Philip Yancey: Hinting at God
By Laura Bagby
Best known for his books Where is God When It Hurts?,
What's So Amazing About Grace?, The Jesus I Never Knew, and
Disappointment with God, Philip Yancey, recipient of numerous internationally
acclaimed awards, ventures into new territory with his latest release,
Rumors of Another World.
In his book, Yancey pulls from his knowledge of God's creation, history,
philosophy, literature, and theology to come to terms with the age old
question, Does God Exist, and if so, Why is this world we live in so messed
In making a case for a good and very present God, Yancey looks to the
natural, visible world, both to what is good and to what is bad, in order
to uncover the clues that God does in fact exist.
Not a book to be read in one sitting, Yancey's meaty and challenging
release is written more in the vein of C.S. Lewis and Lee Strobel, as
a work that is meant to make both Christians and seekers alike reason,
all the while with the eyes of faith.
I was afforded the opportunity to talk with Philip Yancey over the phone
recently about his new book. What follows is the thought-provoking conversation
I know that you had a legalistic church experience in your past. What
were some of the struggles that you have had to unlearn over the years?
My church did a good job of misrepresenting who God is, and that was
the hardest thing to unlearn. I don't think it is so common today, but
when I grew up, it was in the South in the 1950s. Things were very racist,
very angry, legalistic, and I just grew up with this image of God as this
frowning, scowling enforcer trying to catch me in doing something wrong,
and also as a very petty and exclusive God.
We went to a small church, and we thought heaven was going to be a very
small place, about as large as our church, maybe smaller. We used words
like "grace," but I didn't really experience grace growing up.
I didn't really see the world around us, the world of nature, the world
of beauty, as expressions of who God is, as "rumors," the word I use in
the book. I didn't see that the entire world is God's world and that we
can learn a lot about Him and experience Him through creation. That was
a whole new thing for me. We were concerned about souls and eternal life,
not so much about life in this world.
My process has been a process of discovering the gifts of this world
that God has given, discovering that they indeed are God's gifts, and
trying to put together those things.
As Christians we tend to divide our world artificially into two categories:
the secular and the sacred. We say, 'That's the natural world, and that's
the supernatural world; that's the secular world, and that's the sacred;
that's the visible, and that's the invisible.' But you are saying, no,
they really need to be melded because God wants to work through both.
I always say that when I became a Christian, I had been pretty burned
by Bible verses, Gospel tracts, Billy Graham rallies, and things like
that. There is no way they could have spoken to me. But the things that
did speak to me were things of beauty, like the world of nature, classic
music, and romantic love. When I encountered those things, they were powerful
and they didn't reflect the kind of God that I grew up with.
In the book I quote G.K. Chesterton who says, "The worst moment for an
atheist is when he feels a profound sense of gratitude and has no one
to thank." That's how I felt. I was grateful and I was blessed, but I
suddenly realized I didn't know the Author of those gifts and what I needed
to do was to change my image of God and then try to put together His creation.
God obviously invested enormous energy and a lot of Himself in this world.
For example, I was out hiking in a remote basin at about 11,000 feet.
There are a lot of remote basins in Colorado, and no matter where you
go, even if you stumble across a little meadow that no one has ever seen
before, which is possible still, you are going to find that meadow just
carpeted with wild flowers, just incredible creations of beauty. That
says something about my God. It says that He is the Creator of great beauty,
that He experiences joy and pleasure, and that He wants us as His creations
to experience that same joy and pleasure.
Some Christian denominations believe that our desires are inherently
evil, that experiencing pleasure is absolutely wrong. You are saying,
no, our desires can point to God. How do you talk to people with that
What I see in the Bible, especially in the book of Psalms, which is a
book of gratitude for the created world, is a recognition that all good
things on earth are God's, every good gift is from above. They are good
if we recognize where they came from and if we treat them the way the
Designer intended them to be treated. They are also dangerous. To me it
is kind of like radioactive material. You can either use it for good in
a nuclear power station, or you can use it for evil in a nuclear bomb.
That is the pattern I see.
When you think about it, all the intricacies of sex--I spend a whole
chapter exploring some of those--God thought all of those up. He is not
embarrassed by sex. My goodness, He invented it! At the same time, it
is powerful, and if it is not used correctly, it can get out of control,
it can harm us, and it can become a false god.
The church has often taken the approach that it is dangerous; therefore,
don't do it. Keep away. I have a very different approach. My approach
is my goodness, what an amazing, powerful gift that God has given us.
What does it tell us about God? What does it tell us about how we should
use that gift? Instead of saying, 'No, no, don't do it,' I would say,
'Do it in the way that the Designer intended.' We are all better off for
that -- the world, the culture at large, and Christians in particular
who are trying to follow Jesus' way.
Some Christians say, 'Culture is bad. Don't mix with the culture.'
