Philip Yancey's Blog
July 6, 2014
I have lived through the golden age of publishing, first with magazines and then with books. I began my career at Campus Life in 1971, and in ten years saw our circulation leap from 50,000 to 250,000. Like many magazines, Campus Life eventually bit the dust as advertising dollars migrated to flashier (and cheaper) online sources and consumers no longer responded to direct mail offers and renewal letters.
For almost four decades (yikes!) I’ve worked as a freelance writer, feeling enormously blessed to make a good living by writing about issues of faith that I would want to explore even if no one bought my books. Every year my royalties go down, though with more than 20 books in print I can still pay bills and find publishers willing to sponsor new books.
The changes in publishing, especially Christian publishing, stood out sharply to me when I stopped in at the largest annual Christian book convention in June. At one time 15,000 attended that trade show, a convention so large that only a handful of cities could accommodate it. Now less than 4,000 attend, and in Atlanta it occupied a corner of the huge convention center. A couple hundred delegates attended a luncheon in which I participated on a panel with Ravi Zacharias and Ryan Dobson; ten years ago the same luncheon would have filled a thousand-seat banquet hall. Though name authors had book signings, the only lines I saw were for two stars of Duck Dynasty.
Book publishing is going through massive changes. Almost every month bookstore sales fall below the total from last year…and the year before. Of the 5,000 Christian bookstores in the U.S. open in the 1970s, barely half that number have survived. What happened?
In truth, many Christian bookstores were “mom and pop” stores run more out of a sense of ministry than business acumen. Managers stocked too many titles, knew little about marketing, and stayed in business mainly because every so often a mega-seller like The Purpose Driven Life or the Left Behind series would come along to rescue their bottom line. In the early 1990s chain stores such as Walmart, Costco, and Sam’s Club started picking off these bestsellers and general bookstores like Borders (now defunct) and Barnes & Noble greatly expanded their religion departments. Then came Amazon.com, offering deep discounts to siphon off the steady sales that kept small bookstores afloat.
There was a cost to the industry, of course. No longer would shoppers browse the shelves, pick up books to scan the contents, and walk out with five books when they had intended to buy just one. Now they ordered the one they wanted online, untempted by new books they did not even know existed. Scores of college and seminary bookstores closed as students ordered the required books online, forfeiting the ability to browse among unassigned books that also might interest them.
Christian bookstores adapted by expanding their product line. Many Christian bookstores today realize less than 30 percent of their profits on books. Instead they stock Precious Moments statues, greeting cards, toys, games, Thomas Kinkade prints, and religious kitsch. People still like to finger gift items before they buy.
In the past five years the digital revolution has introduced a whole new challenge to the publishing industry, much like its impact on music and movies. Until last year e-books were rising at double-digit rates. For publishers and also authors (the “plankton” of the publishing food chain), this has meant a drastic reduction in income. Say an author signs a contract to receive a 10 percent royalty on each book sold. In the old days he or she would receive $2.50 on a $25 hardback book. Now Amazon offers the book electronically for $9.99 and often offers specials of $2.99. For the same amount of work, the author may receive half or even 10 percent as much as from “dead tree” publishing.
Last year publishers in the U.S. took in $15 billion in income from all sources. E-books represented one-fourth of the sales volume but only 10 percent of the revenue, due to their lower prices.
For a first-time author, these are the best of times and the worst of times. Thanks to advances in self-publishing, anyone can get a book in print—as long as you’re willing to bear the costs of production, marketing, and sales that used to be absorbed by publishers. Brick-and-mortar bookstores generally won’t stock your book, so you have to find other ways to get the word out. Good luck.
You can lower the cost by publishing in electronic format only, in which case you’ll need even more luck. The best-selling author Tony Horwitz (Confederates in the Attic, Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War) recently wrote in the New York Times about his experience with electronic publishing. He was delighted to find that his instant book on the Keystone pipeline, Boom, had landed in the Amazon Top 25 list of all digital titles—only to learn that he had sold a mere 800 copies.
I had an enlightening experience with e-books in 2013. In April I finished the book The Question That Never Goes Away, based on my visits to three places of great tragedy. My traditional publisher wanted at least nine months lead time to publish it, the typical schedule for a new book, yet new tragedies such as the Boston Marathon bombings, tornadoes, and school shootings were occurring almost weekly, the very situations my book addressed. So I signed on for an Amazon-exclusive program to publish an e-book for 90 days before the hard copy book came out. Leaning on my friends for email lists, I managed to sell about 3,000 copies. On September 11 and Thanksgiving weekend I offered free downloads and 40,000 people downloaded the book! The moral of the story, as many have learned: things can quickly go viral on the Internet but it’s a tough place to generate income.
