Yancey: A Life in Progress

How Philip Yancey’s Powerful Memoir, “Where the Light Fell,” Can Give you Honest Hope

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Reading Philip Yancey’s fearfully honest and starkly beautiful memoir Where the Light Fell felt like joining a friend who had waited alongside the road and was now walking with me sharing stories about his journey that gave my own story validation and meaning. Ah, here is a man who knows what life and faith and hope is really like, I found myself thinking. Yancey sugarcoats nothing. His father’s devastating death. His mother’s strange, controlling, hypocritical, but real faith. His brother’s brilliance and fall into debauchery and illness. His own hypocrisy, deception, meanness, and doubts. The abuse and racism in the church. His aching, broken heart over all of it. For me Yancey’s words read like lava-hot tears poured on the page. That does not mean his is a hopelessly honest story but rather one that gave me honest hope. In these pages is no picture of someone who has all the answers but rather someone who has lived the questions.    

Finding hope along the way

As with the best writing and stories, I found myself in these pages. This is one of Yancey’s greatest gifts in all of his books: profound truth in approachable writing. From the honest stories he tells to the simple beautiful way he tells them, he gave me entry into his life and my own. 

Learning from imperfect love

Learning From Imperfect Love

Yancey too lost his father and was raised by a necessarily stubborn and tough mother in a time when single motherhood was not named or recognized. My mother was not religious nor controlling but instead distant and laissez-faire. Yet we both were shaped by our mother’s imperfect but desperate love. Both of us had to eventually accept that love and differentiate it from what God’s love is like. This connection with but differentiation from imperfect love is a road most walk. And as Yancey describes, it is often a long and painful road. But it has a destination, however distant and difficult. His love for and from his future wife Janet is a major cobblestone on his road to faith and hope. We can and do learn from imperfect love.

Trusting a God of Mystery    

Yancey lost his dad at a much younger age than I. Still I recognized too well the fierce independence yet constant longing for an anchor he describes that fatherlessness fosters. This tension is agonizing to live in, simultaneously yearning for and rejecting father figures. Yet Yancey never falls into the trap of claiming the Father as a full substitute for his lost father. For that matter, his lost father may represent a God he continually lost but continued to seek.

A leap of trust

He learns the rejection of authority is a gap in his life God does not hate him for but seems to step into. Yancey grows through this tension. He embraces and casts away belief in a caricature God of easy fundamentalist answers and finally, through graphic, some would say, blasphemous honesty with God, begins to trust in a God of mystery. He writes, “In the end, my resurrection of belief had little to do with logic or effort and everything to do with the unfathomable mystery of God.” (Page 249) This is a great relief coming from someone I’ve admired for so long. Yancey is a deep thinker and yet is comfortable with unanswerable questions. Now in his seventies, Yancey tells us he has been in a once forbidden dance with doubt most of his life.

I find our modernist quest for absolute answers has done nothing but destroy my seeds of faith. I too have walked the path of doubt, what an ancient anonymous monk called The Cloud of Unknowing, a journey to unlearn many cardboard truths and breathe deep the untamable Spirit of God.

The imperfect church

Dysfunction in the Church

Unlike Yancey, I was not raised in the church much less fundamentalism. Therefore, my journey to trust God has not been the brutal boxing match Yancey’s was. But I have, like Yancey, been subjected to abuse in the church. My first Sunday at church as a newly converted Jesus Freak, long-haired hippy, I was told by the pastor I had to cut my hair in order be a true Christian. I left unshorn. 

And even after I cut my hair much later in life, my creativity made me suspect in an institution that values lock-step. I’ve suffered painful power plays because I questioned the status quo. I’ve never seemed to fit into the blue blazer khaki pant pastor mold. My independence has made me hard to control. “Why don’t you just do what we tell you to do?” one elder asked me as the elders prepared to resign me.* 

See the links below for more on my complicated relationship with the church.

Faith stories

 Deconstruction of the Faith Is Not New

Ultimately Yancey’s memoir explores one of John Calvin’s major propositions: Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God. And Without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self.  Yancey slowly and painfully discovered who he is and how he is who God is making him to be. But he also draws us an authentic portrait of God, to the extent a human can do this. In the end, Where the Light Fell gives us all hope deconstruction is not a new or modern trend, but an often necessary step in reconstruction a more true and lasting faith.

Read Where the Light Fell for the delight of a story full of conflict and truth, doubt and hope, pain and laughter. But most of all read it to know that your too story too is being written by God.

