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Philip Yancey: how I survived my brutal Christian childhood

by
14 January 2022

Philip Yancey has long written about faith. Now he reveals the background to his writings. Interview by Pat Ashworth

Philip Yancey

Philip Yancey

THE thing about memoirs, Philip Yancey reflects, is that we think we are reading them to learn about other people, when, in fact, we are reading them to learn about ourselves.

His memoir Where the Light Fell took him three years to write, and a draft in 2015 was more than twice as long as the book that was finally published at the end of last year. It reads like the best of fiction, Angela’s Ashes, say, or Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. It is searing and sensory, brutally honest, and frequently humorous: the story of an impoverished childhood and youth in a fundamentalist church, dominated by fear of hellfire and a wildly unpredictable mother (Books, 17 December 2021).

His father died from polio, having abandoned his iron lung in a belief that God would save him. In an “awful vow”, against which Philip Yancey and his brother, Marshall, would constantly collide, his mother dedicated her two boys to God: “He is a ghost figure, summoned by our mother at key moments. Your father is watching you. Your father would have been so proud.”

She routinely beat the boys, and, in one of the most searing revelations, Mr Yancey writes: “I want to run up to someone I recognise in church and say, ‘Please, please can you help us? I need someone to know what’s happening at home.’

“Then I remember my mother’s reputation and realise that no one will believe me. She’s a saint, the holiest woman in Atlanta. She quotes verses about triumphing in Christ, the joy of the Lord. . . She reserves all the darkness, all the anger, for us, her sons.”

He and Marshall mimic the “angry, heavy-breathing Southern preachers and their soprano wives”. The family live in a trailer park, and move from a conservative Baptist church to the 120-member Faith Baptist, “too conservative for any denomination”.

Haunted by a graphic boyhood incident in which he and another boy wantonly kill some turtles, he lives every day in fear that God will send him to hell. “The prospect leaves an acid taste in my mouth and a tense feeling in my stomach.”

The churches that he attends reinforce the racial prejudice that he is growing up with. A “natural-born racist”, he has a crisis of faith when he understands that the church has lied to him about race.

Books become the gateway to a wider world: Lord of the Flies tells him “all about depravity without using the word”, and he gets a different perspective on his own community of “white-racist-paranoid-fundamentalism. . . I don’t like what I see.”

In the end, he has an encounter with God at Bible college, feeling “a sheepish horror at regaining my faith. . . But I also feel obliged to admit what has taken me unawares, a gift of grace neither sought nor desired. . . In the end, my resurrection of belief had little to do with logic or effort and everything to do with the unfathomable mystery of God.”

 

HOW on earth, I ask him, as a journalist and the author of 25 books to date, did he manage to hang on to all this rich material until now? He reflects: “I think if I’d started with the story and then proceeded to write books such as What’s So Amazing about Grace? I think people would say: “Oh, now we know why he’s writing this book, because he has these psychological wounds from childhood.’

“I’m glad now that I put out what I believe first. Now that I’m kind of giving the story behind the story, people are surprised.” His other books, he says, are “the chronicle of working through intellectually what to keep and what to let go”.

He has, in a sense, been squirrelling it all away over the years, amassing copious notes. Family gatherings in later life added to the knowledge.

Details such as the scraping of metal coat buttons along his father’s coffin as he stood on tiptoe, straining to see inside, are so immediate and so visceral that I wondered how painful an exercise it had been to bring all these to mind.

“I think it’s extremely therapeutic to stitch together little pieces of the past in a way that was revelatory to me as well. It was no more painful than the normal pain of writing, and, in terms of revisiting, not at all. It was a healing process.”

Children have a resilience that gives them the ability to tough things out, he says. “When you’re a child, you don’t know anything different. I didn’t sit around thinking: ‘Why are we so weird compared with other families?’ I just thought that was life.” Where his brother would always respond to being set on, and would always lose, he did what he calls “turtling down”, developing a hard shell “to avoid it touching my soul”.

 

THE church that he grew up in did not talk much about politics, he says. There was never any assumption that they would play a part in it. “We were separate from the culture around us. We would hear verses like: ‘Come out from among them and be separate.’ We were going to be just a small minority that really didn’t have access to power.

“That has changed dramatically. It all started with Jimmy Carter. Time magazine did a cover story on ‘the Year of the Evangelical’, when the word first entered the mass vocabulary. Then there was Jerry Falwell, the Moral Majority, the rise of the religious right.

