Faith ‘n’ Fiction Book Talk: *What Good is God?*, by Philip Yancey

What Good Is God?: In Search of a Faith That Matters 
Philip Yancey
Hachette/FaithWords (2010), Hardcover (ISBN 0446559857 / 9780446559850)
Nonfiction (Religion/Christianity), 304 pages
Source: Purchased e-book (Kindle format: ASIN B003YFIVGI)
Reason for Reading: April 2011 Faith ‘n’ Fiction Roundtable discussion

Opening Lines (from the Prologue): “In late November 2008, my wife and I were completing a tour of India sponsored by my publisher. I had spoken on themes from my books in five cities, and the last stop involved a public event in India’s largest city, Mumbai. As it happened, that was the horrifying night when terrorists attacked tourist sites with grenades and guns, killing 172 people.”

Book Description: Journalist and spiritual seeker Philip Yancey has always struggled with the most basic questions of the Christian faith. The question he tackles in WHAT GOOD IS GOD? concerns the practical value of belief in God. His search for the answer to this question took him to some amazing settings around the world: Mumbai, India when the firing started during the terrorist attacks; at the motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated; on the Virginia Tech campus soon after the massacre; an AA convention; and even to a conference for women in prostitution.

Comments: I’m not sure what I was expecting from this book, but I don’t think it was what I found, at least in terms of its structure. What Good Is God? In Search of a Faith That Matters is a collection of talks that Philip Yancey has given in various places around the world, each prefaced with a chapter reflecting on the circumstances under which they were given.

In some instances, Yancey addressed communities in the wake of traumatic events; in others, he spoke to groups who were marginalized and persecuted. He spoke in Memphis, Tennessee – a place I know pretty well, and one where nearly every issue is quite literally black or white – on the day after the 2008 presidential election, discussing the healing influence that the Church Health Center has had on this city with a notorious civil-rights history. He talked in South Africa about how the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has approached its mission. He brought survivors of the Columbine shootings with him to a talk at Virginia Tech just after it suffered its own similar tragedy, knowing that they’d be able to reach each other as few could. He spoke at a Cambridge University conference about C.S. Lewis, and that chapter may have been the one I least expected; it actually made me want to read C.S. Lewis’ writings on Christianity.

Yancey was brought up in a narrow-minded, fundamentalist church, but has arrived at a more expansive worldview – and God-view, which is what he communicates to his listeners. He comes across as evangelical in some ways, but with a rather non-sectarian approach, and the more time I spent with the book, the more appealing I found that. He takes a pretty strong stand against what he calls “legalism,” or the excessive focus on “rules” about the “proper” way to believe and express one’s faith that often seems to lead to “my Christianity is better than your Christianity” competitiveness – not especially Christian behavior, in my opinion. In contrast, he seeks to convey what Christianity is meant to be by going back to its roots, the teachings of Jesus and writings of his early followers.

Despite some redundancies that I think are at least partly the fault of the book’s structure, I think that Yancey does a pretty effective job of getting his Christian worldview across to his readers and listeners; I rarely felt that I was being preached at, and I was surprised to find that I shared some of the viewpoints he expressed. I’m not sure that what’s presented in this book truly matches the premise of its title, however. “In Search of a Faith That Matters” implies, to me, a personal faith journey in some form, and that’s really not what’s chronicled here. On top of that, the central question “What Good is God?” really doesn’t seem to be answered. I’m not uncomfortable with that, personally – as I’ve said before, the questions are what interest me – but I do think that some readers might feel a bit misled. Having said that, I’m not sorry I read this one, and it’s left me with some real food for thought.

The Faith ‘n’ Fiction Roundtable members will be posting our discussion of What Good is God on Saturday, April 30.

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