ONE of the strangest things about this new book is that it is written by the man who wrote the successful What’s So Amazing About Grace? This new memoir bears very few marks of grace — at least, initially.
Instead, it’s an excoriating story of unhealthy religion in the 1950s and ’60s in the southern states of America. Philip Yancey has sold millions of books worldwide, each with an easy charm and an attractive faith, but this narrative gives us an unexpected picture of the back story.
Yancey tells of the troubled relationship of his single mother and her two sons. Their father had died of polio after removing himself from an iron lung, convinced that prayer would heal him. Tragically, the young, pious widow dedicated her sons to God’s service, as Hannah promised Samuel, and she never withdrew her manipulative pressure on those young boys.
The intensity of her controlling parenting reached a point at which Yancey’s brother Marshall, unable to stand the crushing behaviour of his mother, stood up to her and heard her say that she would pray that he would die or lose his mind. Marshall went completely off the rails, and, a convinced atheist, has never spoken to his mother in 50 years.
Philip, in the mean time, rebelled for a while, but found himself rescued into a far more generous and thoughtful faith, and so his writing career began. He has maintained a deep care for his older brother.
The narrative focuses on the first two decades of the brothers’ lives and their relationship with their fundamentalist mother and her wacky churches. It’s a tale of bigotry, racism, and tragedy, and could at first be seen as a “misery memoir”.
What raises it above that genre, however, is Yancey’s lucid writing, and his preparedness to look clear-eyed into the paranoia of the fundamentalist Christianity that forms the background to much recent political activity among the Evangelical right in the States.
And, ultimately, it is still a story of grace. Yancey has tackled several troubling aspects of faith, often involving suffering and doubt. He never offers cheap grace, but has shown the possibility of a path to a healthy understanding of God’s ways and humanity’s response.
This is a fascinating tale well told, and a warning to those who would try to enlist God into their dark dreams.
The Rt Revd John Pritchard is a former Bishop of Oxford.
Where the Light Fell: A memoir
Hodder & Stoughton £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.29