As someone who has been writing articles and books for half a century, I read the Bible differently than most people. I can’t help peeking behind the words to the human authors. I read Isaiah and marvel at his soaring prose and shining images of restored creation. I read Jeremiah and identify with the reluctant prophet’s neuroses. I read Amos and James and smile at their homespun, earthy analogies.

While we do not know exactly how divine inspiration worked, it’s clear that the Spirit used the education, background, and personalities of the individual authors. I turn to the Gospels and note how Matthew, Mark, and Luke, beginning with similar sources, choose material to fit their diverse audiences. Then I turn to John and envision him plotting out his Gospel much as I outline my books, by selecting key themes—in his case, Jesus’ “signs”—and weaving them into a thematic unity. (I’m sure he did the same for Revelation, though I can’t begin to decipher that cryptic book.)

Paul, the most prolific of New Testament authors, seems to adopt a new style with each of his letters. He fires a fusillade against the brewing heresies of the Galatian church, relaxes into warm praise as he addresses the Ephesians and Philippians, and fashions a masterpiece of logic in his letter to the sophisticated Romans. I know that writing pattern. I may rush out a heated blog against some political or environmental injustice, but when I write for, say, The New York Times, I take my time, carefully research the topic, and devote extra attention to editing and polishing.

Where the Light Fell: A MemoirFor the past three years I’ve been working on a memoir, soon to be published with the title Where the Light Fell. As I tackled a new genre, I had to restrain from commentary and interpretation, and simply present the story of my life.  “You need more emotion—tell me how you were feeling!” my editor kept urging me. Paul never wrote an autobiography, but in some passages he would bare his inner soul.  For example, 2 Corinthians tells of the apostle’s mental state that seemed to approach a nervous breakdown. He confesses, “We were crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability to endure, and we thought we would never live through it. In fact, we expected to die.” (New Living Translation).

Early in my career, in the mid-1980s, I spent three years working on a sort of beginner’s study Bible, which involved studying every chapter, verse, and word of the Bible. And yet the real turning point for me came with my next project, when I read the entire Bible in two weeks, not three years.

I was contemplating questions that eventually became the subject for the book Disappointment with God. Why does God sometimes intervene directly in human affairs and sometimes not? The Ten Plagues of Egypt liberated the Israelites from slavery, but what about the several centuries of bondage that preceded their emancipation? Miracles abound in the Gospels and the Book of Acts, but why don’t we see such manifestations more commonly today?

I traveled from my then home in Chicago to Breckenridge, Colorado, where I holed up in a friend’s cabin. I had brought along a suitcase full of books—and also a bag full of ski equipment, hoping for spare time for recreation. As it happened, I opened only one book, the Bible, and never left the cabin. It snowed heavily every day, blocking my driveway, and in truth, the Bible kept me too captivated to think of skiing. In those two weeks I got an overview of the Bible’s plot, and grasped its underlying message.

Reading the entire plot at once, I saw the Bible as the long, protracted story of God seeking ways to restore a relationship with human beings estranged since Eden. In his parable of the prodigal son, Jesus likened the story to a love-stricken father getting his family back. It turns out that the best way to communicate God’s love is human-to-human. Jesus did that in person, loving his disciples “to the uttermost,” in John’s words. Next, Jesus turned the mission over to those disciples, commanding them to carry the message of God’s love and reconciliation to the ends of the earth.

I returned from my two-week stay in Breckenridge aware that I had been misreading the Bible. I had viewed it as a collection of concepts, something like a systematic theology. Indeed, it is not! Doctrine is embedded in places, especially in the New Testament letters. But I came away with the overwhelming impression of an unfolding (and unfinished) story: the account of God working against contrary powers to bring about a renewed intimacy with humans, and the ultimate restoration of the cosmos.

In my book Vanishing Grace I tell of attending a musical called “The Mysteries” in London’s West End. A South African troupe had taken the form of the old medieval mystery plays and culturally adapted it. The play began, like the Bible, with Adam and Eve, a male and a female actor, standing stark naked on a blank stage. Then came Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, and many others acting out the plot of the biblical story, all the way to Jesus. The actors sang in five different languages, accompanied by musicians who beat on tires, oil drums, and garbage can lids rather than musical instruments. In their version, Afrikaner policemen were the ones who crucified Jesus, the champion of the poor and marginalized.