More on journeying through pain and doubt to fait: How Shitty Times Often Force us to Learn and Grow & Moby Dick and How I am Forgiving the Church & Two Hopeful Truths about God Healing your Spiritual and Emotional Wounds

*”To be resigned” is a phrase I came up with that better describes when a church wants to fire it’s pastor but will have to answer too many questions as to why and simply forces the pastor to resign.

7 thoughts on “How Philip Yancey’s Powerful Memoir, “Where the Light Fell,” Can Give you Honest Hope”

  1. Georgie Ann Kettig

    very interesting,… reading/(or re-reading) the suggested articles, gives a lot to think about,… for one thing, “they say” that “men tend to be ‘problem solvers’ “, (and I don’t remember what women are supposed to be by comparison), but I do “see” an approach like that in what you (and Yancey) have expressed,… and certainly, that would seem to be part (and an inherent challenge) of a “public and leadership” role in an ongoing church setting,…

    I think that just sounds like “extra torture”, that could be “added on” to the already plentiful and “sad enough things” that Life offers us to be suffering from,… I prefer the “hidden way” of taking my faith needs to God (in prayer), and staying close to Him, until I receive my answer(s), or healing, or reassurances, or direction, etc ~ which by now, is a faith-filled pathway that works very well for me,… I like “being personal and private” with God,… and I’m not too much interested in the “opinions of other people”, concerning my own quiet and affirming “prayer life with God”,…

    the idea of all this “public” confrontation about one’s presentation of “faith issues”, etc, feels extremely threatening and difficult,… my heart “goes out to you”, as they say,… I also read a googled article that Yancey wrote, and saw how he navigated some of these issues,… balancing a wish to be compassionate with a wish to represent God well,… and considering that all of us “humans” are exactly that ~ “human” ~ it’s certainly not easy,…

    this might be one good example of why, at my age, I’m quite “happy enough” worshiping quietly in the Catholic Church!

    God knows us and loves us and understands us so much more completely than any “humans” would ever be able to,…

    having “drawn close to God” and benefited from His personal Love and Healing, I am aware of the need to value and protect this (spiritual) realm,… there are many “careless ‘ways of the world’ ” that we are under no obligation to expose ourselves to,…

    protecting this “healed realm”, allows us to offer our “prayers and love” to this “poor old world”, which really needs them,…

    1. Interesting differentiation between a quiet faith and public faith. I’ve never thought of it that way. But, of course, there is that difference for many people. I don’t think I ever had the choice. I am glad you are “happy enough.” More of us need that.

      1. Georgie Ann Kettig

        I have tended to enjoy “group” experiences (of different kinds) in various Christian settings, and have “passed through” many different types (over the years),… but I think that my relationship to a group tends to be somewhat different from my own personal relationship with God,…

        I think that I tend to do a lot of “listening” and “paying attention” and “caring” in a group setting, and contributing when things are basically “harmonious”, but I’ll avoid situations that seem to go in directions of conflict, for “whatever” reasons,… I respect that different types of people have different goals and opinions, and “we don’t all have to be alike”,… there’s room for many types of activity,…

        but I also respect my own conscience and “prayer life” (and probably more so, as I’ve gotten older),… it’s easy enough to realize that people have different ways of “looking at things”, but this doesn’t have to lead to arguments and discomfort, if we respect our similarities and differences, and understand that, ultimately, “God will be the One Who judges and understands us”,… I choose to be closer to God in Love and Trust, rather than fear or argument,… I’ve always loved this verse:

        John 15:15
        No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you.

  2. Eugene, you have a brilliant writing style, using word combinations that are unique and picturesque. Thanks for writing your review of Yancey’s book.

  3. Earlier in life, NOT Free to voice doubts re God; Reading Yancey, Disappoint w God, where is God when it hurts–was a Relief Valve miracle; someone outside of my soul said it out loud, on paper. I felt so close to this author; read So many of his books; Rich believing man in prison, asked me: Which Yancey book to start 1st: omg; i might’ve said: Grace or Prayer; Lucado advised: Tell an author re impact. I’d Regret not telling Yancey, impact of those 1st 2 books: ‘ok to get off chest, doubts re God;’ when found him on FB, it was a mtn top experience, meeting my brother (in Christ) whom all these years I’ve felt Very close to; thank you Mr Scott for such Beautiful review of this new book; My church experience isn’t inspiring; opposite.

    1. Teresa: You’re welcome. Mr. Yancey’s work has moved many people. I am sorry for your church experience. Though I am a pastor, I’ve had some tough experiences in the church as well. I once heard a pastor say some of his most beautiful experiences and some of his most painful experiences have happened in the church. I appreciate how honest Yancey is about it all.

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