Trust me, I have no sour grapes. My main motive in writing the book was to bring perspective and comfort to people going through hard times, and if 40,000 people got it free, all the better. As I say, I have made a good living from writing and would probably keep doing it even if all my books were free. I do worry, though, about new authors who don’t have a backlist to depend on. As readers are trained to pay less (or nothing) for books, how can authors survive?
Last year Amazon sold more e-books than hard copy books, and some experts predict that by 2016 e-books will represent one-half of all books sold. (E-book sales have recently cooled, however, and that prognostication now seems unlikely.) Half of U.S. adults now own an e-reader or tablet computer, and there appears to be a generational divide. According to the Financial Times, 52 percent of 8- to 16-year-olds prefer reading on screen, with just 32 percent preferring print.
Certainly, e-books offer significant advantages. They are amazingly portable, for one thing. Logos Bible Software offers a package of 2,500 books that fit comfortably on a laptop computer and are instantly available with a few clicks. Someone kindly gave me a Kindle Paperwhite reader, and I find it ideal for reading books on a long trip without straining my arm or briefcase.
We still don’t know the long-term effects of reading e-books vs. traditional hard copy books. Some studies show that people read slower on dedicated e-readers, and those who use tablets or computers or iPhones have a different reading experience, being constantly distracted by text messages, emails, Facebook, and other interruptions. Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains explores the changes in brain function that may result. Hyperlinked, multi-tasking readers do not have the same “deep reading” experience, and are less likely to store what they read in long-term memory.
In short, we face a revolution in reading not unlike the one Gutenberg introduced almost 700 years ago. Nowadays authors are coached on “building your brand” more than on improving their writing. Publishers care more about website stats and Twitter followers than the quality of an author’s work.
Frankly, I’m glad I’m as old as I am. It’s been fun living through publishing’s golden age. I’ll happily stick with the “deep reading” experience. Nothing gives me more satisfaction than browsing through the books in my office. They’re my friends—marked up, dog-eared, highlighted, a kind of spiritual and intellectual journal—in a way that my Kindle reader will never be.
May 21, 2014
The Yanceys come from good genetic stock, as a recent trip South to celebrate my mother’s 90th birthday reminded me. Her mother, born in 1898, lived through the entire 20th century, as did Janet’s grandmother, also born in 1898.
At the turn of the millennium we tried to explain this accomplishment to Janet’s “little Nanna,” then 102. “Grandmother, you were born in 1898, so that’s the 19th century. You lived through the entire 20th century. And now you’re in a brand new century, the 21st century. You’ve lived in three different centuries!”
She was silent for a moment, and I could only imagine the synaptic storm in her brain as she tried to absorb this news. At last she came out with a response that none of us could have predicted: “Huh. Seems more like five.” She then sat down to play a few hymns on the piano.
Living that long gives one a unique vantage point on history. When Janet’s grandmother died I figured out that she had lived under 20 of the 42 US presidents up to that point. My own grandmother listened attentively in 1991 when I returned from a trip to Russia and described to her the changes taking place after the fall of communism. “I remember when those boys took over,” she said, referring to the Bolsheviks of 1917. “I never thought they would last.” A teenager during the Russian revolution, she easily outlived Soviet communism.
When I asked my grandmother to name her favorite US president she quickly named Roosevelt. “That makes sense,” I said. “He led the nation in World War II, started Social Security…”
“Not that Roosevelt!” she interrupted. “I’m talking about Teddy. I went to see him campaigning in 1912. He was such a handsome young man.”
Longevity is a matter of perspective. A mayfly lasts barely a day whereas a bristlecone pine tree may survive several millennia. On the trip for my mother’s birthday, we stopped by an ancient oak called the Angel Tree, estimated to be 400 years old. When the tree first took root, that part of South Carolina was a wilderness where wolves and cougars prowled; now the region is known more for golf courses and beachfront condominiums.
Age happens, unavoidably, effortlessly. All you do is get up each day and gradually the years accumulate. Oliver Wendell Holmes likened the process of aging to a giant dog that gets into a room with you and grows until there is no longer any space to breathe.
As usual, Mark Twain had a trenchant observation: “When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it happened or not; but my faculties are decaying now and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the things that never happened. It is sad to go to pieces like this but we all have to do it.”
Aging brings its own challenges, but it looks better when you consider the alternative. In honor of all of us who advanced one more day today, here is a final thought worthy of contemplation, from Robert Baker: “As I grow older, I care less and less what people think about me and more and more what God thinks of me. I expect to be with him much longer than with you.”
April 16, 2014
The same week that saw the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, I found myself in a studio taping the Tavis Smiley show, an interview program produced for PBS television. The program ranges widely over various topics, with an emphasis on politics and an occasional splash of religion. Having grown up Pentecostal, Tavis is not reluctant to talk about God. I was invited to discuss my book The Question That Never Goes Away for a segment that airs, fittingly, on Good Friday.
