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Philip Yancey Explores Grace, the Church, And ‘Genetic Flaws’

philip yancey

by Sue Schumann –

(Ed. note: The following is from an exclusive interview with New Frontier.)

“The message I get from Jesus,” says Philip Yancey, editor-at-large of Christianity Today and award-winning author of 12 books, including The Jesus I Never Knew, “is that God loves sinners. He wants them to come home.” Unfortunately, he admits, the church–the vehicle for bringing them home– often fails in dispensing the grace needed for that journey.

Yancey, his trademark Afro framing thoughtful eyes, calls to memory the church of his youth with a wry smile and a gentle laugh: “I grew up in a mutant strain of Christianity. It was a Southern fundamentalist, mean-spirited, racist, very legalistic group.” In it were members of the Ku Klux Klan and people with every kind of theology imaginable.

“They used all the words from the Bible, but they meant the opposite of what they said. They said ‘God is love,’ but they meant ‘God is hate.’ They said they lived under grace, but it seemed a lot like law to me.” Consequently, he explains, he got an inoculation against “the Christian propaganda machine. I don’t buy into it. I think it’s a dangerous thing.”

Yancey’s writing is in large part, he says, an effort to reclaim those misused biblical words for himself. Along the way, he gives us a glimpse of God’s extravagant gift of grace–a gift the church has a difficult time dispensing. His concern about grace has led him to explore it in his next book, What’s So Amazing About Grace?

Why do we have a hard time extending grace? “I think there is a genetic flaw of meanness within Christians in the evangelical church,” he explains, resulting in the church all too often becoming a kind of ‘moral exterminator’ in its mission to be a guardian of morality for culture at large. (“There’s a spot of evil! I’ve got it! I’ve got it!” Yancey says, jabbing the air as if pushing down the button on a spray can.) That, he believes, is not its calling.

In contrast, he says, what a positive difference the church would make today “if, when someone said the word ‘Christian,’ people thought: ‘those are people who don’t like abortion–I disagree with them there–but they do take care of babies no one wants; they don’t like homosexuality–and I disagree with them there–but they are the ones who are mostly volunteering at the AIDS clinics; they don’t tend to like radical feminists, but they are the people who reach out to divorced women in need.’ If the world thought of these things–both of caring for our own and also reaching out to penetrate society, then I think we’d have a very different situation.

“Instead, people think of the church as a place where moralists sit and you have to clean yourself up to attend. Really, the only difference between Christians and non-Christians is we admit we can’t make it on our own.”

While the church often thinks in terms of two very distinct categories of people, righteous and sinners, Jesus replaced those categories with two others, he says: guilty people who admit their guilt and guilty people who don’t admit their guilt. “That’s been important to me. The minute the church drifts into the two-level model, we miss grace and the opportunity for God to work in us.”

One of Yancey’s favorite writers, Simone Weil, a French Jewish Christian who died at the age of 35, addressed this element of grace when she wrote, “Our defects and imperfections are the fissures through which grace may pass.”

“It seems to me,” he says with a smile, “Christians are so busy trying to stuff up the cracks and correct those imperfections. It’s all right to try to fix our defects, but if it keeps us away from grace, it’s not good. Light only gets in through the cracks.”

One area of concern to Yancey–and one reason for writing his book on grace– is the danger he sees in the politicization of the church today. Because of the church’s emerging role in the political arena, the impression of an evangelical Christian has become one of political alignment. “If you ask the average person ‘What is an evangelical Christian?’ they’ll say, ‘Oh, those are the people who sponsored Amendment Two against the gays in Colorado,’ or ‘Those are the people lobbying for censorship on the Internet.’

“That’s not what the New Testament church calls us to, and it’s certainly not the reputation the early Christians had.”

Rather, he says, the church should focus on living out its Christian life, much as the church in China has done. There, thrown out of the ‘power stream’ by the Communist government, Christians had no platform by which to change society and no political ‘distractions.’ All they could do was live out their lives by supporting each other, worshiping, and presenting an alternate way to live. The result? When the missionaries were kicked out of the country in the early 1950s, there were an estimated one million Christians. Today, there are said to be 35 million.

In the end, then, whether in Colorado or China or any other place, it all comes down to grace–extended, received, and lived. “If we loved each other, the world would look on us very differently,” Philip Yancey says simply.

(Note: When Yancey isn’t writing about grace, he’s thinking about it as he hikes up mountains in the summer and skis down them in winter. A resident of Colorado, home to 53 of the nation’s 60 mountains higher than 14,000 feet, he has climbed 13 of the peaks to date. “Do you know,” he says, with a hint of conspiracy in his voice and a twinkle in his eye, “Colorado is the largest state in the nation.” I search my failing memory for geographical statistics and then he rescues me, grace extended: “Ironed flat, of course.”

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