Whatever Happened to the Good News?
by Phil Yancey
Since 2002 best-selling author Phil Yancey has been connected with the subject of grace. His award-winning book What’s So Amazing About Grace, published by Zondervan, investigated the meaning of grace, and how, when put into action, it is the hallmark of the presence of God in the world. In his latest book, Vanishing Grace – Whatever Happened to the Good News?, published in 2014 also by Zondervan, Yancey looks at why Christians today are viewed so negatively in the US, and how this may be related to Christians bestowing so little grace on people who do not believe as they do.
In the first few pages of Vanishing Grace, Yancey seeks to present a view of the current state of tension between Christians and non-Christians in the US by relating some discussions he has had with the members of his book club — a modern, secular, well-informed and professionally diverse group. As a result of these exchanges over the years, Yancey states he has learned “that religion is viewed as a huge threat [rather than good news] to those who see themselves as a minority of agnostics in a land of belief.”
Because Yancey is a journalist, he frequently talks to people and asks them questions related to faith. He says of these conversations, “I have tried to listen to the [religiously] uncommitted, not as opponents, but as seekers who are still looking. Why did they leave the church and perhaps the faith? What can we learn from them, and how can we invite them back?” And then Yancey interjects this question, which I think may be the most important question in the book: “Can the good news, once spoiled, ever sound good again?”
In Vanishing Grace, Yancey presents three models of believers that he thinks do the best job of showing grace and making the good news sound good again in today’s post-Christian culture. He calls them “Grace Dispensers.” They are Pilgrims, Activists, and Artists.
Pilgrims are those who, when they share their story, make it clear that they are not superior, super-saintly folks who have “arrived” as Christians, but are flawed fellow-travelers on the way. Today’s highly skeptical culture is seeking authenticity in others’ life stories, not authority. Yancey notes that the lives of Jesus’ closest friends, the disciples, serve to illustrate what a bumbling pilgrim looks like — even though these were the very ones hand-picked by Jesus to carry out his mission after his ascension. Yancey writes, “The burden of the Kingdom of God rests on the backs of ordinary pilgrims, not angels or spiritual giants…Why choose a plan with the odds stacked against it? It’s like turning over a Fortune 500 company to a gang of six-year-olds. I find a simple answer in the Bible’s overarching theme that God is love.” In this section on pilgrims, Yancey also includes stories by the eloquent and authentic Henri Nouwen and Brennan Manning, and other less well known people, to illustrate the reality of committed Christians being imperfect pilgrims on the way.
Activists, we learn, “express their faith in the most persuasive way of all, by their deeds,” says Yancey. He draws on theologian Miroslav Volf to help demonstrate what he means. Volf, who lived through the horror of the Balkan War of the 1990’s, says that attempting to share our Christian beliefs through a “talking head” approach by stressing doctrine is counterproductive. Volf suggests that Christians live out their faith in a hand to heart to head manner. “Practical acts of mercy (extending a hand) will express our love (the heart), which in turn may attract others to the source of that love (head beliefs).”
Yancey sites several people and organizations who are living the hand-heart-head model of Christian activism. Here are a couple: A group made up of Christians from forty nations which is dedicated to freeing women around the world from prostitution; an organization in India which is immersed in the culture of the Dalits, or untouchables, building schools and clinics to serve them. This type of “grace dispensing” is not a new idea to the Western church, but what is new is the absence of the language that has been associated with colonialism and subjugation of the culture which the activists seek to serve. Yancey says, “Christians are not just wayfarers en route to the next life, but rather pioneer settlers of God’s kingdom in advance, a sign of what will follow. By living out lives of grace in a spoiled environment, we point forward to a time of restoration.”
Artists of all stripes, though not generally considered grace dispensers by the church, have a powerful means of reaching our culture, writes Yancey. He quotes N.T. Wright as saying that the arts “are highways onto the center of a reality which cannot be glimpsed, let alone grasped, any other way.”
Yancey then employs a brilliant metaphor taken from the book of Ecclesiastes about words being both sharply pointed goads: used for prodding one to action; as well as firmly embedded nails: something that can be a permanent marker in cultures. Expanding the definition of “words” to mean all of the arts, Yancey sites various books, paintings and musical compositions created by Christians which have acted as goads for change in societies.
Yancey goes on to say, “As voices such as T.S. Eliot, Walker Percy, and Flannery O’Connor have reminded us, in the modern world, Christians stand virtually alone in seeing the need for (or even believing in) firmly embedded nails…I have a hunch that as history looks back on the twentieth century, that most chaotic of centuries, some Christian artists will endure for having hammered in a few firmly embedded nails. This world bears the stamp of genius, the stain of ruin, and the hint of redeemability; that triune intuition of Christian faith gives a template of meaning to the questions…[‘Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going?’] Who else is even presenting a template?”
I believe Christians have much to lament when it comes to the arts. Why are Christians, the ones who claim be closest to the Creator God, seen as ineffectual, sometimes even laughable, in the creative arts today? It was not always so. What happened? Yancey thinks that the church became sidetracked in the arts when it resorted to using it solely for propaganda. The church is not alone in this fault, Yancey points out — politics and science also have targeted their audiences and unabashedly promoted their viewpoint through the arts. Can the church once again be a center and strong proponent of great art, using it as a means to dispense grace to a culture that is longing for goodness, truth and beauty? Only time will tell. But Yancey suggests that Jesus sought the greatest type of performance art — the transfiguration of lives. Paul, he says, describes it this way: “You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone.”
Is grace vanishing in the West? Perhaps not, but somehow the melody of amazing grace as heard in the post-Christian world has become discordant and jarring. Yancey includes a quote from Karl Barth about the mission of the church in which Barth says Christians are: “To set up in the world a new sign which is radically dissimilar to [the world’s] own manner and which contradicts it in a way that is full of promise.” Ultimately to live fully in this hopeful way, “Always prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have… with gentleness and respect,” (1 Peter 3:15) may be the way that Christians can extend both grace and the good news to our culture.
Vanishing Grace is an excellent book, and although the question, “Whatever happened to the good news?” seems to be the subject of many books these days, Yancey has been both thorough and creative in addressing it here. It would be an outstanding book club selection, and there is a DVD available for small group study also.