You never know who you’re going to meet in Hollywood. Before the show I ate lunch with another guest, Steward Copeland, who once toured as a drummer with Sting and the rock band The Police and now works as a classical composer—he’s just completed the score for a silent-screen version of the movie Ben Hur. (His hair was even wilder than mine.)
The real surprise came in the makeup room. A beautiful woman named Sheila, decked out in a red dress and lots of gold jewelry, was cheerfully trying to eliminate the shine from my nose and forehead when she mentioned that she too had grown up in the South. “What part?” I asked.
“Ooh, that’s heavy duty,” I replied. “I come from Atlanta, and we were busy finding ways to put Martin Luther King in jail. Out your way they were killing people.”
“Tell me about it,” she said. “I’m Medgar Evers’ niece.”
I was so stunned I had to ask her to stop her work for a time. She told me of the indignity of having to go to the back door to shop at a Woolworth’s department store: “They’d take my money, but I couldn’t come in the front door!” I had read accounts of the courageous teenagers who integrated those Jackson stores. Cops stood by as angry whites kicked them, squirted ketchup and mustard in their eyes, and beat them senseless. In Philadelphia, Mississippi, three young people were murdered for helping register blacks to vote.
And then on the evening of June 12, 1963, a member of the White Citizens’ Council stationed himself in the bushes across from the home of Medgar Evers, a well-known civil rights activist and field secretary of the NAACP. Evers had attracted the ire of white supremacists: within the previous two weeks a car had nearly run him over and someone had thrown a Molotov cocktail into his carport.
This night, as Evers stepped out of the car to greet his wife and children, he was hit in the back with a rifle bullet. He staggered inside and collapsed, and when the family drove him to the hospital he was initially refused admittance because of his color. He died less than an hour later. The murderer, Byron de la Beckwith, bragged about “killing that nigger” for years until finally, thirty years after the crime, a jury sentenced him to prison, where he spent the rest of his life.
I knew the story, one of the most horrible chapters in a tumultuous time in the South. After recalling that night, and the phone call that woke her family with the terrible news, Sheila added, “Be sure to meet the photographer on the set. His name is Van, and he’s my cousin, Medgar’s son.”
In books like What’s So Amazing About Grace? and Soul Survivor I have written of the shame of growing up on the wrong side of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. From all-white Southern schools and all-white Southern churches I absorbed the doctrine that God opposed any mixing of the races, and when I learned that the church had lied to me about race it shattered my faith for a time. What else had they lied about?
“I’ve gotten past those days,” Sheila said as we talked further. “I moved out here to California and learned makeup because I wanted to make African-Americans look as good as possible in the media. Things have changed. Still, I’ve decided that everybody’s a racist of one kind or another. It’s something we all fight.”
News from around the world daily proves the truth of Sheila’s words. Over differences in skin color and tribal origin, human beings find excuses to demean, brutalize, and murder each other. America’s painful struggle to enact civil rights legislation represents a triumph all too rare in history. Yet changing the law, as we’ve learned, is far easier than changing the soul. Just today I read of the hundreds of hateful emails and letters that the Atlanta Braves received after Hank Aaron gave an interview to USA Today.
Aaron had kept the racist, threatening letters he got as he neared Babe Ruth’s home run record, as a “reminder” that things aren’t so different now. “If you think that, you are fooling yourself,” Aaron said. “A lot of things have happened in this country, but we have so far to go. There’s not a whole lot that has changed.”
Maybe, maybe not. I once met a man who had attended a large family reunion of African-Americans in Virginia. He was invited as the only white person because his forefathers used to own slaves. After emancipation, the slaves took on the last name of their relatively kind former owner. “I went to the reunion with fear and trembling, but I was treated like a king,” he told me. “Imagine—my family used to own their ancestors, and now they were showing me grace and generosity.”
As my day in Tavis Smiley’s studio bore out, African-Americans wear their faith with more ease than do many uptight whites. You can see it in the music awards when performers thank “my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” or in locker-room interviews with black athletes who thank God for the ability to play the game. Herein is grace: that a race of people who were brought to this continent in chains and kept in bondage by “good Christians” who sometimes punished them for reading the Bible or for gathering in underground worship services would one day adopt the faith of the very people who used it as a rationale for keeping them enslaved.
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” said the apostle Paul, who as a pious Jewish man had thanked God every day that he was not born a woman, Gentile, or slave.
We humans are morally dense and slow to change. It took eighteen hundred years for the gospel to cut through human conscience enough for us to outlaw slavery, an evil institution that nothing else had been able to eradicate and many Christians continued to support. We still have a long way to go in overcoming racism and other forms of discrimination.
