The idea for the book came to me in late November 2008 as the plane I was traveling in took off from the Mumbai, India, airport. I had been scheduled to speak on a book tour downtown the very night terrorists attacked the Taj Mahal Hotel and ten different sites, killing 165 people. The city went under lockdown and we had to cancel the scheduled event. Instead I spoke at an impromptu service at a small church in the suburbs in an atmosphere clouded with fear and grief. It was eerily reminiscent of what we Americans had experienced on September 11, 2001, when my own church spontaneously filled with people looking for comfort—only this time I was the speaker on the spot.
“Man, we’ve had some interesting adventures,” I said to my wife as the plane banked across the Indian Ocean and we felt safe at last. I started making a list of them on my airline ticket stub. Visiting Virginia Tech the week after a campus massacre. Addressing a convention of alcoholics in Chicago. Interviewing members of China’s “underground church,” with guards posted outside to warn us of the secret police. Interviewing a roomful of prostitutes about their life stories. Attending a rousing worship service in South Africa’s most violent prison.
As each of these events unfolded, at some point I had to stand up and try to find words of encouragement and hope. It struck me, as I reviewed them, that each case presented a “story behind the story” that had never been told. By the end of that long plane ride home, this book had taken shape: ten locations, each with a chapter on the untold story and then another on what I said to the people involved.
What does religious faith offer peasants undergoing persecution, or students recovering from a campus massacre, or women who have spent years of virtual slavery in the sex trade? What good is God in situations like these? For most of my career I have delved into the hard questions of faith, writing books with titles like Where Is God When It Hurts?, Disappointment with God, Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? and Church: Why Bother? Most of my books—like this one—have a question as a title because, frankly, my own faith starts with questions.
In this book I tackle perhaps the most basic faith question of all: What good is God? It’s a universal question which I put to the test in ten places on four different continents. Although the book addresses issues of faith, it does so in real-world settings, not abstractly. In my travels I have found a deep longing in almost everyone: the desire for change, the hope that somehow God can wrest permanent good out of this flawed planet and us its flawed inhabitants. Dare we entertain such a hope? This book is my attempt to answer the question. First, as a journalist, I search for a faith that matters. Then the tables get turned and I’m the one who has to speak to an audience hungry for answers. And now you, the readers, join that audience.
Listen to a BlogTalkRadio interview which aired 10/19/10.
View a 700 Club-Interactive interview which aired 12/8/10.
The link above opens a PDF file of a recent interview conducted by Gary Moon for the Fall/Winter 2011 Issue of Conversations Journal.
From Publishers Weekly: The search for God in the midst of horror, disaster, and loss has confounded believers for centuries. How does belief actually matter in the lives of those who suffer? Yancey, popular journalist and public speaker, travels the world and attempts to make some theological sense of the hurting people and devastated places he observes, from Virginia Tech to Mumbai. The author is very adept at walking the fine line between being “in” the world and being “of” the world. His global treks allow opportunities for dialogue with other cultures and religions, but his grounding is clearly in Christian scripture, which serves as a safe port when he encounters choppy secular waters. Particularly moving are the author’s stories about China and his trip to a convention for former sex workers in Wisconsin. Somehow, redemption shines through in all of these encounters, and faith in God and humanity emerges intact, if a little bruised. The author truly believes that God can be found in the lives of ordinary people all over the world, and his compelling stories may just convince others, too. (Oct. 19) (c)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From Booklist: “I travel,” Yancey writes, “for the same reason anyone travels.” Readers may, however, see more self-effacing humility than truth in these words. For the journeys here recounted are those of an extraordinary pilgrim. What Yancey seeks in his globe-straddling travels is spiritual understanding of how God works his miracles of grace through men and women grappling with life’s most wrenching difficulties. Readers thus join the author in marveling at how faith can sustain believers grieving the violent deaths of loved ones in Blacksburg, Virginia, and Mumbai, India; can empower prostitutes trying to escape from the sex trade in Perth, Australia, and buoy alcoholics fighting their addiction in Chicago; and can even enable black Christians in South Africa to extend miraculous forgiveness to their former oppressors under apartheid. Traversing the U.S. and the UK, Yancey finds that the same faith that comforts the oppressed can pierce the comforts of the wealthy, summoning the devout to aid the downtrodden. Still, Yancey refuses to reduce his message to simply a call for improving this world. Drawing on the work of C. S. Lewis, he affirms his ultimate allegiance to a God whose eternal dominion transcends all things earthly. A bracing witness, challenging both religious complacency and secular skepticism. –Bryce Christensen
From Rethink Monthly Magazine: WHAT GOOD IS GOD? follows in the steps of several of Mr. Yancey’s previous offerings and poses a question that concerns the practical value of belief in God: Does faith really matter? This simple question, though the answer isn’t an easy find, takes the author to some of the most fascinating places one individual could go: from the massacre at Virginia Tech to the terror that encircled the streets of Mumbai; from the underground faith in China to the church at risk in the Middle East; from a conference full of professional sex workers to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Chicago.
