Philip Yancey is the author of 25 books including “The Jesus I Never Knew” and “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” Yancey’s books have garnered 13 Gold Medallion Book Awards from Christian publishers and booksellers. He currently has more than 17 million books in print. Yancey worked as a journalist in Chicago for some 20 years. He and his wife, Janet, live in Colorado.
Talk about your new book, “Where the Light Fell: A Memoir.”
Yancey takes a deep dive into his past, his childhood, family secrets and some challenging experiences in church.
“It gives the background for why I wrote the books I did,” Yancey said. “It’s pretty obvious why the themes of suffering and grace keep recurring. Suffering because I encountered quite a bit of it because I grew up without a father, who died of polio tragically. And grace because I grew up in a church that didn’t have much of it.”
Yancey was raised in a fundamentalist, racist and legalistic church in the South.
He describes what it was like growing up in Atlanta in the 1950s.
“Racism was much more overt, and it was actually legal back then,” Yancey added. “In Atlanta, it was illegal for a black doctor to treat a white patient or a white doctor to treat a black patient. We had separate drinking fountains and bathrooms, different colors at the bank so that you didn’t go to a white teller if you were a black customer. The Jim Crow laws were very explicit, taught you exactly where to sit on the bus. In our biggest department store, if you were a black person, you could buy clothes, but you had to without trying them on.”
Yancey said for those who have had a bad experience in church, they shouldn’t “throw the baby out with the bath water.”
“When people tell me their church stories, I just kind of smile and say, ‘Oh, it’s worse than that. Let me tell you my story.’ They say, ‘I thought you were a Christian writer.’ I say, ‘I am, but what I’ve learned is don’t let the church get in the way of your relationship with God,’” he said. “A church can sometimes turn people away from God, but healthy churches can attract people toward Him.”
Yancey said in Bible college he was not a “model student” but rather a “renegade.”
In fact, he enjoyed making teachers look bad by asking them difficult apologetic questions or intentionally reading books like “Why I Am Not a Christian” by Bertrand Russell in public.
“There was a softening period to be open to a relationship with God, but then there was one prayer meeting where I had an unexpected and, frankly, undesired conversion experience with God,” Yancey said. “I wasn’t seeking it, and I started praying in the midst of that prayer.”
How does this memoir differ from your previous books written on grace, suffering, Jesus?
Yancey said his other 25 books are “idea driven.”
“I tend to use the style that I call ‘personal pilgrimage style,’” Yancey said. “I start out kind of confused, not knowing the answer and I wander around. Then, I end up on the other side. That’s my natural style, and it’s all driven by concepts, even though there are personal stories in there. This is different because it’s all story.”
Yancey read one memoir a night, about 300 total, in preparation for writing his own.
“Every time I would read a memoir, it would stimulate a memory of my own life that I wouldn’t have recalled otherwise,” Yancey added. “So, they would describe the first time they ate ice cream, for example, and that would take me back to the first time I ate ice cream. I think that’s what memoirs do. They don’t only teach you about some person … they teach about your life, you as the reader.”
A memoir is simply a story from one’s personal experience and life.
“A memoir expresses more of the point of view of the person you’re learning about, whereas a biography is filtered through a researcher’s eyes and usually they come with their own perspective. Some of them want to know all the juice, know just facts or just put things into an historical context,” he said. “I personally like memoir because I feel it’s a closer reflection to the person I want to learn about, and it gives more room for emotional reaction.”
How has your writing been influenced by your upbringing?
Christian author Frederick Buechner once said, “Really, all you have is your life.” Yancey takes that to heart in his writing.
“The only reason for me to write any book is because I think I have a slightly different viewpoint than other people,” Yancey said. “For instance, I wrote ‘The Jesus That I Never Knew.’ I found out there were already 55,000 books about Jesus out there and I felt, ‘Does the world really need another book about Jesus?’ But I had a particular slant that nobody else had that was informed by my upbringing because the image of Jesus I came away with from church was very different than the image I have now. I think that’s true for a lot of people.”