Martin Luther King Jr. liked to quote an abolitionist who said that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. President Barack Obama quoted that same phrase at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Both South Africa and the Southern U.S. have realized the lasting truth of the principle in my own lifetime. I thought of that phrase again the week commemorating the Civil Rights Act, as I sat in the studio of an African-American television host in a country that had twice elected a black man to the presidency.
Yes, Sheila, racism is far from extinct. Yet in steps large and small, justice marches on.
Check your local PBS listings for the Tavis Smiley Show airing late in the evening this Friday, April 18.
You can also view the episode online after the airing date on http://www.pbs.org/wnet/tavissmiley/
March 31, 2014
I spent last week in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which I jokingly call “the Hollywood of the Midwest.” My publisher, based in that city, was filming a video series on my book that will release in November called Vanishing Grace: Whatever Happened to the Good News? (When people ask me what the new book is about, I give an answer like, “Why Christians are so unpopular and what, if anything, we should do about it.”)
Now back at my desk, I’m struck by the contrast between shooting a video and my normal life of staring at a computer screen all day. A few observations:
There’s a lot of standing around in film production. On the first day, the crew worked four hours to get a film clip less than fifteen minutes long.
Acting is surprisingly hard work. Hollywood stars may be overpaid, but if you’ve ever attempted it, you realize how hard it is to “perform” with the pressure of time and expense riding on your every word. The challenge is to seem natural in an equipment-crammed setting that is glaringly artificial.
At least you’re not alone. Our low-budget production team employed eight to ten people to manage three cameras, lights, sound, sets, and a teleprompter, not to mention a director and producer. And weeks beforehand other crew members had worked to prepare five different set locations.
Men ought to pause at least once a month and give thanks that society doesn’t expect us to wear makeup.
Filming runs according to Murphy’s Law. If I flubbed a word, it was always the last word of a paragraph, making us back up and repeat the sequence. The same principle applies to bulbs that pop, fuses that blow, memory cards that fill, and camera batteries that give out—they always happen at the most inconvenient times. And woe to the “gofer” who drops a Coke can or sneezes during a take.
The digital revolution saves muscles. Shoulder-mounted cameras that used to weigh fifty pounds have been replaced by sleek new models not much larger than a consumer SLR. Look for skinnier cameramen in the future.
What I like best about this whole unreal process is that it gets people to study books in a group. Four of my books have a “video curriculum,” and I regularly hear from readers who encounter the topics I write about in a church or home setting, with the opportunity to discuss, debate, and question my own conclusions with other people around them. It makes writing less of a monologue and more of a dialogue. So I guess I’ll keep putting on makeup and standing around for a few days when a new book comes out.
March 26, 2014
Last November the strongest typhoon ever recorded slammed into the southern islands of the Philippines, with winds reaching 195 miles per hour. The storm caused more than 6,000 deaths (a thousand people are still missing) and 27,000 injuries, many of them bone fractures caused by collapsing buildings and flying debris.
Hurricanes and typhoons, earthquakes, violence in Syria and Nigeria, a missing Malaysian airplane, wildfires, floods, droughts—the tragedies keep on coming, relentlessly. And wherever they occur a volunteer army from private and government agencies deploys to rebuild houses, treat the injured, comfort families, and bring a measure of hope. “Look for the helpers” was the advice a young Fred Rogers (Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood) got from his mother whenever tragedy struck nearby—good advice for all ages.
I recently heard from Craig and Margaret Sutherland, two close friends who work in the Philippines, who had just returned from one of the areas most affected by last year’s typhoon. They saw miles and miles of fallen coconut trees scattered like toothpicks along the ground. Entire villages were simply missing. Many of the four million who lost their homes were still living under plastic shelters, four months later.
The Sutherlands distributed 300 filters to help purify water and keep down disease. They handed out a hundred copies of the British edition of my latest book, The Question That Never Goes Away, a title that seems all too apt in such a setting. And they put individual faces to the tragedy.
One missionary couple, an Australian married to a Filipina, cried out, “Why, God?” many times during the past few months. They were huddling in their house along with their teenage son when the storm blew the roof off, causing major damage to their computers, generator, and many of their books and belongings. The church, student center, and school where they worked were all destroyed. Two toilets sitting in a field marked what had once been a bathhouse.
An engineer had the best view of the typhoon as it swept in. He was sitting at his post atop a weather tower on the highest hill, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Windows blew out, his desk hurtled across the floor, and a co-worker had to cut a hole in the wall to rescue him.
The Sutherlands came across a priest at a pile of rubble that used to be a beautiful 16th-century church. As Margaret reports, “He looked at me with sad eyes and asked me to sit down next to him. He was so discouraged because the people were angry with him since he had not permitted them to take shelter in the church. Good thing, because the walls and roof fell and would have killed many. I was able to comfort him and pray for him.”
