April 19, 2023

Overcoming Toxic Fundamentalism with Philip Yancey

Inside This Episode

Before becoming one of the most influential authors of our time with over two dozen books exploring pain, doubt, grace, and hope, Philip Yancey spent years coming to terms with his strict fundamentalist upbringing. On this episode, he explains how he overcame a crisis of faith, his thoughts on the current evangelical church, and how a very recent diagnosis with a potentially debilitating illness has put his faith to the test.

More on Philip Yancey: https://philipyancey.com/ 

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Eric Huffman: Today I'm honored to welcome a writer that I've admired for years, decades really. Even when I was barely holding on to any semblance of Christianity in my 20s and early 30s, his work spoke to me and kept me tethered in a way to the faith. I've read over a dozen of his books personally and two in particular are on the shortlist of books that I find myself picking up again and again on a regular basis, more than 20 years after reading them for the first time. 

Philip Yancey is one of America's leading Christian thinkers and writers. Most of his works are aimed at helping readers with their most difficult questions of faith. In his memoir, Where the Light Fell, he opens up about overcoming his strict Christian fundamentalist upbringing. And today we'll talk about that upbringing, how it informed his views on the evangelical church, and about a recent diagnosis that put his faith to the test. So welcome to the Maybe God podcast, Philip Yancey. 

Philip Yancey: Thank you, Eric. But you can't dangle that two books without telling me which ones they are? 

Eric Huffman: Well, I'll cut right to the chase, Man. I was gonna save it for later. 

Philip Yancey: Okay. 

Eric Huffman: I'm sure you have people, you know, coming and telling you which of your books are their favorites. I think most people would say What's So Amazing About Grace? tops the list. I don't know sales numbers, how they stacked up. But my first foray into your work was... I don't have the book covers on these and they are well-worn. But this is my copy of The Jesus I Never Knew, which was just for me seminal work about really getting to know who Jesus was in the flesh, who He is for us today in ways that I had never heard in my Bible Belt upbringing, and even in seminary. I still go back today and find things that you wrote about Jesus in the 90s that I hadn't heard anywhere else. 

But I don't know how many people have ever said this to you, but the book of yours that changed my life more than any other and continues to inform my faith and inspire me to be a better preacher and Christian is a book called Soul Survivor. I'm always amazed by sometimes Philip Yancey fans have never heard of or read Soul Survivor and I'm like, "You got to." That's just like the best. If anything, if you love Philip Yancey's work, Soul Survivor will show you what Philip Yancey loves in terms of literature and the heroes you look up to. 

It is sort of an anthology of micro biographies of some of the people you look up to the most. And that's where I discovered G. K. Chesterton, who has been someone... you know, among others. Dr. Paul Brand, you know, Annie Dillard, Shusaku Endo. I'm in awe of that book and I'm really grateful for it.

Philip Yancey: Well, that's my favorite book too of the ones I've worked on by far.

Eric Huffman: Is it? 

Philip Yancey: And the reason is I got to write about my heroes. You know, it's hard enough to write about yourself, but it was so relaxing to sit back and think, How am I different because of people and why? And I chose those people from different countries from different centuries actually who've made me different because of their work and because of what I learned about them. And some of them weren't even Christians. Gandhi's in there. 

Eric Huffman: That's right.

Philip Yancey: He was never a Christian, but he knew more about Jesus than most Christians I know. 

Eric Huffman: Interesting. I mean, everybody knows about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But your chapter on him in that book, I mean, stunning. I read things in that chapter that I had never heard. I mean, even as, you know, an American kid, growing up learning about the Civil Rights Movement and things like that, I was blown away by your research and obviously, your passion for him and the others that you wrote about in Soul Survivor. 

Philip Yancey: And you talked about your struggles with faith. I learned early on—it's kind of the theme of my life—that not everybody who claims to speak for God does so. That came close to home when my father got polio. I never knew of it. I was just a year old when he died. And he died because people believed he would be healed. And he was living in an iron lung, couldn't breathe on his own. And against all medical advice, a group of Christians believed that he would be healed so they removed him from that iron lung. And he showed a little bit of recovery for a few days and then within a couple of weeks, he was dead. 

And that kind of set the tone of my family. My mother was unprepared. She had two young children, really no career training whatsoever. So a guarantee that we were living in poverty. We ended up living on the church grounds, we had a trailer hall. It was 8 feet wide, 48 feet long. So the three of us lived in that little 10-hole on the grounds of the church and got completely saturated in the faith and couldn't get away from it. 

And one of the things that we were taught in the church was just blatant racism. This was back just as the Civil Rights Movement was getting underway in the early 60s. And the church taught that Black people were inferior, they make good servants, but that's all. And that became a huge crisis for faith when I found that it was wrong. Because if the church had lied to me about race, maybe they lied to me about Jesus, about the Bible. 

My life ever since, as you know, Eric, since you've been reading some of it, is an attempt to go back and look at the things that I was taught and scrub them to find out what's worth keeping there and what are the crusty mud piles we've piled around, the pearl of great price that Jesus left us. Because the church is not Jesus and the church has misrepresented Jesus in many ways, and still does. That was the great humiliation, the risk in a sense that God took by turning over the message to us. And it's been a mixed message ever since.