I particularly enjoyed the format of the book. The author pulled off the extraordinary task of drawing the reader into ten earlier (and amazingly unique) experiences and propelled them from his past and into our present. He draws us in to the places he visited – as if we are standing directly in the midst of the chaos erupting in Mumbai, India in 2008 or experiencing firsthand the tragedy and the pain that embodied those involved in the massacre at Virginia Tech in 2007 – and gives us, the reader, a chance to hear exactly what he said to the people he met during these difficult times.
I believe you will, as I did, walk away with a clearer understanding of how faith in action works and how grace, when displayed on large and small scales alike, can be presented beautifully, as Mr. Yancey puts it, even in the hands of God’s people. He closes the last section of this book with this exhortation: We who follow Jesus are called to be dispensers of God’s grace, setting loose this powerful force on a weary, violent planet. May the church be known as a place where grace flows on tap: to sinners, to rich and poor alike, to those who need more light, to outcasts, to those who disagree, to oppressed and oppressors both.
WHAT GOOD IS GOD? is a beautiful exploration of one man’s journey to show a lost and dying world that faith really does work, especially when it’s tested to the extreme.
Read sample chapters by clicking on the “Browse Inside This Book” tab on the Open Book widget below.
An excerpt from What Good is God?…
The Story Behind the Search
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. The city went under lockdown and we had to cancel the scheduled event. Instead I spoke at an impromptu service at a small church in the suburbs on a night shrouded in fear and grief. Later, as we prepared to leave India, shooting erupted in the airport and guards with machine guns searched us and our luggage five separate times before we boarded one of the few international flights still operating.
During the long plane ride home, still rattled by our narrow escape, I thought back to other intense times from my travels. Shuttling interview subjects into dingy hotel rooms in China in order to avoid detection by the secret police. Listening to accounts from the dazed students at Virginia Tech barely a week after their tragedy as I was still recovering from my own life-threatening accident. Interviewing a roomful of prostitutes about their grim life stories. As I get involved in such extreme situations one question looms above all: what good is God? What does religious faith offer peasants undergoing persecution, or students recovering from a campus massacre, or women who have spent years of virtual slavery in the sex trade? If I can find an answer, or even a clue, to the question of what good is God in situations like these, it will help me with the hard questions of faith that confound all of us at times.
At a press conference in the early 1980s a reporter asked the novelist Saul Bellow, “Mr. Bellow, you are a writer and we are writers. What’s the difference between us?” Bellow replied, “As journalists, you are concerned with news of the day. As a novelist, I am concerned with news of eternity.” Ironically, in my case it was my career as a journalist that pointed me toward the news of eternity. My journalistic adventures have become for me a way to test the truth of what I write. Can “the God of all comfort” truly bring solace to a wounded place like Mumbai or the Virginia Tech campus? Will the scars from racism ever heal in the American South, let alone South Africa? Can a Christian minority have any leavening effect in a sometimes hostile environment such as China or the Middle East? I ask such questions each time I take on a challenging assignment.
I should mention that on personality tests I score off the charts as an introvert. Writing is a lonely act, and I am quite content to hole up in a mountain cabin with a stack of books for a week at a time, speaking to no one but the grocery store clerk. Trips prove exhausting and expensive and the public events in developing countries often feel like “combat speaking.” On return I happily settle back into the life of a solitary pilgrim. Nevertheless, I keep leaving home in quest of what happens when the faith I write about in a mountain cabin confronts the real world. Does it work?
