If you look at a list of Philip Yancey’s book titles, I think you get a good sense of the kind of Christian thinker he is. Titles like Where is God When it Hurts?, Disappointment with God, and What’s So Amazing About Grace. Yancey is now in his seventies and he’s been a prolific Christian writer since the early 1990s. I was first familiar with Yancey’s work when I was a kid and saw his books around the house as my parents read him. It was his book Soul Survivor though that first convinced me he was a writer to read. The subtitle of Soul Survivor is “How My Faith Survived the Church”. In it, Yancey talks about the books that influenced his faith and personal spiritual growth. I was about 19 when I read that book and pondering what it meant for me to be a Christian independent from the faith I had been raised in. I was amazed that Yancey’s book choices weren’t all by Christian writers. I was amazed that he was open and honest about the ways the church he had grown up in had hurt him and damaged his faith. Since then, Yancey has been an author I’ve returned to, particularly in times of doubt and pain. His writing doesn’t shy away from the hard aspects of Christianity yet is continually grounded in Biblical truth. It can be a rare combination to find.
Throughout his writing, Yancey alludes to his own church background, growing up in the southern United States. This was a time of racial segregation in the US and the church Yancey was a part of supported this separation of people, even amongst Christians. Yancey was raised with these racist ideas and it wasn’t until he was older that he learned to dismantle the white supremacy that he’d known his whole life.
Where the Light Fell is a memoir of Yancey’s childhood and young adulthood. He is honest and vulnerable and thoughtful. If more Christians could approach their own histories with this sort of truthfulness, the church would be more like heaven.
When young Philip was still a baby and his older brother was a toddler, their father was stricken with polio and put in an iron lung. He died soon after. This was the story that Yancey grew up with and knew his whole life. Not until he was an adult did Yancey learn that his mother and father made the decision to remove his father from the iron lung and to believe that he would be miraculously healed. When he was not, Yancey’s mother made a promise that her sons would grow up to be missionaries, fulfilling the dream that their father never had the chance to see through.
Yancey grew up in this atmosphere of extreme religiosity. While outwardly their mother seemed the perfect picture of the tragic young widow, doing her best to raise her sons alone and teaching Bible classes, at home she was angry and abusive. The churches that Yancey knew as a child and teenager were strict and unbending. This was a Christianity of rules and regulations, where tragedy was the outcome of sin and getting to heaven was contingent on the best behaviour. Added to this were the racist attitudes of white supremacy so unfortunately prevalent at that time. As civil rights grew and de-segregation began to occur around them, many churches sadly insisted on maintaining these racist attitudes. Yancey tells a story of a church with guards outside to prevent Black people trying to join the service or become members. He is very honest here and doesn’t shy away from detailing his own racist attitudes. Even though he was a child at the time, it’s clear that he takes responsibility for his thoughts and actions and acknowledges the ways he needed to learn to change.
One story that stuck with me after reading the book was how when Philip was a teenager, he won an internship in a science lab. The scientist he worked under, a highly educated doctor, turned out to be a black man. All his life, Yancey had been told that Black people were inferior and if they weren’t, then why didn’t he ever see a Black doctor or CEO? Then, suddenly, he is confronted with this new possibility and meets a Black man who is intelligent and kind to him. It’s a reminder of how powerful it is to have a diversity of representation in all aspects of life.
Sadly, there is so much in Yancey’s memoir that is still relevant and familiar today. Peter read this book first and we were both struck by the parallels between Yancey’s parents’ reliance on a miracle while his father was dying to some Christians’ attitudes around Covid-19 today. It has been frustrating to see Christians resist vaccination and instead brag that they will rely on their “God-given immunity”. (To be clear, I absolutely believe in miracles and I believe I have witnessed miraculous moments of healing in my family and in those around me. I’m also fully vaccinated and my children are vaccinated because I think modern medicine is a gift and a sort of miracle in and of itself.) As well, the racial issues that Yancey grew up with are sadly still present today. The church is the last place we should see these divisions but unfortunately, they’re present there too.
This is a memoir that will probably most appeal to readers already familiar with Yancey’s other work but it really is a book that could be read by anyone. I’ve always found Yancey’s writing very readable but I was surprised by how lovely it is here. It is descriptive and lush and, as I keep seeing, beautifully honest. While there is a lot of sadness present in this history, there is also a lot of hope and I believe that that is worth reading about.