Eric Huffman: I mean, that comes through in your writing, just how deeply you were shaped by your upbringing, not just in poverty, with a mother who was a widow trying to figure it out and she herself was... Man, I don't want to put words in your mouth, but seems to have been pretty severe in terms of discipline, and what she expected of you. And then there was the aspect of her in a way, maybe doing the best she knew how but turning you over to the religious... you know, the church at the time to help raise you. And I've heard you say that your least favorite Bible story is that of Hannah and Samuel. Can you say a little bit about why that is? 

Philip Yancey: Right. Well, my mother was one of those who believed that her husband would be healed. And they were planning to be missionaries in Africa. They had a whole crowd of people, several thousands who were supporting them, regular contributors promised to pray for them, and how crushing it was when instead of being able to realize their dream of being missionary serving God in Africa, instead, all that was crushed by his death.

My mother, I wrote a book called Disappointment with God. In my mother's theology, you can't be disappointed with God, you can't be angry with God. But she had these feelings of betrayal, I think, and they had to come out somewhere. They came out in probably a feeling of guilt because she believed that her husband would be healed, and made that decision against all the doctor's advice, and he died. She probably felt responsible at some point.

The way she responded was by turning us over to God to replace our father, literally as missionaries in Africa. This story is Hannah giving her son, Samuel, to God in the temple. She has been infertile, she finally had a baby, and she was so grateful to God, she said, "This is yours. You have answered my prayer, and I will turn him over to you." So as soon as he was a few years old, she took him to the temple and he became a priest, spent the rest of his life doing that. 

It seems like a sweet story to a lot of people. To me, it felt like a burden through most of my life, and then kind of a curse because we were teenage boys. You know, teenage boys don't go around thinking, "I gotta be a missionary in Africa." They want to listen to the latest music, they want to explore the world. And it kind of triggered some very unhealthy reactions in her that caused a rift in our family that hasn't been healed to this day. My brother and mother haven't seen each other in 52 years now. So I've lived with that division that was really caused by kind of a naive application of a Bible story that, as you say, did become my least favorite, because it didn't work out that way in my life.

Eric Huffman: Yeah. A lot of your early life seems to have been shaped by misapplication or misinterpretation of scriptures. And you've talked about how racist many in your early years were, many adults were in your church and things like that growing up. What were the biblical justifications for those arguments being made at the time?

Philip Yancey: Some of your older listeners or viewers may have heard of The Curse of Ham theory. I hope not too many have because it's an abominable, destructive theory. And it's kind of strange how it came about. If you look at Genesis 9, there's something very strange going on. Noah has been with his family in a zoo full of animals, floating the world in the Ark and then it finally lands. And he celebrates it, he celebrates a little too much, gets drunk. And something happens. No details, fortunately, but something sexual happens here between Noah and his relatives. And he had three sons, Ham, Shem, and Japheth and then there are some grandsons as well. 

Well, one of the grandsons is named Canaan. Canaan was involved in whatever happened. We don't know what happened. But Noah cursed Canaan and said that "you will be a servant to serve in the tents of your brothers the rest of your life". Well, people looked at Canaan's father who was called Ham, and I understand that the Hebrew word for Ham "burnt", "black". So they said, Ah, this is about slavery. God was ordaining slavery here.

And way back, you know, long before Jesus, Arab slave traders and Jewish people use that. And then in the 18th century, when the battles of slavery were going on, people apply that in this strange way to Ham saying that the African American race had been cursed because they were burned Black like Ham. Well, a couple of things. God didn't say the curse. It was Noah, not God. And He didn't curse Ham, he cursed Canaan. But these things get twisted around. And I was taught that in my church in the 1960s, saying, African Americans, and Atlanta had plenty of them, that African Americans were cursed by God, and they were limited in how far they could go. They could make good servants, they could make good waiters. 

One of the visiting evangelists kind of comically demonstrated how Black people can hold a tray full of glasses and food and weave through a restaurant, but they could never be a lawyer or a doctor or CEO or president of the United States. And this was taught from the pulpit, from summer camps that I attended. And when you're a kid, you don't know what to believe. And the adult say this is true. So you kind of think it must be true. 

And I went to fellowship, I think it was the summer after my sophomore year in high school, to the Center for Disease Control. It was called the Communicable Disease Center back then, which is based in Atlanta. And I knew that I would be reporting to this man who was quite renowned in a specialized field staining bacteria, Dr. Cherry. I got some papers of his. I wanted to look good. So I studied these papers. I couldn't understand what in the world he was saying. It was way beyond me. He had gone to Yale, I think it was. 

And showed up for work the first day, anxious to me, Dr. Cherry, was escorted by the guard to his office, and the guard opened the door and Dr. Cherry was a Black man, was African American. That was a crack in my faith. It was one of those seminal moments when I realized I had been lied to. I'd have been betrayed. And I can no longer believe all the stuff that the church tells me. 

Eric Huffman: How old were you at that time? 

Philip Yancey: I would have been about 14.

Eric Huffman: Oh, wow. 

Philip Yancey: Yeah. So I went through a period... well, about probably about five or six years of just putting my faith in suspension. I was still locked into the church system. Because we lived on the church grounds, we had to go Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, youth night, whatever it was, revivals in the summer, whatever was happening, we had to be there. So I couldn't escape the subculture, that kind of oppressive subculture. But I was guarded against it. I just didn't know what to believe and had been rattled, a feeling of betrayal. 

And that really set the course for my writing career because that's what I've done. I've taken the things I was taught and picked them up and looked at them and sorted through what was worth keeping and what was wrong. 