After Jesus’ execution, for a few minutes the theater went dark and we all sat silent.  Meanwhile the entire troupe assembled onstage, and as the lights came on they burst out with joyous songs of resurrection. That secular and sophisticated London audience—all of whom had paid a hundred British pounds for their tickets, and few of whom ever attended church—leaped to their feet. They suddenly grasped the gospel message of ultimate good news, a flash of what Tolkien described as “Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

The cycle was complete, I thought, as I looked around at theatergoers waving handkerchiefs and shouting “Bravo!” British missionaries had carried the gospel to South Africa. Now Africans were bringing it back, wrapped in their own cultural terms, to people who had mostly forgotten it.

These days, the surrounding culture mainly sees Christians through the lens of politics, as a kind of voting bloc. The Bible helps us step back and see the much bigger, overarching story.  We dare not lose that message of resolute good news.

(Adapted from an article in the U.K. publication, Christian Today)

 

 

 

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25 responses to “Through a Writer’s Eyes”

  1. Mark Johnson says:

    Dear phillip thank you for the books you have written and the honesty therein, i havent read them all but what i have read has challenged me and inspired me, God bless

  2. Thank you for the reminder to keep God’s loving energy at the forefront of our lives!

  3. Yes, thank you for sharing this! …even as I have been praying for the Afghan refugees — those left behind and those who escape to here and other countries–and the immigrants pouring across the southern border– my prayers have been that they will not only survive and heal, but that they will lead us back to true faith, courage, and virtue
    Kam, NC, USA

  4. Elaine Mostaert says:

    Dear Philip
    My most grateful thanks for these words in “Prayer” which I return to again and again.

    Though we feel ignorant in prayer. The Spirit does not.
    Though we feel exhausted and confused. The Spirit does not.
    Though we feel lacking in faith. The Spirit does not.

    I often feel all those things. So again my thanks.
    Greetings form Australia.

  5. Gordon Ruddick says:

    This is the first of these I have read, but I can say I have enjoyed your books for many years. I am a hospital chaplain and I have seen more than twenty thousand patients and family members. And I so agree with your focus on connection as primary. It is the most important and most effective means I have for any hope of effective ministry. Finding a way to connect, to speak their language, to view their world, opens almost any door. We end up speaking the same language, which leads often to great compassion. Thanks for your words.

  6. Vikki H says:

    The story of Jesus and who he is is what I look for in every book of the Bible. A former pastor encouraged me to read an entire Bible book through before a verse by verse examination in order to see he bigger picture, “what does this say about God”.

  7. Mathew Thomas says:

    What Philip said is exactly true. God is working every moment for ultimate restoration of this fallen cosmos. We are instruments in his hands. Do we yield to Jesus’s gentle persuasion ‘ to take up his cross and follow’ Daily
    Kahlil Gibran has said : Your daily life is your temple and your religion

  8. Rodney Draper says:

    As a South African now living in New Zealand ( where God is largely forgotten and or ignored) it is interesting how the word of God spreads and returns to source. Our church has missionaries serving in China, India and Kazakhstan after Samuel Marsden first brought the Word to the Maori in 1814 yet it seems the majority of Christians in NZ nowadays are immigrants.

  9. Clyde B Austin III says:

    Philip, you have inspired me so much for so many years. I wait for your books with bated breath. I came to Christ in the “church downstairs”. I often get frustrated that the church can’t be more like the friends of Bill W and Dr. Bob. I am currently working on Brian Stanley’s “Christianity in the 20th Century”. I see too many parallels in the Church’s complicity in Rwanda and Nazi Germany with today’s times.
    You remind me to look at the big picture, God’s grace and God’s plan. Thank you for being such an inspiration,

  10. William Horton, Jr. says:

    Thanks Philip for another fresh insight into God’s Word. I’m 91 and just started reading Randy Alcorn’s book “Heaven”. Do you have an opinion?

