Exclusive: Interview: Philip Yancey, Author, Editor and Columnist
January 24, 2005 · Print This Article
By Brenda Clemons
Philip Yancey is a writer and editor-at-large of Christianity Today. His books have sold millions, been on the Top Seller’s list and earned him many awards. His book, "What’s so Amazing About Grace?", caught the attention of Bono, who made contact with Yancey after reading that book. Yancey has since interviewed Bono and Bono is rumored to pass the book along to friends.
Below, Yancey speaks with Interference.com about his work, his heroes, his faith and why sometimes it’s okay to stir up a little controversy.
In your book "What’s so Amazing About Grace?" you write about growing up during segregation, saying your family attended a church that would not allow African Americans to worship there. Do you ever feel the need to compensate for the "sins" of your family?
I went through a period in which I tried to create distance between myself and my family. I have a brother, after all, who has had no contact with the rest of the family in almost 35 years. For people who come from a very dysfunctional family, or church, we may need a time of separation or "individuation." Ultimately, though, I had to come back and try to make peace. To tell you the truth, I think it’s harder to make peace with what you grew out of than with what you may grow into. I find it harder, for example, to show grace toward uptight religious folks than toward the people they condemn so strongly. (Come to think of it, so did Jesus.) The sins of my family are my sins too. I need to own them, and learn from them, before I can point the finger anywhere else.
You write about subjects that some would consider taboo (i.e. homosexuality and disappointment with God). Do you enjoy a bit of controversy?
I never choose a topic for the sake of controversy and often I’m surprised at some of the reactions prompted by my writings. I tell people, I’m not the radical one, Jesus is the radical one. And if we take Jesus seriously, then subjects that may have been considered taboo are no longer taboo. Jesus said some shocking things about money, about death, about the purpose of life. In my writing, I try to face into what he said. Controversy may stir up, but I’m not the source of that controversy, Jesus is. I feel OK as long as I’m getting criticism from both sides. When I write about homosexuality, for example, I get criticized by gay activists for being too soft and from religious conservatives for being too loose. I feel much more comfortable getting flak from both sides rather than just one.
Are there any subjects you have not covered that you would like to cover in the future?
I’m writing a book on prayer right now. If prayer is so important, why is it so difficult? And if God knows everything already, why pray? And why do so many prayers go unanswered? I don’t know the answers to those questions which is why I chose to write a book about it.
Are there any subjects that you would not write about?
I went on a book tour not long ago and I told people that I’d answer questions on anything except two questionsâ€”the Iraq war and the ordination of gay bishops. I said that because whenever I got interviewed by the media, those were the only questions they asked, even though they had nothing to do with my book. Well, I’m still shying away from the gay ordination question but I’m quite happy to talk about the Iraq war. I think it was a colossal mistake from the first day on. As I travel overseas, I’m amazed at how far the reputation of the United States has fallen in just a few years. I don’t know if we’ll ever recover from the damage caused in Arab countries.
Can you describe your writing process?
I divide the writing process this way: 40 percent of my time goes toward getting ready to write, 20 percent toward writing and 40 percent toward cleaning up what I just wrote. The first 40 percent, the preparation, consists of research, interviewing, and outlining. I use a dandy outlining program that I pore over for days, moving things around, in and out of topics and subtopics. Often my chapter outline is longer than the chapter itself, a great stalling tactic. The middle 20 percent is the psychotic period when I face a blank screen or page. No matter how much work I’ve done on the outline, the fear sets in when I face that blankness and feel the burden of composition. The last phase is far more relaxing. I began my career as an editor and feel most comfortable editing. I figure I can’t make it any worse and maybe I can improve it.
As a writer, what is your greatest challenge?
For me the biggest challenge is seeing my writing as a reader will see it. You see, when I work on a book I spend a year or more totally immersed in the subject considering it from every possible angle. But when the reader gets it, he or she spends a few hours with it, not a year, and often with the kids fighting in the background or a football game on. How can I project how my words will come across to such a reader?
Which one of your books is your favorite?
I’d have to say "Soul Survivor". I wrote about 13 people who influenced me, and especially my faith, more than any others. It included people I have never met, such as Dostoevsky, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as people I’ve interviewed, such as [authors] Annie Dillard and Henri Nouwen. I wish for everyone the opportunity to spend a year reflecting on the great people in their lives, and trying to figure out why.
Which book was the hardest to write? Why?
The last book I wrote, "Rumors of Another World", was the hardest. I was trying to write for people in the "borderlands of faith" yet I found I kept using language they might not relate to. In the end I cut 100 pages from the manuscript because they seemed misdirected. I find that in many ways I take on, vicariously, the burden that I want to bear for the reader. If I write about doubt, I become a doubter; if I write about pain I feel pain. In this book I lived without faith for a time.
You have won several awards. Are these important to you?
I’d lie if I said no. We all like to be recognized. I must say that in the final analysis the rewards that mean most, however, are letters from readers affected by my books. Nothing is more satisfying than that mysterious, intimate connection that occurs between a writer and reader. There’s a line from the play "Shadowlands" on C. S. Lewis, "We read to know we’re not alone," I would add to that, "and we write in desperate hope that we’re not alone."
I have heard that the Christian market is one of the easiest for a writer to break into. Would you say this is true?