Eric Huffman: It's amazing that you came back full circle to Christianity at all given the things you saw and heard growing up, and the revelations you had as you became an adult and a man in your own right. We'll talk more about that in a minute. But you and your brother grew up in that together. You've written a lot about your brother, Marshall, and how that upbringing sort of sent you both on two different trajectories. Would you mind sharing a little bit about Marshall with our listeners? 

Philip Yancey: Sure. Marshall was two years older than I. And he's my big brother, he could beat me in anything. He was always more athletic, smarter, certainly more musically talented. He had incredible musical gifts that he discovered. They were just kind of latent in him. He had absolute pitch, perfect fit. He also had almost perfect musical memory. So he could hear something going on in the background, if we were at a restaurant, even a concerto, and without even concentrating, and then a week later, sit down and play it. I mean, it was just amazing. How do you do that? I did not have that gift myself. 

Eventually, he decided to go to a conservatory to develop his musical talents. He decided to Wheaton College. And just to show you where our church was on the liberal fundamentalist spectrum, going to Wheaton was worse than going to Harvard. Because at Harvard they don't even believe in God and Wheaton they claim to but they're liberal. You know, people like Billy Graham went there.

Eric Huffman: Billy Graham, the noted liberal. 

Philip Yancey: Yeah, noted liberal. He has tea with Catholics. You know, he went to Russia. When he went, I talked about the kind of curse. My mother saw this as breaking any hope that he would fulfill her dream for him to replace what she had lost in her husband.

Eric Huffman: To be a missionary to Africa in specific?

Philip Yancey: To be a missionary in Africa yeah. So I tell that story in the book where first she's tries everything. First, she's going to get a warrant from a federal judge for kidnapping for the person who is going to drive my brother to Wheaton. And he said, "Well, I'll fly Delta Airlines? What are you going to do? Arrest Delta Airlines?" 

And then she said these words that have haunted both of us ever since. She said, "I guarantee you that if you do this terrible act of rebellion, going to Wheaton College, then I will pray every day for the rest of your life that you will be in a terrible accident and either die or better yet be paralyzed because you have to look at the ceiling and realize what a terrible thing you've done." 

And it was years later that I put together that was what my father was like, paralyzed, and then iron lung just staring. They're looking at the ceiling, morning, noon, and night every day. And she would pray that for her son, just because he went to the wrong college. There's something wrong. This is not right. So that's why when I mentioned earlier that the Hannah story doesn't ring so sweetly for me, it's because of how it soured and it really did become a curse. 

Eric Huffman: Of course. 

Philip Yancey: So my brother did go to Wheaton. But this is the 1960s. And he was searching freedom. They can't make me graduate, so he didn't. He dropped out his final semester, never finished college, and started taking drugs. This is LSD time, he became one of Atlanta's early hippies, would spend a lot of time in Piedmont Park just kind of floating, you know, looking at clouds and grass and stuff. 

And then eventually ended up in California, where there were a lot of hippies and went through a whole bunch of different addictions: substance addiction, sex addiction, a lot of things, couple of attempts at suicide. Quite a journey. A journey to try to get away from everything he was taught. We had a rule book. He went to a Christian college and they had a rule book. And his goal was to break every rule in the book. And he's been doing that ever since, just tried to break every rule in the book.

Eric Huffman: Well, it's not hard to understand how someone's life can turn out that way given the upbringing and some of the things your mom told them and not having dad around. I don't know how else a life can turn out other than when I look at you, it's kind of a miracle that you didn't end up in the same place doing the same things or worse than your brother. How do you sort of attribute...? Is it the fact that you took all that pain to your writing that sort of set your life on a different track? 

Philip Yancey: Well, it is a miracle. The title of the book we're talking about, my memoir, is Where The Light Fell. I emerged from that church with a lot of things that needed correction, probably the worst mistake they made was giving me a misrepresentation of what God was like. I saw God as this angry person who's delighted in zapping people and roasting them in hell forever, who is just waiting for you to make any tiny little mistake, so He could crunch you. 

And much like my mother prayed, you know, that was my image of God. That He was, "Oh, you're going to Wheaton College? I'll paralyze you the rest of your life." Just this crazy stuff. But that's how I was raised. So I had a different reaction than Marshall. I saw he was not making good choices, I could tell that, you know. He should have been a concert pianist, he ended up tuning pianos, because he dropped out and didn't have the discipline to do what he needed to do. So I didn't want to go his route, for sure. 

And instead, I tell the story of kind of erecting a bulletproof shield around myself. So they can't get to me, you know, the church can't get to me, my mother can't get to me, God can't get to me. And I was very serious about that. I look back on it... You know, I think if I were doing that today, I'd probably be one of these cutters, one of these self-harmers. 

Eric Huffman: Well, you broke your own arm once. 

Philip Yancey: I did that, yeah. So I thought I was imperial. I thought, "Not even God can get to me. And God did not crush me, God did not break me as I thought and was trying to resist. God melted me, seduced me, I guess I would say. Where the Light Fell comes from a quote by St. Augustine, who said, "I couldn't look at the sun directly but I could look at where the sun's rays fell, where the light fell." 

