Note: Philip Yancey has been a leading Evangelical journalist for more than 30 years, writing books such as Where Is God When It Hurts? SmallGroups.com had the chance to speak with Philip regarding his most recent book, What Good Is God?
This is Part 1 of a two-part article. To see Part 2, click here.
SmallGroups.com: Your new book is called What Good Is God? So my first thought is: Can you give us all a one-sentence answer to that question?
Philip Yancey: Oh, sure—no problem at all! I guess I would defer to the subtitle: In search of a faith that matters. This is a journalist's quest to find out if faith really matters when put to extreme tests.
And the structure of the book involves your personal interaction with some big events both in the U.S. and around the world, right?
Yes. The book covers 10 separate locations, with 2 chapters devoted to each location. For instance, I start off by describing the time I was supposed to speak at a meeting in Mumbai, India, as part of book tour. But that happened to be the night that terrorists attacked ten different sites and killed 175 people. The meeting was canceled, but a smaller group got together in a church nearby—shocked, grieving, upset people. And I was put in front of them and asked to address the question: How should we respond? Help us make sense of what's going on.
And in less dramatic ways that happened ten different times at ten different locations. In the first chapter of each location I tell the story behind the story, and the second chapter contains what I actually said to the people who were gathered.
Why did you feel this is a topic that needed to be addressed?
In the Introduction I use the phrase, "The tabletop of faith." It's a phrase engineers use after creating some new gizmo like the iPad, because the last thing they do before releasing it to the public is literally knock it off a table and watch it crash to the ground—because that is the real world out there. That's what people do. They knock things off tables and drop them from airline bins and spill Coke and coffee on them. And if those gizmos don't pass the test, they won't survive in the real world.
Currently it's quite in vogue to question Christianity on more philosophical grounds—the new atheists, particularly. My response as a journalist is to go and see what difference it makes on the ground. I'm looking at the tabletop test. It is faith put to the test.
Because I'm in the world of small groups, one of the chapters that piqued my interest was the one with Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery groups. How do you see recovery groups in comparison to more "traditional" small groups within churches?
When I was invited to speak at a conference for Celebrate Recovery, I decided to title my speech "Why I Wish I Was an Alcoholic." And I wasn't trying to be clever. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that alcoholics and addicts—through no choice and maybe no fault of their own—are forced to confront the basic issues of theology that a lot of us just kind of ignore. They're forced to rely on grace. They're forced to have an accountability group. They're forced to call out to God daily just to make it through.
I've visited a few AA groups, and I've been in a lot of small groups in churches, and there are huge differences. In AA and recovery groups, they cut through the junk so quickly because they're all in recovery. They're all on the edge. They're all desperate. Most of them have to really hit bottom before they join a group like that, and they can spot a phony a mile away. They will not let you get away with any prevarication at all, whereas "traditional" small groups have this tendency to focus on positioning.
Here's a funny example. In most of the small groups I've been in, the expectation of the food that is served always goes up. It never goes down. We were in a group where the leader said: "Okay, the rule is you can never spend more than ten dollars on the entire meal." Well, that lasted about two meetings, and then the expectation gradually went up. It's just the nature of middle-class culture I guess to keep up the veneer of social respectability. That's the opposite, really, of the recovery groups I've attended. Most of them meet in basements, and even if somebody stops to buy some Dunkin' Donuts or something, it's not about the food. It's about survival.
That's why I encourage people find a group where you're rewarded for being honest, not punished. And it's actually pretty hard for a lot of people to do that.
Am I hearing you correctly that small groups where people feel more "normal" are affected by a lack of grace?
That's probably true. In one of my other books, What's So Amazing about Grace?, I coin the word ungrace. We live in a world of ungrace. It's where we're constantly competing and comparing. Our society—not just our society, actually—humanity is an ungrace humanity. And Christianity goes against that (or it's supposed to). Paul said, "In Christ there is no Jew nor Greek, male nor female." These are radical words to a person raised a Pharisee, as he had been. But it takes a lot of effort to put that into practice in a relationship setting in a ranking society like ours.
Another chapter I enjoyed was the profile of the house-church movement in China. What impressed you or impacted you most about the Christians in China and the way they gather there?
What surprised me was when I asked, "How do you pray about the government?" In our society, Americans would pray something like, O God, change this godless government. You know? We're shocked when there's some atheist in California running for congress. But in China they are run by atheists. And yet when I asked Christians there, "Do you pray for a change in government?", they would look at me in a rather puzzled way. It's like: No, I never thought about that. This is life. It's been this way for 60 years.
They pray not that their burdens would be removed, but that they would be able to bear them.
Read Part 2 of this interview to see more from Philip Yancey.
—Philip Yancey is author of What Good Is God? (FaithWords, 2010) and several author award-winning titles. Interview conducted by Sam O'Neal. Copyright 2010 by Christianity Today International.