Philip Yancey's Blog
August 16, 2014
The cows, always the cows, hundreds of them, thousands of them. They stand in a pack blocking traffic, take naps in the middle of a busy highway, walk unmolested through a fruit stand, devour the grass and flowers in a public park. Somehow the snarling motorcycles, motorized rickshaws, trucks, and automobiles thread their way through the bovine obstacle course—a good thing, for woe to the Indian driver who injures a sacred cow.
India assaults the senses. Vehicle horns beep out a percussive background rhythm to life in cities and villages both. Women in bright-colored saris squat along the roadside, cutting the grass by hand with knives. An elephant wanders by, gaudily painted for a Hindu festival. A motorcycle zooms past: a young boy no older than two stands on the seat grasping the handlebars while behind him his six-year brother is sandwiched between the father, who is driving, and the mother, who is sitting side-saddle and holding an infant fresh from the hospital (none of them wear helmets). A funeral procession marches down a side street to the beat of a drum, its mourners lighting firecrackers to scare devils from the cemetery.
Some of our best doctors and software engineers have emigrated from India, and when my computer locks up, chances are I’ll talk to a support person based there. Yet in this paradoxical nation twice as many people have access to cell phones as to toilets and running water. I visited a high-tech hospital that outsources laundry service to women who use big, heavy irons that flip open to reveal charcoal as the source of their heat. I asked my Indian host about the colorful plastic bags hanging like oversized Christmas ornaments from some banyan trees. “Oh, they contain the placentas of cows,” he said, which explained the ever-present odor. “Villagers believe the practice will make their birthing cows more fertile and produce more milk.”
Paradoxes abound. A land where temples display carvings of shockingly explicit sexual acts, and the home of Kama Sutra, houses a Bollywood movie industry that rarely portrays anything beyond a demure kiss. Divorce is rare, though a majority of marriages are still arranged by parents, not the product of romance. The caste system has supposedly ended, but everyone’s identity card specifies his or her caste, and matrimonial ads in the daily papers stipulate the caste of prospective suitors; lower castes need not apply. While Westerners value a bronze, tanned look, Indians advertise for applicants with “wheatish skin.”
I made my fourth trip to this land of endless fascination in August. I’d been asked to give the Ida Scudder Humanitarian Oration (a fancy word for a speech) at the Christian Medical College in Vellore in honor of Dr. Paul Brand, with whom I wrote three books.
The Healing Place
CMC Vellore, as it’s known, has a storied history. In the early 1800s Dr. John Scudder of New Jersey became the first medical missionary to India. Seven of his sons followed in his footsteps, likewise serving as missionary doctors in India. Growing up in such a single-focused family, granddaughter Ida Scudder wanted nothing more than to find a non-medical career, marry, and settle in the U.S. A visit to care for her ailing mother back in India changed her plans.
Late one night during that visit a Hindu Brahmin knocked on the door and asked for help; his 14-year-old wife was in great distress trying to deliver a child. Ida said she knew nothing about medicine but would notify her father. The man shook his head, responded “Our religion does not permit a man to even look at my wife’s face,” and went away crestfallen. That same evening a Muslim and then another Hindu came with an identical request of help for their wives in childbirth. Each time Ida offered the same solution and each time the men turned it down, saying it was better that their wives die than be seen by a man. The next day all three young women were taken away in coffins.
Convinced that extraordinary night was a sign from God, Ida returned to the U.S. and studied medicine at Cornell, becoming its first female medical graduate. She went on to found a small clinic in Vellore in 1902 and then opened a nursing school for women and ultimately a medical school to train female physicians. At the time, female patients in India faced a Catch-22 situation: although custom prevented male doctors from treating them, few medical schools in India accepted women. Skeptics warned Dr. Scudder that she might get two or three female applicants; the medical school opened with 151 students, all women. Not until thirty years later did the school begin accepting male applicants.
Early view of CMC Vellore
Today CMC Vellore is ranked the number one hospital in India and one of the most prestigious medical schools in Asia. It has 8500 employees and treats a million patients a year. Recognizing the limited resources of many villagers, the hospital offers three levels of care. The highest level compares to high-tech hospitals in the West. The second level offers quality care but houses patients in village-type accommodations, with relatives providing meals and bedside attention. (At this level a normal childbirth delivery costs only $60, increasing to $100 if a Caesarian section is required.) And community health workers travel to nearby villages in vans to provide free nursing and physician services.
