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I read Philip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace? during a three-week stint I spent in Amsterdam. The end punctuation may well make the question rhetorical because with the publication of that book Yancey’s reputation as a writer, already handsomely established, became even more set in stone, in rock, the rock of ages. He was and is, as a writer, someone who with trusted honesty has had more than his share of trouble believing in the mysterious miracle of grace, as most of us do.
It’s free, a gift. Polished lives don’t earn it, because it’s simply, well, bestowed. Seriously. “Human beings love free things,” an old pastor used to say, “except salvation–that’s something we want to earn.”
I read Amazing first, then Kathleen Norris’s Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, a one/two punch that may sound as if I was on some kind of grace kick, which I wasn’t. In a way, you might say, those two books were my morning prayers during my stay in the Netherlands, wonderful devotional literature. I picked up Yancey’s book because I had spent some considerable time with him in a small Christian writers group, the Chrysostom Society, where I’d heard him read from the manuscript before it was published. I knew I’d like it.
Norris’s Amazing Grace I came to after reading Dakota, her book about the plains, a book that, like no other I knew, measured and described the region and its people with a forthright honesty–and grace–that’s almost shocking because it felt to me so true to life.
What’s not so amazing was that I loved both books. In fact, the two of them tag-teamed me into submission on a manuscript I was working over–a novel titled Romey’s Place. There I was in a tiny little student apartment in Amsterdam, looking out a window at suburban neighborhood when I told myself I had the ending of that novel of mine all wrong, completely wrong, because the story I was inventing, creating, was in actuality a story about grace.
I’ve never been big on “The Lord told me to write this” revelations. But it’s impossible not to believe in epiphanies, and in those few weeks I had a healthy one, life-changing in a limited way. I have no doubt that I understood grace before reading those books, but the two of them battered me into accepting, once again, the truly amazing character of grace. I went home dutified, I’d say–I was going to rewrite the whole blame thing once more. And I did.
The times I’d spent in Yancey’s company gave me an outline of his biography. I knew he was raised in the South, that for some time he’d bought the racist line of so many white evangelicals, who, even as I was taught, considered the African race as descendants of Ham, the son of Noah determined by God Almighty to be servant/slaves. Isn’t that what the Bible says? Somehow, “the theory of Ham” made slavery–or at least prejudice– biblical, which is why Huck said he’d rather go to hell than give up Jim.
The burden Phillip Yancey needed lifted was hefty because he’d grown up in a church that publicly and powerfully determined, as a body, it would not have African American members, a decision documented by cartoonish biblical footnotes.
A handful of men I hang out with in a kind of book club decided on Yancey’s memoir, Where the Light Fell this month. It’s not new, published two years ago, but got rave reviews from another couple of friends who’d read it.
What I didn’t know about Philip Yancey was that he grew fatherless, that his mother had taken her husband out of the iron lung he’d been in, a victim of the raging polio epidemic. His mother released her husband from the horrific bondage of the iron lung, determining, prayerfully, I’m sure, that her lack of faith kept him there. She believed she and her prayer warriors could pray him back to health.
Didn’t happen. Thus, Philip Yancey grew up without a father and with that mother, who became a world-class Sunday School teacher, but an almost demonically abusive parent, a victim of the kind of faith-madness familiar to some of us who’ve grown up steeped in evangelical culture, where men and women can somehow be both manifestly pious and insufferably abusive.
Like Tara Westover’s Educated, Yancey’s story is so full of abuse that it’s as painful to read as it must have been to write. His mother, a renowned Bible school teacher who spent her summers in Bible camps, quite clearly tortured her sons–not physically, but emotionally and, yes, spiritually. On the memoir shelf, Where the Light Fell fits quite snugly beside Tara Westover’s Educated and Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance, all stories of similarly grinding parental abuse.
When I read Educated, I couldn’t help thinking that Westover’s story wasn’t finished, that she wrote the book before she’d adequately “processed” the horrors her father and brother had made of her childhood. Vance was more interested in delineating the roots of the Trump phenomenon. But Yancey’s Where the Light Fell is different. It’s disarmingly honest about his inability to assess humanely his mother’s place in his life, not because he doesn’t have the goods on her–he does!!–but because he somehow, some way, still loves her, maybe not as a human being, but as his mother.
And that’s grace, although I’m quite sure Philip wouldn’t like me saying it in just that way.
I remember him saying, years ago, that he somehow wished he could write something other than what he seemed predestined to author, books that bash the evangelicals from whom he’d descended, the very people, ironically, who became his most devoted readers.
Others may nominate other Yancey books on the shelf as their favorites, but I couldn’t help thinking that Where the Light Fell is Philip Yancey’s best because it’s his story, his personal story, a story that tries not to let the abuse grab all the headlines. The honesty of his wounded soul allows him the freedom to tell the story, but the grace he’s learned in a lifetime of trying to understand it’s “amazing” character won’t let him leave his mother behind. He won’t write her off, even though, in essence, that’s what she did to her husband, his father, when she took him out of the iron lung–and what she did, surely and sadly, to her boys.
Yancey shakes his head at his assessment of his mother’s influence and wishes on the final pages that he could finish up with something more Kum-by-ya. He describes what she has done in unflinching honesty, yet refuses forsake her.
What he so amply demonstrates in Where the Light Fell is exactly what’s so amazing about grace.
No question mark.