During the past two weeks, whenever I turned on CNN I would hear endless speculation about what might have happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Like vultures, the media circle every tragedy these days, which may be one reason they seem so relentless and overwhelming. As I read my friends’ report on the efforts of the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, and many other agencies still hard at work in the Philippines, I could only wish for similar attention for those who follow in tragedies’ wake, the helpers who bring comfort, hope, and practical help.
January 6, 2014
I went back through the blogs I wrote in 2013 to see which ones generated enough interest for readers to click through. If you missed some of these and they pique your interest, you can click on them for the original.
Here’s the Top Ten list:
1. Farewell Brennan (remembering the writer and priest Brennan Manning)
2. Why Do They Hate Us? (reflections on the Boston Marathon bombing)
3. Fragile Beauty (a celebration of frost flowers, a rare natural phenomenon)
4. Who Believes What? (Willow Creek Church’s panel on various religions)
5. Mandela’s Miracle (the legacy of Nelson Mandela)
6. How Sweet the Sound (an illustration of grace from the musical Les Misérables)
7. Notes from Newtown (a report from my visit there)
8. The Kingdom of God Is Alive and Well (good news from a church in Colombia)
9. Apostle to the Rednecks (remembering the radical preacher Will Campbell)
10. Two Cheers for Radicals (celebrating contemporary Christian radicals)
These blogs honor some departed leaders and mentors (Brennan Manning, Will Campbell, Nelson Mandela), enter tragedy (Boston bombings, Newtown shootings), and report on places where the gospel truly sounds like good news.
I’m sure that 2014 will have a similar plot. Tragedies happen, remarkable people die, the Kingdom of God continues to advance in fits and starts. As a journalist, I’ll never run out of things to write about.
December 18, 2013
As I look back on the pile of books I read in 2013, a number of them seem to fall into a new genre. “Christian hip,” I’ll call it. Move over John Stott, Chuck Colson, and Max Lucado. These books circle around faith matters in a decidedly non-traditional way. Many of the authors came out of a strict evangelical or fundamentalist background, and they write about their spiritual detours in a loose, memoir-type style with a few obligatory bad words sprinkled in.
Two publishers have devoted an entire line of books to this new genre: Jericho Books by Hachette/Faith Words and Convergent Books by Crown/Penguin/Random House. (In this day of corporate mergers, publishers have multiple names, like royalty.) I usually give their books the exercise machine test. If they hold my interest for thirty minutes on an exercise bike or elliptical machine, I’ll read them more carefully later. The following passed that test.
Losing Your Faith, Finding Your Soul by David Robert Anderson was the most rewarding discovery, and I marked it up heavily. An Episcopal minister in Connecticut, Anderson has been on a journey toward an honest faith that may rattle some evangelicals but comfort many others. His well-researched book includes some lovely stories and juicy quotes, such as, “The comedian Cathy Ladman was not far wrong when she remarked, ‘All religions are the same: religion is basically guilt with different holidays.’”
The Invisible Girls by Sarah Thebarge ranks as my personal favorite in this genre. At age 27, Sarah Thebarge had life in her pocket, with a boyfriend, an Ivy League degree, and a good job. Breast cancer, a cross-country move, and a painful breakup changed all that, and yet her own travails are not the main focus of the book—a family of Somali refugees is. What happens next in her beautifully told story proves the truth of Jesus’ statement that we find our lives by giving them away.
Speaking of giving away your life, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove makes that a career. Along with Shane Claiborne, he founded the New Monastic movement. He and his wife Leah live in a Christian community that opens its door wide to any straggler. What would happen if we took literally Jesus’ command to “Give to everyone who asks”? Strangers at My Door gives the answer, in a way that inspires the reader toward hospitality rather than guilt.
Addie Zierman’s When We Were on Fire is a model of the raised-Christian-then-left-the-church-and-maybe-the-faith-then-warily-climbed-back memoir. She pulls it off, and Publishers Weekly just named her book as one of the top five religious books of 2013. Here’s a sample: “Some of us searched longer than others, but in the end we faded out. We were looking for Jesus. Instead we found programs, guilt, and awkward small talk. We found fog machines and Five-Simple-Steps-to-Spiritual-Growth and fill-in-the-blank Bible studies. So we started sleeping in on Sunday mornings. We went to the farmers market and bought good things straight from the earth. We drank our morning coffee at small café tables outside, and people walked by with their dogs at a slow, Sunday-morning pace. It felt more like rest to us than those chaotic church mornings, when we moved through the loud small talk of the church foyer and felt invisible.”
Pastrix, by Nadia Bolz-Weber, covers similar terrain on steroids. Tattooed like a motorcycle mama, potty-mouthed, an in-your-face standup comic, Nadia surprised everyone—especially herself—by becoming a Lutheran minister and founding The Church for All Sinners and Saints in my home city of Denver. Her style may be off-putting to some, but underneath she writes with passion about a contentful faith. I think of her as a sheep in wolf’s clothing.
