The Philip Yancey interview: ‘The Question that Never Goes Away’

Click the cover to visit the book's Amazon page.

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Where is God when … the next hurricane hits, the next wildfire rages, the next nuclear accident spews radiation, or the next civil war strikes down men, women and children?

As each tragedy erupts, people of faith rush to reassure the world that God remains a source of hope. But, sometimes, their well-intentioned messages do more harm than good. A deeper, haunting question remains unresolved: Why? Why did this disaster happen in the first place? Why were some spared and others destroyed?

Now, best-selling author and journalist Philip Yancey, whose books are read around the world, tackles that question. And he doesn’t chart an easy course for himself. He writes about that core question—Why?—in light of the Japanese nuclear disaster, the civil war in the former Yugoslavia and the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. He calls the book simply, The Question That Never Goes Away: Why?

If you are familiar with Philip Yancey’s Sterling credentials as a major evangelical voice in America, you may be surprised by the hard-earned honesty of this book. This is not a volume of pat answers. It’s not soft soap. In fact, the book opens with a heart-rending scene: the death of Philip’s own father in a tragic case of well-meaning Christians actually causing the death.

Throughout his career, Philip Yancey has written and spoken many times about the questions: Why do such horrible things happen? Where is God when they do? That has generated a constant stream of letters from readers about this theme until Philip finally decided that he should pull the most stirring letters from his files and revisit them. On this issue alone, he found that he had saved more than 1,000 letters!

What caused Philip to address this haunting cluster of questions right now? He tells us that it was prompted by three life-changing experiences in 2012. As a journalist, he describes them in detail in this new volume that is such a page-turner, you’re likely to read it in a single sitting. He summarizes the trio of experiences this way:

“In 2012, I spoke to groups … three times, in the most daunting circumstances. … In March, I stood before congregations in the Tohoku region of Japan on the first anniversary of the tsunami that slammed into land with the velocity of a passenger jet, snapping railroad tracks like chopsticks and scattering ships, buses, houses, and even airplanes across the ravaged landscape. In its wake, with 19,000 dead and whole villages swept out to sea, a busy secular nation that normally has no time for theological questions thought of little else.

“In October, I spoke on the question in Sarajevo, a city that had no heat, fuel or electricity and little food or water for four years while sustaining the longest siege in modern warfare. Eleven thousand residents died from the daily barrage of sniper fire and from the shells and mortars that fell from the sky like hail. …

“As 2012 drew to a close, I accepted perhaps the hardest assignment of all … in the sheer intensity of horror and intimate grief. The weekend after Christmas, I addressed the community of Newtown, Connecticut, a town reeling from the senseless slaughter of 20 first-graders and 6 of their teachers and staff.”

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talked with Philip Yancey. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH PHILIP YANCEY ON
‘THE QUESTION THAT NEVER GOES AWAY:
WHY?’

DAVID: In this book about vast tragedies, you begin by telling readers about 1 death: When you were an infant, your father was disabled by polio. He needed to use a breathing machine, what then was called an “iron lung.” But your family belonged to a Fundamentalist church that convinced him to quit using the machine, so that prayer could heal him. Instead, your father died. It was an agonizing experience that shaped your own life.

Philip Yancey author of The Question That Never Goes AwayPHILIP: This was foundational for me, in an indirect way. I have no conscious memory of it because I was just a year old when it happened, but the overflow of this experience did affect me every day of my childhood. What I learned from that experience was not that different from other things I learned from the rather rigid church in which I grew up. The people in that church had very good intentions. The people who removed my father from his “iron lung” had good intentions. They thought they knew God’s will, but in that case they were flat-out wrong. He died.

That’s true of a lot of things in church history, isn’t it? I learned early on that you couldn’t swallow everything the church tells you. You’ve got to figure it out yourself; you’ve got to investigate. This idea flowered as a teenager. I learned that some of the things the church was telling me were wrong, in particular the racism of the church. And, for a while in my life, I threw the whole idea of faith off. I look back on that experience as healthy. It would have been unhealthy if I had just kept believing and accepting everything the church was telling me at that point. This stimulated my journalistic instincts before I knew what to call those instincts.

