Thursday, March 10, 2011

Book Review: "What Good Is God?"

Book Review: Philip Yancey, "What Good Is God? In Search Of A Faith That Matters" New York: FaithWords, 2010. 287 pages.

I've long been a fan of Philip Yancey, a New York Times bestselling author. It's hard to believe that it's been over 25 years since "Where Is God When It Hurts?" was first published. This latest book was inspired by some real-life drama, as Yancey was scheduled to speak in Mumbai, India on the very day that terrorists invaded the Taj Mahal Hotel, killing 172 people. On the plane ride home he began thinking about the times he's been invited to speak in places experiencing trouble or tragedy(1). The book is more a compilation of these ten stories, featuring his speaking notes from these events.

I found the reading fascinating, partly because it was not hypothetical "in theory" teaching, but real world stuff, happening now. That is really where the question must be answered: what good is God?

He begins in Blacksburg, Virginia, home of Virginia Tech, and site of the mass murder of 32 people by Seung-Hui Cho, a Korean student. Yancey was invited to speak on campus by a pastor who ministered in an on-campus church(16). Many were asking the question "where is God when it hurts?" the title of his first book. So, what do you say in such a setting? Interestingly, Philip had to speak wearing a neckbrace because of a serious car accident some weeks before(13). We all suffer, some more than others; the question is: what do we do with that suffering? Some give up, some live in denial that it ever occurred, but some grow through their pain and bring those lessons with them into life(32). With God, no experience we encounter is beyond redemption.

His second story takes place in China, where Yancey had the privilege of meeting with several leaders of the underground church(46), which now is estimated at 80 million strong. These courageous leaders stood in shocking contrast to the Western "Christian" business people looking to open doors of opportunity for their respective companies in the newly emerging giant that is China's economy. It was to this second group that Philip was allowed to speak publicly. He challenged those Western leaders to discover what many Chinese already had; that what made the West successful was the Christian values that embued society(60). The warning was implicit, when we abandon God we abandon much of what has made our society great.

He then moves on to an unlikely venue, a conference in Green Lake, Wisconsin on Ministering to Women in Prostitution. Before speaking, he spent an afternoon listening to the stories of the former professional sex workers(70). Women from all over the world shared their experiences, all of them demeaning. Before he finished, he asked the women how many of the women in prostitution that they knew wanted out, the answer: "all of them."(74) He then spoke on the theme of grace, that "the Bible heralds the sure promise that no matter who I am and what I have done, the door to transformation swings open before me."(85) The Bible is full of examples of this, including Rahab, a prostitute who was listed in the geneology of Jesus Himself.(86) As she was, so are we all "trophies of God's grace."(88)

Part 4 takes place in England, and is centered around the legacy of C.S. Lewis, whom he called "Apostle To The Skeptics."(93) Yancey was asked to speak at Cambridge University for a conference sponsored by the foundation named in Lewis' honour. In a message entitled "Straddling Two Worlds"(103) Yancey spoke of Lewis' ability to bring together the physical and the spiritual; to help us understand that the joys we experience in this life point us to greater joy in the life to come. His point is that our lives matter - in the here and now. What we do today has an impact, and C.S. Lewis understood this.

Part 5 is particularly interesting for some of us who also had exposure to a legalistic religious setting. Here Yancey speaks of his days in an ultra-conservative Bible College during the volatile sixties. Aptly called "Life In A Bubble" he recounts the good and bad of being secluded from the dangers of society while learning theology. Though he had been critical of the school in previous writings, he was asked to come back and speak at a chapel service. The title of his talk was "I Wish I'd Known"(127) and was broken down into 4 parts:" "I wish I'd known how to appreciate two worlds at once."(128) "I wish I'd known how to nurture the inner life."(130) "I wish I'd known more humility."(134) And finally, "I wish I'd known grace here."(136)