And that was my story. I couldn't look at that God directly because that God had scorched me. You know, that's what He did. He scorched people. But gradually through three things, and I spelled them out, that nature, the beauties of nature, and classical music, in my case, even in the full trailer, we were raised with an appreciation for great music, and then romantic love. Each of those softened and melted me because I was trying to prove there's no such thing as good or bad. There's no such thing as good music or bad music. There's no such thing as beauty and ugliness. I worked on a garbage truck to prove there's no such thing as a bad smell. You do get used to smells pretty quickly. But that was just my kind of tormented adolescent way of coping with bad circumstances. 

So when I melted through those three things, especially the romantic love part, because I fell in love, and it is a fall and it was real. And it was something that happened to me, it was not something I'd manipulated there. In fact, all three of those things kept edging in and just kind of softening me getting me ready. But the God part was the last part. And that was a miracle. I was at a Christian college but I was a campus Renegade. So I took delight and sitting in the open area reading books like Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian and books like that. It was a jerk, you know? 

Eric Huffman: Yeah. 

Philip Yancey: And they didn't really know how to handle apostate in Christian colleges in general. So I was alone. Proudly alone and God granted me a vision. I just didn't know what else you would call it. I was in a prayer meeting. It really felt like a direct supernatural intervention. I've only had one. But it was so powerful and so unexpected and unsought. I didn't motivate them for everything. I had never prayed once in that prayer meeting and yet it happened.

Eric Huffman: What did you see? 

Philip Yancey: Well, we had this thing called Christian Service. I was on this thing called Chain Gang for a while where we would go to prisons and they were actually chained together with the ball and chain. This is-

Eric Huffman: Wow. 

Philip Yancey: ...south Carolina. I think all of the prisoners were African Americans where we went. And we would play the accordion and teach them the Bible, you know. And then got tired of that. So I signed up for university work. We were supposed to go and witness on a university campus. And I found they had a student center with a tv. My goodness, we didn't have any TVs on our Christian college campus. So I would just mostly sit there and watch TV. 

So we had to have a prayer meeting each week to support this ministry. And the other guys would all pray, they were very devout, Craig, Joe, Chris. And they would pause a few seconds politely. And of course, I never prayed. I'm Philip. You know, I don't pray. I don't believe in God. And then they had been praying about these 10,000 people at the university campus and how can we witness, how can we teach them the good news of the gospel? And I started praying. I just said, "God," and the room got very tense very quickly because I'd never spoken before. I said, "As you know, I don't care about those 10,000 people at the university. I don't care if they go to hell. I don't even care if I go to hell." And it was really tense at that point. I mean, if you've been in these kind of meetings. 

And then as I was praying, I started talking about the Good Samaritan. "I know we're supposed to be like the good Samaritan with these people, these bloody characters in the ditch here, we're supposed to care about them. I know. I don't." And I actually had a vision. First, there was this bloody character in the ditch, and as I looked closer, it was me. I was the needy one." And when I looked at the Good Samaritan, and again, it was, you know, in the biblical robes that kind of... this would be the mill look, and the good Samaritan was reaching down. And I realized it was the face of Jesus. And every time Jesus reached down, I would spit in His face, spit in His face. 

And it was a revelation. I realized, I thought I was this sophisticated, smarter than the other people around me, not one of these happy face Christians, you know, these naive people. And I saw myself as the neediest, one of all. You know, I had this armor and suddenly I didn't have any armor—it was all God. And I didn't know. I got up and left. I walked out of the room and wrote a note to Janet, my girlfriend became a wife later, and said, "I may have had the first authentic religious experience of my life. I don't know, it may pass tomorrow." But it didn't pass. And it changed everything from that moment on. 

And it was so embarrassing. I stood up later that week in a class and told a story and said, "Please don't ever talk to me about this, but I need to say it happened."

Eric Huffman: It was embarrassing why? I mean, I think I understand why, but why was it embarrassing and hard for you to fess up to this vision you had?

Philip Yancey: Well, I had so carefully cultivated this image of the skeptic, you know, who wasn't like all these other people and I'm doing fine on my own, thank you, I don't need all this Jesus help. As C.S. Lewis and so many have said, pride is the greatest sin. And that's what keeps people from the kingdom. It's an act of surrender. It's an act of, of giving in. "I was wrong. I can't help myself. I need help." Kinda like the 12-step people reaching bottom. "I can't do it. I need a higher power. I need something from outside." 

And that was something from outside for me because I certainly didn't go into that room thinking, "Oh, I'd like to have an experience with God." Exactly the opposite. So it was a miracle and I thank God for it.

Eric Huffman: Yeah. After... You're 73 now?

Philip Yancey: Seventy-three, Mm-hmm

Eric Huffman: Seventy-three. Congratulations. That's the one vision you've had your whole life?

Philip Yancey: The one where I actually saw faces and images like that. I've had experiences of intimacy with God-

Eric Huffman: Of course.

Philip Yancey: But a lot of it... you know, I think at least the group I grew up in, we really wanted God to be directly involved in our lives every day, every minute. He's telling us what to do, what to think. And it's as if we want God to solve our problems for us. And I see that differently now. God is spirit. God did become a human being in the incarnation in Jesus. And God experienced what it was like. Hebrew said it was a learning experience for Him. But He went back and... 

