‘Where the light fell’ by Philip Yancey – a review

Philip Yancey is possibly one of the most well know Christian writers in my life time. With a huge back catalogue of best-selling books such as ‘Disappointment with God‘, ‘The Jesus I never knew‘ and ‘What’s so amazing about Grace?‘ he has done more than many to drag the hardest questions of life and faith into the spotlight.

So now, he’s written a memoir, his own life story. It’s the back story to the public writer, a ‘prequel’ to all his other writings, he says. So is it a ‘good read’ ? Absolutely not. It’s utterly dire, not because it’s not well written but because the content, the truth, about his own upbringing is so appalling.

He recounts his early years in a deeply conservative, highly evangelical, toxically racist southern state brought up by a single mother whose intense religiosity was only matched by her utter incapacity to love.

There is a genre of true life autobiography which is known as ‘misery lit’ – stories of ‘being abused, half starved, chained to a wall… and how I over came this’ – I have never read any misery lit – I would just find them unspeakably depressing and I would feel uncomfortable being put in the role of a voyeuristic bystander reading such a story as if it were idle entertainment. This book is Christian ‘misery lit’ – should he have written it? I don’t know. I know how it affected me: I got so depressed but I couldn’t stop reading it because I SO wanted life to get better for him. It took me a week to get through it and yes, things did improve mostly when he met his wife but only for him not for his genius brother or his bitter mother. However, this isn’t really a story about ‘how things got better’ but instead it’s about ‘how bad things really were’.

So would I recommend you read this? Again, I don’t know. Anyone else scarred by a religious but inadequate and viscious parent might find some solidarity in it.

I get that he is being utterly truthful and didn’t in any way wish to plaster over the cracks, character defects, moral failures of the Christians he was surrounded by as a young man but I think a little more focus on what it is the one extra-ordinary miracle in the whole sorry story would not have gone amiss. The one miracle in the midst of the whole sorry story is him – that he should somehow emerge from such a situation, with faith instead of a hard as stone atheist is quite frankly miraculous but he doesn’t point that out.

Ultimately our faith is meant to be in God not in fallible human beings. If you are already disillusioned about Christians, this book might just reinforce your view. If, on the other hand if you want to know how someone groped his way through a huge pile of garbage and found a thread of gold in a life-long relationship with a faithful and loving God, maybe this book will help.

I’ve wanted to put up this review ever since I finished it but didn’t feel I understood well enough why I reacted so strongly (apart from the obvious fact of my own much less extreme but nevertheless evangelical background), then this morning something in another book I am reading gave me a handle on what was going on.

The too often disregared scriptural rule is that we cannot be made to believe. Belief by its very nature requires assent and participation, trust and commitment. When we believe we are at our most personal and intimate with another, with the Other. Belief cannot be forced. If we are bullied or seduced or manipulated to believe, we do not end up believing, we end up intimidated or raped or used. And we are less, not more’

(Eugene Peterson from Christ Plays in 1,000 Places, emphasis mine)

Philip Yancey was brought up in sub-culture where belief was enforced by manipulation, expectation and outright bullying, along the way he was intimidated, humiliated and used. What is truly remarkable is that he emerged believing against all odds.

I would love to know what anyone else thought about this book.

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