief had little to do with logic or effort and everything to do with the unfathomable mystery of God.
How on earth, I ask him, as a journalist and author of 25 books to date, has he managed to retain all of this rich material so far? He reflects: “I think if I had started with history and then written books like What’s so amazing about Grace? I think people would say, “Oh, now we know why he’s writing this book, because he has these psychological wounds from childhood.
“I’m glad now that I said what I believe first. Now that I kind of tell the story behind the story, people are surprised. His other books, he says, are “the chronicle of intellectual work on what to keep and what to let go”.
It has, in a sense, skimmed it all over the years, amassing many notes. Family reunions later in life added to the knowledge.
Details such as the scratching of metal coat buttons along his father’s coffin as he stood on his tiptoes, straining to see inside, are so immediate and so visceral that I wonder. wondered how painful it had been to remember all that.
“I think it’s extremely therapeutic to put together little pieces of the past in a way that has been revelatory to me as well. It was no more painful than the normal pain of writing, and, in terms of revisiting, not at all. It was a healing process.
Children have a resilience that gives them the ability to resist things, he says. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know anything different. I didn’t sit around thinking, ‘Why are we so weird compared to other families?’ I just thought that was life. Where his brother was always responding to being attacked and always losing, he did what he calls “turning down”, developing a hard shell “to keep it from touching my soul”.
The church he grew up in didn’t talk much about politics, he says. It was never assumed that they would play a part in it. “We were separated from the culture around us. We heard verses like, “Come out from among them and be separate. We were going to be just a small minority that really had no access to power.
“It has changed dramatically. It all started with Jimmy Carter. Time magazine did a cover story on “The Year of the Evangelical,” when the word first entered the mass vocabulary. Then there was Jerry Falwell, the moral majority, the rise of the religious right.
“Now in a place like New York you say the word ‘evangelical’ and they think you’re a Donald Trump supporter because 81% of evangelicals voted for him.
“If you look at history, every time church and state go to bed, it’s the church that loses in the long run. I fear for the divisions in America now, the way it’s shaping up, especially the fact that Republicans identify so much with what are really right-wing causes, and choose someone like Donald Trump, who is on the opposite of what evangelicals should be.
It saddens him that, as a result, many young people simply express their distaste for political discourse and do not want to be part of it. There is a need to fight a culture, he says, where people on either side of an argument hear ibkt opinions that reinforce their own biases.
On racism in America today, he warns that while the law on discrimination has changed, human hearts have not. “The only way for me is to try to be open and describe my own evolution,” he says, because I was a real blue racist.
“It really became a crisis of faith for me when I realized the church was on the wrong side of the issue. And then I started to doubt everything the church was teaching me. We have to be very careful about the issues we address and support, because we allow people to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
HE IS comforted, however, by what he sees in grassroots churches, where evangelicals work in homeless shelters and soup kitchens, and “where the gospel is happening. It’s different from my time, because when I was growing up, we were separated. Now, there’s a lot more understanding that we’re here to act more like Jesus in a society with great needs – that it’s not just about going through this lifetime to get to heaven.
When Mr. Yancey started out as a young journalist, it was around the time of the Watergate scandal. “Everyone then wanted to be an investigative journalist and uncover corruption and expose people like Richard Nixon,” he says. “He was a role model we all aspired to. I worked for a Christian magazine, exposing wealthy charlatans, flying in their jets, for what they were; but I found it very unsatisfying to be around people like that.
“I wanted to hang out with people I want to learn from and aspire to be. soul survivor [published in 2001] was about people who really changed me. This is advice I have for people like me growing up in a toxic environment, whether it’s family or church. My way out of the narrow confines of that, when I was a single adult, was to find people I wanted to be like.
“David Brooks has written about the difference between ‘virtues of praise’ and ‘virtues of summary’. When you’re young, you talk about the virtues of a CV: you have to go to the right school, get the right job, climb the corporate ladder.
“But, at the funeral, no one said ‘George here was so brilliant he bought ten Microsoft shares back when it was $100’. They talk about, ‘he was kind; he was compassionate he was taking care of his family. I keep reminding young people: find ways to survive this toxic environment. Work on the things you want to be remembered for.
The Church is often caricatured in the media, he suggests in the book. “It’s not so much about making fun of the cultural aspects but of the political issues that have come to the fore in recent years,” he suggests. “The press tends to be on the liberal side of these issues; they therefore see the Church as a threat to the issues they deem important.
“Unfortunately the hidden bias hasn’t helped. You have churches suing for the right to gather in lockdowns or not to wear masks or avoid vaccination – wonder where that comes from. comes. I think of my father and the polio virus. When the vaccination came out, they were dancing in the streets.
He concludes his memoirs thinking that his resurrection of belief has everything to do with the unfathomable mystery of God. He reflected: “I think of the passage where Paul himself was struggling with ‘Why were the Gentiles invited? Why was Jacob chosen over Esau?’
“He came to the same conclusion: that it’s the mystery of God’s grace, not something we can figure out in advance. I was softened by grace. But I was not actively seeking a relationship with God. I couldn’t tell what was wrong and what was right on the Bible College campus, where I didn’t like what I saw around me.
“And then God revealed himself to me in unexpected and many undesirable ways, and it really changed everything.
“I never told that story because when you do, people say, ‘Well, I haven’t had such an experience. I don’t have a conversion story. God has us all created differently, but because I had seen so much falsehood, I needed something from somewhere else, and God provided it.
He agrees that the memoirs are the most important book he ever wrote. “I’ve never done a book like this, a memoir. . . It was a new genre for me, telling the story through dialogue and sensory detail.
“I consider my life as a gift. Because I was thrust into the middle of an extreme family that started with a theological error – deciding that my father was going to be healed – I’ve had the privilege ever since of working and deciding what to keep and what to throw away .
“I don’t see anything wasted and I have no regrets. Even those memories that might have been painful weren’t really so when they were part of the whole picture. They were just part of the whole story. .
where the light fell by Philip Yancey is published by Hodder & Stoughton at £16.99 (Church Times Bookstore £15.29); 978-1-529-36422-4.