Back To Detail Page
Philip Yancey is editor-at-large for Christianity Today magazine. He has written twelve Gold Medallion Award-winning books. His books The Jesus I Never Knew and What's So Amazing About Grace were also awarded the Christian Book of the Year. Can you tell us about some of your interests and hobbies apart from writing?

Philip Yancey: That has a lot to do with living in Colorado. The main thing to do in Colorado is to walk outdoors and enjoy it, so in the winter I ski and cross-country ski and snowshoe, and in the summer, I climb mountains. There are 54 mountains in Colorado over 14,000 feet and I have a goal of eventually climbing all of them, so I climb a few each summer and mountain bike and do those kinds of things. I think the reason for that is that the writerís life is so internal and disconnected from the world, so itís really important for me to get out and reconnect with the planet. Colorado is a great place to do that. What inspired you to write your latest book, Rumors of Another World?

Philip Yancey: Itís a book that changed shape as I was writing it. I thought I was going to write a book on how the practical Christian life works on a day-to-day basis: how prayer works, how guidance works, and so forth. As I was writing, I spent some time speaking to audiences in Europe, who have no Christian background, so I kept backing up and wondering how this would sound to someone whoís not even sure there is a God. The book started being orientated towards those people. So I didnít start off saying Iíd like to write a book for people on the borderlands of faith. I originally thought I was writing a book for Christians, but as I wrote, the book just kind of took over and determined what I would write. Then I had to go back and ended up cutting almost 25,000 words out, because so much of it did not relate to the audience that took over the book. The title is intriguing and open-ended. Did you choose it to appeal to a culture comfortable with that idea of a parallel universe, like the "galaxy far, far away" in Star Wars?

Philip Yancey: I hope so. A lot of people growing up in a country that is as saturated with religion as ours is, develop resistance. So if you start talking about Jesus, then they immediately start putting up their guard. But if you start talking about another world, they tend to be more receptive. Some of their favorite movies explore those possibilities, so my approach is to start where people are. If they are already open to one area, I want to start there and build from there, instead of saying, ďYou need to buy into the Athanasian Creed.Ē Like Paul in the Areopagus? [Acts 17:22-23]

Philip Yancey: Exactly, the "unknown God." Thatís a very good analogy. You illustrate Rumors with anecdotes about your travels to exotic spots like Tasmania, and talk about seeing the Aurora Borealis. How has traveling all over the world affected your faith journey?

Philip Yancey: Itís something that we do as a tithe back to the church. My wife was raised on a mission field, and spent her childhood in Peru. I get a lot of invitations to speak. In America if I donít go, there's a Rolodex of thirty-five other people to call, but thatís not true overseas. A lot of people either because of finances or family or other reasons are not able to travel overseas.

And the way it has affected my faith journey is that when I go to some parts of the world, I am very challenged in my faith. For example, in Europe people have heard it all, seen it all, and donít believe it anymore. In a sense, Rumors of Another World is definitely a way those travels have affected my work.

But when I go to places like Brazil, the Philippines, Chile, and China, I see Christianity in its purest form. I see a church that is alive, that really is standing out from the culture around it. It really becomes a boon to my faith. Itís easy for me, sitting here, staring at words all day, to grow complacent and forget the power of what weíre dealing with. When I go to countries where I see that power in action, and see people who really do believe, and who really act out their belief and stand out from the culture around them, thatís a tremendously affirming thing for me. Your write with really refreshing honesty about your tendency to be skeptical, but you also state that Christianity makes the most sense out of the chaos of the human condition. Could you elaborate on that?

Philip Yancey: Iíve done seminars on doubt, and a lot of people are afraid of doubt. I am not afraid of doubt. In fact, doubt is the reason I am a Christian now, because I learned to doubt some of the crazy things I was told in the church I grew up in. I do have a skeptical bent, and donít take things at face value. I am kind of tough on salesmen, even salesmen of Christian faith.

But I think God has used that, because Iíve learned to be skeptical of the culture around me, too. Weíre in a culture that is telling us lies all the time. In Rumors of Another World, I talk about how when you go to a magazine rack, you see all these beautiful bodies. But when you look at the customers in the checkout line, you see people who are over-weight and have pimples and bad posture, and you think, ďNow wait a minute, something is wrong here.Ē The visible world that is being presented doesn't reflect reality. We are a very image conscious culture. We're told, "just use this product and your life will change."

I pointed out an ad to my wife the other day about "true redemption." It was something about an automobile company being "the true road to redemption." Well, that's certainly not the true road to redemption. So I learned to be skeptical of the world around me and the messages I was getting from it, in the same way I was skeptical of the some of the phony messages I was getting from church growing up.

I encourage people to take a tough look and not to take at face value things that are shown to them on television and in advertisements. In some cases that applies to things that are said in churches as well, as it did in my case. Skepticism is a curse and a gift. Itís a curse because itís hard for me to have that simple child-like faith that Jesus really seemed to admire. Itís a gift because, if I can turn it to the rest of culture, then it helps me have a perspective that would be difficult to get otherwise. You discuss how Godís instructions to us in the Bible arenít intended to spoil our fun, but are verifiable as being in our best interest. But there is also an element of profound mystery and paradox that pervades Scripture. How do you see that mystery interacting with the tension between "I believe; help my unbelief" (Mark 9:24)?

Philip Yancey: That's a good question. I think that the statement by the father of the demon-possessed boy says it well, because his heart is there: "I believe, and I do want to believe," but there are parts that he just doesnít know. And what he does with those parts is not cultivate them, nourish them, and turn them into arguments. But rather he brings them to God: "Help my unbelief." I think that is what we are supposed to do with mystery.

