Interview with Phillip Yancey


Phillip Yancey: Show the world what God is like

Known for books that tackle thorny issues such as pain, prayer and spiritual disappointment, bestselling author Phillip Yancey has established himself as a credible ally of the Christian pilgrim. As a veteran journalist, he is an insightful observer of American evangelicalism. Prior to a recent speaking engagement at Tabor College, Yancey shared some of his insights and observations with former Christian Leader editor Don Ratzlaff.

CL: You have said, “My books are a process of exploration and investigation of things I wonder about and worry about.” So, what’s on your mind these days as you look at the landscape?

PY: I don’t have a title yet for the book I’m working on, but the subtitle is, “Communicating faith to a culture running away from it.” It’s the whole issue of the post-Christian society and the really bad reputation Christians have within that society. Is it deserved? Should we be worried about it? What can we do about it?

CL: Why is it that the gospel doesn’t sound like good news?

PY: There are parts of the world where the gospel is actively transforming society. We know that. But we don’t talk about post-Muslim societies; we talk about post-Christian societies. I’m asking, if the gospel is true, why doesn’t it work over the long term?

CL: Have you found some answers to your questions?

PY: I think the reason the gospel works for a time but not forever is what I call God’s greatest gamble. As I understand the Bible, in the Old Testament you see God reluctant to intervene, occasionally intervening and always there were body bags and scorch marks.

Then God descended and became a human being, became powerless and was crucified—and there’s all the theology behind that. But that wasn’t the end of the story. The story really begins with Ascension and Pentecost, where God says, “OK, it’s yours now. Here it is, go out and do it.” And God really turned it over.

We can’t imagine what anything is like for God, but you have to wonder what that must be like, knowing and seeing the mess we’ve made. It’s like Jesus looking out over Jerusalem and saying, “If only I could gather you under my wings.” But God tied his hands in a sense and said, “This is my goal: I don’t need to prove anything, but I want my followers to show the world what I’m like.”

We do that pretty poorly, but that was his goal and the risk he took.

CL: So what should Christians be pursuing if they seek to truly represent God before a world that seems to be walking away from him?

PY: Miroslav Volf, a Croatian theologian who grew up in the Balkans during the war and now teaches at Yale Divinity School, has said in a pluralistic society the best way to reach people used to be directly through the head. So Billy Graham would say, “You must repent. If you repent, come forward and your life will be changed.”

That worked for a while. It doesn’t really work now. Volf said to start with the hands; that affects the heart and then the head. So what we ought to be doing is exactly what MCC does—demonstrate what God cares about by the people we care about and by the causes and values we believe in. The people who receive those acts of mercy will be touched. Then, finally, you can say, “Here’s why I do that.”

CL: Most evangelicals would agree the United States is in a moral decline; some would say the U.S. already is a post-Christian society. What’s your view?

PY: Part of me says let’s be realistic, we’re headed the way of Europe. We have a prosperous, self-indulgent society and a rotten celebrity-oriented culture. But another part of me says nobody was predicting the Jesus movement, nobody was predicting the Calvary Chapel movement. Again and again, Jesus said the Spirit blows like the wind; you never know where it will show up.

I’d have to say the culture of the United States is a culture that’s offensive to God. Sometimes I say the only reason God puts up with it is because we bankroll a lot of good stuff for him around the world—a lot of bad stuff, too, but first of all a lot of good stuff.

If we really underwent another deep Depression, which is a possibility, it could be the best thing for the church.

CL: We’ve just come through a bitter presidential election with some interesting dynamics among evangelicals. What do we need to understand about our participation in the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of heaven?

PY: The old Augustine division of “City of God” and “City of Man” is biblical. To me the big divide is not a good society or a bad society. The big divide is how do we get the society we want? Do we get it from the top down, or do we get it from the bottom up?

Frankly, I am very nervous as Christians get higher and higher in politics because they tend to rely on that to accomplish the kingdom of God—and that never works. It usually produces the opposite.

We need to make sure our politics don’t determine which values are most important to us. If you ask the average person what are the political issues that are most important to evangelicals today, secular people would say, “The ones I hear about all the time are abortion and homosexuality.”

Here are two issues that are important, that were clearly sins in far more egregious forms in the day of Jesus and Paul, and yet Jesus didn’t say a word about them and Paul maybe two verses about homosexuality. So we’re defining ourselves by those things?

Jesus talked a lot about the poor, the danger of money and those things. So we’re missing the boat. We’re not following Jesus if our values are that skewed.

CL: Do you have a final word to Mennonites, as you’ve observed them?

YP: I would like to be encouraging of Mennonites on some levels and challenging on others. The encouragement is there are a lot of people who grow up Mennonite and then step out into the wider, wilder world and find out, “Hmm, I don’t have to be like that.” So I would say, claim your identity proudly. Being defined as an outsider is not all bad. The great temptation is to let the culture determine your values.

It’s pretty clear everybody knows some things are wrong. We know murder is wrong; we know adultery is wrong. But we don’t know pride is wrong. We need to be convicted of that. We don’t know that not caring about the poor is wrong. That’s the challenge. We need to go back to Jesus for those things—the things he emphasizes, which are so different than what the world around us emphasizes and also what the church emphasizes.

Stay radical, Mennonites. But be radical about the things Jesus was radical about.


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