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, how I reminded them that, “We are all trophies of God’s grace, some more dramatically than others.”
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.
“There are very few authors writing today that I drop everything to pay attention to; Philip Yancey is one of them, and I am glad I have WHAT GOOD IS GOD? and many other of his books to stop, ponder, and pray through to grow in grace.”
Makoto Fujimura, artist and author
“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.”
Publishers Weekly, 2010.
“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, Booklist
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.
Rethink Monthly Magazine