Friday, January 16, 2004

Soul Survivor by Phillip Yancy How Thirteen Unlikely Mentors Helped My Faith Survive the Church

"I have spent most of my life in recovery from the Church" says Yancey. His home church he describes as racist, "fundamentalist," and contentious, and at the "burial" of his home church (disbanding because of falling membership in a changing neighborhood), he visualized against the crowd of alumni a "procession of those not present, people like my brother, who had turned away from God in large part because of this church."

Yet despite the failings (evils) of his home church, there was still something there. And despite the failings of the thirteen men who became his "mentors," he found evidence of God's grace in all. He eventually could forgive his church--and even himself.

If you recognize all the names in his chapters you're doing better than I, although I'd heard of the work of a few whose names I didn't know.

  • Martin Luther King, Jr. A Long Night's Journey into Day
  • G.K. Chesterton Relics Along the Seashore
  • Dr. Paul Brand Detours to Happiness (He found effective treatments for leprosy)
  • Dr. Robert Coles Tender Lives and the Assaults of the Universe (He wrote Children of Crisis documenting the life of the poor and rich in America) -
  • Leo Tolstoy and Feodor Dostoevsky Chasing Grace
  • Mahatma Gandhi Echoes in a Strange Land
  • Dr. C. Everett Koop Serpents and Doves in the Public Square
  • John Donne As He Lay Dying
  • Annie Dillard The Splendor of the Ordinary (a writer and poet)
  • Fredrick Buechner Whispers from the Wings (a preacher and writer)
  • Shusaku Endo A Place for Traitors (a Japanese writer, whose novels center on the betrayals during the time the Shoguns stamped out Christianity in Japan)
  • Henri Nouwen The Wounded Healer (a priest and writer who left writing to work with the handicapped)

For those who know Yancey's work, one common theme is what sense to make of pain, failure, and our own betrayals of what we ought to know and refuse to obey. Over and over again, despite the curses of oppression or poverty or disease, you can hear "Blessed are the poor." The Protestant circles I generally travel in don't talk much about the redemptive power of suffering. It seems odd that a curse we're called on to alleviate could also be a blessing: but then that's God for you--always able to outmaneuver circumstances.

Each of these "mentors" addressed something in Yancey's life. King's devotion to Christian nonviolence was eye-opening to Yancey, as he saw an "inferior" so clearly superior and prophetic. That King wasn't perfect doesn't mean he could not be a prophetic voice for our time--the Bible is full of imperfect servants of God.

From Chesterton he relearned joy.

It struck me, after reading my umpteenth book on the problem of pain, that I have never even seen a book on "the problem of pleasure." Nor have I met a philosopher who goes around shaking his or her head in perplexity over the question of why we experience pleasure. Yet it looms as a huge question: the philosophical equivalent, for atheists, to the problem of pain for Christians.
(And I can't resist including this famous quote from Chesterton:)
"To complain that I could only be married once was like complaining that I had only been born once. It was incommensurate with the terrible excitement of which one was talking. It showed, not an exaggerated sensibility to sex, but a curious insensibility to it . . . Polygamy is a lack of the realization of sex: it is like a man plucking five pears in a mere absence of mind."

From the chapter on Dr. Robert Coles:

What transformed a physician and social scientist into a devotee of literature? Coles answers, "A man like Tolstoy knew more psychology than the whole twentieth-century social scene will ever know. All this stuff about the stages of dying coming out now--why not just go back and read The Death of Ivan Ilyich? It said everything. And who has added any wisdom to the field of marital problems since Anna Karenina? And Dickens, oh my, what Dickens knew about human nature! I simply wander around from one place to the next, teaching these novels and trying to, in a way, undo the devil in the medical school, law school, and business school."

Gandhi was, of course, no Christian, but he tried to apply some of Jesus' precepts, putting his own life on the line. The world knows most of that story. And Gandhi serves as an indictment to the "name it and claim it" Christian worshipers of self-fulfillment, and a demonstration of what power there is in obeying even a little of God's commands.

With Brand, "for the first time in my life, I encountered genuine humility." A missionary surgeon; the man who discovered how leprosy really destroyed (and how to stop it); a man who dedicated years of his life to finding ways to repair damaged hands and feet; and more.

I can't do justice to this book in a few paragraphs. Since I got it for Christmas I've tried to get 4 or 5 other people to read it. You read it too. That's Soul Survivor by Yancey.

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