Hmm, would you mind if I sent you the letters I get from people trying to break into the Christian market? I don’t know how to judge that. Breaking into writing reminds me of the first time you apply for a job. The employer tells you, "I like you but we’re looking for someone with more experience." How are you supposed to have experience if no one gives you that first chance? Once you break into print the first time, or get that first book published, everything comes easier. But that’s a huge hurdle to overcome, whether you’re writing about the Christian faith or typhoons in Japan.
You are also an editor. How is that process different from the writing process?
I worked for 10 years as an editor, for Campus Life magazine. Editing is a sort of transitional phase between creativity, an outgrowth of the self, and connection with the reader. Every magazine editor knows what will work with the audience. Writers are primarily concerned about self-expression. Editors are the mediators. I’m very grateful for the years I spent thinking like an editor, because it impressed on me indelibly that in the final analysis the reader is boss. If people aren’t reading you, the sweat of writing simply evaporates.
Besides Christian books what other types of literature do you enjoy reading?
My question is whether I read any Christian books. No, that’s not true. I’ve just read a hundred books on prayer in preparation to writing on the subject myself. I read all kinds of stuff. The last book I read was Philip Roth’s novel about America turning fascist "The Plot Against America". Before that, it was a journalistic account of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in South Africa. I like reading about science. I should read poetry but I rarely get around to it. I like biographies and memoirs.
Who is your favorite author?
I always look up to Frederick Buechner as the author I know who best succeeds in treating words with the same reverence and high degree of quality that he gives to his faith. He’s simple in the most profound way.
A close friend has a theory that miracles happen every day but we don’t see them because we don’t have the self-confidence it takes to believe what we may be experiencing/seeing. Can you comment on this?
I tend to think that we humans are the only creatures in the universe concerned with what’s natural and what’s supernatural, what’s miracle and what’s not. From God’s perspective there is no "natural" or "supernatural." Everything that happens is an outgrowth of what God set in motion. C. S. Lewis has a great passage where he describes miracles as "speeded-up ordinaries." When Jesus converted water into wine, he merely speeded up the process that has long been occurring, of rain and sun making seeds sprout and turn into vines that bear fruit that ferment and create wine. All of life is, in that point of view, a "slow-motion miracle." I like that. We keep yearning for the supernatural. I can barely handle the natural.
I am a strong believer in using adversity as a catalyst for positive change. I also believe that sometimes God gives us adverse situations as gifts. In my case, I always wanted to be politically active and to write but never attempted to achieve my goals because I had convinced myself I would fail. When I was diagnosed with cancer, I realized that I could no longer put off my "someday list" because someday might never come. Once you’ve faced death, everything else seems simple. What is your feeling on this?
As I read the Bible I see that adversity does indeed spur creativity, it forces us beyond the barrier of comfort. And often the things we most resent or regret about ourselves are the very things God uses. For example, I used to spend energy resenting the church and family I grew up in, now I see them as the very forces that made me who I am. I became a writer in an attempt to go back and reclaim ground that had been spoiled, to recapture words that were stained. Death concentrates the mind, as [writer] Samuel Johnson said, and so does adversity of all kinds. The New Testament encourages us to "rejoice" in suffering, not in the sense of a fake smile, rather a deep appreciation of the long-term benefits. For a year I attended a group called Make Today Count, a group comprising people with terminal illnesses. I went to support a friend and each time I came away impressed by and almost envious of their wisdom and outlook on life.
You also play piano. Have you ever composed your own music? If so, how is that process different from the writing process?
No, I’ve never composed music. I marvel at creativity that does not involve words. The affect that music has on emotions is a total mystery to me: how a key change or a change in rhythm shifts the mood; why one melody sticks in the mind and not another. I would be at a loss trying to create without words.
As an activist, I try to reach out to local churches and get them involved in debt relief for Highly Indebted Poor Countries and the AIDS epidemic. It’s like pulling teeth. There is still the attitude of God’s punishing people. What do you think should be the role of Christians in world politics?[/b]
My own political concerns flow directly out of my faith. I care about the poor not out of any inbuilt compassion but because God commands me to. I care about the environment because I believe it is God’s creation, and about abused people because I believe they too are God’s creation. So my faith makes me far more involved in global issues than I would otherwise be. I understand your frustration because I run into the same problems when I write about issues I care about. All we can do is ground our prophetic message in the Bible, the one source Christians hold in common. Then we have to educate the church to what God cares about, the gospels could not be clearer about that. I also find that Christians respond when we pierce through the theory with actual human cases. Homosexuality takes on a different cast when it’s your brother or your cousin. AIDS in Africa looks different when you actually meet an orphan living on the streets or a woman unwittingly infected by her promiscuous husband. What you’re doing in person, and I’m doing in print, can help bridge that gap. It’s very tedious, isn’t it?
You are writing a new book, what is it about?
Prayer: Why and How. If I can figure out some kind of answers, I’ll let you know.
What are your hopes, both personal and professional, for the future?
I want to climb all the mountains in Colorado over 14,000 feet. There are 54 and I’ve done 44. I want to write a memoir that captures the poignancy as well as the horror of growing up fundamentalist. I want to stay married to the same woman (we’re closing in on 35 years now). I want to keep raising sights and finding challenges.
Many thanks to Philip Yancey for taking the time to answer these questions!