Home » Philip Yancey, as Few Could Have Imagined Him

Philip Yancey, as Few Could Have Imagined Him

Philip Yancey knew he would write a memoir the day he lay strapped to a backboard, not knowing if he would live or die. This was in 2007, after he had already written numerous books and won global acclaim as a journalist spotlighting issues of faith in the stories of other people. Yet it took a careening Jeep, five rolls down an embankment, and a broken neck to persuade him irrevocably to write the full truths of his own story.

I saw Yancey four years ago as he was writing it. We sat over lunch in an earthy café in Colorado sharing the challenges of writing memoir. How do we account for the span of our life? When do we break our silence? How much truth is enough?

Since then, I’ve been anxiously awaiting how Yancey would answer those questions for himself. Here’s my report: Where the Light Fell is in many ways a classic spiritual autobiography tracing one man’s conversion from cynic to believer. But it’s more. It’s a searing family story as revelatory as gothic Southern fiction. It’s an exposé. It’s a social critique. It’s a tragedy. It’s a tale of redemption. More than anything, though, it’s a story few could have imagined.

Unmaking and remaking

Not everything in this memoir will come as a surprise, especially for readers familiar with Yancey’s prolific writings on matters of grace, the problem of evil, and the author’s Southern fundamentalist background, particularly its role in justifying racism and segregation.

Although such themes are recognizable in Yancey’s memoir, the stories have a different feel. No longer do they serve mainly as anecdotal ramps onto larger explorations of doubt, grace, prejudice, and pain. Instead, we stay inside the author’s own stories, letting him take us to places we’ve never been: inside his family’s trailer on the church parking lot, into the schoolyard, the classroom, the church pews, around the kitchen table with his mother and brother. Not every chapter is equally fascinating—there are long stretches of juvenilia that a tighter editor might have omitted—but each sheds important light on the unmaking and remaking of a human heart.

Yancey’s account opens during his college years, when he discovers, by accident, how his father actually died at age 23, when Yancey was one and his brother, Marshall, was three. As the story went, his father and mother were bound for missionary work in the heart of Africa. Then polio struck, leaving his father helpless in an iron lung and killing him soon thereafter.

Yet Yancey learned the full truth when, while visiting a relative, a newspaper clipping fell to the floor. It turns out his father had left the iron lung against his doctors’ advice, believing and hoping God would heal him and return him to the mission field. He lasted only a few days. The revelation forced Yancey to reexamine everything he knew about his father: This “saintly giant” who hovered over his life was actually a “holy fool.” He writes, “I feel like one of Noah’s sons confronting his father’s nakedness. The faith that exalted my father and gained him thousands of supporters, I now grasp, also killed him.”

But the greatest (and most tragic) influence on the course of the Yancey brothers’ lives was a vow their grieving mother made on her husband’s grave. The widow dedicated her two sons to the Lord as replacements for her and her husband in Africa. Ensuring this outcome became the goal of her parenting. Yancey recalls the moment the realization hits: “My brother and I are the atonement to compensate for a fatal error in belief. … We alone can justify our father’s death.”

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As children, teens, and young men, the Yancey brothers cannot live up to their mother’s unyielding expectations. Eventually they give up trying. When Marshall ditched the fundamentalist Bible college he attended to transfer to Wheaton College, their mother saw this as the ultimate betrayal. In her view, Wheaton was a godless bastion of liberalism. Yancey recalls the caustic language she used to express her fury:

I’ll do whatever it takes to stop you, young man. You listen to me. If you find a way to pull off this plan, I guarantee you one thing. I’ll pray every day for the rest of your life that God will break you. Maybe you’ll be in a terrible accident and die. That’ll teach you. Or, better yet, maybe you’ll be paralyzed. Then you’ll have to lie on your back and stare at the ceiling and realize what a rebellious thing you’ve done, going against God’s will and everything you’ve been brought up to believe.

