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Years ago, I listened to Phillip Yancey reading from a new book of his, a book titled What’s So Amazing about Grace? A couple dozen of us were sitting on soft chairs and sofas around a fireplace in the Great Room of a retreat center in Texas as he read a chapter about Mel White, an old friend of his, a ghost writer for several evangelical Christians, a man who had quite shockingly walked away from his family and come out of the closet, a gay man.
That was twenty years ago, I’d guess–a long time. What that chapter of his about-to-be-published book does is tell White’s story. Sympathetically. Philip Yancey and Mel White were good friends, remain so, in fact. Several of the writers in that room knew White too.
When Yancey finished reading, he shut the book to total silence.
Philip Yancey is a fine reader, but it wasn’t his intonation or theatrics that cast a spell; it was the difficulty of talking at all about that subject, especially among Christian evangelicals. I remember Walter Wangerin saying he didn’t think the writers in that room, Christians all, could say much at any time about the subject without hurting someone deeply and taking a beating themselves. Maybe it would be different today, twenty years later. Maybe not.
I’ve been a member of that small group of writers, the Chrysostom Society, for more than a quarter century now, but that moment is one I’ll never forget. In my experience at least, writers in the company of friends don’t often go speechless.
If someone in central casting was looking for an Old Testament prophet, they’d could do no better than Eugene Peterson, not simply because Eugene, at 80+, has that sage look, but also because his thoughtful manner lends him a gravity that feels. . . how shall I say it?–almost seraphic. He’d hate me saying that, but it’s true. Eugene is not a big talker, but what he says when he says it always, always, always seems wise.
Eugene volunteered that he appreciated the chapter Yancey had read, but he didn’t know what to think because not a week went by, he said, without someone on one side or the other campaigning, writing, calling, begging him to join one side or the other in the battle created by LBGT questions.
Millions, literally millions of people have been blessed by the work of those writers and the other writers in the room that night long ago. Right now, at sunrise, somewhere here and around the world, someone is reading The Message. Just a few days had passed after the heinous murders at Sandy Hook Elementary when some person asked Philip Yancey to come to New Town, Connecticut, and talk about grief and grace with the parents who’d lost kids.
What I’m about to say is not about grief and grace and certainly not about gayness. It’s about Eugene Peterson and Philip Yancey and Governor Bill Haslam of Tennessee, a man who claims the two of them to be his all-time favorite authors. And it’s about the Bible.
Recently, Gov. Haslam vetoed a bill that would have made the Bible “the official state book” of the state of Tennessee. The sponsors of that bill claim they will attempt an override, but no matter. Haslam, a fellow Republican who claims great admiration for Peterson and Yancey, said no to the bill because he “recognized that when the church and state were combined, it was the church that suffered in long run.”
What he said, in essence, is that the Bible is a great deal more than someone’s favorite book.
I know Peterson and Yancey well enough to believe that both of them would smile if they heard all of that. If the two of them had anything to do with Gov. Bill Haslam’s way of thinking about the Word, I know they’d consider themselves blessed.
Because the Governor, bless his soul, is right.