Do you think we should generally be more open to influences that do not necessarily carry a “Christian” label, such as secular fiction?
I read about a person’s mother-in-law who, while reciting a prayer, accidentally mixed up the syntax. Instead of praying that we be “mindful of the needs of others,” she prayed that we be “needful of the minds of others.” A great prayer! One I’ve often relied on, in fact. Sadly enough, in many areas (environmental issues, science, art, literature) Christians are not producing the best work—the reverse of what held true for much of European history. I’m happy to admit my need of other minds. My book Soul Survivor includes a chapter on Mahatma Gandhi, who was not a Christian. Yet he modelled his entire life after principles he learned from Jesus, and managed to change the world in the process. I have something to learn from Gandhi, a Hindu who took the Sermon on the Mount more seriously than do 99 percent of the Christians I know.
Can a church ever be as persuasive as an individual example?
Yes, I think it can. If, for example, churches in Hitler’s Germany had stood up in the way that a few individuals (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Niemoller) did, think of the tragedy that might have been averted. Jesus used images of small things (yeast in bread, salt in meat, a seed in a garden) having a major impact on the surrounding environment. We dare not live this Christian life alone. Often, it takes an individual to point the way, prophetically, but I would hope that we join together to shine a light in darkness.
What person has influenced you most in life?
No one has had a deeper influence on my life than Dr. Paul Brand. A British orthopedic surgeon, he worked for many years in India and then moved to the U.S. He died in 2003 at the age of 89. In India he improvised treatment for leprosy patients, many of them Untouchables who had been kicked—literally by a foot—out of their homes and villages, and found their way to the one hospital in the entire world where an orthopedic surgeon was devising ways of refashioning their hands and feet. Twelve million leprosy patients in the world, and at the time only one orthopedic surgeon was working with them. The example of this distinguished British surgeon from University College in London working among the lowest of the low captured for me a picture of the incarnation, and the “downward mobility” that all of us followers of Jesus are called to.
The statement by Jesus most repeated in the Gospels (six times in all) is that we find our life by losing it. Through people like Dr. Brand I saw the actual truth of that paradoxical formula. Such a philosophy goes directly contrary to the philosophy of pleasure, ego-satisfaction and self-fulfillment of modern civilization, and it made a huge impact on me as a journalist to see convincing proof that Jesus was actually right.
What kind of impact?
Mainly, I’d have to say it challenged me, never to feel comfortable with comfort, never to put out of mind those less fortunate than I am, never to fall for the “American dream”—which is, of course, a big lie that material comfort satisfies and should be our goal. Love should be our goal, and that means humble service to others.
My books sell well, and every day I get tempted away from this truth. Publishers wave fat contracts in front of me, producers want to put me in front of a television camera, or on a platform. What an irony—I can get rich writing about service; I can get ego strokes writing about humility! That’s the tension I face all the time.
How do I handle the tension? I remember, first of all, what I learned in writing Soul Survivor: the people who have the biggest influence on me are people who resist that temptation and choose the way of service. That determines what I write about and speak about. It determines where I speak as well. Not having children, my wife and I are free to travel to places like Africa and Nepal, and we make choices to “tithe” our time there rather than accept invitations to big conferences in the U.S. Most of all, I have to make wise choices about what to do with my money. Most of my royalties go into a foundation which supports causes I believe in. As an author, admittedly I get an undue amount of attention. I truly believe, though, that what matters most to God’s kingdom takes place among those involved in ministries of justice, health, and peace in difficult parts of the world.
Has the Reformation’s emphasis on salvation by faith inadvertently led to a two-tier Christianity whereby social action has been relegated to an optional extra while we go about the “real” business of evangelism?
That bridge has been crossed in the United States, I believe, in a healthy manner. The British theologian and pastor John Stott played a key role in some of the conferences sponsored by Billy Graham, crafting language that expressed a joint role for social action and evangelism. They simply must go together. Nowadays, much of the exciting work in developing countries—micro-enterprise loans, prison ministries, health agencies, water resources, a legal structure for charity, reconciliation and justice issues—is being done by Christian agencies. The U.S. government recognizes this, and uses such NGO’s as a conduit for foreign aid.
The U.S. fought the battle theologically back in the early 20th century, when fundamentalists and liberals split over this issue. That battle is long over. In our inner cities, evangelicals are at the forefront of community renewal. People like Jim Wallis of the Sojourners Community lead the way in focusing efforts on poverty. And think of an organization like Habitat for Humanity, which has built more than 200,000 houses, with much of the labor provided by caring Christians. Or if the International Justice Mission which aggressively tackles the problem of sexual trafficking.
Because of a long-term friendship with the Director, I’ve taken several trips with Prison Fellowship International, which has a chartered work in more than 80 countries. Do you know that almost half the legislature and cabinet of South Africa spent time in prison? That same pattern holds true in many oppressive countries that imprison dissidents—who will eventually take over the government. By ministering to the prisoners of today, we are affecting the leaders of tomorrow. What a great example of the upside- down values of the Kingdom!