Every few years a renowned atheist or agnostic comes out with a new book questioning the worth of religion in general and Christianity in particular. Although some of these books resemble the rants of adolescents, others raise important issues. Meanwhile, national polls in the United States show a steady rise in the number of people declaring “no religion” when asked about their religious affiliation (up from 2.7 percent of the population in 1957 to 16 percent in 2009). More Americans now profess “no religion” than all Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Lutherans combined. Their number has nearly doubled since 1990, and in Europe the percentage is far higher. Strangely, two-thirds of the respondents who claim no religion still believe that God exists. Some of them judge organized religion as hypocritical or irrelevant and others simply question what God is good for. During the years when the West resisted “godless communism,” religion seemed an important bulwark.
Now our most prominent enemies are religious extremists. Little wonder more and more people have doubts about the value of religious faith.
Defenders of the Christian faith rise up with point by point rebuttals of the skeptics. As a journalist I approach such questions differently. I prefer to go out into the field and examine how faith works itself out, especially under extreme conditions. A faith that matters should produce positive results, thus providing an existential answer to the underlying question, “What good is God?”
Technology manufacturers have a phrase called “the tabletop test.” Engineers design wonderful new products: iPhones, netbooks, video game consoles, notebook computers, MP3 players, optical storage devices. But will the shiny new product survive actual use by consumers in the real world? What happens if it gets pushed off a table accidentally or dropped on a sidewalk? Will the device still work?
I look for similar tests in the realm of faith. My travels have taken me to places where Christians face a refiner’s fire of oppression, violence, and plague. This book relates stories from places like China, where the church grows spectacularly despite an atheistic government; and the Middle East, where a once-thriving church in the heartland now barely hangs on; and South Africa, where a multicolored church picks through the pieces of its racist past. In the United States I have visited not only Virginia Tech and a convention of prostitutes, but also a group of alcoholics in Chicago and two enclaves in the Bible Belt South.
When I spend time among such people my own faith undergoes a tabletop test. Do I mean what I write about from my home in Colorado? Can I believe that, as the apostle John promised in one of his letters, “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world”? Can I proclaim that truth with confidence to a woman struggling to feed her children without reverting to prostitution, to an alcoholic battling a lifelong addiction, to an inmate in southern Africa’s most violent prison?
I must admit, my own faith would be much more perilous if I knew only the U.S. church, which can seem like one more self perpetuating institution. Not so elsewhere. Almost always I return from my travels encouraged, my faith buoyed. Only a third of the world’s Christians now hail from the West, and I have been privileged to see remarkable evidence of God at work: the reconciliation miracle of South Africa, the greatest numerical revival in history breaking out under a repressive Chinese government, Indian Christians turning their attention to the most outcast group of human beings on the planet. As a writer I want to bring that good news to the jaded West, for such stories rarely make the headlines on CNN.
In all honesty I must mention one last reason why I accept such assignments: they give me the chance to connect with readers. Writers need the reminder that what we do in isolation may indeed touch people, and so the highlight of all such trips takes place when I meet the readers of my books. In Africa I meet people with biblical names like Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, Beauty, Precious, Thanks, Witness, Gift, and Fortune. Filipinos have even more exotic names: Bot, Bos, Ronchie, Bing, Peachy, Blessie, Heaven, Cha Cha, Tin Tin (“My friends call me Tin Squared,” she laughs). The signing line allows for only a few moment’s interaction with my readers, but at least we connect.
“We have an unequal relationship, you and I,” I used to joke before a book signing. “You know everything about me because anything I think or do or say ultimately ends up in a book. I know nothing about you. So in the few seconds we have together as I sign your book, tell me the deepest secret of your life, something you’ve never told anyone.” I stopped giving that invitation because some people took me seriously and told me secrets I had no right to know. In the process, I learned how intimate a bond may develop between readers and a writer they have never met.
