Philip Yancey is one of the most popular writers in all of Christian publishing. His 20 books, with titles like What's So Amazing About Grace?, Where is God When it Hurts?, Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference?, and Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church have sold more than 5 million copies. He is also an editor-at-large for Christianity Today magazine. He was interviewed by Dean Nelson (DN), Point Loma Nazarene University (PLNU) journalism professor, at PLNU's annual Writer's Symposium By The Sea.
DN: You pick some big topics, such as prayer, Jesus, the Church, and it seems that in all of them you say that things are not as simple as you once thought they were. Don't you think we'd rather read about seven steps to something, or five languages to something? Why can't you just come up with a formula for us?
PY: A lot of people say Jesus is the Answer. But I don't think Jesus makes things simpler. I think He makes things more complicated. There are a lot of things I wish I didn't have to care about, such as global poverty, or racism. I wish I could pull into my little hole and live my little life and indulge myself narcissistically, but Jesus doesn't allow me that option. So, if I'm going to be a serious follower of Jesus, life isn't simpler. Life is more complicated. Richer, fuller, more rewarding ultimately, but certainly not simpler.
DN: Did starting out as a journalist help you in writing about these big topics?
PY: Journalists know a little bit about a lot of things, but we don't know a lot about any one thing. Who needs one more book about Jesus? Or about prayer? I didn't write about prayer because I'm an expert on prayer. I wrote about prayer because I'm very bad at prayer.
Most of my books started like that. I start from ignorance—willful ignorance—because I am there to represent my readers. I'll take a huge topic and wander around the edges, not to say "This is what I have to say to you down there," but rather, "Let's dive in and together we'll attack it."
DN: You have said that your life and writing was informed by reading Shakespeare and Russian authors. Why?
PY: Shakespeare and the Russian authors capture the human experience in a more complete and revealing way than anyone I know. I conducted an experiment where I would read one play of Shakespeare's every week. At first it seemed like work. Once I got into the rhythm, it became the most informative and enjoyable night of the week. Why? Because Shakespeare knew what human nature was. Any psychiatrist would tell you that Shakespeare knew more about the human psyche than all psychiatry books put together. The same with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.
The two of them, even though they wrote more than a century ago about upper class Russia, somehow found the universal chord. And I discovered that the more specific and personal I write about myself, the more likely it is to strike a universal chord. There's kind of an irony there. If I write very specifically about what it's like to grow up in an extremely toxic, fundamentalist, screaming, legalistic, hellfire and brimstone, angry and racist church in Atlanta, Georgia, I don't tend to get letters from people who grew up in that kind of church. Instead I hear from a Seventh Day Adventist who grew up thinking that drinking coffee was a sin. Or a Catholic who had a nun slap her hands in the third grade. Only when I write in specificity does it strike a universal chord.
DN: Is that why the book To Kill a Mockingbird was so important to you when you were growing up?
PY: Yes, because it challenged me. When you grow up in a toxic church and you find out that things are wrong, you're tempted to throw everything out. We were taught racism from the pulpit, that dark races had been cursed by God, and that they could never rise to positions of prominence and would always be members of the servant class and make very good waiters.
One year, I was a junior in high school and was assigned to do a project at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. The doctor in charge was a chemist and a black man. This contradicted everything I was told in church. At the same time I was reading books like To Kill a Mockingbird and Black Like Me. I realized that there was something else going on here. Literature was an eye opener for me. It was a window into another world.
DN: You were in a serious car accident recently where you could have easily died. You had a broken neck and had to be immobilized. What impact did that have on how you write and think and reflect?
PY: After the accident I went through what I call a daze of grace. The car hit ice on a mountain road and rolled down the embankment five times. Emergency workers put me in a head and neck brace and took me to the hospital, where I had a CAT scan that showed I had broken my neck right next to an artery.
The doctors in the hospital said I would have to be transferred, but it was risky, so they gave me a cell phone to call my family and tell them I loved them in case I didn't make it. I had time to think about what a blessed life I'd had.
Also, I had time to wonder whether I had any regrets. One was that I hadn't climbed all the 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado yet. There are 54 of them, and I had three to go. I also thought about what I had not yet written. Was there anything I wish I'd said that I hadn't said yet? This theme of detoxifying from a toxic church is what I thought about and I am still struggling with it.
Every day I get at least one letter or email from someone who was wounded deeply by the church, who is searching in a spiritual sense, still attracted to Jesus. In my life I discovered that God was not this scowling, judgmental god I was brought up with, but rather the universe, at its center, is an embrace—it is the story of the prodigal son. I want to convey that message. That is my story. I haven't done that in a complete way yet.
DN: What has surprised you as a writer?
PY: The more risk I take, the more I'm rewarded. With What's so Amazing About Grace, I sent it to my publisher and thought it would be the last book I'd write for a Christian audience. I figured I'd be blackballed and my books wouldn't be carried in Christian bookstores.
But one of the things I've learned is that I'm not the radical one. Jesus is radical. And if I'm talking about grace, and can ground it in the gospel, which is easy to do because that's what the gospel is all about, then the reader has the problem, not me.
The reader has to confront the concept. It isn't easy to do, and it wasn't easy for the people in Jesus' time, either. But the word grace is not my word. It's the Bible's word. People I thought would have a problem with that book ended up buying it.
DN: You have said that, when you're working on a book, 80 percent of your life is sitting in the basement struggling to write. It's an isolated boring, painful, paranoid existence where the only words you utter are "Tall latte, please," to the local Starbucks person. Eighty percent of your life?
PY: I spend months researching before I write a word. I read books, take notes, file things away. It is a lonely existence. I used to think that if I do this long enough, it will get easy. And it actually doesn't get easier. It gets harder.
DN: How does nature inform what you write?
PY: Reconnecting with the planet is what I need to do when I'm in writing mode. What I try to do is work all morning and into the afternoon, and go out snowshoeing or cross country skiing or mountain biking to clear my head and reconnect with the planet.
Holiness Today, Nov/Dec 2009