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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.