Part 6 brings us around the globe again to South Africa.(144) He speaks of his previous visits to speak at Rhema church, a large (35,000+) influential church in Johannesburg. There are interesting insights into the challenge of changes in South Africa since the fall of apartheid and the attempted blending of society. Also interesting is the trial and error of the church as the leadership tries to cope with the growth while learning themselves. Fittingly, his message was titled, "Growing in Grace."(155) He talked about three stages of the Christian life: Child, Adult and Parent.(157) There are applications here not only individually, but also corporately. For the church, he could speak to the change that he had seen from his first visit and the emphasis on the prosperity gospel to new Aids clinics, schools and educational institutions. As we grow in grace we move from an emphasis on self to being others-focused. As Yancey said, "Jesus did not come and die so that we could live happy and self-indulgent lives to show the rest of the world our self-contentment. No, he came as an example for us to follow in his steps."(167)

Part 7 takes us to Memphis, site of civil rights clashes, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and home to the revolutionary Church Health Center. The backdrop to this chapter was the last U.S. Presidential election. Yancey would speak to supporters of the Church Health Center on the night after Barack Obama was elected President. There were many voices giving many different perspectives and views on the world. In this setting he would speak on the subject of truth.

Here is my favorite "takeaway" from the book. Philip shared of the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine in 2004. Even though the Soviet empire had collapsed, reforms were slow to come in the Ukraine. Even though reformer Victor Yuschenko had suffered from dioxin poisoning, he still ran against the president in a national election. The corrupt regime resorted to out-and-out fraud to reverse the results. That evening the state-run television station reported that Yuschenko had been defeated. However, in a little corner of the screen was a translator for the hearing impaired. She signed: "Don't believe what they say. They are lying and I am ashamed to translate these lies. Yuschenko is our President!"(184) Word quickly spread by text message and soon people were protesting in the streets, finally resulting in a new election and a new government. His application was that the church ought to be like the translator in the corner of the screen, speaking truth into a culture that is used to hearing lies.

Part 8 brings us to the Middle East where Yancey toured numerous countries. He was struck by the contrasts between the old and the new, the land of the bedouins on the one hand and the towering city-scapes of Yemen on the other. Here if you mentioned Christianity to a Muslim they would likely think of David Beckham and Madonna. The religion of Islam tends to unify religion, culture, law and politics and many Muslims assume that Christianity does the same.(213) Therefore, Beckham and Madonna are Christians and therefore Christianity is vulgar and excessive. There is a heavy price to pay by converts from Islam to Christianity in the Middle East. His message in Bahrain was given to people from many countries in the backyard of a Christian's home. He spoke of the fact that their plight was similar to that of the early church, which began under Roman rule and oppression. Yet by simply living out their faith in a hostile environment, treating slaves as human beings, elevating women to positions of leadership, caring for the sick and adopting orphans they were literally able to transform society.(214) God can change the world through people who believe enough to act.

Part 9 brings us back to the U.S., this time to Chicago for a convention for Christian 12-step programs. He spoke to the fact that each of us is susceptible to temptation. As Augustine said: "Evil passes your door first as a stranger, then enters as a guest, and finally installs itself as master."(242) Recovering addicts are well aware of this, and can teach the church many things, qualities like honesty, transparency, accountability, and grace. All of us are fallen, and all of us need grace and community to help us stand.

Part 10 finally brings us back full circle to Mumbai. Yancey was scheduled to speak in downtown Mumbai on the same day as the terrorist attacks on the Taj Mahal Hotel. An impromptu meeting was scheduled instead at a church near where he was staying where he spoke on the subject "Grace Under Fire." Similarities were drawn between the attack in India and the September 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S. Both gave "a vivid picture of a world that does not operate by the rule of grace."(271) In this kind of setting the message of Jesus stands in stark contrast. "In a world divided by race, culture, class, language and religion, Jesus set loose the most powerful force in the universe, the force of grace."(272) In fact, grace has the power to set loose both the oppressed and the oppressor.(277)

Philip Yancey writes, "May the church be known as a place where grace flows on tap: to sinners, to rich and poor alike, to those who need more light, to outcasts, to those who disagree, to oppressed and oppressors both."(282) Well said Mr. Yancey, well said.

Articles of Interest:
Book Review: "Why I Still Believe"
Book Review: "It Came From Within!"
Book Review: "Has Christianity Failed You?"
Book Review: "The Power Of A Whisper"
Book Review - "Heaven Is For Real"
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