I think God feels under no obligation or desire to keep micromanaging planet earth or my life. God is spirit. So that's why I need to work on spiritual discipline so that I can enter God's realm. And those are different. You know, they take silence and meditation and prayer and those kind of things. That's so different than wanting God to change everything in my life. I don't think-

Eric Huffman: Well, I brought three of your books with me today and they all look the same because I don't use book covers. But the third one is your prayer book. And I remember distinctly having my world in terms of prayer turned upside down by your whole premise in the beginning of this book, which is, look, prayer isn't about getting God to fulfill our wishlist. It's about ascending the heights, the mountain tops spiritually, and attempting to see the world in ourselves from God's point of view. It's a perspective shift. And that was, for me, a game changer in terms of prayer. And-

Philip Yancey: Oh, that's good. 

Eric Huffman: ...I guess what I hear you talking about with the spiritual disciplines and you know, seeking God in that way rather than just saying, gimme, gimme, gimme.

Philip Yancey: Yeah, that was a huge shift for me too. Little secret, Eric. People like me, we don't write books about things. We write books about things we don't know but want to know.

Eric Huffman: That's right. 

Philip Yancey: You know, I'm the last person to write an advice book on prayer, but that's a good reason to write a book on prayer because I can go to people who can really help me, I can go to sources, and learn about it. I'm a journalist, so I take complicated things to try to make them simple just so I can understand them. I mentioned the pastor I had in Chicago for years. And he said, "My first prayer each day was, God, tell me what you're doing in Chicago today, and how I can be a part of it." And that's a different prayer than how you can fix my problems. 

Eric Huffman: Right. 

Philip Yancey: We are here to do the work of God. And part of prayer is finding out what that is, what God is doing around us right now, and how we could be a part of it.

Eric Huffman: I mean, going back to your vision, the prequel to getting there with prayer where you're seeking God's will and what He wants us to do in the world is seeing ourselves in the ditch first because we can so easily read the story of the Good Samaritan and see ourselves as the Good Samaritan and see bad religious people as those guys that crossed the street and walked past. And maybe the whole point of Jesus' story is for us to see that we were in the ditch first. And you can't really be the good Samaritan until you've seen yourself in the ditch.

Philip Yancey: Yeah. Well, you're absolutely right. Luke is the one who tells the story of the Good Samaritan. And he loves these juxtapositions. Another one along that line is the Pharisee and the text collector praying in the temple. The Pharisees says, "Oh, I'm so glad that I'm better than 99% of the people in the world and certainly better than that text collector over there." And the tax collector just says, "God, have mercy on me. I'm a sinner." And it's pretty clear who the hero is. And that's all the way through.

I mean, Jesus, does that twist because it's so easy for us to start being one of those Pharisees. And nothing made Jesus more angry in His days on earth than the Pharisees who they were good people, they were law-abiding, conscientious Bible-believing people, but they fell with that whole pride thing again. "I'm better than those guys. I'm holier than thou." And the whole point of Jesus is, you're not holier than thou. You're not even close. You know, don't compare yourself to the people around you. Be perfect. "I can't be perfect." "Yeah, that's the point. That's my message." And that's what grace is all about. 

Eric Huffman: There it is. 

Philip Yancey: And you don't experience grace unless you come to a place where you realize, thankfully, it's not based on my performance here because we'd all get Fs.

Eric Huffman: What is the connection between seeing yourself wounded in a ditch and grace? What is that connection for you? Obviously, both of these themes came crashing together in that vision that you had.

Philip Yancey: Yeah. I think Henry Nolan is the first one I remember coming up with this image. But he said grace is a free gift. Can't do anything to earn it, deserve it. You don't, we don't. That's the point. It's grace, you know. But to receive a gift, you have to have your hands open. And if you don't, the gift will just fall to the ground—you won't receive it. 

And I've seen that in so many places. I remember one time I was asked to speak to a group of prostitutes, over a hundred of them from different countries. Even there was a convention going on in Green Lake, Wisconsin. And I flew up there, they called me and said, "These women, they've all been converted. We're building a, you know, a safe place for them. We're teaching them careers and they have a hard time experiencing grace. Can you come talk to them about grace?" 

So one afternoon for several hours, there are a hundred prostitutes and me the only man in the room and I just said, "Can you tell me your stories?" And they told me these just amazing stories of abuse and addiction. And some of the development countries, like in Latin America, they would turn—it's almost unbelievable—but a hundred tricks a night. A hundred tricks a night. 

And violence. They had scars. And heard story after story. And then I said, "Did you know that Jesus talked about prostitutes?" No, they didn't. I said, "Yeah. He said, "Prostitutes and text collectors will go into the kingdom of God ahead of the scribes and Pharisees, the religious professionals." "Whoa, what do you mean by that?" And we talked a little bit, and I talked about some of these Jesus parables. And I said, "What do you hear? Can you make sense of that?"

And this woman, I think she's from Bulgaria, and she said... had a strong accent. She said, "You know, all of us, all of us... nobody said to daughter, 'I want you be good prostitute when you grow up.' We at the low, we kick out of homes, we are at the low. And sometimes when you are at the low, you cry for help. And I said, "That's grace. That's grace. That's the wounded person in the ditch."

Eric Huffman: Amen.

Philip Yancey: And that's that first step in the 12 steps. I can't do it on my own. I can't heal myself. I need help. And that's a connection for me. The danger of the Pharisee is always, "I'm doing fine. I'm better than all those people." And grace falls to the ground and we see it." But when you're at the low, you got nowhere else to turn, then sometimes you cry out for help."

Eric Huffman: Amen. You're spot on with the articulation of the dangers of Pharisees. We see it even now, especially now these days with just, I don't know... I call myself an evangelical. I know you do too. But the evangelical church just continues to wrestle with Pharisees in different forms. What are you seeing now in terms of evangelicalism in the west, in particular, in terms of how we're doing church and communicating the gospel?