It is a cloistered perspective of how we should live our lives. Then you
have the Christians who say, 'Everything is OK. Embrace culture. Don't
worry about it.' How are we supposed to view culture as Christians?
Toward the end of my book, I tell the story of Ernest Gordon. He found
himself in a prison camp during World War II. It was one of the most horrific
camps that you can imagine. Eighty thousand died building this railroad.
The movie The Bridge on the River Kwai was based on that
story. Gordon lived in a community that was run by different rules. It
was a dog-eat-dog, every-man-for-himself kind of community, yet they built
a little church and started a university where they taught languages and
they taught art and formed an orchestra and carved instruments out of
bamboo. Even though they were in this horrific Dante-type environment
of death and disease and horror, they created a little settlement of the
real world, the world they remembered.
That is a picture of those of us who are settlers of the kingdom of God.
What we are called to do is not to withdraw from the world--certainly
not all of us--but to create settlements to show the rest of the world
how life is supposed to be lived, so that in our families, in our treatment
of the poor, in our compassion for others, our expression of beauty, in
all of those things, we express something of who God is and how He wanted
this world to be.
As Christians we believe that He will restore that, and the whole world
will be filled with His glory and will express those values. But right
now, we are in an in-between time. We are on a fallen planet where the
planet doesnt reflect that. To me, the way to answer that is not to withdraw
from culture, but it is rather to live out the culture that God intended.
Somewhere in the book I say that Christians may have it wrong. We always
talk about being a counter-culture, and I think that is backwards. We
are the culture, the culture that God intended, and everything else is
a counter-culture. That is what we need to reclaim.
In your book, you use the term "rumors" or "hints" of another world
instead of using the term "proofs" of another world. I guess that is because
you are not using a reductionistic, scientific method to help us discover
the things of God.
In Hebrews 11 it says that faith is 'the substance of things hoped for
and the evidence of things not seen.' There is an element of faith involved.
I cannot say, Look, if you just read this book, I guarantee that you
will be convinced. I have not found a book like that yet. I find the
evidence compelling, but I dont find it irrefutable. There are intelligent
people who look at it and come up with something else, so there is an
element of faith involved for me and I think really for everybody.
I am not trying to claim more than the Bible claims. Jesus said when
He was talking about Thomas, He said, 'Blessed are those who have not
seen and yet believe.' I think all of us are in that category. We didnt
see Jesus in the flesh like Thomas did. We didnt put our hands in His
wounds like Thomas did, so there is an element of faith that is part of
Speaking of faith, in an introductory statement in your book you explain
that you wrote this book to come to terms with your own faith. Have come
to a better understanding since writing this book?
For the year and a half that I was immersed in this book, I was really
trying to think like the borderlanders. I am writing for the borderlanders.
Who are the borderlanders?
The borderlanders are people who are kind of caught in the middle. They
think there must be another world out there. There probably is a God,
but they are either turned off by the church or wounded by the church
or wary of the church for whatever reason. Maybe they have seen some Christians
that they do not like, so they are kind of circling around, mildly searching,
in some cases, seriously searching. They believe that there is something
spiritual, but they would say things like, I am spiritual but not religious.
These are the people who I would call borderlanders.
I was so much trying to deal with where they are, to think like they
do, and to reflect who they are that when I finished the book, suddenly
I breathed this great sigh of relief and realized I am not a borderlander.
I really do believe! I am a solid Christian!
In the second section of your book, 'Signs of Disorder,' you talk
about the negative rumors that point to God, the fact that evil in this
world can point to God. Would you talk specifically about one of those
negative rumors that you call 'the gift of guilt'?
In some ways evil is backhanded proof of Gods existence. When a person
looks at this world and says, There is something wrong here, to me that
is rumor. I agree that there is something wrong here, but from a straight,
random, cosmic explosion in the universe, why should we expect anything
else? When September 11 happened, for example, and innocent people go
to work and then they are burned to death in an instant, we look at that
and say, That shouldnt be. That is not the way it is supposed to be.
That is wrong. Well, why is it wrong? We Christians know that it is wrong
because we have a revelation of what is right. From a straight evolutionary
perspective, what is wrong with rape? It is just survival of the fittest.
It is spreading your seed around. Why is it terrible? I know why it is
terrible. You know why it is terrible. But if you are just looking at
a bunch of animals, why is it terrible? This is the way nature is.
I think there are dark clues that are also rumors of another world, and
I use guilt because a lot of people automatically assume that guilt is
a bad thing, and as soon as you have it, you should get rid of it. I dont
see it that way. I think guilt is directional. You should get rid of it,
but the way to get rid of it is not to get rid of the guilt feelings.
It is to get rid of the wrong that you did that caused the guilt feelings.
We Christians believe there is a way to do that, thank goodness. It is
pretty easy. Just confess and trust Gods forgiveness.
