- The Washington Times - Friday, September 22, 2000

Evangelical Christian books portray an unrealistic view of life and God that disappoints and disenchants even the most avid spiritual seekers, says best-selling author Philip Yancey, 51, of Evergreen, Colo.
Mr. Yancey, whose dozen books in the religious market have sold 4 million copies, was in San Francisco last week to talk to journalists about his new book, "Reaching for the Invisible God," which has sold 75,000 copies since it was released seven weeks ago.
Mr. Yancey, who attended an Atlanta church in his teens "well to the right of Bob Jones University," started his career in the 1970s as editor of "Campus Life," an evangelical publication for high school students.
He has made a name for himself as a "pop theologian," willing to talk about the downside of Christianity in books like "Where is God When it Hurts?" and "Disappointment With God." Here are excerpts of his speech.

As I try to articulate the theme for my life, I took the worst the church has to offer and still, somehow, ended up in the loving arms of God. I learned very early on that theology matters.
When I was only a year old, my father in 1950 got polio and he was completely paralyzed. He was in an iron lung. He was a young man, 24, and wanted to be a missionary.
A lot of Christians gathered around him and prayed and became convinced that he would be healed so convinced that, against all medical advice, they had him removed from the iron lung. He wasn't healed. He died, and I grew up under the consequences of that act of faith misguided faith.
I learned early on that theology matters, that what you believe about God matters.
My mother was very damaged by this event. She believed in the extreme of victorious Christian life. She said when I was a teen-ager that she hadn't sinned in 12 years. It's very hard when you're a teen-ager to win an argument with a mother who hasn't sinned in 12 years.
When my brother in the 1960s started acting like a teen-ager very rebellious she said 'I hope I never see you again as long as I live.' Thirty years have passed and she hasn't seen him since. She acted strongly on her beliefs, where she believes she is perfectly right.
So these are people who took their faith seriously, but in a toxic way. I went from there to a Bible college that was off the charts in the scale of legalism. I was engaged to [my wife] Janet in my junior year. If we had held hands on campus, we would have been kicked out [of] school.
This school loved to measure things. They measured skirts. Women had to kneel down to make sure their skirts touched the floor. At least the school was consistent. When maxi-skirts came out, they were outlawed, too, because they were worldly.
I learned a lot about what the Good News isn't. The Gospel didn't seem like good news to me. My brother has been on a destructive path ever since. I think I became a writer to reclaim words, to scrub them off. My words are the same words my church used, but used in a different way.
They would say "God is love" but it seemed He was awfully angry. They'd say, "We don't live under law, we live under grace," but for the life of me, I couldn't tell the difference. There were a lot of laws there.
It's only later that I've come to know the Gospel really is good news. Jesus said, "You will know the truth and the truth shall set you free." I take the converse of that statement: If the truth doesn't set you free, then it's not really the truth. The truth I was taught in much of my childhood didn't set anybody free.
If there's one book I believe I was put on earth to write and haven't, [it's one] to capture the fundamentalist/evangelical environment. Garrison Keillor comes pretty close. I don't know any books that capture the evangelical and worse, fundamentalist experience, in a fair and honoring way.
One reason I've waited so long is I wouldn't have done it in a fair and honoring way. I was still working through it. I would have done it in an angry way. I've threatened my publisher I'd title this memoir "Lies My Church Told Me."
What brought me to God was not a Gospel tract, a Billy Graham rally or the Bible. I already had heavy doses, inoculations against all of that. What got me to God were things like the beauties of nature, classical music and romantic love.
For the first time, I began to see the world is not a hostile place, it is a good place. I began to think if the world is not so bad, maybe the Creator of the world also is not the person I was taught growing up. Hence, I wrote books with titles like "The Jesus I Never Knew."
In [world] Christianity, there's three stages. There's the honeymoon phase. In the church in many parts of the Third World, people are so enthusiastic. They crowd around; they really believe the Bible. Then there is the divorcee. You go to Europe and the shell of Christianity is still there and all the great cathedrals are there, but mostly you see Japanese tourists with cameras. You don't see worshippers.
In America, we may be in the golden anniversary stage. We've heard it all before. A lot of us are still committed, but there's not a lot of newness and often not a lot of enthusiasm. I speak mostly to the divorcees and the old marrieds [of the faith].
A friend of mine was going through a terrible year, where his family wasn't turning out right and his son had cancer. He was a well-known Christian. He said, "I don't question whether God is good. I question what God is good for."
What can we count on God for? The evangelical strain of Christianity promises a lot. They say you can have a personal relationship with God. The praise choruses we sing are love songs: "I want to touch you. I want to feel you."
The promises are so bright, so alluring. And yet, many people I know wake up from that promise and say, "Everybody else seems to get it but me. How can you have a personal relationship with a God who's invisible?"
I think we do in evangelicalism tend to oversell what a relationship with God is like. I have a personal relationship with God, but it's not as it's advertised. I tell people, "It's not a 50-year honeymoon, but it's better than the alternatives."
For 300 years, the second-best-selling book after the Bible was "Pilgrim's Progress." I had forgotten what a strange picture of the Christian life it gives. The pilgrim ends up in Vanity Fair, slips into the Slough of Despond and you wonder what sort of role model he is for my life. And yet, by just being faithful and putting one foot in front of the next, he became a role model. He was the pilgrim everyone aspired to.
I sometimes think, "What would it be like if that was our expectation of the Christian life?"
Instead, we're told it's all wonderful, the close presence of God and prosperity, and it doesn't turn out like that. So many people end up being disappointed by God. I decided my calling is to be the pilgrim, to be the ordinary person taking one step in front of the other. I had heard all the propaganda, and I decided I wasn't going to be one of those propagandists.
A lot of people don't know they can be enhanced by their faith. They think they are shrunk by their faith.
So many books published by evangelical publishers don't have a healthy dose of realism. They say the way things should be, not the way they really are. Getting to know God is a long journey with a lot of ups and a lot of downs.
There are times in the Christian life when it doesn't feel rewarding and genuine. There was a whole year where my prayers weren't answered at all. Monks and mystics who spend their entire career relating to God, they all go through a dark night of the soul. This is part of the pattern, part of the path. That is the part a lot of evangelical books don't address.
The [Christian] propaganda culture has created readers that expect certain things from authority figures with parameters in which they can speak. [But] every time I have taken the risk of honesty, I have been rewarded, not punished by consumers out there.

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