CMC nurses on a village visit
In contrast to many hospitals in the U.S. that still bear words like Baptist, Presbyterian, or Good Shepherd in their names, CMC Vellore retains a strong Christian emphasis. Posters with Bible verses decorate the hallways, doctors and nurses offer to pray with patients, and the hospital funds a large chaplaincy corps. The medical college selects 100 students a year from a pool of 30,000 applicants, giving strong precedence to those who agree to a two-year service with their sponsoring churches and missions.
While working at this institution, the British surgeon Dr. Paul Brand began his pioneering work with leprosy patients. Much as Ida Scudder had learned about women patients, Dr. Brand found that the doors of traditional medicine were closed to those with leprosy. The disease was so feared that hospitals dared not admit them. Eventually he helped establish a leprosy hospital outside the town of Vellore, which became a world-renowned center for leprosy research and treatment.
No one has affected me more than Dr. Paul Brand. He was a brilliant scientist, an avid environmentalist, an astute theologian, and a compassionate physician. In short, Dr. Brand lived life to the full, and his deep faith permeated everything he did. I met him at a time when I was recovering from an unhealthy church and wrestling with doubts and questions. My first book, Where Is God When It Hurts, came directly out of our conversations on pain and suffering. For nearly a decade I worked to present his life and ideas in the books Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, In His Image, and The Gift of Pain. The first two books are based on chapel talks Dr. Brand delivered at CMC Vellore.
Speaking at Dr. Brand’s funeral in 2003, I said that we had an unusual exchange. While I was giving words to his faith, he gave faith to my words. Yes, he helped me with some of the intellectual issues. More importantly, though, he lived out the principle articulated by Irenaeus in the second century: “The glory of God is a person fully alive.”
As a scientist, humanitarian, adventurer, and explorer of the natural world, Paul Brand was fully alive. He spent his best working years among some of the most abused and neglected people on the planet, leprosy patients from the Untouchable caste, yet I have never met anyone with a deeper sense of gratitude for God’s good world. I felt privileged to honor him in the Oration at Vellore, which was attended by three of his six children as well as two grandchildren. Dr. Brand’s widow Margaret, a physician who specialized in treating the ophthalmic conditions of leprosy, was unable to make the trip.
The cherished memory of Paul Brand is evident at the hospital: photos on the wall, a hand surgery and rehabilitation center named for him, a building dedicated by him. Both Brands are revered in the best sense of the word: not as a form of hero-worship, but as models of whole-person medicine, with an emphasis on the spiritual core. CMC Vellore works hard to communicate their legacy to future generations.
The Suffering Place
Besides the visit to Vellore, Janet and I made two other stops. We first landed in Mumbai (Bombay), scene of haunting memories from 2008. On the final leg of a book tour that fall, I was scheduled to speak downtown when a murderous assault by Pakistani terrorists made that impossible. Using bombs and AK-47s, two dozen gunmen attacked ten different sites, most notably the Taj Mahal Hotel, killing 164 and wounding at least 308. We were staying at the home of Dr. Stephen Alfred, safely away from the scene of the tragedy—providentially, since in every other city we had stayed in the kind of tourist hotels targeted by the attackers.
Dr. Alfred has since built a modern, eight-story hospital equipped with state-of-the-art technology for procedures such as radiation oncology, dialysis, and MRI and CT scans. The staff takes seriously the motto, “Not to be served, but to serve,” plowing back the profits from paying patients to provide treatment for the 50 percent of patients who could not otherwise afford care. Bethany Hospital turned over its former building to JSK, a partner ministry for those affected by HIV/AIDS. In addition to providing in-patient care, this program sends staff and volunteers into homes in order to monitor the antiretroviral medicines and help families cope with the devastating disease.
Floral welcome in Damoh
We also visited the village of Damoh in central India. Like so many missions, the work of Central India Christian Mission expanded to meet the local needs. First the Indian founders, who had studied in the U.S. and developed a donor base, began caring for children abandoned by their parents; then they began assuring women with unwanted pregnancies that if they chose against abortion the mission would care for their babies. That led to a children’s home, then a school, a youth center, a vocational training center, a nursing school, and a small hospital.
