I had no idea that the young author had endured such deep family trauma and spiritual struggle. All I knew was that his advice to a couple hundred eager writers in an expansive meeting room was inspiring.
Philip Yancey was 29, an up-and-coming writer and one of the main speakers at the 1979 “Decision” School of Christian Writing, hosted in St. Paul, Minnesota, by the Billy Graham organization’s “Decision” magazine. I was 28 and attending the long-weekend conference.
I remember the thin, fuzzy-headed journalist talking about a recent story he’d had published in “Reader’s Digest.” I think it was about a woman who had been involved in some dangerous incident but survived and gave the glory to God. Plenty of smiles and head nods in the audience indicated approval of a Christian writer breaking into a mainstream magazine, and Yancey implied that “You, too, can do this.”
He had only two books to his credit then, including the 1977 bestseller, “Where Is God When It Hurts?” His third, “Unhappy Secrets of the Christian Life,” came out in 1979. Knowing what I know now, it’s not surprising that Yancey’s early topics leaned toward pitfalls of Christianity and the church.
In 2021, after more than 30 books, years of columns in “Christianity Today” magazine and acclaim as one of the top Christian writers of the past 45 years, his most personal effort yet was published. “Where the Light Fell” opens up Yancey’s childhood and early adulthood with no punches pulled, and the story isn’t always pretty.
He had revealed some of his background in 2001’s “Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church.” In that book, Yancey described growing up in a fundamentalist church, how it caused him to doubt God and his eventual embrace of a more loving and grace-filled faith. In fact, grace has been a recurring theme in his writing, with 1997’s “What’s So Amazing About Grace” another of his many bestsellers.
“Where the Light Fell” goes deeper into his family upbringing, starting with the tragedy of his pastor father, who died in his early 20s after contracting polio. Marshall Yancey and his wife, Mildred, had vowed to become missionaries in Africa, but Marshall’s polio and confinement to an iron lung ended that plan. With their congregation praying for healing, the Yancey couple decided to trust God as Marshall was removed from the iron lung.
Ultimately, he couldn’t survive without the machine to help him breathe. Marshall Yancey died, and his wife made another vow – which Philip and his older brother, another Marshall, came to regard as a curse. She dedicated both boys to God as future missionaries to Africa.
Much of the book details the unstable life the Yancey boys had after their father’s death, mostly a result of the strict hand of their mother. She became a well-regarded Bible teacher among fundamentalist Baptist Christians in the Atlanta area, but at home she railed at Marshall and Philip when they fell short of her religious and other expectations. Both boys were relieved to escape from home to a Bible college, but Marshall later lost his faith, and Philip seriously questioned his.
Marshall drifted away from belief, eventually experiencing major addictions. Philip slowly floated in the other direction. His memoir describes how a love of nature, then music and finally, the college romance that led to his marriage drew him closer to a genuine relationship with God. Most of his life, he had struggled to move past a mechanical half-faith that he didn’t trust. But during a prayer session with friends, he had mystical thoughts of the Good Samaritan story. He saw himself as the wounded victim and Jesus leaning down to help him – only to have Yancey reject the Savior.
The son of a preacher and of a devout mother, the college student who had grown up embedded in the church, told his future wife, Janet: “…I may have had the first authentic religious experience of my life.”
It shouldn’t be surprising that an intelligent, talented, popular writer who has influenced thousands or millions has undergone such a dramatic switch from doubt and hostility to humble faith. C.S. Lewis comes to mind. But Yancey did, and soon after, in an essay he read to a college class, he said, “Something happened. … I was asking God to somehow, even though I didn’t want him to, give me the love of the Good Samaritan. Who loved irrationally, with no reason. …
“I was the tramp and God was trying to help me. Every time he leaned over I spit in his face. What’s more, I wanted to remain a tramp. An intelligent, sophisticated tramp by choice.”
Yancey says, however, that his conversion came during that dorm room prayer meeting. Like C.S. Lewis before him, he was a “reluctant convert.” Positive elements of his life had pushed him incrementally toward their originator, God. As the early theologian Augustine wrote, “I couldn’t look at the sun directly, but I could look at where the light fell.”
I knew nothing of Yancey’s journey when I saw him in 1979. I was just stirred by his exhortation to the fledgling writers not to settle for less than the best. He told us that modern Christian artists – writers, musicians and other creative people – didn’t influence our culture as they could because the quality of their work didn’t compare favorably to much that non-Christians were doing. Good intentions weren’t enough; standards needed to be higher.
I think that has changed somewhat since 1979. “The Chosen” TV series. Max Lucado. Christians are producing lots of thoughtful and creative books, blogs, movies, songs, articles and podcasts.
Well beyond his dark start, Philip Yancey has helped light the way.
Mike Haynes taught journalism at Amarillo College from 1991 to 2016 and has written for the Faith section since 1997. He can be reached at email@example.com. Go to www.haynescolumn.blogspot.com for other recent columns.
This article originally appeared on Amarillo Globe-News: Haynes: 'Where the Light Fell' delves into Yancey's faith journey