Such encounters convince me I am not alone in struggling with the issues I write about. Why must I keep circling back to the problem of pain? I sometimes wonder. Then on a book tour I meet an older man with a lush beard who walks to the microphone with a shuffle and mumbles, “God gave me Parkinson’s disease. How can I possibly think God listens to what I have to say in prayer?” I hear accounts of suicides, birth defects, terminal diseases, and children hit by trucks. A woman confesses praying in desperation during her nineteen years of an abusive marriage, “Lord, if someone is killed by a drunk driver, let it be my husband.” I meet a woman afflicted with multiple sclerosis, shockingly young, who limps over to tell me she is learning all she can about prayer because the disease is progressing so fast soon she will capable of little else.
I speak on the topic of grace and a woman approaches the book table to tell me she needs to work on forgiveness. “Don’t we all,” I say. “No, I really need to!” she replies, and proceeds to tell me that her father murdered her husband. “First he stole my past by abusing me; now he has stolen my future.” Yet she doesn’t want her children to grow up hating their grandfather, who is serving time in prison. The man behind her waits patiently as we talk, then tells me of his daughter’s rape in the parking garage of the Phoenix airport. “She decided to keep the child, a daughter,” he says. “She named her Grace.” After a talk on prayer a teenage girl tells me with a smile that now she has to pray for her sister. Why? “Because you said we should pray for our enemies!” More seriously, a woman in the same line, an ordained pastor, tells of a dark period after her son died when for eighteen months she could not bring herself to pray. She cried out one day,
“God, I don’t want to die like this, with all communication cut off!” Even so, another six months passed before she could resume praying. After each trip I return to my basement office humbled, moved, and also uplifted by my encounters with readers. On a book tour of the East Coast I meet ordinary Christians who devote themselves to causes as disparate as the homeless in Pennsylvania, sex criminals in New Jersey, and Asian students at Harvard. I hear from a soldier who decides to take the admonition “Pray for your enemies” literally: he develops the Web site ATFP.org (Adopt a Terrorist for Prayer) which posts photos of known terrorists. In Australia I meet two ordinary women who put grace into action: they are sending copies of my book on grace to eighty-nine politicians in Northern Ireland, each with a note that Christians halfway around the globe are praying for them in their ongoing search for peace. “We got a deal on the books, just five dollars each, but the postage costs thirteen dollars for every book.”
This book brings together my two roles, speaker and writer, as I meet with alcoholics and Bible college students, with CEOs in China and Dalits (Untouchables) in India, with C. S. Lewis fans in Cambridge and charismatics in Johannesburg. If Christian faith is true it must have some effect on all these distinct groups, and as I spend time among them my own faith refines. Along the way I find unexpected surprises, such as when I visit the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination the day after Barack Obama’s election, or when a person stalked by the Chinese police suddenly shows up for an interview. In each chapter I tell the story behind the story and then give a version of what I said on that occasion. Writing offers one clear advantage over speaking: I can edit my words. Some of the talks follow very closely what I actually said, while in others I have made changes to avoid repetition and to adapt material relevant only to the original audience. In some cases, I have also changed names to protect privacy. In my travels I have found certain themes to be universal, regardless of the personal application. The question, “What good is God?” occurs in some form to every person who experiences pain or death or poverty or unfairness—in other words, to everyone. Indeed, as I look over the last few years’ itinerary, it seems clear that I deliberately choose journalistic assignments that contribute to my own search. For a period of time I step into lives of those who have experienced far more oppression, violation, and chaos than I ever will. I hope and pray that something of what I have learned in these ten places will become part of your search, just as they have become part of mine. When I went to New York to discuss this manuscript with the publisher, on a lark I bought tickets to see Aretha Franklin, the “Queen of Soul,” perform at Radio City Music Hall. The climax of the concert came as she rendered the gospel song, “One Night with the King.” Spending time in the King’s courts could change your course forever, she sang, and then paused to let the words sink in. With renewed breath she belted out the strong promise that a night—or even a moment—in the presence of the King can change everything. Such an encounter leaves no one the same.
Six thousand fans—New Yorkers—rose to their feet applauding wildly and yelling for more. Aretha had tapped in to a deep longing in all of us, the desire for change, the belief that somehow God can wrest permanent good out of this flawed planet and us its flawed inhabitants.
Dare we entertain such a hope, such a faith?Copyright © 2010 by Philip