Philip Yancey: The new twists that... obvious everybody is how political the evangelicals have become. When I was young, I mean, we went to a fundamentalist church. It was to the right of evangelicals, but we didn't talk about politics in church. We talked about sin and behavior and you know-

Eric Huffman: Hippies.

Philip Yancey: Things like that. Yeah, hippies, hair length and jewelry and stuff, smoking and drinking and stuff like that. We wanted to be different through the world. We wanted to be separate. "Come out from among them and be separate." The quote you would hear a lot. And we were separate, we were different, but we didn't really talk about politics. And it was only started in the, I guess the 1970s. Jimmy Carter was elected. He was the year of the evangelical cover of Newsweek. And then with Francis Schaffer and Jerry Falwell, pat Robertson, much more of a James Dobson, much more of an emphasis on political issues. They were important issues. Abortion, homosexuality. 

And then it became almost that was the calling card. You know, that was our core belief. Well, actually, it's not our core belief because Jesus didn't talk about either one. Jesus didn't talk about abortion or homosexuality, very important issues and maybe mentioned elsewhere in the scripture. But Jesus didn't talk about them. So there's gotta be something else that we should be communicating. The problem with politics is it's an adversary sport.

Eric Huffman: Yeah.

Philip Yancey: So you don't treat your opponents with respect and dignity and love you. You try to beat them down. You try to catch them and put them in jail, you know? 

Eric Huffman: Right. 

Philip Yancey: That's the way politics works. And it's really tricky. The church hasn't done very well. You talked about the church in the West. You've probably been to Europe and Christianity reigned there for a thousand years. Every village, the biggest building is a cathedral church. But you go in them and there'll be like poor gray-haired people on Sunday morning. What happened? 

What says so much that they decided this isn't true anymore? What happened in so many places was the church became part of the state, part of the government. You know, Spain would be a great example. The Catholic church was allied with Francisco Franco. And then he was seen as an oppressive dictator., they overthrew him, so they stopped going to church. You know, they were allies. 

That's the danger facing the evangelical church in America because we're... New York sees us as a voting block and they color us by red and blue, you know, by politics. And once you do ally, once you do make your goal to be close to the centers of power, it's really hard to be... the conscience. Martin Luther King used to say, the church is not the master of the state. You know, we don't dominate it. It's not the servant of the state. It's the conscience of the state. And there are some things I'm going to agree with, the Republican party, there's some things I'm gonna agree with on the Democratic party, and I'm gonna make my choices, not by whether I'm a Republican or a Democrat, but what would Jesus have me to do on this issue.

And there's not a lot of room for that in politics. It's a black and white. You're on my side or the other side. And Jesus said, "Well, what do you do with the other side?" "You love your enemies." Nobody's doing that much in politics. So we have a lot to learn and a lot to show the world.

Eric Huffman: Yeah. I ache for a rise of countercultural anti-establishment evangelicalism, where we wake up to the reality that we've been played by various powers, whether they be political parties or mainstream media outlets or what have you. And just be absolutely enamored with Jesus and outrageously impassioned to share the gospel and not get, you know, dragged into these sort of cultural mudslinging controversies. In light of your upbringing especially but even in light of modern evangelicalism, why do you still call yourself an evangelical in your writing?

Philip Yancey: Well, the word means "good news". I was with the head of the National Association of Evangelicals not long ago, a man named Walter Kim. He is of Korean descent, American, and was a pastor at Park Street Church in Boston. Classic Gradall evangelical church. He had just gotten back from I think it was called the World Evangelical Congress or something like that. WEC. 

Each country had one official representative. The United States had one, Germany had one, Korea had one, you know. And he said they kind of ganged up on him and said, we understand that evangelicals have be... that's become a bad word in your country, the United States that almost like fundamentalists used to be or all we hear is evangelicals vote for Donald Trump. 

But they said, You can give up that word if you want to, but in our countries, when you say the word evangelical, what people who don't know anything about religion, what comes to their mind is the hospitals, the clinics, the schools, the people who help out in case of a hurricane or a typhoon or an earthquake, the people who are trying to free people caught up in sexual trafficking. Wherever missionaries have gone, they tend to be evangelicals and have used that word over the years. And that's the heritage they leave. And you can't take that word away. The word means good news. And in our country, evangelicals mean good news. 

So, you know, in the United States, anytime something becomes a problem, we want to change the terminology and change the word, you know. So, you know, handicap becomes disabled, becomes differently abled, you know how that goes. At some point, maybe we will have to just stop using the word because to those people in the United States, it does have a political connotation. 

But I don't think we should do it without a fight and without reminding people, you know, it's not the terminology, it's the fruit. And we can be proud of the heritage of every city you go to any prison and the evangelicals are going to that prison and conducting Bible studies and helping out and helping people after they get out of prison to find jobs, foster parents. In so many areas, evangelicals in churches without any spotlight on them, they're just going about doing the work of the kingdom because they believe Jesus wants us to do that. So let's not let go of that easily.

Eric Huffman: I love the answer. I mean the idea of holding onto that title of evangelicalism in solidarity with Evangelicals the world over is very compelling to me. I know that in recent months, maybe the worst news you've gotten from a doctor other than the time you broke your neck in the car accident, this was pretty serious. And it was upon being announced to the world, it was very shocking to people that know you and have followed you. But talk to us about how your life changed and what that pretends for your future.