Some of these books center on a particular issue. Sober Mercies, by Heather Kopp, gives a harrowing account of a committed Christian, herself an author and married to a Christian publishing executive, who has a secret life as an alcoholic. Torn, by Justin Lee, brings both poignancy and compassion to the church’s ongoing conversation about homosexuality. Mixed-Up Love, by Jon Sweeney and Michal Woll, tells what happens when a kid from a blue-blood evangelical family becomes Catholic and marries a Reconstructionist rabbi. Holly Burkhalter’s Good God, Lousy World & Me explores the age-old question of a loving God and a world of evil through the lens of the International Justice Mission, an organization that responds to evil not by philosophizing but by advocacy and activism.
Other books give a kind of apologetic for the church. In When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough, Lillian Daniel makes a strong case for faith not being a solitary undertaking. Rob Strong, who lives in Massachusetts, “the least churched state in the USA,” tries in The Big Guy Upstairs to explain faith to those who would not understand Christian lingo.
And just so you know I haven’t been paid by publishers to hawk their books, I’ll say that not all “Christian hip” books keep me reading. I couldn’t make it through Rob Bell’s Love Wins because I found the staccato, one-sentence paragraphs grating. The syntax got in the way of the content; I felt more like I was reading a catalog than a book. (However, I found Rob Bell’s latest, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, refreshing and stimulating.) For the same reason, I couldn’t relate to a couple of books by Jay Bakker, son of Jim and Tammy Faye. My hipster tolerance has its limits.
One last mention: A bright literary light in the U.K., Francis Spufford, caused a stir with Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. Great Britain is much further down the post-Christian path than the U.S., and Spufford makes his points by appealing to life experiences rather than theological ideas. To almost everyone’s surprise, he ends up fairly orthodox—though with a lot of bad words thrown in. That seems to be the essential ingredient in hipsterism.
December 6, 2013
On a visit to South Africa I visited the tidy home of Nelson Mandela in the Soweto township, which is preserved as a museum. Just down the street sits Bishop Desmond Tutu’s house. A slum made famous by its bloody uprisings now boasts the only street in the world that has produced two Nobel Peace Prize winners.
Speaking like an Old Testament prophet, Bishop Tutu gives God the credit for the miracle of reconciliation in his country. “God does have a sense of humor. Who in their right minds could ever have imagined South Africa to be an example of anything but the most awfulness, of how not to order a nation’s relations and its governance? We South Africans were the unlikeliest lot, and that is precisely why God has chosen us. We cannot really claim much credit ourselves for what we have achieved. We were destined for perdition and were plucked out of total annihilation. We were a hopeless case if there was one.”
When black Africans finally got the vote and seemed certain to overthrow the white apartheid government, nearly everyone predicted a bloodbath. After all, 14,000 people had already died in violence between the time of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 and his election to the presidency in 1994. Confounding the experts, however, the new regime did not yield to the politics of revenge. Even today, South Africans call it “the miracle.”
Nelson Mandela taught the world a lesson in grace when, after emerging from prison after twenty-seven years and being elected president of South Africa, he asked his jailer to join him on the inauguration platform. He then appointed Archbishop Desmund Tutu to head an official government panel with a daunting name, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Mandela sought to defuse the natural pattern of revenge that he had seen in so many countries where one oppressed race or tribe took control from another.
Bill Clinton recalled a conversation he had with Nelson Mandela, one that shows the tone of moral leadership that emerged from that “unlikeliest lot.” “Didn’t you really hate them for what they did?” Clinton asked, referring to Mandela’s twenty-seven years in prison.
Mandela replied, “Oh, yeah, I hated them for a long time. I broke rocks every day in prison, and I stayed alive on hate. They took a lot away from me. They took me away from my wife, and it subsequently destroyed my marriage. They took me away from seeing my children grow up. They abused me mentally and physically. And one day, I realized they could take it all except my mind and my heart. Those things I would have to give to them, and I simply decided not to give them away.”
Clinton pressed him. “Well, what about when you were getting out of prison? I got my daughter Chelsea up and we watched you on television as you walked down that dirt road to freedom. Didn’t you hate them then?”
Mandela said, “As I felt the anger rising up, I thought to myself, ‘They have already had you for twenty-seven years. And if you keep hating them, they’ll have you again.’ And I said, ‘I want to be free.’ And so I let it go. I let it go.”
With that attitude Mandela set a tone for the entire country. Black leaders urged their followers not to give in to their anger, however merited, but instead to let it go, to move forward in their newly won freedom. White churches, many of which had supported the oppressive white regime, were taken aback by the new spirit of cooperation. Gradually they let go of their own fear and anger, with renewed hope that they would have a share in the country’s future after all.
