For three decades, I’ve been a fan of Philip Yancey.
Of all the authors I’ve read in the world of Christian writings, I’ve rarely come across someone as clued-in, and as clueless, as him!
Christian lit and the multiverse of self-help books
If you’ve read Christian books for as long (and as many) as I have, you soon come to realise one thing.
Just like shelf after bookshelf of self-help books, Christian literature is mostly prescriptive. Stripped down to their spines, they are no different from those “how-to” books the secular world keeps dishing out annually by the truck-loads.
Like I once blogged, people all over the world simply can’t get enough of such books and quotable quotes!
Fine. I get it.
Everyone desires to have that whole three-in-one shampoo solution. That seven-step manual on how to ace the exams, get rich quick, move up the corporate ladder, raise a perfect family, and all things in between. Cos life can be hard and bitter, so hand us some sugar to wash it down ok?
I’m no different.
In my 20’s and 30’s, I wolfed down my fair share of “how-to” books that formed my values and convictions. They gave me illumination and navigational tools to traverse the minefields that is life as an adult this side of heaven. And so thanks to these tomes, I’ve grown in my understanding of the world and my place in it (I think).
But as I turn another decade older, I find myself getting less impressed with quick-fix solutions and lifehack mantras.
Instead, I find myself drawn more and more to the bare and the raw. To stories without perfect endings; lessons still unfolding; tales far from complete.
In short, I’m drawn to blatant imperfection.
Just like Mr Yancey!
But first, allow me to tell you more about Phil (as I affectionately refer to Mr Yancey).
He’s the best-selling contemporary Christian author of over 20 books, with a writing career spanning five decades and sales exceeding 15 million copies and counting.
But Phil actually began his career as a journalist and editor.
Now, for the longest time, Christian lit has been (and still is) dominated by pastors, as well as full-time ministry, seminary and church workers, not to mention missionaries.
Nothing wrong with that. In fact, most readers would expect it.
After a while though, these come across in tone as either too pedantic, too preachy, or just too perfect! With almost rainbow-like endings that are the stuff of 80’s family sitcoms. (Much better in my opinion to simply turn to the Bible instead).
I’m of the persuasion trained researchers and investigative journalists (not those ‘talking-head journos’ you see online who blow their own trumpets via daily streaming news) are far more compelling as Christian writers for three simple reasons — they put in time and effort to investigate everything for themselves; they never claim to know it all (and take pains to remind readers so); and all the while they display writing skills I’ll chop off an arm and a leg for!
In this category I think of other noteworthy Christian writers like George Barna (former researcher and multi-hyphenate) and Lee Strobel (former investigative reporter).
But let’s get back to Phil.
Mr Yancey a.k.a. Phil a.k.a. Mr. “Clued-in / Clueless”
Now I need to make it clear.
In no way am I mocking Mr Yancey with the nickname Mr. Clued-in / Clueless.
Far from it. As a matter of fact, if there was ever a writer I revere, Phil’s my man!
Ever since I read his now-legendary books like Disappointment with God, Where Is God When It Hurts?, What’s So Amazing About Grace?, Soul Survivor (my fave), The Jesus I Never Knew, and Prayer – Does it make any difference?, I’ve been consistently struck by one singular theme of this author’s life.
Why, you can even guess the theme just by looking at those titles!
Allow me to unpack it for you. Or rather, let Phil’s latest book unpack it for you.
Cos in the world of prequels that happen after rather than before (think of The Hobbit, Star Wars and more recently, Black Widow and The King’s Man), Phil’s latest offering Where the Light Fell, is like that autobiography which ought to have been his first book.
The one that tells the world all about him, and why he wrote all those other books he’s so famous for.
In a nutshell, Phil’s a man still very much a work in progress. An unfinished product. A caterpillar still trapped inside his cocoon. A person still struggling to wrap his head around his faith and beliefs.
Just like me. And if I may be so bold as to say, just like you.
In all his previous books Phil masterfully reveals Eureka moments of insight into God’s mind, soul and spirit. But he just as instantly also plummets into depths of doubt and despair. Though there were hints throughout all those books, fans like me never quite understood how someone so diligent and intelligent as Phil in his investigations of faith matters, could still often sound confused and in a constant state of flux and dilemma.
Hence my nickname for him.
Where the Light Fell is that missing jigsaw piece.
A broken past
By his own admission, Phil’s been contemplating writing his latest book ever since his career started over 50 years ago.
Having read it, I don’t blame him for taking half a century to.
For in it, he held nothing back.
He exposed all of the pain and hurt he grew up with. From losing his father when he was barely born, to living with a mom that wielded an iron fist raising him and his older brother. From the prejudicial teachings the misguided church threw at him, to the adult years he struggled to care for his now-aged mom and broken bro. And the latter’s even more broken mother-son relationship that deeply affected Phil as he tried to help patch things between them.
With Where the Light Fell, Phil finally let fans like me peek into his vulnerable, private world.
Given all he so honestly shared in this book, I’m surprised Phil made it so far in life (he’s now in his 70’s) yet kept his faith…and sanity!
But I’ll admit one thing: somewhere in the middle of the book, I did get a little bored (maybe I too am as conflicted as Phil!).
That’s because his autobiography, like many others, is constrained (by virtue of this literary genre) to go into many details of the author’s formative years that quite frankly I didn’t need to know. However, had I let that stop me, I would have done Phil a grave disservice.
Not to mention my goal this year to lean into the bare and the raw. To lean into what scares me.
As I thumbed through all 300 pages of Where the Light Fell, I found myself increasingly saying: “No wonder Phil struggles to figure spiritual stuff out across all his writings. I would too if my family and upbringing were that messed up!” (To some extent, it was!)
But thanks be to God, precisely because Phil lived the life he did and now publicly shared it so generously, readers like me finally have a voice. We finally have in our hands raw and real writings that don’t sugarcoat life in gooey chocolatey-flavored lattes.
Instead, Phil helps articulate my own inner conflicts and doubts. He gives me licence to boldly challenge conventional wisdom. The kind that hushes me up when I dissent, and glares at me for even daring to ask uncomfortable questions. To shake the proverbial status quo and upset convenient and carefully-coiffed lives.
So thanks Phil, my dear Mr. Clued-in / Clueless.
After three decades, you’re still my man!