One key theme in your writing is the terrifying question of “How then should we live?” Have Christians edited out the call for simple living—in a world of agonizing inequality—in an effort to have a comfortable lifestyle?
I struggle with this as much as any single issue. It’s not so simple, of course. Jacques Ellul brilliantly pointed out that the economic system is corrupt through and through. For example, if every American Christian became convinced that they must reduce their living standards by 50 percent in response to the call of Jesus, that would have a devastating impact on the world economy. Globalization depends on an ever-increasing spiral of consumerism, fueled ultimately by greed. When recession hits and people lose their jobs, politicians call for stimulus packages to increase spending and get the goods flowing again. Economists estimate that as many as two million jobs were lost by the impact of the September 11 terrorist acts—which is why President George Bush declared that the most patriotic thing Americans could do was shop! There’s an odd, perverted truth to what he said.
At the same time, we cannot avoid the stark, slap-in-your-face statements about money by Jesus (who, admittedly, lived in a very different economic context). And we cannot avoid the awful inequities on the planet. I wish I had an answer. I read the idealistic theories of Distributionism by G. K. Chesterton and long for such a system, but in a fallen world the only effective forms of Distributionism seem to involve violence and the abuse of power—and they simply don’t work, as the collapse of Communism has amply demonstrated. Francis Schaeffer used to talk about “the compassionate use of accumulated wealth,” a phrase that satisfied nobody but has a ring of truth about it. Capitalism does indeed create capital, but the main issue for Christians is how we use that capital.
My pastor in Chicago used to say that money issues reduce to three questions: 1. How did you get it? (Did it involve injustice, cheating, oppression of the poor?) 2. What are you doing with it? (Are you hoarding it? Exploiting others? Wasting it on needless luxuries?) 3. What is it doing to you? Jesus seemed to devote most of his attention to that last question.
Still, I go back to the people I admire most: Mahatma Gandhi, Henri Nouwen, Dr. Paul Brand. Like Jesus, every one of them insisted on a simple lifestyle, as a form of self-preservation as well as out of faithfulness to Jesus. They continually challenge me.
One more observation about money: to my surprise I’ve found that the wealthier a church, the less likely they are to reach out to the needy. Strange, isn’t it? You’d think those with most resources would be most willing to share. Instead, a kind of fear and conservatism (we have something to conserve) settles in. If my home burned down, I’d rather be in a poor church than a rich church; I think they’d be more likely to take care of me. When I go to poorer nations like the Philippines, I see people stepping out with more courage than Christians in the U.S. with all our wealth and expertise.
Someday I’ll try to write on this issue. I have bulging files of notes and clippings. I only write about questions I don’t yet have the answers to, so this one certainly qualifies!
You’ve said that evangelicals seem to be much better marketers than Jesus ever was, citing Jesus’ response to the Rich Young Ruler. Do we tend to try and make believing look too easy?
Jesus gave three invitations: Take up a yoke, wash each other’s feet with a towel, and take up a cross. That’s poor marketing! When he performed miracles, he hushed them up. After the Resurrection, he appeared to people who already believed in him—not to skeptics. An American Messiah would have shown up on Pilate’s porch on Monday morning with a television crew. Marketing in our image-obsessed world is based on wealth, success, athletic prowess, and beauty. These are not values that Jesus seemed to rank very high. He looked for losers, not winners. He came for the poor, the sick. To the degree that the church follows a different path, we do not follow Jesus. We also present the Christian life as an answer to problems when, in many ways, it complicates rather than simplifies life. I must care about the poor, about the environment, about injustice. I can’t turn my face away—not if I want to follow Jesus.
What do you see as the major challenges Christians face in communicating their faith to non-Christians?
Those of us in journalism sometimes talk about the “felt needs” of our readers—and I’ve heard youth leaders pick up that term. Essentially, it describes a concern that pre-exists, that you don’t have to manufacture. In post-communist countries, the felt needs may center on a loss of meaning and crisis of confidence. In the materialistic West the felt need may be a kind of emptiness that comes from narcissism and over-consumption. In developing countries the felt need may be a reason for hope. First we have to identify what the reader/listener already senses, then speak to it in a compelling way. How does the Gospel address that pre-existing need? Jesus was a master at this: Just look at how differently he handles Nicodemus compared to the Samaritan woman at the well.
The American novelist Walker Percy once said, “Fiction doesn’t tell us something we don’t know, it tells us something we know but don’t know that we know.” Good evangelism does the same.
Can you give an example of being “in the world but not of it”?
Through organizations like the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, and Amnesty International, as well as diverse book clubs, I spend time among people who are not Christians and often see Christians as their opponents. And I travel frequently, which often prompts conversations with people who see the world differently than I do.
