The Common Good
February 2004

Sex, Lies, and Life on the Evangelical Edge

by Philip Yancey | February 2004

An interview with Philip Yancey, the best-selling Christian author who is surprised at how much he gets away with.

Philip Yancey's books have sold more than 5 million copies internationally. His books include Rumors of Another World (2003), Soul Survivor (2003), Reaching for the Invisible God (2000), The Bible Jesus Read (1999), What's So Amazing About Grace? (1998), and many others; he was an editor at large for Christianity Today magazine when this article appeared. Philip Yancey was interviewed by Sojourners editor-in-chief Jim Wallis in Washington, D.C.

Sojourners: Your books have been very successful in the evangelical world. You're able to ask questions that challenge evangelical orthodoxies. How do you do that?

Philip Yancey: I myself have been surprised at what I can get away with. When I sent off the manuscript of What's So Amazing About Grace? I said to my wife, Janet, "That's probably the last book I'm going to write for the evangelical market." It's got a whole chapter on Mel White, who's now a gay activist, and it's got a whole chapter on Bill Clinton, who's not the most favored president of evangelicals.

Instead, it will probably be the best-selling book I've written. Part of it is, maybe through media bias, we typecast evangelicals unfairly. There are some evangelicals out there that don't see things through a grid that The New York Times may put on us. I push the edges at Christianity Today, probably—they come back and say, "Do you really want to say this?"

Growing up in fundamentalism I learned how to talk to fundamentalists—basically, just quote the Bible at them. I am not radical. Jesus is radical!

Sojourners: You write about what you're interested in, what you're struggling or worrying about, so your writing becomes a way to think through issues that are on your mind and heart.

Yancey: I've written pretty openly about my unhealthy church background. I get a lot of letters from people in whom that strikes a chord, even though their own experience may be very different. Mine was specifically Southern fundamentalist—angry, legalistic, and racist. The church had mocked Martin Luther King—the pastor called him "Martin Lucifer Coon" from the pulpit. We would cheer in my church as they showed the films from Selma of the police dogs and the fire hoses. Later I realized that we were the bad guys.

I went through a period of feeling betrayed. That was the period where I rejected the church. If they lied about this, then maybe they're lying to me about the Bible and Jesus and God and everything else as well.

My pilgrimage as a writer, fortunately, goes step by step with my pilgrimage as a Christian. In my church growing up they used the same words I use now. They say, "We're not under law, we're under grace." Well, whatever that was, it wasn't grace! So what is grace? It's a good question. I'm not preaching at people. I'm trying to represent the same questions they have.

Sojourners: You have written a lot of books to and for evangelical readership. Does your most recent book, Rumors of Another World, address a different audience?

Yancey: I really wrote this book for people who say, "I'm spiritual, but I'm not religious." What can you say to that group of people? Could I defend my own faith—does it make sense? The year I started writing Rumors, Janet and I had taken four trips to Europe. I'm writing about prayer, about guidance, and in Europe they're not even sure there is a God!

Sojourners: You say there are "rumors of another world" in this world. What are the hints that you find most profound?

Yancey: When I started writing the book I would have said that the three things that brought me back to God were not religious things. They were not Billy Graham rallies or gospel tracts. They were the beauty of nature, classical music, and romantic love. When I encountered those three things, suddenly I had this "ding! ding! ding!" experience.

I discovered that the world is actually a smiling place, not a scowling place; that God wants me to have a full life, not a half life, not a two-thirds life. It has taken me a long time to be able to make this statement: I truly believe the Christian way of life is the best for us, not just so that God can say, "I made them jump through hoops. I kept them from having a good time."

I have one chapter titled "Paying Attention." I think that's what being spiritual is. It's paying attention—both to epiphanies that other people may overlook, and also to injustices that people may intentionally overlook.

Sojourners: In Rumors you talk about how the media have misrepresented sex. The premise of Joe Millionaire, for example, is utterly debased—he's lying to these women, and it's implied they'll have sex with him to get his money. It's boring, and yet "reality TV" is doing very, very well.

Yancey: Most of the shows, by the way, were produced by Rupert Murdoch, who owns my publisher, Zondervan.

Sojourners: What's happening in terms of the debasement of our humanity? How is sex, at the same time, a "rumor of another world"?

Yancey: It's probably the loudest, single rumor of another world that most people ever experience. It's the closest thing to transcendence that people feel. It's a powerful force that seems irresistible—there's nothing that pulls a person out of himself or herself more than sexual attraction to another being. What concerns me is that most people think of sex and God as polar opposites. If it's the most powerful force that most people experience, then to me it's a pointer.

