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Friday, October 10, 2014

"Vanishing Grace" (Philip Yancey)

TITLE: Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News?
AUTHOR: Philip Yancey
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014, (304 pages).

Evangelicals are taking a bad rap nowadays. Just like the first century believers, the name "Christian" is being used more as a derogatory term. It is label that some people would even utter in the same breath with words like "bigot," "hypocrite," "intolerant," "homophobic," "anti-science," and other nasty terms. Of course, this is a sweeping statement that unfairly generalizes the Christian community. For the author who wrote one of the most popular books about grace, the question is: What happened? Why is the Church failing in her mission in dispensing grace? Are Christians who are supposed to be bearers of good news becoming stumbling blocks that prevent others from hearing about God's grace? These questions and more are tackled by one of evangelicalism's favourite author, Philip Yancey.

This book is a compilation of four short books. The first is a survey of the current attitudes against Christianity in general. What is most disconcerting is that Christians are perceived more and more unfavourably rather than good news bearers. He shares about how a fellow book club member said Christians being "anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-women - probably anti-sex" and so on. This is not helped by the exodus of young people out of the Church. What shocks Yancey more is the dramatic shift of perceptions between the West and the rest of the world. In his travel to Africa, Asia, and South America, Christians were generally seen respectfully as doctors, lawyers, pastors, teachers, nurses, helpers of various sorts. When he returned to North America, Christians seemed to be judged very harshly, so much so that Yancey felt he had to write this book to diagnose the problem; to reflect on the past journeys of pilgrims, activists, and artists; to ponder about the theological, the sociological, and the human issues surrounding the perceptions of grace; and proposes a way forward. At the heart of his concern is this: "How can we communicate truly good news to a culture running away from it?" He uses the Quaker saying aptly: "An enemy is one whose story we have not heard." Spot on!

Part One is about self-examination and honest observation of world trends. There are a lot of ugly things going on. Like the huge disdain for religions in Europe and the secular West to the rise of "Nones" also known as people without any religious affiliations. Yet, Yancey learns to adopt an attitude of listening and humility which really helps me a lot. For instance, he learns to see people as "thirsty people" and he yearns to find ways to present the gospel in the most constructive manner without dumbing people down. This itself is worth the price of the book. Listening, adapting, cultivating trust, and praying are thoughts that come alive as I read this. We are reminded that we too are thirsty pilgrims ourselves, and we are not called to react harshly against the negativity toward us, but to remain good news bearers even though such people continue to spite us.

Part Two is an attempt to learn how the believers in the past deal with their faith challenges. Three groups of people are described. The first to learn from are pilgrims. Yancey reflects on Gina Welch a Jewish writer, John Bunyan who wrote Pilgrim's Progress and Brennan Manning who had an alcoholic past, all of who point out that the uncommitted often learns best from people's weaknesses. Pilgrims live in community. Pilgrims serve one another. Pilgrims love one another. Yet, pilgrims only show a part of the journey of life. More crucially, Yancey observes them as people "seeking an escape from the world" which is why he introduces the need for a second group, the activists who engage the world. Like Bono who cares for children in Africa suffering from AIDS; or Miroslav Volf who argues for the importance to live by progressing from "hand to heart to head" which runs against the usual paradigm of doing after we have believed; and of Kevin Roose who observed that the media message of Christians being "angry zealots" are way too far fetched. The Christians Roose saw at Liberty University were people totally uninvolved in politics but were actively engaged in world relief efforts. Yancey brings many examples of Christians quietly serving behind enemy lines, dangerous places, and remote territories to provide various humanitarian help to counter the often one-sided media portrayal that denigrates Christians. Good deeds open hearts. The third group are the artists, Christians who "strive to be goads in the flank of society." The Bible are full of examples of such people like the prophets or wise people like the author of Ecclesiastes. Yancey offers us a number of artists in music, poetry, literature, movies, and the creative works that run against the self-help department of life. As propaganda, artists can weave in their stories through subversive communications. It creates space for people to express themselves.

Part Three offers us a chance to re-look at what the good news actually mean. He notes that the secular world that feeds on materialism and worldly success still runs on empty after a while. While some kind of faith is needed, Yancey also notes that there is still an unhealthy image that Christians go to Church simply to feel good about themselves. He fears that Christianity in the US will follow the way of Europe soon. The tri-partite group of pilgrim, activist, and artist ought to work with the uncommitted rather than to fight the "secular opponents." This is also the same argument that James Emery White made in his book, The Rise of the Nones. Yancey probes the question of moral good that Christianity can still contribute toward, as well as the need to stay away from legalism. However, Christians would need to steer past the perceptions of politics and cultural resistances, and to demonstrate that faith still matters, beginning with the failed promises of modernism. He looks at science and faith, pointing out that while science has advanced a lot, it is still lacking in answering three big questions.
  1. Why is there something rather than nothing? (Is there anyone else? The God question)
  2. Why is that something so beautiful and orderly? (Why are we here? The human question)
  3. How ought we to conduct ourselves in such a world? (How should we live? The social question)
Part Four touches on Christians and politics, and concludes with a "holy subversion," a way in which faith can still be communicated across to various groups amid an anti-Christian climate. He notes that everyone live in a kind of fear, and Christians ought to be aware that opponents too have fears of their own to deal with. Using power to fight hostility is never the solution to peace. In fact, the Christian faith grows best from bottom up rather than top down. Perhaps, Yancey could have covered more in this topic of "holy subversion" especially in the area of social justice, poverty, and other aspects. There is a sense of abruptness in this final part.

So What?

I feel that this is an important book that addresses the negativity against Christianity, especially in the West. On a daily basis, I read of how Christians have been accused on bigotry, homophobia, and all kinds of nasty label just like what Yancey had observed. It will be hard to turn the tide. It would be harder for the future if we do not do anything about it. This book perhaps can help address and contribute toward a better image for Christianity in the future generations.

Yancey fans would be really happy with this book as it deals with a very relevant topic about how Christians can live and testify for Christ amid a hostile and often anti-Christian climate. By recognizing the ways of pilgrims, activists, and artists, we have three channels of faith expression on how we can engage the world. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of each group will help us adapt, adjust, and advocate for Christ according to the cultural contexts we live in. There is hope as Yancey frequently alludes to. Just because the world rejects the gospel does not mean that the gospel lacks power. It simply shows the stubbornness of the human heart and the weaknesses of modern Christian witness. One thing is for sure, when the Spirit of the Lord moves, and when the servant of God obeys, it is no longer the Christian vs non-Christian. It is God vs all creation.

At the end, readers will recognize that the world remains thirsty today and the philosophies and wisdom of this world are still unable to quench this need. Christians still have an important role to play. They are still bearers of the good news. They need to recognize their identity in Christ, live it out, and to let Christ be manifested in works, words, and all manner of wisdom that guides people toward the Person of Jesus Christ. Human grace may vanish from time to time. God's grace overflows all the time.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Zondervan and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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