Each month I attend a book club comprising people who graduated from the University of Chicago. We all read the same book and yet respond in a dramatically different way. I’m very careful about any books I recommend, since I imagine they’ve Googled my name and assume I must be one of those right-wing evangelicals. I try to listen more than talk in such groups.
And when I’m sitting on an airplane and someone starts telling me about their history with the church, I usually laugh and say something like, “Oh, yes, I agree. My own church was much crazier than that!” We Christians need to be less defensive and more honest about our failings. If we do so, often the barriers go down a bit.
Describe some of those barriers.
The church is a closed society. When I buy a computer I have to learn about RAM and ROM and Megahertz and flash memory and Mean-Time-Between-Failure. What a learning curve! I pursue the task because I believe the computer will ultimately better equip me for writing and my other tasks. Think of what a newcomer faces with Christianity. The Trinity, Incarnation, justification, predestination, sanctification, baptism, Eucharist—these are all strange and intimidating terms to someone considering the faith. Over time the church has worked hard to define these terms, and I would never diminish their importance. I would simply add that, in John’s words, Jesus came with “grace and truth.” The church has worked very hard to define truth, hence the creeds and church councils and many denominations. But do churches compete in dispensing God’s grace? That may be the more urgent question today. I haven’t met anyone who says, “I became a Christian because I lost an argument one night.” I’ve met many who say, “I became a Christian because someone loved me.”
What should be the main concern of a Christian in the modern world?
Jesus is not visible on earth anymore. People can’t go to Jerusalem, look him up, take a picture, interview him. The church is now the primary evidence of God in the world: Christ’s body on earth. Can we say, “If you want to know what God is like, look at Christians”? That should be our major concern, I think. And that encompasses all of who God is: holiness, grace, compassion, redemption, liberation.
How can we make Christianity culturally relevant in society? Is that important?
Absolutely! I attended a musical called “The Mysteries” in London. A South African troupe took over the form of the old medieval mystery plays and reinterpreted it from their cultural context. They beat on pipes and garbage can lids rather than musical instruments. They sang music in three different languages, and danced across the stage as they acted out the story of Adam and Eve, and Abraham, and Moses…the biblical story all the way down through the crucifixion and resurrection. At the end of the play, the audience, a very secular and sophisticated London audience, leaped to their feet with shouts and applause.
The cycle was complete. British missionaries had carried the gospel to South Africa. Now they were bringing it back, enfolded in their own cultural terms, to an audience who had mostly forgotten it. I see that happening all over the world. For inspiring worship experiences, I go to places like Colombia and the Philippines. As Western colonialism has faded, so has “Christian colonialism.” The Gospel has taken root and is now bearing fruit in various forms all over the world. Or, in a place like Russia, people are rediscovering a gospel that had lain dormant for decades. I hope Christians there don’t merely recover the old forms, but find new ones as well, appropriate to the new cultural scene.
Bono is an example of a man who does not seem to fit the middle-class, non-smoking, non-drinking, go-to-church-twice-a-week Christianity that is so prevalent, yet he spends much of his time on social causes such as the AIDS awareness program, Amnesty International and the One campaign. What do you believe is the greater issue as far as Jesus is concerned?
I recall Jesus’ comment about the Pharisees who went so far as to tithe their kitchen spices and yet who neglected the weightier matters of justice and mercy. I don’t believe Jesus smoked, but apparently he drank wine, was not a member of the middle class, and consistently disappointed or disturbed the religious authorities of his day. Maybe a more challenging question would be, How can the church find a place for someone like Bono, and vice versa? Why must they be in contrast?
Too often we see the problems of the world as insurmountable—too big for us to make any difference. Yet you take it down to helping individuals, one at a time, as objects of God’s love. How can this action for change be encouraged?
I remember a quote from Mother Teresa, asked much the same question. She said she didn’t operate by the principle of multiplication (“How can you possibly multiply your effect to the whole world?”) but by the principle of subtraction. Find one needy person, meet that person’s needs, and then find another. I don’t discount the need for major institutional programs, but we Christians especially are called to love, and an institution cannot love. Only a person can love.
I have learned that we who give to the needy need the process as much as those who receive. We need the act of service for our own health. Otherwise we become insular, self-absorbed, greedy. Perhaps we could encourage acts of service by detailing their impact on the giver as well as on the recipient, something I try to do in my books.
Why does acting on what we say we believe as Christians ultimately matter?
Because the church is an extension of the Incarnation. God lived here in flesh for a third of a century, then Jesus left this planet. “It is for your own good,” he told his disciples. How could it possibly be for our good? Jesus was turning the mission over to us. He ministered mostly to Jews in a remote corner of the Roman Empire. Today the Gospel penetrates all over the world.
I hear from many people who have been wounded by the church. In fact, I’ve concluded it’s as likely for the church to turn a person away from God as toward God. I now see the church as God’s greatest “gamble”—imagine, turning God’s holy mission over to the likes of us. Why does it matter how we act? Because the only way most people will learn to know God is through us.Copyright © 2009 by Philip Yancey