- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Philip Yancey saw dead people. The corpses — dissected and preserved through a process that replaces cells with plastic resins — were on display in a London museum as part of an exhibition called “Body Worlds.”

But he also saw a dead culture. The corpses represented a “post-Christian” world that sees a great deal but understands little, its lifeblood replaced with plastic imitations.

The grotesque display, Mr. Yancey says in the opening chapter of his new book, “Rumors of Another World,” is an example of how modern culture is adept at taking things apart, but not at seeing the whole, big picture.

It’s a tactic with which Christians must contend, he argues, in what many call a “post-Christian” world.

“If you put anything under a microscope, we can take it apart, but we are not good at putting things together as a whole,” Mr. Yancey said in a recent telephone interview.

The author of 17 books, Mr. Yancey will speak Saturday at Sligo Memorial Seventh-day Adventist Church in Takoma Park.

“[We are] disconnected in the sense of being unable to see the forest for the trees,” he added. “Einstein said we are a society of perfect means and confused ends. We know all the intricate details of the human body, but can’t agree on what is a person, why we’re here, or any life after death.”

Connecting those realms — the physical and the spiritual — is a theme for Mr. Yancey, who wrote three books with Dr. Paul Brand, the famed hand surgeon and leprosy specialist who died in July. One of their books, “Fearfully and Wonderfully Made,” examines the unique structure of the human body and its use as an analogy for the interrelationship among members of the Christian church.

Yet, Mr. Yancey says, today’s church members often do not concentrate on drawing those same connections. At the same time, their secular neighbors often view evangelical Christians as having nothing to say in an age of cloning and genetic engineering, where man seems to play God, he says.

“I think the rise of science and the church’s unfortunate reaction in some cases did create a split, between sacred and secular, the natural and the supernatural,” he said. “The sacred doesn’t try to reclaim the secular and the secular is not interested in the sacred. This is a cleavage unlike anything we’ve known in history.”

Probing that cleavage — and other sensitive issues — has won Mr. Yancey a wide audience. His fans are as diverse as left-leaning writer Anne Lamott and former Nixon aide Chuck Colson. The Rev. Billy Graham is another supporter. There are 17 million copies of his books in print.

But Mr. Yancey’s books aren’t light reading for a day at the beach. The concepts and challenges he presents are “personal without being self-serving,” says David Neff, editor in chief of Christianity Today magazine, where Mr. Yancey has been a columnist and writer for years.

“He deals honestly with issues and hurts without being provocative for mere effect [and] he writes from deep knowledge without showing off his erudition,” Mr. Neff adds.

That lack of self-promotion may be a key to Mr. Yancey’s staying power, adds Phyllis Tickle, longtime religion-book editor and columnist for Publisher’s Weekly, the book industry’s trade magazine.

“There is an intellectual scope that is not always present in all popular writers in this market,” Mrs. Tickle said of Mr. Yancey’s writing. “He’s managed to let his content outshine his own persona. That’s a real trick for any author, and especially in religion and even more particularly in evangelical Christian publishing. Not everyone has been so adroit or so fortunate,” she said.

In “Rumors,” Mr. Yancey tries to bring readers back from the materialism of modern culture to confront more eternal verities.

“Human behavior involves environment, heredity and personal choice,” he explained. “All three of those are part of what makes a person. In the book, I tell the story of John Merrick, the ‘Elephant Man,’ who was treated worse than a dog all of his life. He should have emerged acting like a dog, biting anyone who came around. Instead, he became an affectionate, gentle man.”

Mr. Yancey said that by the standards of the physical world, Mr.Merrick’s deformities may have made him the ugliest man who ever lived. Yet, “by the values Jesus promoted, Merrick was a giant,” he said.

Focusing the attention of readers on those values — binding the wounds of those suffering, creating peace in the world — is the underlying mission of this book, which Mr. Yancey began writing after a trip to the Czech Republic and Denmark, countries which he said pride themselves on being secular. His question, heightened by the display of plastic-enclosed corpses in London, was whether the Christian worldview made sense.

“The more I look at it, the more gaps I saw in the postmodern world, and have concluded that the Christian view does make sense,” Mr. Yancey said. “The basic plotline of history and of reality that I see reflected in the Bible and see that Jesus brought is one I stand behind, even in a world of handheld computers and lasers and the Hubble telescope.”

He added, “I try to alert people to the rumors [of heaven] all around them. They don’t have to be huge interruptions. But we do need to stop and pay attention.”

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