Wednesday, January 11, 2017

thoughts on Philip Yancey's great essay

Philip Yancey is a best-selling, award-winning author of several books. He served as a columnist for thirty-six years for Christianity Today, a mainstream evangelical publication. This essay was written by him and I think there is much wisdom in it.

A friend sent me the link and asked me what I thought about it. Here’s what I said. I hope it helps.



Dear friend—

Thank you so much for sending this article! It is incredible! In fact, it is the best response to the election I have read thus far. Here are some thoughts that are prompted by it.

1. On Division.
The division in America and in American Christianity of which Mr. Yancey speaks is not a new phenomenon. It has been around for decades and some would argue it has always been that way. The division is simply coming to light in new ways. I’ve written more on this and will likely post it later.

2. On Extremism.
Mr. Yancey discusses “extremism” and its impact. I feel this hits right at the core of the problem of division. Learning to live graciously in the midst of tension is the key.  

From where does this tension spring? It is created by worldview clashes. Everyone has a worldview and it is in our nature (if not the nature of “a worldview” itself) to be self-convinced. This applies even to the worldview that subscribes to moderation in all things. Yes, it’s possible to be an “extreme moderate.” At least, that is how “moderates” appear to “extremists”—and vice versa.

Because of this, we are all, in a sense…extremists. We tend to self-reinforce our own perspective on life.

The key to live civilly with one another is to honor one’s own worldview while “giving space” to others of a differing worldview (and, better still, to “embrace” others of a differing worldview). Yale scholar Miroslav Volf calls this process: “pluralism as a social project.”

Yet, for some worldviews, the very act of “giving space” feels like a betrayal of one’s own worldview. In other words: to some, pluralism is itself an extreme view…and to the pluralist, such a person would be considered an extremist. What a conundrum!

Regardless, we can’t change the fact that we live side-by-side with others who have different opinions than ours. Everyone has the difficult task of learning to live with “the Other”. That is a fact. But this task creates a tension. That is why I feel that the process of “living graciously” is the hardest one we encounter in life.

It is hard because it is always under threat—and it is always under threat because anyone who lives as their conscience dictates will be seen as “extreme” by those whose conscience dictates otherwise. The question is: how to live with conviction, yet do so in grace?

This is only possible if we make grace itself our conviction so that there is no dichotomy between grace and conviction.  (This is what Mr. Yancey models so well, by the way. And we recognize its goodness in Mr. Yancey because it’s what Jesus did.)

But living in that kind of grace feels threatening to many who feel that that is taking grace too far.

Thus, the most extreme tension we face in life is that which is created between grace and ungrace, which begs the question: “How do we live graciously when others are ungracious?” That tension makes most of us so dog-tired we can hardly stand it. But it is truly the only life-work worth pursuing and the only one that will heal our world.

3. On Declaring a Truce.
Mr. Yancey cites Ross Douthat, an opinion writer for the New York Times. Douthat says the Democrats would do well to “declare a culture war truce.”

The same goes for Republicans. A truce has some effect if only one side practices it, but, of course, it is most effective when both sides honor it. In fact, if one side honors the truce but the other side doesn’t, it will only embitter the truce-initiating side…the pressure will build up until they feel compelled to punch back. Effective truces are bilaterally practiced, even if they are initiated unilaterally.

4.  On Christian division.
I fear that many Christians will read the article and see in it observations regarding Christian engagement with “the world” but really the article is about the divide within Christianity itself. How can Christians be “salt and light” when we effectively excommunicate one another…labelling each other as progressive/liberal and conservative/fundamentalist? Christians need to practice grace with one another. If we cannot do that, what hope do we have?

I have more written about the recent causes of Christian division but won’t include that here. Maybe tomorrow I’ll post it.

5. On Anger.
Mr. Yancey refers to “all those angry voters.” First of all, not everyone that voted for Trump can be labelled an “angry voter.” Second, not everyone that voted for Hillary can be labelled a “non-angry voter”. It is true that many voted for Trump because they were (and are) angry and it is true that many who voted for Hillary were (and are) also angry.

I’ll write more on anger later. For now, I simply want to note: anger sucks, even if it is necessary at times.  Anger may be the source of mustering one’s strength to put something right but it leaves in its wake…more anger.

