There are few names in Christian publishing that are more recognizable than Philip Yancey. He started his career writing for Campus Life and Christianity Today but became widely known for his books, most reflections on suffering and/or grace. Yancey has written about 30 books, depending on how you count books he contributed to or edited. And he has sold roughly 15 million copies of those books. He has been widely influential.
Philip Yancey is part of my parent’s generation, turning 72 next month, and I think it is natural for authors to think about memoirs and influences at that point. It is not that younger authors can’t also write memoirs; Danté Stewart’s Shoutin’ in the Fire is an excellent reflection of an author in his 30s. But memoirs that are written toward the end of life have a different type of reflective ability.
Where the Light Fell primarily deals with Yancey’s childhood and early adulthood before he became a writer. This is a book about what influenced him with a final chapter that grapples with that history, one that I read twice. The book is unflinching but charitable. There is a lot of pain here. And a clear view of the impact of generational trauma. Yancey is not a Christian author that tends to tie everything up in neat bows. At the end, there is still pain and disfunction.
Philip Yancey was the youngest of two children, born in 1949, three years after his older brother. His parents had what appears to be a storybook romance. His father was in the military at the end of WWII. He was invited to the home of a church member after attending church soon after becoming a Christians. His mother was living with that family while supporting herself through college to become a teacher. They met and soon married. He soon became wrapped up with her dream of becoming a missionary to Africa. They finished bible school, and he taught at a black bible college in Atlanta as they raised support. But soon after Philip was born, his father contracted polio and died before Philip had a conscious memory of him.
It was only in his 20s while introducing his wife to his grandparents, that Philip saw a newspaper article that changed his understanding of that death. The article talked about how his father had left Grady Hospital, where he was in an iron lung, and went to a chiropractic rehabilitation center because he believed that he would be miraculously healed so that the family could go to Africa as missionaries. Unfortunately, days after leaving the iron lung, he died. Not long later, his widowed mother committed the two boys to be missionaries in Africa as a kind of consolation for the loss of her dream. She raised the boys in a strict fundamentalist holiness tradition. Her meager widow’s pension was supplemented by bible teaching, both paid and unpaid roles.
Yancey is generous to his mother in many ways. Providing context to not just the difficult circumstances but also the culture and family history of his mother’s upbringing and deprivation. But there is no question that this was an abusive household, primarily with tools of emotional and spiritual abuse. But within the context of overt racist, hierarchical theology and confrontational KJV-only fundamentalism. In being generous to his contexts, he does not shy away from the implications and harms of that background. Nor does he shy away from grappling with his complicity in racism or cruelty toward others.
Part of what his life of grappling with pain and suffering has meant is that grace is essential because we are in a world of suffering and pain. But grace does not mean that everything gets fixed. His still-living 96-year-old mother has never read any of his books. She still believes that Philip and his brother have sinned against God by not becoming missionaries as she desired. His brother has not directly talked to his mother in nearly 40 years, with only a few letters back and forth and Philip as an intermediary. His brother rejected Christianity in his 20s still identifies as an atheist.
The strength of Where the Light Fell is in the grappling, not just the story. Yancey is a talented writer. The book is gripping and challenging to put down. But the value isn’t only the prose; it is also the theological reflection that seeks out grace even when it is hard to see.