Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 12, 2001
Author stays faithful thanks to varied spiritual mentors
Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church, by Philip Yancey. (Doubleday: New York, 2001). 323 pages. Hardcover.
Review by WAYNE HOLST
Special to the WCR
"Why am I still a Christian?" writes evangelical Protestant Philip Yancey. "I have spent most of my life in recovery from the Church." Yancey says that from his early years growing up in the American South he absorbed from his fundamentalist congregation some of the worst the Church had to offer, "yet I landed in the loving arms of God."
Yancey became a writer to sort out words used by the Church of his youth and decided early in his career to scout out people he could learn from; people he might emulate. He found some positive role models - some writers, some social activists; some Christian, some not.
The 13 people he writes about here made a difference and helped him restore the mislaid treasures of his life.
The book is no diatribe or unfocused rant. It is, rather, the thoughtful reflection of an intelligent, growingly influential writer, who might easily have become part of the Church's alumni society had it not been for his dogged quest for truth and the availability of spiritual mentors and Christian communities who helped him.
Three of the spiritual guides he writes about are Roman Catholic.
G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) born in London; became a Fleet Street journalist whose best work was as an essayist. Finding himself pressed further and further toward Christianity, Chesterton came to accept the Catholic faith as an expression of the deepest truth about reality.
His most famous book, Orthodoxy, is still widely read. Chesterton helped Yancey come to see the world as a friendly, rather than a threatening place "where the riddles of God proved more satisfying than the answers proposed without God."
Because he identified with Chesterton's spiritual quest, Yancey himself came home as a humbled prodigal to the faith from which he had earlier fled in pain and rebellion.
Robert Coles (1929-) Harvard psychiatrist, practising Catholic, teacher of spiritual literature and bridge-builder between Church and secular cultures, was no ivory tower academic. He interviewed ordinary folk in real life situations across the world and discovered the innate wisdom and profound faith of common humanity in the process.
His major study Children of Crisis focused on the moral, political and spiritual lives of those whom many considered immature. Coles is convinced that faith, frequently misunderstood by intellectuals, is often well understood by those of little social status.
After reading Coles on the image of God that lives in all of us, Yancey came to appreciate that in his quest for professional acclaim he had substituted a new kind of fundamentalism for the old; one borne out of snobbery, not ignorance.
"I needed to discover the levelling truth of the Gospel. . . . I needed a change in heart as much as a change in thought."
Father Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) priest, university professor and chaplain to mentally dysfunctional adults and those accompanying them at L'Arche, reaches a wide range of readers.
Nouwen's honest ventures of self-disclosure helped Yancey take risks in his own work.
In the eyes of many, Nouwen's career path took a dive; but Nouwen - who freely chose to live and die a "holy fool" - did not see it that way. He did not spare his readers the embarrassment of truth, no matter how bad that made him look.
He knew that by hiding pain we hide our ability to heal as well. Nouwen helped Yancey to see that suffering and joy go together, and from that, he learned to claim his brokenness.
By focusing on the journeys of spiritual mentors, this book gives Yancey an opportunity to trace the struggles of his early years to a more refined and settled mid-life. Yancey has come to a place of forgiving the Church that had wounded him with its duplicity, judgmentalism and small-mindedness.
Some readers may recoil at Yancey's need to revisit old wounds but this book will speak to many Christians whose experience with the Church has been, at least at some point, unhealthy. Ultimately, this is a very positive testimony.
What shines through his brilliant writing is a vision of hopefulness and spiritual vitality.
"Happy are those who bear their share of the world's pain," Yancey quotes a paraphrase of Matthew 5:11-12. "In the long run, they will know more happiness than those who avoid it."
(Rev. Dr. Wayne Holst is a writer who teaches religion and culture at the University of Calgary.)