This week, Nelson Mandela “let it go” one final time. After an extraordinary life, he got his deepest wish: “I want to be free.”
(Partially adapted from What Good Is God?)
November 24, 2013
When the Willow Creek Community Church did a survey they found that some in their congregation, and especially their post-Christian friends, thought that all world religions are essentially the same. If their doctrines are similar and point in the same direction, why is it important to choose the “right” one? In response to the survey, the church invited a learned representative from each of the major faiths to a service. A Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jew, and Christian sat together on the platform and answered questions from the moderator Bill Hybels.
I cannot do full justice to the fascinating discussion that took place that Sunday without reproducing it verbatim. Barring that, I will condense some of the main points instead. Keep in mind that a different spokesperson for one of the faiths might have come up with different responses, but these do broadly reflect some of the differences in common beliefs.
What is your understanding of God?
Hindu: God was All-consciousness, before creation, and out of his playtime he created the universe. So God in one form is the creation, and also to put life into it he entered the creation, countless times. Indeed, anyone can attain Godhood status by following the rules set out.
Buddhist: We focus not on God or gods, but on the teachings of Gautama Buddha who lived in the 5th century B.C. We strive, like the Buddha, to become enlightened human beings, who serve out of compassion and try to end suffering in the world.
Muslim: God is a mercy-giver. He is peace. He is the first and last. He is the owner of the Day of Judgment. He is the owner of the universe. He is the guide. He is the light. He is the Mercy.
Jew: I would suspect everyone here would recognize the God of Judaism through Judaism’s daughter religions, Christianity and Islam, both of which have patterned their own theology after the mother religion, Judaism.
Christian: God is all-powerful, all-knowing and everywhere present. He is spirit and exists eternally in three persons, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Also, he is a personal God, which means he invites me to get to know him and to grow in a deep, loving relationship with him.
A person comes to you and says, “My life is a mess, I have wandered very far away from God, I have misbehaved, I have done terrible things. I want to get close to God.” How would you instruct that person?
Hindu: He has to go to the Scriptures to read the holy books, and to go to the place of worship to where the holy ones are. And that would be only a stepping stone. From the books he will get instructions, and he must follow those instructions.
Buddhist: If a person is seeking a relationship with God, they have come to the wrong place because the Buddhist tradition is not focused on God. However, if you come to a Buddhist teacher and you’re troubled, depressed, angry or dissatisfied, you’ve come to the right place because they will be able to give you some very specific ways to change the way you think and to clean out the difficulties.
Muslim: We believe that all human beings are born believers. In their heart, regardless of how bad they are, there is a spot there that believes in God, and all we have to do is to bring about the point and to open the ears, to see and hear and feel the existence of God.
Jew: You can’t deal with deep-felt guilt simply through belief and a deity removing that terrible fear and guilt from you. If that were true there would be no need for psychologists, psychiatrists, psychoanalysts—to whom go priests, rabbis, pastors who do believe in God profoundly and devoutly, but that doesn’t always take care of the deepest quest of the human being. I think relating to God is relating pretty much as the deepest relationships available to human beings are.
Christian: This is the central message of the Bible, how to relate to God. When we put our faith in Jesus Christ alone, who paid the penalty for our sins, God promises to wipe our sins out, and we are brought into a growing, loving relationship with God.
What do you think of Jesus Christ? According to your tradition, who was Jesus of Nazareth?
Hindu: This world is God’s drama. He created so many religions, and he wanted variety for his own pleasure. When Jesus Christ came and Christianity came about, this was God manifesting himself in Jesus Christ. We have tolerance for all the gods, and we tell everyone you go pray to your god, if you have that belief, and continue what you are doing.
Buddhist: Jesus was a human being, a wise and compassionate human being who was concerned for the suffering of humanity. And the Buddhist tradition would also recognize the perspective that Jesus is the son of God, though not the only way to God.
Muslim: We believe in the prophets of God, which include Jesus, peace be upon him. But we do not believe he died on the cross. The Koran says he was not killed or crucified. He has been lifted by God and will be coming back to guide all mankind according to Islam.
Jew: As for the preeminence of Jesus over any other religion’s central figure, we leave that up to anybody to decide for themselves; we have our Bible and our prophets, and they have their Bible and their prophets, and we let it go at that.
Christian: Jesus Christ is the one and only Son of God, fully human and fully God, without sin, the only one worthy or qualified to forgive sin. He proved he was God when he was resurrected, and he also proved that he could defeat death and forgive sin.
One final question: What about the life after this life? If you were to die after this service, what would happen?
Hindu: The Hindus believe in reincarnation, a continuation of life. Before my birth, there must have been thousands of births before. Based on my actions and my next birth, I might go into a lower creature, or I might elevate myself, at least until I reach the state of full consciousness.
