I’ve been meaning to write about books for a long time now. Problem is, my current schedule is more amenable to grazing than devouring, so I end up starting many books but finishing few. Another problem (maybe; you tell me) is that a lot of my book reading now is “big picture” stuff— life, art, faith, meaning; that sort of thing— but I’m a little skittish about being too presumptuous with this forum and with your attention.
As luck would have it—and, I believe you’ll find, just as the Mayans predicted—I actually finished reading a whole book, about faith, in the same week as Judgment Day arrived (and, it would seem, went). Could I dare not write about it?
These days, I get most of my reading material from the Hunterdon County Library, which my kids and I visit weekly. My Achilles' Heel is the New Nonfiction stacks, where the books are due back in 14 days rather than the normal 28, and I believe the late fees are doubled.
In this section recently I spotted the name Philip Yancey on one of the spines. His name rang a bell, as either one of the guys responsible for the rapture-porn “Left Behind” novels or a respected theologian (note: “or”). I took the book down, scanned the table of contents, and saw a chapter entitled “Why I Wish I Was an Alcoholic.” I knew what I’d be reading for the next 14 days.
The book, What Good Is God?, is a collection of 10 lectures that Yancey has delivered on his travels, loosely based around the theme of maintaining faith during times of crisis, with an introductory discussion and backstory for each. Topics include:
- The massacres at Virginia Tech and Mumbai
- The Christian churches in China and the Middle East
- Sex Workers
- South Africa
And, of course, alcoholics. In this chapter, which would end up selling me on reading the rest of the book, Yancey delivers an address to an AA group in Chicago, complimenting the members and the larger organization for walking the talk in a way that most churches fail to do: AA members are united in a recognition of their weakness (alcohol) and constant threat of peril. Meanwhile, members of most congregations are self-satisfied, content to gloss over the weakness and everpresent danger (sin) that ought to unite them in the same way. Wow.
Yancey is clearly no Bible-thumper, but he’s just as clearly a man who knows not only his stuff (such as the New Testament), but also other stuff (such as the Koran). As such, he’s the kind of religious writer I’ve come to trust, a new breed capable of providing context to old-time religion in a newly complicated society and a newly globalized world.
For example, as if the suggestion of solidifying the identity of the U.S. by calling it a “Christian nation” weren’t comical enough (would that be Catholic, Baptist, Methodist?), Yancey puts a finer point on it by noting not only that there are in fact 38,000 flavors of Christianity, but also that this implies a moment when someone decided that none of the first 37,999 were quite right, and so added one more.
He’s especially helpful in providing context between Christianity and Islam. A few highlights:
- In the Middle East, a “Muslims for Jesus” movement is germinating, and its members are predictably being persecuted for their progressive beliefs.
- To most Muslims, Christianity is synonymous with America, which is synonymous with wealth, military power, and decadence. This is ironic, because these are three of the things that Christ discouraged most; it is tragic, because these are what most militant Muslims believe they are fighting as they take up arms against Christians.
- The Koran provides little or no guidance on how to live as a minority presence in society; the New Testament offers little or no guidance on how to live as a dominant presence.
Like Anne Lamott (another favorite, not least of all because of her comfort with a tasteful use of the F-bomb), Yancey is one of a new breed of writers who write about faith for a “been there, done that” audience. They keep the scriptural references to a minimum, and speak familiarly to those of us who have come of age in a media-saturated world, who have heard pretty much the length and breadth of the Bible by now, though mostly in bits and pieces, and mostly from people who ended up disappointing us. At the same time, they know that we persist in the nagging feeling that there’s something to the message, despite the messengers.
Like their readers, these writers have no patience for those who treat religion as a game of gotcha, and God as a “supercop” (Yancey’s word) waiting for us to slip up. They find evidence of grace less often in smartypants shotgunning of chapter-and-verse than in a poor South African woman’s breathtaking capacity for forgiveness (her story is in the Mumbai chapter, by the way, and if you're not wiping away a tear by the end of it we can’t be friends anymore).
The wise remember that the notion of our generation seeing the end of the world is not only a statistical unlikelihood but also a heretical vanity. So is imagining that we live in the most difficult of times or circumstances. Fact is, despite hyperbolic headlines, America (and, to a lesser extent, the West in general) today is still the most prosperous and egalitarian society that mankind has ever seen. A few hours with What Good Is God? reminds us of this, and reminds us to be grateful for what most of us call our problems.