Interview with Philip Yancey: ‘What Good is God?’

C.S. Lewis is even more popular in 2010 than during his lifetime. His Narnia springs to life again this year.In Part 1 of our coverage of Philip Yancey and “What Good Is God?” we highly recommended this new book as a milestone in global Christianity at the beginning of a new millennium. We also published a brief excerpt. TODAY, in Part 2, you’ll hear from Philip himself—and we’ll take you both to the Middle East and the home base of C.S. Lewis!

“What Good is God?” is an unique book, blending both of Yancey’s perspectives—as journalist and as a famous evangelical speaker. This new book takes us to 10 fascinating locations around the world where Yancey has visited and worked in this opening decade of the third millennium of Christianity. You’re sure to enjoy it.

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

Now, let’s welcome Philip himself …


Author, journalist Philip Yancey. Photo by Randal Olsson.DAVID:  Philip, let’s start with what I think is the most important distinction in your work over the decades: You’re a journalist. You’re also a famous evangelical speaker, and this new book includes 10 of the talks you’ve delivered around the world. But, first and foremost, you’re a journalist.

At ReadTheSpirit, that’s our distinctive professional approach to coverage, as well. We’re independent. We’re story-reporting and story-writing professionals. That’s a rare and valuable profession we share. So, tell us why your role as journalist makes “What Good Is God?” a rare book?

PHILIP: This fall, I spoke to the Religion Newswriters Association. Here’s one way I explain this distinction: If you go into Christian bookstores, a lot of the books you’ll find there are not written by writers. They’re books by speakers—well-known pastors like Rick Warren, people who head organizations like Chuck Colson, theologians like Bishop N.T. Wright—but they’re all people whose primary orientation is public speaking. As journalists, our primary orientation is crafting words as writers communicating with readers primarily through the written word. As journalists, we’re also reporting in a different way than the kinds of speakers I’ve mentioned. As a journalist, we’re not dispensing wisdom from on high. In my work, I start with confusion down low! (laughs)

DAVID: Hey, I understand you! Yes, that’s journalism: We’re not the scholar or the anointed preacher delivering our own wisdom in a pulpit or book. Our professional skill is starting with the questions and research them, reporting them.

PHILIP: Yes, as journalists, we represent the readers. We wade into new waters and try to master new ideas. When I wrote about prayer, earlier, I didn’t start by assuming I was the expert on prayer. I started by saying: I’m terrible at prayer and have so many questions—like lots of readers. So, let’s set out together and we’ll explore this together.

Our accuracy lies in the fact that we’re not experts arguing for personal points of view. In each new project, we’re going out, researching, talking to people from the different points of view and accurately reporting on what’s happening. We’re getting questions answered for ourselves and for our readers. This is a very important perspective in this new book. And it can get confusing in my work. I’ve written so many books over the years that people have started to regard me as a person who is a content person and a speaker. I do travel and speak about my work.

This new book tells about 10 locations where I went as a speaker, but important events were going on behind the scenes in each place that set up what I was experiencing there and saying to people there. For example, I went to India on a book tour, but I found myself in the middle of one of the great news events happening in India in recent years. This book combines my two roles: my authentic role as a journalist and then this new role that has grown up around my work as a person who can speak to people about these issues.

DAVID: I’m fascinated by some of the powerful “epistles”—important and prophetic letters—we’re seeing in this opening decade of the new millennium. One of the most popular stories we recently published in our 9,000-mile American Journey was a kind of “epistle” from the poet Raphael Jesus Gonzalez. In reviewing your new book, I’m going to describe it as essentially a series of epistles about Christianity and global issues in this turbulent age.

Shifting Perspectives: China and the U.S. on Christianity

PHILIP: Epistles? Hmmm. That’s really an interesting take on this book. One of the reasons I do travel is that it gives me such a different perspective on the world. I go to a place like China and the mood there is very different than the mood you find in the U.S. or Europe. Here people are grumbling about the recession or the way the world seems to be unfolding. Then you go to China where one seventh of the world’s population lives and people there are building and growing and expanding. They have the superstructure of a society but a lot of confusion about what drives that society. I find that it’s a very good thing for me to sit back and ask: What elements created my own country with its Christian heritage and Europe with its Christian heritage? What are those elements? How are they found in places like China? In each section of the book, I’ve included a talk I gave in that location and I’ve added reporting about the situation in each place as well.

So, epistles? I hadn’t thought of it like that, but it’s an interesting perspective on this book.

DAVID: Like Erasmus during the Reformation, let’s say, or maybe from an American literary tradition like John Steinbeck hitting the road in “Travels With Charley,” you’re taking us to many different locations and writing these letters to readers around the world about the different perspectives.

PHILIP: This certainly was a thrilling experience for me to travel to these places and it did open up my own thinking. For example, frankly I have a hard time as a Christian thinking about the church from beyond my own American perspective. Here in the U.S., the church is a bit like a corporation. We have all these big buildings, boards running things, then we turn the crank and we turn out materials, messages, books, music and all the stuff that keeps people coming back every week. In other parts of the world, like China, people have an entirely different take on what Christianity is supposed to be. If people read the book, they may find themselves rethinking their own approach to faith.

