Evangelical journalist Philip Yancey: What Good Is God?

Philip Yancey is a journalist. Yes, he’s also a best-selling author and a world-famous evangelical Christian speaker, but in talking with Philip over the years, I know this as editor of ReadTheSpirit: Philip’s professional discipline is first and foremost: journalism.

On Wednesday, our weekly in-depth interview welcomes Philip Yancey to talk aobut his new book, “What Good Is God? In Search of a Faith That Matters.” We are highly recommending this new book, primarily because Philip does something rare here—he circles the world in his reporting and reflections. Two months ago, as editor of ReadTheSpirit, I reported for 40 days and 9,000 miles about Americans, a series that also was carried in print and online newspaper editions and drew a huge readership.

In his new book, Philip Yancey collects stories from a half dozen years and tens of thousands of miles of travel—circling the entire Earth.

In “What Good Is God?” Yancey focuses on 10 hot spots in world news. As a famous evangelical writer, he often is invited to travel to distant lands as a public speaker. So, for each of these 10 selected locations, he publishes the text of a talk he delivered there—and he adds a fresh chapter for each location, explaining the challenges people currently are facing in each place.

Depending on your background in religion, as you read Yancey’s book you might remember such historic milestones as the international travels and letters of Erasmus during the Reformation, or even the travels and letters of Paul 2,000 years ago. Yancey certainly doesn’t claim to be writing scripture, but this is a snapshot of Christian communities around the world at the turn of a new millennium. In that way, “What God Is God?”has historic weight.

If you’re part of a small discussion group, this book would make a great series of spirited conversations. I suggest buying a copy for the group leader, then selecting one section per week for class members to read—perhaps choosing chapters based on parts of the world of particular concern to your group. Then, once you’ve planned your localized selection of chapters, ask group members to get copies of the book, read each week’s section—then try to find news clippings and make other connections with each location, each week.

You can buy “What Good Is God? In Search of a Faith That Matters,” by Philip Yancey, at a significant Amazon discount now.

Come back Wednesday for our interview with Philip Yancey, but today let’s read what he has to say to readers as they open this new book …

Short Excerpt from Philip Yancey’s “What Good Is God?”

Every few years a renowned atheist or agnostic comes out with a new book questioning the worth of religion in general and Christianity in particular. … Meanwhile, national polls in the U.S. show a steady rise in the number of people declaring “no religion” when asked about their religious affiliation—up from 2.7 percent of the population in 1957 to 16 percent in 2009. More Americans now profess “no religion” than all Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Lutherans combined. The number has nearly doubled since 1990, and in Europe the percentage is far higher.

Defenders of the Christian faith rise up with point-by-point rebuttals of the skeptics. As a journalist I approach such questions differently. I prefer to go out into the field and examine how faith works itself out, especially under extreme conditions. A faith that matters should produce positive results, thus providing an existential answer to the underlying question, “What good is God?”

Technology manufacturers have a phrase called “the tabletop test.” Engineers design wonderful new products: iPhones, netbooks, video game consoles, notebook computers, MP3 players, optical storage devices. But will the shiny new product survive actual use by consumers around the world? What happens if it gets pushed off a table accidentally or dropped on a sidewalk? Will the device still work?

I look for similar tests in the realm of faith. My travels have taken me to places where Christians face a refiner’s fire of oppression, violence and plague. This book relates stories from places like China, where the church grows spectacularly despite an atheistic government; and the Middle East, where a once-thriving church in the heartland now barely hangs on; and South Africa, where a multicolored church picks through the pieces of its racist past. In the United States I have visited not only Virginia Tech and a convention of prostitutes, but also a group of alcoholics in Chicago and two enclaves in the Bible Belt South.

When I spend time among such people my own faith undergoes a tabletop test. Do I mean what I write about from my home in Colorado? Can I believe that, as the apostle John promised in one of his letters, “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world”? Can I proclaim that truth with confidence to a woman struggling to feed her children without reverting to prostitution, to an alcoholic battling a lifelong addiction, to an inmate in southern Africa’s most violent prison?

REMEMBER: You can buy “What Good Is God? In Search of a Faith That Matters,” by Philip Yancey, at a significant Amazon discount now.

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