6. On Voters…and Non-voters.
Mr. Yancey talks about the voters but “all those angry voters” composed less than 58 percent of eligible voters. In addition to inquiring why a certain segment voted for Trump (or Hillary), we should also be troubled why so many (42 percent) did not vote at all! In a country that supposedly enjoys its own freedom, this statistic is disturbing. The highest form of freedom moves beyond considering what we are free “from” so we may embrace what we are free “for”.

7. On the Church and Government.
Mr. Yancey writes: “[Christian] hopes do not depend on secular power.” Um…YES! That nails it.

Yet, there is a flip-side. For example, it stirs something in me when Mr. Yancey says that Trump is backing away from many of his most unsavory campaign promises. I hope so.

But we don’t know that yet. Many people feel that his cabinet selections indicate otherwise. Time will tell.

The point is: it matters what Trump will do. It matters a lot. Yet, Christian hope is not dependent on it. Thus, we have another tension. How to live graciously in the midst of it? Hmmm…..

Mr. Yancey cites J.D. Vance’s book (which many are turning to for insights as to why the Democrats lost in November) and Yancey observes: “Vance’s book shows how government policies in Appalachia did nothing to stop—and may even have abetted—poverty, unemployment, family breakdown, drug abuse, and a culture of violence.”

The question about the role of government and the role of the church in working towards a world that realizes a vision of human (and creational) flourishing is a tricky one.

What role may we expect government to play in combatting addiction, for example? What role does the church play? To what extent should the church look to the government to fulfill a role the church herself can play (and is better suited to play)? How can the church alleviate poverty and unemployment? When is it wise to look to the government to do this? How may the church and government partner in aid to the impoverished? Indeed, should the church and government ever consider themselves “partners”? What is the church’s role as a peacemaker and how should we expect the government to keep the peace?

These questions are specifically Christian and it is why the Christian often feels s/he is caught between a rock and a hard place. These questions should make us uncomfortable and challenge our assumptions about what we think the government should do and what we think the church is for.

At the very least we can say that the Christian should not look to the government as our savior. There is only one Savior for the Christian and his name is Jesus. Yet, we know that through the government much good can be done and evil/injustice can be put right. Mr. Yancey’s essay rightly shows the both/and side to this. On the one hand, our political system has the capacity to effect great good; on the other hand, it can provoke great evil. Government cannot be ignored as a Christian, but nor should it be enthroned as an idol and treated as if it is the answer to all our problems.

8. On the growth of early Christianity.
I love the list Mr. Yancey includes by Tim Keller concerning the features of early Christianity.  Christianity grew from thousands of adherents in the first century to millions in the fourth century. All the factors Mr. Keller cited are true and it is interesting to note that some of the features concerned “prohibitions” and the “exclusive” nature of Christian belief (that is, “There is but one Lord and his name is Jesus”).

But the latter features of Mr. Keller’s list concerned the acts of love practiced by the early Christians. They had liberating views towards slaves, women and children. They cared for orphans, widows, and the poor. They showed mercy to the diseased outcasts and they shared with others to such an extent they themselves became poor. The way I like to say it is: the early Christians cared about the people no one else cared about.

My conviction is that, if there is no differentiation in the weight of each item on Mr. Keller’s list, there is certainly a sequence. The fact is: most people were exposed to Christianity because of these acts of mercy, because of the community of love they shared. In other words, it was the practices of the early Christians, more than their prohibitions, that drew others to faith.

The acts of love demonstrated by the early Christians caused others to inquire about or come into contact with these “peculiar people” called Christians…to discover that everything they did was informed by a conviction so deep the word “creed” does not do it justice. The conviction, indeed, was more like an experience in which the early Christians were caught up helplessly, like the rapture of joy—you can’t help it! The experience was none other than Jesus himself and his total Lordship over every facet of their lives—whether in mind, body, or spirit.

Yes, the creed “Jesus is Lord” is exclusive by nature, but the early Christians showed it is a creed of love and mercy…so why not pledge allegiance to it? Yes, the creed meant the early Christians would refrain from participating in many things the world practiced (and even celebrated!) but they couldn’t help themselves because when you know that kind of love the prohibitions do not matter in the least—you’re too occupied with love, love, just love.   

My prayer is that we will commit to heal divisions, which is to say we will learn to live in grace, to love one another…to be healing agents. I, for one, will not give up hope. I will pray that the Master Jesus will give us all strength to carry on and that we will be truly one people, under the banner of God’s love.


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