The mission also sponsors pastors and evangelists throughout India. Several hundred of them gathered for a one-day seminar that I taught. In the final hour before we left to head back to the U.S., the director arranged for interviews with some of the attendees who had been victims of a terror campaign by Hindu fanatics in the state of Orissa (now known as Odisha). In August and September of 2008, rampaging mobs burned around 6000 houses belonging to Christians, killing 400 and displacing 50,000 Christians, who were forced to flee to refugee camps. Even now, six years later, thousands of families in Orissa remain homeless. The mission has established a center of refuge for such trauma victims.
I knew of the earlier murder of Graham Stuart Staines, an Australian missionary who worked with leprosy patients. Along with his two sons Philip (aged 10) and Timothy (aged 6), Staines was burned to death by an ax-wielding gang while sleeping in his station wagon. His widow pleaded for mercy for the perpetrators and stayed five more years until the Staines Memorial Leprosy Hospital was completed. I had also forced myself to watch YouTube videos of mobs beating to death helpless Christians and chasing stripped women through the streets to beat them with clubs. I had read accounts of nuns raped and pastors burned in their churches. But nothing prepared me for the final meeting when I heard firsthand accounts of that dark time.
Orissa: One of 400 churches burned
One man with the saddest expression I have ever seen recounted those days when Hindu fanatics offered a 10,000-Rupee reward for anyone who killed a preacher and 5,000 Rupees for anyone who destroyed a church. They burst into the home of one of the church members, gang-raped a young girl as her parents were forced to watch, then burned the parents alive before the children’s eyes. Christians had to pass five tests to avoid martyrdom: shave their heads, drink cow urine and eat dung, pay a 10,000-Rupee temple tax, wear a prominent red mark on their heads, and present a sword dripping in Christian blood.
“Six hundred homes were burned in my village,” the man said in a flat monotone, not lifting his head. “I watched them tie up my father, pour kerosene on him and burn him alive. We ran into the mountains to join the other refugees. It was the hardest thing I have ever done, leaving my father like that.”
A small, trembling woman wearing a turquoise sari could hardly speak through her sobs as she recalled her ordeal. “I was a pastor’s wife. A gang of a thousand men burned our entire colony. Seven of them took turns raping me in front of my husband. And then as they held me down they chopped my husband into pieces. They poured kerosene over me, lit a match, and left. Somehow I managed to crawl to a bucket of water.” She showed the scars on her head and the skin grafts and missing fingers on her hands.
Four witnesses told their stories in graphic detail. They spoke through two interpreters in a tribal language that had to be translated first into Hindi, and then English. All four had traveled 24 hours by train to attend the seminar. Choking back tears, a pastor told of a teenage girl in his church who had been forced to watch her parents killed, and then was raped 42 times before being left for dead, with burns over 60 percent of her body. “I am still a pastor,” he said. “I have been privileged to introduce 6000 people to Jesus. But every day when I kiss my wife goodbye I tell her I may never see her again.”
A 12-year-old burned in riots
I left India with furiously mixed emotions. I was inspired by the dedication of Christians who care for AIDS patients, provide free health care for the poor, and help reconstruct the bodies and lives of leprosy patients. Yet I will never forget the horrifying accounts of suffering I heard from the lips of these four witnesses. It is one thing to read about such events in newspapers or on the Internet and quite another to sit in the same room as the people who endured them, their physical and psychological scars still appallingly evident.
“In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind,” wrote John in the prologue to his Gospel. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” On my trip to India I saw clear evidence of both the darkness and the light.
We left Damoh with heavy hearts. And when we arrived in the Delhi airport later that same day, I picked up an English-language paper and read about the ongoing atrocities against Christians in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. was rightly giving emergency assistance to 40,000 Yazidi refugees whom ISIS had driven from their homes under the threat of genocide. But a few weeks before, ISIS had displaced more than 100,000 Christians from their homes and driven them into the desert—with no such emergency response.
Not only in India, but in many parts of the world Christians are in the line of fire. As Pope Francis stated earlier this summer, Christians suffer perhaps the largest share of religious persecution in the world today:
It causes me great pain to know that Christians in the world submit to the greatest amount of such discrimination. Persecution against Christians today is actually worse than in the first centuries of the Church, and there are more Christian martyrs today than in that era. This is happening more than 1700 years after the edict of Constantine, which gave Christians the freedom to publicly profess their faith.
I went away mindful of a principle Dr. Paul Brand once taught me—he who identified leprosy as a disease of painlessness: “A healthy body is one that feels the pain of the weakest part.” The same principle applies to the Body of Christ. May we never forget those who suffer for the light in a darkening world.
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.”