But if you just go around getting rid of guilt feelings, you are not
really solving the problem. We see people doing all sorts of things that
we believe are evil and they blame someone else. It is McDonalds fault
for making me fat. It is the cigarette companies fault for making me smoke.
Instead they should be saying, You know, I really blew it.
When I look at people who are addicted, people who are in Alcoholics
Anonymous type groups, who are in twelve-step groups, one of the things
that they get right is that they dont victimize. They dont squirm. They
say, I am a drunk. They define themselves by their weakness. God can
deal with that. It is the people who say I am fine and I dont need You
that God says 'OK, I wont force Myself on you.'
You write in your book, Those who invest their hope in an unseen
world prove it by their actions in this world. They strive to not be so
heavenly minded as to be of no earthly good, and not to be so earthly
minded as to be of no heavenly good. How do we achieve that?
That is the great challenge of all of us. I talk about how we are amphibious.
We live in two different environments at once; we live in the water and
we live in the air. We breathe both places. The only way to do that is
to cultivate connection with the unseen world. We do that through prayer.
We do that through community, through the church. I dont think the Christian
life is meant to be lived alone. We have to cultivate an awareness of
what matters to God, especially in a culture like the United States where
we are being barraged with all these images and what counts is your figure
or your face or your bank account or the car you drive.
These are not the kinds of values that Jesus held up. He went to the
outcast. He went to the poor, the needy. In all of His stories, these
are the people that He elevated. Even moral failures, people who had really
blown it, Jesus would go to them with mercy and forgiveness because when
someone realizes how they have blown it, then God can work with them.
It is the people like the Pharisees praying in the temple, Thank God
I am not like that thief over there, those are the people that God says
I cant help you. Unless you admit a need, I cant even give you my free
gift of grace.
I talk in one of my chapters about living for an audience of one, living
for God. I was just reading in 1 Thessalonians where Paul talks about
living to please God. You dont have to be Mother Teresa. Someone who
cares for an elderly parent and takes him or her to an Alzheimer's center
a couple of times a week, who cleans up after a child, somebody who fields
complaints in a department store, a waitress who reports her tips accurately
and honestly, someone who gardens and is full of gratitude for the beauty
of the flowers these are ways in which we can orient our lives in order
to please God.
I know that G.K. Chesterton has influenced you in the past. Who is
influencing you now?
I spoke recently at the funeral of Dr. Paul Brand. He lived a rich, full
life. He demonstrates what I talk about in this book better than anyone
I know because here was a man as brilliant and capable as any I know who
gave his life to the lowest people on the planet. There is no one lower
than someone in the untouchable caste in India who has leprosy. That is
the bottom. It just doesnt get any lower. Yet when you look at the end
of his life, and I heard person after person get up and describe him,
no one said, Oh, this poor guy. Look at the sacrifices that he made.
They all said, I have never known anyone more full of life, more rich,
more abundant, more bountiful. He really lived out the kingdom of God
in the midst of the worst of this world. Certainly as a living model he
is the outstanding example.
As a journalist, I also have the chance to be around people who demonstrate
the truth to me. Two years ago now, I was able to spend some time with
Jimmy Carter. Everybody joked about him being the worst president ever.
Then he just decided he was going to be faithful. In his little church
he started teaching Sunday school. Soon, bus after bus would pull up and
he started caring for those around him, helping out with Habitat for Humanity.
I asked him, As you look back over your life at all this success, when
were you happiest? He smiled and said, Right now. He demonstrates what
Jesus said. It is really not the spotlight that makes you happy. Often
it is the reverse. It is giving your life away in purpose to others that
gives you the fulfillment that you can't get anywhere else.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
I would like to try to cover the good news-ness of the Gospel. Gospel
means 'good news,' and to a lot of people it doesnt sound like good news.
It sounds like judgement. It sounds like fear, anger, whatever. And that
is not the Gospel. If it doesnt sound like good news, it is not the Gospel.
I cant imagine anyone following Jesus around, looking at Jesus and saying,
Oh my, think of all that He missed out on in life. In fact, if
you had followed Jesus around you would say, Think of all I missed
out on in life.' The Christian life is not a one-half life, it is not
a two-thirds life, but it is life to the fullest, as Jesus said. It is
the abundant life. I really believe that. I have seen it in the people
that I have mentioned.
I just think that we need to reclaim that high ground. We dont need
to be defensive. We dont need to go around with our heads down feeling
inferior. We can really be strong, and then with that strength, take it
to others and invite them to share in the banquet.
For more information about Philip Yancey and his book Rumors of
Another World, visit the following links:
Laura Bagby is a Regent University graduate and an Internet Producer
CBN IS HERE FOR YOU!
Are you seeking answers in life? Are you hurting?
Are you facing a difficult situation?
A caring friend will be there to pray with you in your time of need.