Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Soul Survivor

Philip Yancey is presently THE Christian writer for me. I've never bought so many works by the same author in so short a time, given my meager student allowance. And even if I’m now on my 7th book by him, he never fails to inspire, enlighten, surprise and refresh me with each new book and article I get my hands on.

Here's a really short and wanting biography: He’s a journalist who serves as editor-at-large for Christianity Today magazine. He has written twelve Gold Medallion Award-winning books, including Where is God When It Hurts?, Disappointment with God, and The Bible Jesus Read. The Jesus I Never Knew and What’s So Amazing About Grace? were both awarded the Christian Book of the Year. He is also the author of Reaching for the Invisible God. Four of his books have sold a million copies each, and, fortunately, he also happens to be found everywhere from Cang's Inc. to National Bookstore. Articles by him can be found at, and a personal website,

Given the sensitive nature of writing Christian books, I noticed that he never writes about anything that he doesn't really know about, except when he writes to admit that he doesn't really know much about a certain subject. Seemingly an act of copping out, it is his remarkable authenticity that affords his writings a sense of dispensation of truth and grace that any reader readily appreciates, without compromising, of course, an exceptional writing caliber. A culture-savvy Christian, every stroke of his pen is not without a clear sense of literary purpose:

"Every writer has one main theme, a spoor that he or she keeps sniffing around, tracking, following to its source. If I had to define my own theme, it would be that of a person who absorbed some of the worst the church has to offer, yet still landed in the loving arms of God. Yes, I went through a period of rejection of the church and God, a conversion experience in reverse that felt like liberation for a time. I ended up, however, not an atheist, a refugee from the church, but as one of its advocates."

What allowed him to ransom a personal faith from the damaging effects of religion? It takes a whole book to answer that. Entitled Soul Survivor, that book profiles thirteen unlikely "mentors" who went a long way toward answering that question. These mentors range from the scatterbrained journalist G. K. Chesterton to the tortured novelists Tolstoy and Dostoevsky to contemporaries such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Annie Dillard, and Robert Coles. He teases:

"If I were invited to a convention full of skeptics, or representatives of another religion, and asked to explain my faith, these are the companions I would want along. I could simply point to these strong witnesses and say, 'Christians are not perfect, by any means, but they can be people made fully alive. This is what they look like.' Each stands at the top of his or her field, and they credit personal faith as one of the reasons why."

Perhaps I am especially drawn to Yancey through my own bitter experiences with the church, or more aptly, certain church people, whom a well-meaning friend of mine once bluntly dubbed as church a-holes.

Everyone has different grievances against people claiming to be ambassadors for Christ. These range from bad and unkindly relationships, physical assault, emotional harassment, dishonest conduct of finances, hypocrisy, and even sexual violation.

Yet however much I can accuse people, I can but justly point the questions back to myself and ask how many times have I myself misrepresented the one whose name I religiously bear, in both my public and private life? If I claim to be a victim of and an activist against church politics and hypocrisy, am I actually assuming to be on a better moral standing than my perpetrators? In recovering from church abuse, have I failed to heed W. H. Auden's warning that "those to whom evil in done, do evil in return"?

Yancey reminds me that against the backdrop of God’s glaringly perfect holiness, I'd actually look no better than any other person standing beside me, whether Mother Teresa or Adolf Hitler. I know that for every wrong act that I can observe from fellow Christians and especially from certain church leaders, I am just as accountable and guilty as them for my inner, subterranean struggles and sins every day, running along the lines of pride, arrogance, lust, unforgiveness, et cetera. For instance, in writing this seemingly "spiritual" blog entry, as well as anything that can get published, I get cephalomegaly in actually having written it, expecting a pat on the back or two.

Personally, it is one such (rather stubborn) struggle to dispense love, grace and mercy to a church that, I witness, never fails to churn out spiritually wounded patients more than anything else. It is just insufferable to someone who knows that it is.

My thoughts drift into how God would run the infinite distance between God-ness and humanity through Jesus Christ, to be butchered and slain for sins even as seemingly inconsequential as a stolen penny, a careless whisper or a smug twist of the shoulder; all in the ultimate act of loving forgiveness. I often waver between holding my grudges and letting them pass—to forgive freely, as I have been forgiven in the same manner.

Apparently, God isn’t done with me yet.

Largely, the church that I was born into has, for all its contributions, terribly lost its sense of urgency and relevance in this generation. And it only goes to show that the Church (I am now referring to the collective institution wherein affiliation entails being called a Christian), as in all human organizations, is understandably flawed and imperfect. And with its over 1 billion strong membership, failure rates will unsurprisingly soar.

And like Yancey, I write this as one seeking to redeem those experiences that gave me reasons to step out of Christendom, and hopefully turn them into words of assurance to save another soul just a little bit of trouble.

If I were to write my own Soul Survivor in the far future, the name Philip Yancey would easily make it to the top my “mentors” list.

-Nigel Uno

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