Philip Yancey: I live in Colorado. It's an outdoor state, and that's why we moved here. In the summer, I mountain bike and we climb the mountains, the fourteeners, 14,000-foot mountains here. In the winter, I ski, cross-country ski, snowshoe, you know, do all the winter sports. And it's a huge part of my life. 

Actually, I didn't get a diagnosis until January of 2023. So I found strange symptoms. I would be skiing and given order to turn and my legs didn't follow that order. [inaudible 00:46:47]. And little bit of a balance issue, strange symptoms. And I went to my doctor and described some of them and he said, "Ah, you're in great shape, Philip. You can't have Parkinson's disease," because that's what I was asking him about. But the symptoms continued and I started kinda slowing down and just feeling a little more uncoordinated.

And finally I went to some specialists and they said, "Yeah, without doubt you've got Parkinson's disease." I haven't known that many people with Parkinson's disease, but the people who I do know personally had a pretty bad case. And I found out that not everybody does. In fact, there's a saying that if you know one person with Parkinson's disease, then you know one person with Parkinson's disease, which means everybody's different. 

Eric Huffman: Right. 

Philip Yancey: I have met people who have been, you know, oh, hunt stuff, almost locked in and frozen and could hardly move back when there was no real treatment for Parkinson's disease. Well, there is now. There's some good medication. But you just don't know. And so it was like a sword hanging over my head, that will probably be hanging over my head the rest of my life because we don't know that much about it. We can control certain symptoms, which you can't really treat the disease itself. You can just kind of cloak it. 

So I realized, Okay, I gotta start letting go things that I love. Mountain biking, I don't know. Road biking, okay, safer on some roads depending on the traffic. It's kind of a preview of old age because we all face those things. So it just kind of speeds up that aging process. And it makes me a lot more aware of disabilities around me.

I flew back from a trip on an airplane and there was a man who was quite elderly and possibly had Parkinson's, not coordinated. And he was so slow and getting his suitcase out of the overhead bin and he would sit in the wrong seat and go use the wrong bathroom up in first class. You know, do all this wrong stuff. And it's easy to make snap judgments about people like that. 

And I realized that could be me. That could be me. And prayed for what I call grace-healed eyes—eyes to see others as God sees them, you know, not as our highly competitive put society sees them. It's easy just to kinda look at them as invisible people and not realize that person was healthy at one time. And if that person is still in there, I dare not label them and see that label rather than see the person inside. In the same way, now I don't want people to treat me that way. I don't want them to think of me as Parkinson's first and then Phillips second, but Philip who has this thing that at this point I'm coping pretty well with. So I've got a lot to learn. 

And as you say, I've written a lot about pain. My very first book was a book called Where is God When It Hurts? And I've been around a lot of people who have been suffering. I'm sure my writing will reflect things that I learned along the way.

Eric Huffman: Well, a couple of things come to mind as you share that. And thank you by the way. The first is your work and Dr. Browne's work around pain and how pain is a signal and it can be helpful in terms of letting us know something's wrong and getting us toward healing. Right. And if anybody hasn't looked at Dr. Browne's work with leprosy and Phillip's coverage of that in Soul Survivors, where I read it first, by the way, another tip of the hat to Soul Survivor. I mean, that's one thing. 

The other thing is just, again, just that vision of you being ministered to in the ditch by Jesus. It's almost a recurring vision throughout life that we all should be able to see, is that we're not just these well-adjusted, saved people that get to minister to others. First, we're in the ditch and we find ourselves in all kinds of ditches throughout our lives and we receive from Jesus. You talked about love being one of the three, you know, points in Jesus's three-point sermon in the Gospel of John. But I mean, the whole thing about love in the New Testament is love as you have been loved by God. Right?

Philip Yancey: Yeah.

Eric Huffman: Love because God first loved you. And you in the ditch is God loving you. And you tapping away your keyboard and speaking to prostitutes and helping, you know, lost, stubborn young men like me stay tethered to Jesus is your way of sharing the love that God showed you in the ditch. And I pray that that just continues in this next season of your life, whatever that looks like as you receive that ministry from God, that love from Jesus, that you continue to be a vessel and a conduit to others to experience that.

Philip Yancey: I had an experience where I was speaking on prayer and I, I talked about love your enemies. And I said, I pray for those who persecute you. And I said, when I read this, I realized I have never done that. I've never prayed for Russia in the Cold War days. Whoever our enemies were, I never prayed for them. Why would Jesus ask us to do something so counterintuitive, so crazy by world standards? 

I'm sure the disciples who first heard that, you know, they're occupied by Roman troops, they were oppressive. And I'm sure when Jesus said, yeah, if a Roman soldier ask you to carry a pack for a mile, volunteer to do it for two miles. That's crazy talk. That's crazy talk. You don't help the enemies. You'd find a way to get rid of them.

Why would Jesus do that? Why would He suggest such a crazy thing? And it was pretty clear. Because the disciples asked Him something similar, and He said, Well, it's because that's the only way that people will know what the Father is like. God causes the sun to shine, the rain to fall on the good people and the bad people alike, on the friends and the enemies alike. And the only way the world is gonna see something like that is if you demonstrate it, if you show them what God is like. That's our job to be the visible proof of what God is like. 