What the media's presenting is a lie. They're trying to tell you the best sex is if you just do it like the animals. I live in the Rocky Mountains, and right behind my home we have a lot of elk and deer. They don't do it like we do it at all. For one thing I've got a bull elk that's got about 60 to 80 females in his harem. He only cares about sex the first two weeks of October. Do you really want to do it only during the first two weeks of October, with 59 of the other sex watching? That is not human sexuality at its best. The question is: What is human sexuality at its best and why do we do it differently? To me, that's a rumor, and we've got to pay attention to it.

How can we best align our sexual experience to reflect what the Designer had in mind? Our bodily expression should progress as other kinds of intimacy progress—emotionally, spiritually. As Christians, we believe it should progress within the bounds of a covenant relationship that is strong enough to survive those times when you have nine months of pregnancy or when the child has leukemia.

Sojourners: How do you respond when people ask you why the world is not a smiling place? How do you respond to the question, "How can I take religion, the church, and God seriously when I thought all American Christians were like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson?"

Yancey: It's easier overseas, because in the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand usually the evangelical branches of the church are the militants on social justice issues. They're not right-wing conservatives as they are in America.

Sojourners: The perception of American churches is very different.

Yancey: That worries me a lot. Jacques Ellul makes the comment somewhere, "How is it that the Christian gospel produces societies, the values of which are the opposite of the Christian gospel?" If you just ask somebody, around the world, "Tell me what stands out to you about the United States," they'll say, "military power, unbelievable wealth by the world's standards, and sexual license." All three of these are radically anti-Jesus. So how is it that we're viewed as the most Christian country in the world and yet characterized by the least Christian characteristics?

I think we're at a hinge moment. The last book I read was Michael Warner's American Sermons. It's a collection of sermons from the 17th to 20th centuries. It's refreshing to hear that prophetic voice in the times of slavery. If you look back over history, the church has been there in the middle of all those social movements. Now sometimes we get it radically wrong. For years some of the best talent we had in the church was devoted to passing Prohibition. Now we look back with a different eye on how important that was.

Sojourners: What do you think of the war with Iraq?

Yancey: I never supported the war with Iraq at all. I wrote a column about the perception of America as the big bully in the world, about why it matters what the world thinks of us. I made the comment that there's one group of very conservative Christians who almost universally opposed the war: foreign missionaries. Their bodies are on the line. If America is perceived as this giant bully imposing our will on the world, then their lives are in danger.

Sojourners: You've made a lot of money on books. Have you made some decisions about money and lifestyle that come out of your Christian faith?

Yancey: Janet and I had intended to be missionaries. We had planned to live basically at poverty level like most missionaries. We've had to face issues we really didn't want to face. How do we be stewards of large amounts of income? That takes a lot of energy and attention because the culture around us doesn't see that as a problem at all. Jesus saw it as a huge problem. He talked about it all the time, more than he talked about anything else.

We were living in Wheaton, Illinois, the white-bread heart of evangelicalism before they discovered Colorado Springs, and then got the idea to move to downtown Chicago. We were scared, suburban kids. We thought we'd be raped and robbed every day. But that move is what opened our eyes. Homeless people are sleeping under your stoop. There are beggars every time you walk outside your door. Janet was working with people in Cabrini Green, the lowest-income neighborhood in the United States at the time.

In my experience, if evangelicals are not concerned about poverty, it's not because they don't like poor people. It's because they don't know any.

Sojourners: How has Martin Luther King Jr. changed your thinking?

Yancey: Evangelicalism has a triumphalist overlay to it. King cut right across that. Being faithful to the gospel will almost always bring about suffering. It's through that suffering that beauty comes, that transformation comes, both in the individual and, in this case, in a movement. He stayed faithful to the nonviolent vision and lived out the redemptive power of the cross. That's what Jesus did. Jesus died—he didn't get elected!

Sojourners: In Soul Survivor you talk about Gandhi. What does a Southern fundamentalist boy take from Gandhi?

Yancey: Gandhi probably made more of an intentional effort to live like Jesus than anyone else—more than any Christian I know. He actually tried to live it.

When I did the book tour on Soul Survivor, Christian radio stations and secular channels would always start with those two people—King and Gandhi—for different reasons. The Christians would say, "What in the world are you doing with a chapter on Martin Luther King? Didn't you know he was an adulterer? And Gandhi? He's not even a Christian!" That was always the first question I got. These were my friends giving me a chance to defend myself.

The secular people start with those two for different reasons. They're surprised, pleasantly, that an evangelical would include those people in a book. I liked that kind of bridge-building. Dag Hammarskjöld used to make the statement that when he was with someone that he really opposed, he would try to find the smallest little place of common ground and stand there.

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