Collision of Stereotypes: Christianity in the West and the Middle East

DAVID: As a world-traveling journalist myself, I strongly agree with what you just said—and I urge people to buy the book and read it for themselves. To give people more of a feel for what they’ll find between these covers, let’s talk about a couple of the 10 areas you explore. I’m going to pick two quite different sections of the book.

First, you write about the Middle East—and that topic is as hot a news story in 2010 as it has ever been. You write about Christianity in Israel-Palestine and you point out something that concerns all of us who understand these issues: Christian communities are dwinding in this region. Christian Palestinian families have left the country faster than Muslim families, for example. That’s just one of the many reasons that the 2,000-year-old Christian community is shrinking.

PHILIP: Thomas Friedman has written a lot about this. Many Palestinian Christians have been leaving, leaving, leaving. It’s becoming a Jewish and Islamic part of the world. The continuity that traces itself all the way back to Jesus is in danger of being broken. That makes it so hard for a person who does feel attracted to Jesus and the Christian faith in that region to look around and find others like them. Now, there are very few Christian models left there.

DAVID: You also make the point that we’re confusing and troubling a lot of people around the world with our dual religious and cultural messages from America. People are very interested in America around the world. Many still hope to come to this country, but you point out in your book that our blending of faith and popular culture really turns off a lot of people. People think of Americans as having betrayed our religious values, based on what they see in our music, television and popular culture.

PHILIP: Here’s one example: Madonna is Christian. I mean the singer. From the perspective of many in the Islamic world, Madonna is part of the Christian West and Christian American culture. Think about how confusing that is for people over there.

We’re guilty of the same thing, of course. Think about seeing an Islamic singer on television. We tend to paint that singer with all of the assumptions Americans have about Islam—we connect that image of a singer we might see on TV with all of those stereotypes that are drummed into us by American media.

There’s a lot of hypocrisy here on both sides and I spoke with Muslims who were open and honest about this. For example, they may wag their fingers and scold the West for its decadence, but there’s no evidence that people living in Muslim countries shun the West. They look to the West for thrills and for hopes. There’s a love-hate-fear relationship here. Many in the Middle East in Muslim countries look to the West and want what they see, but they also fear: What happens if we let go of the controls we’ve had in our countries? What would life be like if we let this weird sexuality thing loose in our culture?

Then, when a true Christian comes along and wants to engage in conversation about faith and Jesus, this is a very confusing thing. Most assumptions about Christians and the West are connected to things people have seen on television. Or, if you live in a Muslim country and have a chance to visit the U.S., you may do something like visit a beach and see people wearing tiny swim suits and doing things that seem shocking. This is the Christian West but it’s also such a confusing place.

From the Middle East to the Enduring Legacy of C.S. Lewis

DAVID: I do recommend that section of your book for a thought-provoking look at some of those complicated problems in seeing each other clearly around the world. So many powerful images and messages and stereotypes tend to cloud our vision. So, next, let me ask about someone you include in your book who was world famous for bringing clarity to foggy religious conversations: C.S. Lewis. You’ve got a section in which you visit Lewis’ stomping grounds in the UK. Lewis is going to be very popular again at the end of 2010 with new books based on his life’s work—and a new Hollywood movie debuting. Why is he so enduringly popular?

PHILIP: For one thing, he was a great writer. He took the writing craft very seriously. He was nurtured by great literature and he cared as much about the way he said something as what he said. As a writer, I look up to that. That’s one of the reasons he does endure. So many years after he wrote his books, they’re still fresh. You still find yourself stopping as you read Lewis’ books to say to yourself: Wow! I never could have come up with that image! That’s why it endures.

And, he wasn’t afraid of his Christian faith. He lived in a snobbish, patronizing post-Christian environment in Oxford and Cambridge. That was probably as challenging a place to work out your faith as any place in the world today. It was a very tough place. Everybody in that community knew Lewis and they knew he wrote these children’s stories and was on the radio, of all things, actually defending Christianity. I’m sure there were a lot of raised eyebrows about Lewis in faculty gatherings. But he was strong enough to not be afraid of his own Christianity.

More than 40 years after his death, he still is inspiring and challenging people like me. The real question, I think, is: Why aren’t there more C.S. Lewises? Why don’t we have more than just the one? He was in a completely secular environment and he lived in a wholly and holy Christian redeemed sense. He embraced nature. He embraced culture and yet he saw ways to redeem the world around him. That’s inspiring to me after all these years.

DAVID: It’s inspiring to so many! That’s one reason we’re going to see so much attention to Lewis, again, in the closing months of 2010. He’s a great guide to navigating the challenges of real, daily life in a very tough world.

PHILIP: Right. It’s easy to look at someone like Mother Teresa and say: Now, that’s a great person! Look at all she gave up. But in some ways, the choices Lewis made on a daily basis were more complicated and more difficult to make in the end. But, he got up each day and sorted through them, one by one, and he gave us a model so that the rest of us can draw help through his example in making our own decisions today.

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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