DAVID: People who know about your books and your work around the world may think of you as an evangelist. You’re very popular as an inspiring speaker. But your true vocation is journalism and you’ve always insisted that this role as a journalist is crucial to properly understanding your work.

PHILIP: The reason I identify as a journalist is because a journalist doesn’t begin as an expert in any one field. A journalist is a generalist, not an expert. Let’s say I’m assigned to write an article about nuclear physics. I don’t know anything about that subject but there are resources available. I can go to libraries. I can go to the Los Alamos lab. I can talk to physicists. I can eventually write an article that explains physics to people, at least a general introduction. That’s going to be quite different than asking a research physicist to write an article about his work. A lot of the books that are sold as religious books are written by the physicists of the church, the scholars, the experts.

In my work, I begin talking to people about their life experiences. That’s how I report on subjects like prayer or the problem of pain. I approach those questions from the journalist’s perspective. That’s true of everything I write. I started as a magazine writer and editor and made my living as a journalist. This new book goes beyond the usual journalistic perspective, because it comes out of three concrete experiences in three real places: Japan, Sarajevo and Newtown. But I do follow journalistic style here in the way I open each section with a description of what happened, then I write about how people lived through these experiences, then I write about my own experiences looking into what happened in these places.

I am not just asking and answering my own questions. I want readers to try to understand what it felt like to have been living in Japan when suddenly your entire village was washed away, or what it felt like to be a parent in Newtown on the day of the shootings and afterward. I want readers to experience the stories of these people, because their real stories give passion, depth and reality to the questions we all are raising after such tragedies.

THE PROBLEM WITH GOOD INTENTIONS

DAVID: You admit in the opening of your book that, all too often, people of faith wind up making things worse in their rush to reassure people after a disaster.

PHILIP: That is very true. And I do use the phrase “well intentioned.” One example: So many of the clichés you hear at funerals, or explanations given to children after a disaster, actually wind up making people feel worse instead of better. A common comment I heard, as a journalist talking to people who had survived terrible tragedies was: “The church made it worse.” Well-intentioned people show up hoping to help and share all sorts of theories about what had just happened. Many of those easy explanations were confusing and, in the end, made things worse.

VICTOR FRANKL AND THE SEARCH FOR MEANING

DAVID: In your book, readers will meet a lot of very wise people. As a good journalist, you draw together lots of such wisdom in your reporting. One figure you include in your book, who we just profiled in our online magazine, is Victor Frankl, the Auschwitz survivor who wrote about the importance of finding meaning in life even in the most deadly circumstances. Tell us why you included him.

PHILIP: What struck me most, the first time I read Victor Frankl, was the idea that despair is suffering without meaning. The Nazis actually carried out experiments in having prisoners work without meaning. They might have someone move rocks across a field all day long. The next day, they’d move the rocks back. Over and over again. This would break the will of the laborers and, eventually, the meaninglessness would break them down completely. Frankl argued that the human mind can survive extremely severe experiences if we can find some meaning in what we are going through.

Now, you can carry this argument too far. It’s easy to misunderstand. Some people might read Frankl and think it’s just a simple formula: find meaning and you’ll survive. Well, that’s not true. A lot of people who did find meaning in Auschwitz died anyway. Most people who passed through Auschwitz died. The same is true in other great tragedies people face today. It’s not a simple formula that guarantees survival.

But it is true that if you can just find meaning in the suffering, you can endure in a different way and you can do this probably more effectively than someone who doesn’t find meaning. I believe that principle is the same principle that Jesus uses when he encountered people who were suffering. In John 9, for example, Jesus encounters a man born blind and the disciples immediately ask: Who sinned? This man? His parents? That scene shows you the absurdity of such questions. Jesus dismisses the questions. He didn’t offer neat, formulaic theories about why something happened. Jesus was focused on: Yes, something bad has happened here, but can something good come out of this? And the answer is always: Yes.