  11. Kathryn P Dietz says:

    I am excited to read your life story! I will definitely get that book, and know it will be inspiring and enjoyable.

    But more than that, I am inspired by the concept of holing up someplace beautiful and private and reading the entire Bible at once. Now it’s on my bucket list!
    Question, though: did you read a chronological Bible? I’ve been thinking about doing that, but am loving the NRSV.

  12. David Bannon says:

    “All of human history as described in the Bible may be summarized in one phrase,” wrote Rabbi Abraham Heschel, “God is in search of man.”
    . . .
    “There is a loneliness in us that hears. When the soul parts from the company of the ego and its retinue of petty conceits; when we cease to exploit all things but instead pray the world’s cry, the world’s sigh, our loneliness may hear the living grace beyond all power. We must first peer into the darkness, feel strangled and entombed in the hopelessness of living without God, before we are ready to feel the presence of His living light. . . . It is an exceptional act of divine grace that those who do not care for Him should suddenly discover that they are near Him.”

  13. Emad Shenouda says:

    Thank you so much for your books! It helped me greatly in my hardest time when I had stroke four years ago. Specially the book “Disappointed with God”
    Blessings from Cairo, Egypt.

  14. Jannie Botha says:

    I am so glad about Phiulio’s “new look” at Bibical passages. It iws, of course, not something that will satisfy most readers of the Bible, but it is indeed necessary that somebody like Philip gives a fresh picture of material that has become so familiar to many of us.

  15. Betty Smith says:

    In my morning devotional time I am currently reading 1 Samuel, Romans (a few verses at a time) and a Psalm. I am often struck by how Each complements and comments on the other. Your blog adds to my growing understanding of what God has done and is doing. Thank you

  16. Curt Pegram says:

    Dear Philip: When will your memoir publish? Can hardly wait for the read.

    Will you address the rejection of your childhood church’s King James Only, Fundamentalist and Dispensationalist affirmations?

    Could direct me to any articles or passages in your writing that speak to to the errors of ‘Christian’ Zionism, the sins of the Israeli state against Christian and Muslim Non-combatants, the egregious errors and untoward influences of the dispensationalism upon evangelical doctrine?

    I’ve read Gary Burge, Tom Wright, Mark Noll and a holy host of others who have boldly held forth in opposition to this doctrinal insurrection–I certainly expect no less from you.

    I’m grateful for your work. The Lord continue to strengthen your hands. Love. Prayers. Best Regards, Curt.

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Where the Light Fell will be published on October 5, and yes, it definitely gives a full picture of my childhood church. I’ve only addressed Christian Zionism in stray articles and columns in CT years ago. In recent times, the book Vanishing Grace deals with politics most directly. The authors you mention are reliable, and more competent in that field.

  17. Michael Duncan says:

    I appreciated the article for its reminder of the long and continuing story of God’s reaching out to us. I’m 72 years of age and have spent 50+ years in ministry. I found comfort in Yancey’s aside comment about the Book of Revelation: “Revelation, though I can’t begin to decipher that cryptic book.” I can’t either!

  18. Marjo Strover says:

    If for no other reason I read your blogs it is to delight in your skill as a writer. If only I could have a touch of that I would be overjoyed!! I always find your choice of words and argument so well put and your ideas easy to envision.
    And you help to ground us fellow believers in the simple Godly Bible truths and realities and be inspired by new ideas of those folk in the Bible. Thank you for your time and thoughts. They help our convictions and lift our souls.

  19. Bob Rubin says:

    I have thought about the Bible as the key source for the nature of God. If we are to grow in Christ becoming more loving we need to digest the goodness of those words, the perfect, beautiful nature of God”s character. We are asked, why all the pain in the world if He is so good? I don’t know. He wouldn’t be God if we completely understood Him. But one thing we do know, all good things come from God.

  20. Millie Ternasky says:

    Thanks for this new insight into God’s Word. Phil I still share your book “What’s so Amazing About Grace”. My favorite.

  21. Michele Breen says:

    I am so excited you are writing your life story. 💛🙏💛 I can’t wait to read it. You are truly one of my favourite authors that I want to meet in Heaven!!!

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