Eric Huffman: Amen. Along those lines of what you just shared, I'll share one of my favorite quotes from The Jesus I Never Knew, and then I'm gonna ask you a final question. But this quote is so perfect for what you were just sharing. You wrote, "From beginning to end, the conflict between Rome and Jesus appeared to be entirely one-sided. The execution of Jesus would put an apparent end to any threat or so it was assumed at the time, tyranny would win again. It occurred to no one that His stubborn followers just might outlast the Roman Empire. One of your many classic and great lines: and they outlasted the Romans not with force for force. It was with love. It's such a powerful reminder.

Philip Yancey: Yeah. 

Eric Huffman: So, Philip, you've written over two dozen books. You've been the keynote speaker at events all over the world. You've scaled some of the world's tallest mountains. You've interviewed multiple American presidents. You're married to the lovely Janet who we did not give enough time to today in our conversation, but maybe we'll save that for another time. I know what an impact she's had on you. And you've been together with her since college. But what do you today consider to be your life's crowning achievement so far?

Philip Yancey: I don't know if this really answers your question, but after the diagnosis with Parkinson's, I couldn't help having questions about mortality, you know, how long will I live? Some people immediately thought, Oh, I'm gonna be debilitated right away. And that's not true. I could last for 20 years and a few symptoms. But what strikes me, I started getting responses from a bunch of people all over the world saying, "You were here in South Africa in 1992,' or "You were here in the Philippines in 2003." 

And I realized that my books are still there, will still be there. I poured myself into them. It's kind of a strange occupation. I was leeching off of other people. So I would go out and find these people who were doing the work of the gospel and then just come back and tell their stories. And many times I would feel everything is so vicarious, you know. I need to be in the prisons doing it myself, but if I did all these things, I'd never get around to writing. And what I really need to do is write and shine the light on people who are doing what Jesus wants us to do. 

And so it was a confirmation of the choice I made early on. I think I became a writer because I didn't trust... I trusted words on page because I could look at them and think about them and decide whether I believed them or not. I had been raised in churches where they scream at you and make you go forward with these emotional manipulations and all that. I didn't trust people in person, but I trusted words.

And then I was able to make a career because I wrote my books for myself with things I was struggling with, trying to find out, what is so amazing about grace? Does prayer make any difference? I didn't know the answers to those questions, so I would write a book about them. And there's a whole line of people saying, "Thank you, Philip. We didn't have all year to spend answering this question, but you did. So you've helped show us the way."

Eric Huffman: Wow. 

Philip Yancey: That's what gives me most satisfaction, I guess. And if I died tonight, then those books would still be up here.

Eric Huffman: That's great.

Philip Yancey: You know, I feel the memoir Where The Light Fell tells a story. I think I got the worst of the church and the best of the church. Now, this memoir is mostly about the worst of the church. But it's as if God looked at me and said, "Well, Philip, you've seen the worst, I'll show you the best." So the crowning achievement is not mine. It's God who took a pretty tough upbringing and a pretty tough dose of the gospel that was hard to overcome, a toxic dose, and somehow he deemed it and gave me a life, 45 years so far, a life of writing where I could actually make a living by trying to sort that through and come up with some coherence in my life.

I've used this phrase just recently. I think about it more and more. That pain redeemed impresses me more than pain removed. And that's true of so many people I've interviewed over the years, where they want above anything else to get rid of this problem. They didn't get that, they didn't get that answer. But pain redeemed, what Jesus has been able to do as a prophet to the church is unbelievable. 

And I look at my own life and people read Where The Light Fell and say, Man, did you get a bad dose? And you know, when you're a kid... you're not comparing these things. This is just life. So I wasn't that aware of it as a kid. But looking back, I say, well, yeah, I guess I did. I had not the most wholesome house that I lived in, and certainly not the most wholesome church, but pain redeemed impresses me more than pain removed. That's God's achievement. That's not mine. As I told you, I wasn't even looking for it. 

Eric Huffman: That's right.

Philip Yancey: But God chose me, and I'm forever grateful.

Eric Huffman: Amen. What a life it has been so far and what a legacy it will be! I am, as I said, beyond grateful on a personal level. And I know I speak for thousands of others who might be listening to this in the months ahead. I hope that everybody listening or watching will pick up your memoir Where The Light Fell, and in addition, while you're there, be sure to pick up Soul Survivor, which I am so, so thrilled. You've made my day by telling me that's your favorite book you've written as well. You don't know what that did for me when you said that. It is a great book. 

Another one that really touched me, I forgot to mention earlier, is The Bible Jesus Read, which was a great treatment of the Old Testament and why it matters today. I'm just, Philip, just so grateful for you. Myself and our team here and all of our listeners will continue to pray for you and Janet as you pursue what God has for you next.

Philip Yancey: Well, thank you much, Eric. We covered a lot of ground and you gave me space to talk and I appreciate it.

Eric Huffman: Well, it's been an honor and I'm grateful for you joining us on the Maybe God podcast. So Philip Yancey, thank you.

Philip Yancey: My pleasure.

Announcer: This episode of Maybe God was produced by Julie Mirlicourtois and Eric and Geovanna Huffman. Our editor is Justin Mayer and the director of all of our full-length YouTube videos is Mark Calver. Our social media team is Kat Brough and Justin Keller. For more information about Maybe God, and to sign up for exclusive updates on our content, head to maybegodpod.com today. And don't forget to follow and engage with us on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. Thanks for listening, everyone.