She never relented or apologized for any of her piercing words or punishments. All were rooted in a particular branch of fundamentalism that suggested it was possible to reach a state of sinless perfection. At one point she told her sons she hadn’t sinned in 12 years, setting the brothers up for an irresolvable dissonance. After school and on weekends, the boys accompanied their mother to her children’s Bible classes, which were popular, winning her admiration as a saintly woman of God. At home, though, they suffered from her rage and harsh corporal punishment.

Both brothers developed survival skills at home and in religious settings. At times they played the part of fervent believers giving heartfelt testimonies. On other occasions they rebelled, retreating into apathy, cynicism, and (in Marshall’s case) atheism.

Readers from similar backgrounds will nod along at many of these passages. When, for instance, Yancey describes the atmosphere at the brothers’ Bible college, with its altar calls and endless verses of “Just As I Am,” I’m transported back to Missions Week at my own Christian college, where the speaker wept theatrically and shamed us for putting plans to teach, nurse, and write ahead of the mission field. When Marshall is nearly expelled just months before graduation for downing a paper cup of wine (just to see if hell would indeed break loose), I remember my own near-expulsion story. My husband and I wrote a letter to the Missions Week speaker, challenging his use of shame and manipulation. Only a humble-pie apology before the college president saved us.

Not until over halfway through Yancey’s narrative does light begin cracking through. Even amid a Bible college backdrop of rigidity and performancism, God whispers and woos through music, through nature, and then through love, as Yancey meets his future wife, Janet. While the elder brother chooses the drug and hippie culture, the younger brother begins to discover a God he never knew.

Testimonies of imitation

But the story’s not over. This account is about more than personal redemption. Yancey not only comes to a genuine faith in Jesus Christ, but his faith now leads him to return to those he harmed through the callousness and racism he absorbed as a child. He undertakes and reports on an extended “tour of amends.”

Here, I pause. I did not expect this. Yancey’s own remarkable story, his crooked and unlikely path to faith, is compelling on its own. But these powerful final chapters transcend the usual bounds of memoir or spiritual autobiography. In the incisive book Looking Before and After: Testimony and the Christian Life, Alan Jacobs argues for enlarging our “testimonies of conversion” into “testimonies of imitation and vocation” that offer wisdom and build up the church. Yancey does exactly this, not by sermonizing or issuing a call to collective repentance, but through modeling a commitment to confession and reparation.

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The memoir itself is an answer to the question that looms throughout: What do we do with the burdens, sins, and pain of our past?

Yancey invites us to gaze at the radically different pathways he and his family have taken. Yancey’s mother, still living at 97, has not read any of her son’s books. Nor has she released her grip on legalism or disavowed the vow that led to such relational wreckage. She and her eldest son remain estranged, locked in what Yancey calls the “dark energy” of wrong theology, resistance, and “ungrace.” But a third way is possible, he writes—to “stitch together all the strands, good and bad, healthy and unhealthy,” believing that pain can be “useful, even redemptive.”

Clearly Yancey’s pain has been more than “useful” to the church at large. His books, selling more than 17 million copies in 50 languages, have reassured many that Christian faith leaves room for doubt and suffering as well as hope. Where the Light Fell backlights every one of these books, providing the chapter I hadn’t known was missing.

Despite all this great good, I anticipate some readers asking how Yancey can give such an unflattering portrait of his church, his family, and the fundamentalist culture of his youth. Memoirists of faith inhabit the tension between different scriptural commands. They’re called to honor their parents, to forgive as they’ve been forgiven, to love even their enemies. Yet they’re also enjoined to pursue righteousness and justice, to defend the powerless, to speak the truth.

When does this second set of imperatives overrule the first? In the course of writing and teaching memoir over the decades, I’ve seen countless writers paralyzed and silenced by these questions, including myself at times. There are no simple answers.

I might have drawn the lines differently in some places, but I’m profoundly grateful Yancey overcame his silence to finally write this memoir. Where the Light Fell is a story for our time, for the church, for all of us weary with unforgiveness, racism, division, and ungrace.

Leslie Leyland Fields is a writer living on Kodiak Island, Alaska. She is the author of Your Story Matters: Finding, Writing, and Living the Truth of Your Life.

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