Buddhist: Afterlife is problematic. If enlightenment has occurred before death then there is complete liberation, or complete nirvana, which cannot be described or explained. It is neither eternal consciousness or annihilation. It is not in our intellectual capacity to comprehend it.
Muslim: Every human being has a reserved seat in heaven and in hell. The angels will ask you what happened in your life, who was your God, who was your prophet, what was your religion, what was your book. So at the moment of death, those who are going to heaven will be shown their reserved place in hell—and what happened by the grace of God that they were saved from going to that hell—then they will be sent to heaven. Otherwise, people will be shown the other way. We all have to be prepared.
Jew: Rabbis have said that the quality of your life after death depends on the character of your life on earth. “The righteous among all the nations of the world have a share in the world to come.”
Christian: The soul will live forever in eternity, and the choices that we make here and now will determine our eternal destiny. If we choose to ignore God or reject God, or to ignore the separation [sin] problem, we will spend an eternity separated from God, and that place is called hell. On the other hand, if we choose to solve the separation problem God’s way by receiving Jesus Christ into our lives, and allowing him to forgive our sins and bridge the gap, we will spend an eternity with God in heaven.
Bill Hybels concluded by challenging the congregation to become diligent seekers of the truth, doing the hard work of deciding what to believe and why. Clearly, not all religions teach the same answers to ultimate questions.
“We live in a very diverse world, and we have to learn to get along with and respect and show deference and kindness to people who represent different religions,” he said. “I hope, as we leave, you will leave with the words of Jesus on your mind: the highest kingdom law or value is the law of love. And while we may disagree about where we drive our stake of conviction and belief, we are called to be compassionate, understanding, and respectful of those who believe differently.”
November 9, 2013
It’s been quite a Fall season for the Yanceys! In September we made a trip to Bogotá, Colombia, and on the way back stopped off for a few days in the Amazon rain forest of Ecuador. We hiked on muddy trails, visited a butterfly farm and animal-rescue station, traveled from place to place in canoes, and slept under lazy ceiling fans. Janet felt right at home, since she spent her childhood in a similar setting as a missionary kid in the Peruvian jungle.
Amazon jungle explorer
The day we returned from South America it started to rain in Colorado. A front stalled over the foothills west of Denver where we live, and rain fell for five days straight, dumping our entire annual allotment of precipitation in less than a week. The creek behind our house became a roaring river, and we watched astonished as large trees and even bridges came zooming past, carried on waves big enough to surf. Several times I waded through soggy grass with a flashlight in the middle of the night to measure the creek as it rose a foot, two feet, up to five feet above normal, cresting just ten inches below the level that would have flooded our house. We had major damage to the creek bank, but nothing like the devastation experienced by others: 18,000 homes were damaged or destroyed by what’s being called “the thousand-year flood.”
Winter sunset in Colorado
And now we’re returning from a trip to the Midwest. We spent several days in downtown Chicago, visiting friends from the years we lived there. I felt like a country bumpkin in the big city, having lost the edge for things like jay-walking, parallel parking, coping with city traffic, and negotiating the rapid transit system. We also got a reminder of what we miss about the city: great museums, racial and cultural diversity, restaurants and coffee shops on every block, the background buzz of human ingenuity in all its forms. Cold weather moved in, and on our last day a flotilla of boaters brought in their yachts from Lake Michigan for winter storage; one by one the great iron drawbridges raised up, in a kind of reverse bow, as the stately sailboats passed beneath.
Chicago’s lakefront skyline as seen from the stainless steel sculpture
known as “The Bean.”
From Chicago we drove through stunning autumn scenery to Petoskey, Michigan, up near the top of “the mitt,” as Michiganders call their mitten-shaped state. I spoke at a C. S. Lewis festival in Petoskey, a small town that hosts one of 200 C. S. Lewis societies around the world. To date some 200 million of Lewis’s books have been sold. I know no better example of the expansive power of words: a bachelor all but the last few years of his life, a man who never had children, who rarely traveled and never learned to drive, nevertheless continues to stir the minds and hearts of children, agnostics, doubters, and believers alike through his amazing output of writings. Lewis died on November 22, 1963, as did Aldous Huxley, though both deaths were eclipsed by John F. Kennedy’s assassination that same day. This month, the 50th anniversary of his death, Lewis will be enshrined in the Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey, a well-deserved recognition of his accomplishments.
I never write a book without going through my shelf of Lewis books, thumbing through highlighted and earmarked pages for insights into whatever subject I’m grappling with. When I write about suffering, I know no better resources than The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed, two very different books that taken together plumb both the intellectual puzzle and the human anguish.
Rain forest, big city, Midwestern fall—we’ve had our share of variety these last two months, and it’s time to settle in for winter. And I can’t think of a better place than Colorado for that!
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