Obviously, we puny little human beings are not going to understand a lot. We are not going to understand why God acts sometimes in history and not at other times. There is a lot about the world around us that we donít understand. There is a lot about world history that we do not understand.

I take great comfort in the book of Job, because he was one of those people who didnít understand, he just ran up against mystery and explored that. But in the end, God honored Job above his friends. His friends had all the answers, neat little theological wrap-up answers that they kept trying to hammer into Job. And in the end, God said, ďNo, I wonít even listen to your prayers unless you first go to my servant Job. Iíll listen to his prayers.Ē He seemed to respect that honesty of a person who would stand up on his two legs and say, ďI wonít curse God, but, man, you got some explaining to do.Ē That was Jobís stance all the way through the book. I think God liked that.

When I look at the people God chose in the Bible, a lot of them have that spunk, because that continues the relationship. If you just say, ďI wonít have anything to do with God,Ē that stops the relationship. But if you fight him, if you struggle, then the relationship goes on. A lot of people try to eliminate mystery. I donít try to eliminate mystery. I just try to involve God in the process of dealing with the mystery. I was actually thinking of that passage at the end of Job. Itís one of my favorites.

Philip Yancey: When you go back and actually look at the things God chose, He deliberately chose the wild parts of nature: the untamed wild horses and the crocodile. Can you put a leash on a crocodile and drag it through the streets like a pet? No. And it's that wildness in nature that He is celebrating, and I think, in a sense, it's also the wildness of Job that He is celebrating, too. In Rumors of Another World, you sum up your journey when you say, ďI now envision God, not so much as a policeman upstairs watching my every move, but rather as a Spirit within coaxing me to realize fully what I was created to be in the first place.Ē Although you turned away from that toxic faith that you where brought up with, that Spirit still whispered "rumors" to you and was drawing you back. What practical advice would you offer to people who sense Godís voice in those "rumors" and want to either connect or reconnect with Him?

Philip Yancey: Twenty or thirty years ago, it would have been hard to recommend a church for a person who was just hearing those "rumors" for the first time, because church would seem like a foreign culture. But that has changed now with the Willow Creek seeker church model and the many churches that have at least one service oriented to seekers. So I would encourage them to just ask Christian friends if they know of a seeker church. A lot of people would be able to point them, in a large city at least, to a church service that they could go to confident that nobodyís going to try pigeonhole them, and that they'd understand and it wouldnít be weird.

But there are some people, who through wounds of the past or whatever, are not even ready to sit in a church building. And for those people, I would say a book group is a good place to start. I donít know if you have links to book groups, but Iím sure youíre in favor of them! I hear from people who use my books in book groups that include unbelievers and even people of other religions. Theyíve studied a book like The Jesus I Never Knew or What's So Amazing About Grace. And there are people over here from Japan or Muslims in a few cases, who want to know about Jesus because they live in a country where they hear his name all the time. Theyíll go to a book group because it is less threatening than a church, and theyíll read a book and discuss it. To me that is a great venue for the person you just described. If theyíre uncomfortable, they can just stop going. A book is much less threatening than a church. When someone comes to the door and tries to talk about their faith, immediately barriers can go up, and the person is not going to listen to anything that's said. A book is not as threatening because you're in control of it. You can choose whether to keep reading it or not, so a book group rather than a church is a great place to start. Towards the close of the book, you talk quite a bit about exercising your dual citizenship in the seen and unseen worlds at the same time and practicing what you call ďstereoscopic vision.Ē Have your efforts to do that in conjunction with writing the book lead you to encounter more "thin places" between the worlds and confirmation of the unseen world?

Philip Yancey: Almost the opposite happened. I wrote this book for people in the borderlands of belief. I think what happened was I was so intent on looking at the world through their eyes for a year and a half or so as I was writing it, that I was feeling like I lived in the borderlands of belief myself. When I mailed it off to the publisher, I felt a burden lifting, and I realized I really do believe. I am not one of those unsure whether there even is another world out there. Actually, what you asked me about has occurred much more since I mailed the manuscript off than while I was writing it. I think that part of the Christian life is developing those eyes, developing that vision. Those are gifts that I had taken for granted. In the process of writing this book, I kind of entered into the world of the people I was writing for and didnít really have those experiences. In the same way, Iíve written books about pain and suffering before. And even though I was not going through chronic pain or terminal illness myself, I kind of felt like it when I was writing the book, because I was the advocate for my readers, and something like that happened spiritually while I was writing this book. That reminds me of C.S. Lewis, who talked about his relief at finishing up Screwtape Letters.

Philip Yancey: Itís very true. I wasnít aware of it while it was going on. It was only after it was over that I felt that release. But it was an insight into the kind of burden that people carry around. They think there must be something out there, but they donít know what it is, and thatís a scary place to be. You mentioned that you often write a book because itís a way for a kind of introverted person to really wrestle with an issue. Do you have something waiting in the wings for your next book?

Philip Yancey: This book took more out of me that any Iíve done. Part of the reason is what Iíve just described to you, and another part is the fact that it did change shape. So just the process of wrestling with the material was agonizing. I decided Iím not going to pick up a new book right away; Iím going to wait. You're going to go climb some mountains?

Philip Yancey: Yes, I'm going to do that and play a little golf. Zondervan has an author tour arranged, so theyíre taking care of a good bit of the rest of my year. I'll just wait and listen and not charge in right away. I may pick up the book that I thought I was going to write, a book on prayer, guidance, and how the Christian life works, but Iím not sure. Iím just going to wait and sometime early next year, sit down and figure out the answer to that question.