Promoting Christ-centred Biblical Ministry

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Surviving the Church

reprinted from the Spring-Summer 2003-04 edition of Essentials


   Multi-award winning author and journalist Philip Yancey has developed a strong following in Christian circles with his honeyed writing style and easily accessible work. Though a well-respected, theologically trained intellectual, Yancey positions himself outside the church's officialdom, numbering himself with other ordinary Christian "pilgrims". Luke Nelson is a trainee staff worker for Melbourne University Christian Union
  His writing seeks to reflect this, dealing as it does with the everyday questions of the pain of human beings, and the grace and the nature of God. His recent work Soul Survivor (2001) continues this trend, a semi-autobiography, offering a frank retelling of how his faith "survived the church". As such it offers a fascinating insight into Yancey's history, carrying themes that would resonate with many others wary of the church.
   Yancey grew up in the turbulent American South of the 1960s, in racist and fundamentalist churches where blacks were barred and legalism "pressed life and faith" out of the author. Later he would attend a Bible College guided by sixty-six pages of rules, yet outside its gates swirled a social revolution which would catch Yancey up and give vitality to his beliefs. Instrumental to these changes would be some of the modern Christian world's most articulate figures, their words and writings shining light and life on Yancey's shuttered spiritual eyes. Significantly he fell under the spell of Martin Luther King Jr., Yancey's instinctive racism and scepticism shattered by the calm power of the civil rights activist's gospel convictions.   
   Inspired, Yancey began to read widely, thirstily consuming new, positive and challenging messages from a raft of sources. Survivor forms a kind of logbook of his spiritual journey, tracing the key influences – thirteen in all – that have helped him navigate the course of his Christian adventure. For each he offers a brief biographical sketch, placing each figure in their historical and spiritual context and assessing their impact on his own beliefs.   
  They are an eclectic bunch, this baker's dozen of mentors. They range from scientists such as Dr C. Everett Koop, the Reagan administration's surgeon general, to writers such as John Donne, Annie Dillard and the two Russian masters Leo Tolstoy and Feodor Dostoevsky.  

Interestingly, most of them are pulled from beyond the reaches of mainstream evangelicalism, with one – Mahatmi Gandhi – coming from outside the faith. Most of them are quite unconventional, distanced from the church by attitudes and choices. As such they no doubt attracted Yancey, the scars of youth pushing him to the margins of church culture in his quest for guidance.


It is these atypical, aloof vantage points which make Survivor such an intriguing book, their value lying in the fresh and challenging insights they offer into the Christian walk. There are enduring messages, the call to appreciate the wondrous gift of life in God's universe streaming through G. K. Chesterton, Annie Dillard and Frederick Buechner, the Presbyterian-ordained novelist who taught Yancey to "listen to life" and find the "subterranean" flow of grace in the mystery of daily living.

  There are also intriguing reflections on the nature of pain and health from Paul Brand, doctor to Indian lepers, who notes the importance of pain for human life, and sombre John Donne, who dreaded death until he realised it gave meaning and could solve the imperfections of life.  
  Most prominent, however, is the running theme of "the tension between Christian ideals and reality" - the nagging thought that if the gospel is such good news then God's people should be happier and more diligent. His most intriguing insights into this problem come with the study of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, the former forsaking all in a misguided attempt to earn God's favour through his industry, the latter having much taken from him but discovering grace.  
  Yet despite this study, I found Survivor strangely lacking in grace, Yancey's gospel too often straying from the fundamentals of Jesus' life and death and lapsing into "mere" humanitarianism. This is most obvious in the example of Mahatma Gandhi, who Yancey lauds as someone who tried "to an impressive degree" to live out some of Jesus' principles. While Gandhi doubtless led a remarkable life, he missed the central principle – that human virtue is worthless outside of Christ, the gospel code that shapes and motivates all other morals.  
  Yancey's frequent failure to adequately explain the gospel foundations renders Survivor complex. Its calls to greater diligence, to living the gospel with "abandon" and celebrating the nature of God are tremendously insightful and provocative, yet all too often he lapses into a kind of moralism that ultimately frustrates and disheartens. For these reasons I would recommend that Survivor be read with cautious enthusiasm, by those with a strong grounding in the gospel, eager to be transformed by good news of grace.  



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