“Now, in a place like New York, you say the word ‘Evangelical’ and they think you’re a supporter of Donald Trump, because 81 per cent of Evangelicals voted for him.

“If you look at history, every time the Church and State get in bed together, it’s the Church that loses in the long term. I fear for the divisions in America now, the way it’s shaping out, especially the Republicans’ being so identified with what are really right-wing causes, and choosing someone like Donald Trump, who is the opposite of what Evangelicals should be.”

It saddens him that, as a consequence, many young people simply express disgust with political discourse, and don’t want any part of it. There is a need to fight against a culture, he says, where people on either side of an argument are hearing ibkt opinions that reinforce their own prejudices.

On the topic of racism in present-day America, he warns that, while the law on discrimination has changed, human hearts have not. “The only way for me is to try to be open and describe my own evolution,” he says, because I was a true blue racist.

“It truly became a crisis of faith for me when I realised the church was on the wrong side of the issue. And then I started doubting everything the church taught me. We need to be really careful which issues we take on and hold up, because we’re making it possible for people to throw out the baby with the bath water.”

 

HE IS heartened, however, by what he sees in churches at the grass roots, where Evangelicals are working in homeless shelters and soup kitchens, and “where the gospel is playing out. That’s different from my day, because when I was growing up, we were separated out. Now, there is much more understanding that we are here to act more like Jesus in a society with great needs — that it’s not about just getting through this life to get to heaven.”

When Mr Yancey started out as a young journalist, it was in the days of the Watergate scandal. “Everybody then wanted to be an investigative journalist and discover corruption and expose people like Richard Nixon,” he says. “That was a pattern we all aspired to. I was working for a Christian magazine, exposing wealthy charlatans, flying around in their jets, for what they were; but I found it very unfulfilling to be around people like that.

“I wanted to spend time among people I want to learn from and aspire to be. Soul Survivor [published in 2001] was about people who really changed me. That’s one word of advice I have for people like me growing up in a toxic type of environment, whether family or church. My way out of the narrow confines of that, when I was an adult on my own, was finding people I wanted to be like.

“David Brooks has written on the difference between ‘eulogy virtues’ and ‘résumé virtues’. When you’re young, people talk all about résumé virtues: you have to go to the right school, get the right job, climb the corporate ladder.

“But, at funerals, nobody said ‘George here was so bright he bought ten shares in Microsoft stock back when it was $100.’ They talk about: ‘he was kind; he was compassionate; he cared for his family.’ I keep reminding young people: find ways to survive that toxic environment. Work on the things you want to be remembered for.”

 

THE Church is often caricatured in the media, he suggests in the book. “It’s not so much making fun of the culture aspects but the political issues that have come to the forefront in the last few years,” he suggests. “The press tend to be on the liberal side of those issues; so they see the Church as a threat to issues they think are important.

“Unfortunately, the covert bias has not helped. You have churches suing for the right to gather in lockdowns or not wear masks or avoid vaccination — it beggars my mind where that came from. I think of my father and the polio virus. When the vaccination came out, they were dancing in the streets.”

He concludes his memoir with the view that his resurrection of belief has everything to do with the unfathomable mystery of God. He reflects: “I think of the passage where Paul himself was struggling with ‘Why were the Gentiles invited in? Why Jacob was chosen over Esau?’

“He came to the same conclusion: that it is the mystery of God’s grace, not something we can figure out in advance. I was softened by grace. But I wasn’t actively seeking a relationship with God. I couldn’t tell what was fake and what was real on the Bible-college campus, where I didn’t like what I saw around me.

“And then God revealed himself to me in unexpected ways, and in many undesirable ways, and it really changed everything.

“I’ve never told that story because, when you do, people say: ‘Well, I didn’t have an experience like that. I don’t have a conversion story.’ God made us all differently, but because I had seen so much falsity, I needed something that came from somewhere else, and God provided that.”

He agrees that the memoir is the most important book that he has ever written. “I’ve never done a book like this, a memoir. . . It was a new genre for me, telling the story through dialogue and through sensory detail.

“I look upon my life as a gift. Because I was plonked down in the middle of an extreme family that started with a theological error — deciding that my father was going to be healed — I’ve had the privilege since of working through and deciding what to keep and to discard.

“I see nothing wasted, and I have no regrets. Even those memories that could have been painful were not really painful when part of the whole picture. They were just part of the whole story.”

Where the Light Fell by Philip Yancey is published by Hodder & Stoughton at £16.99 (Church Times Bookshop £15.29); 978-1-529-36422-4.

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