GOD IN RED CAPE AND BLUE TIGHTS?

DAVID: So, a healthy “search for meaning,” to borrow Frankl’s phrase, often focuses on the way forward, the next steps, the individual and community response. You know from your own life, from your father’s death in particular, that God is not Superman. Here’s the lesson that I came away with most clearly from your book: If we doubt God’s reality in the face of tragedy, then we’re looking toward God with the wrong vision, the wrong set of expectations. God’s not hovering up there in a red cape and blue tights, ready to fly into our lives at a moment’s notice and rescue us. God is most present in the community that responds even in the face of evil and trauma.

PHILIP: That’s very true in the way you’re describing it. But this can be misunderstood. As you say that, people may think you’re saying: God is unable to solve problems, so God has to go with Plan B.

The way I say it is: God is Plan A from the beginning. God is not a muscle-flexing figure. God wants us to do in our admittedly inept ways, often, what God could do with a snap of a finger. Remember that God did not come to us as Superman 2,000 years ago but as a helpless baby in a very oppressed and problematic context. Jesus had many chances to snap his fingers—and didn’t. That’s what the temptation scenes in the wilderness are all about. Jesus was tempted in the wilderness to snap his fingers and do great miracles, yet he didn’t. And, in the end, he tells his followers: Now, it’s up to you to do the work here.

Every parent celebrates when their child takes a first step. Just this morning, I received a little movie clip from a woman whose grandchild had taken her first step. One response to such a video would be to email back and say: “What’s the big deal? There are billions of people in the world and most of them can walk.” But, if you’re a grandparent, it is indeed a big deal. In that way, God takes pleasure in seeing the world respond to rebuild after a tsunami or in seeing the community of Newtown come together to heal. This is not a case of an inferior Plan B—it’s what God had in mind all along.

DAVID: As I was reading your book, I kept thinking of Queen Elizabeth II’s famous words of wisdom after a great tragedy. She said, “Grief is the price we pay for love.”

PHILIP: Absolutely. I had not heard that quote from Queen Elizabeth before, but I have spoken with so many people who tell me that grief is the place where love and pain converge.

DAVID: That’s a memorable line in your new book: Grief is the place where love and pain converge.

PHILIP: Yes, and I quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who warns us not to think that we can fill that space. He wrote, “Nothing can make up for the absence of someone we love, and it would be wrong to try to find a substitute; we must simply hold out and see it through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation. It remains unfilled, preserves the bonds between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap. God does not fill it, but on the contrary, God keeps it empty and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain.”

This is such an important truth. When someone is lost, it’s important not to say: “You won’t feel the grief after a while.” Or: “You’ll get back to normal soon.” That loss may never go away. The parents who lost their children in Newtown can choose to fill their gaps in healthy or in unhealthy ways. They can become obsessed with questions or with bad advice they have been given.

I am saying: Grief itself can be a healthy thing. It’s a symbol of our love.

 Care to read more?

  • MORE FROM PHILIP YANCEY: Visit Philip’s own website where he offers columns and news about his ongoing work.
  • INTERFAITH PEACEMAKERS: Our Victor Frankl profile is part of a much larger effort—called Interfaith Peacemakers—celebrating the lives of men and women around the world whose faith leads them to risk crossing boundaries and making peace, often with others they never expected would help to form a new community.
  • OUR READ THE SPIRIT BOOKSTORE: We’ve published dozens of books on related themes. Please visit our online Bookstore.
  • WAITING FOR THE MOVIE VERSION? Our website now includes the work of long-time faith-and-film writer Edward McNulty—called Visual Parables—in which Ed shares more than 1,000 thoughtful columns on films that make us think about our faith in fresh ways.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)