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A Feature Review of
Vanishing grace: Whatever Happened to the Good News?
Hardback: Zondervan, 2014
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Reviewed by Joshua Neds-Fox
Philip Yancey has an itch he can’t quite scratch. He knows that whatever it is that the Gospel is trying to get across to us, we haven’t got it right. We – and I mean the ‘little Christs,’ those of us who go to church and say our prayers, the Christians – are right this very moment failing miserably at being the kind of salt and light that preserves and illuminates the dark world, and the world in return is moving on past our gospel to other distractions. Christianity is no longer attractive to the West. Though the title suggests that Yancey is only interested in diagnosing the disease, he’s actually also seeking the cure. Yancey is wrestling with why, exactly, are we failing and what, exactly, can we do about it? As a writer, he’s doing his wrestling the only way he knows how – with words words words.
Vanishing grace: What ever happened to the good news? is the outcome of his attempt. Perhaps Yancey is a verbal processor: he has to say what he thinks to find out what he thinks. “Writing this one, I felt I was trying to corral… a herd of small wild animals, each of which was… clawing against my best efforts,” (297), he writes, and his confession is welcome, as this book telegraphs his difficulties in its prose. Vanishing grace reads like a wrestling match, and the grace he’s trying to pin down is very slippery.
Thank God, however, that Yancey is trying, because we badly need an effective grace. “On my travels to other places… I see the continuing appeal of the basic Christian message.” (19). In other words, the Gospel still works, which gives Yancey a grounding for his task. And Yancey is one of the writers best positioned to deliver this corrective to Christians. He’s a bridge-spanning author, lettered enough to have a wide range of stories and texts to draw from, but populist enough (as editor of Christianity Today and author of a number of popular Christian titles) to draw an audience and translate those stories to us. Hopefully that broad base will result in this book preaching beyond the choir. But even if his only readers are those of us interested in diagnosing the vague malaise in Christianity, he’s attempting something important.
Why doesn’t the Gospel preach anymore? Why is the world rejecting our brand of grace? Yancey puts his finger on both Christians and non-Christians in his search for grace’s disappearance, touching on a range of topics: the rise of the ‘nones,’ the predominance of tolerance as an ethic, the hatefulness and hypocrisy of some very public Christian spokesmen and women. We don’t communicate grace in love, Yancey writes, and love is the absolute non-negotiable starting point for grace. The secular picture of the church as a place where like-minded people go to feel better about themselves “…stands in sharp contrast to the vision of Jesus, who said little about how believers should behave when we gather together and much about how we can affect the world around us.” (p. 159). “The problem is that [Christianity] is familiar,” he writes, quoting Tim Stafford in Christianity Today. Christians and our counterparts are like Samaritans and Jews in Jesus’ day, he posits. “We are familiar with what each other believes. We’re suspicious of each other. So we start of with a grudge.” (25)
Yancey looks at the root causes of our collective discontent. He goes back to the basics, including the image of God in us and the universality of our condition, to impress again upon us the case for grace. He directly opposes the narrative that religion is a negative force, an argument that’s convincing even to the faithful. The world and Christians alike are moved to desire grace – however we might identify that – for the same reasons. When we encounter Beauty, or Evil, or Pain, we’re reminded that we’re thirsty for something we haven’t quite grasped. Our unquenched thirst makes us angry, and we behave accordingly, lashing out at each other. Those of us who know Jesus have access to water that will really quench thirst, even if we don’t consistently offer – or avail ourselves of – that water. “How differently will I relate to the uncommitted if I view them not as evil or unsaved but rather as lost.” (50).
The bulk of the book isn’t actually concerned with grace’s disappearance, however, but with pinning down the slippery kind of grace that we really need. With an arsenal of anecdotes that span the entire text, Yancey presents instances of effective grace, and these are where the book really shines. For one example, he tells the story of noted (and often vituperative) New Atheist Christopher Hitchens, who in his long terminal illness was befriended by the scientist Francis Collins, director of the National Institute of Health. Despite his firm commitment to the non-existence of God, Hitchens nevertheless honored Collins for his real and non-judgmental love, calling him “‘one of the greatest living Americans’” and “‘our most selfless Christian physician’” (42). This is grace in action, which breaks through even the most entrenched oppositional heart. Countless other examples suggest an alternative to the current loud gracelessness associated with the Church.
Yancey pursues these working examples of grace throughout the book, and focuses on why they work in two consecutive sections. The first outlines three spiritual tropes that the world currently responds to: Activists, Pilgrims and Artists. Activists communicate because “…for the truly needy, words alone don’t satisfy; ‘A hungry man has no ears,’ as one relief worker told me.” (114). Pilgrims speak to the spiritual uncertainty that all of us feel – they emphasize the always-seeking nature of life with Jesus over the off-putting spiritual smugness of much of the Church. And in the section on artists (Yancey’s tribe), he examines the efficacy of “goads and nails,” those two functions of art that mark “‘the permanent things,’ to borrow T. S. Eliot’s phrase.” (136).
The second section explores the fundamental questions of faith that only real grace can address, and Yancey looks here at a variety of characteristics of working and non-working grace. Much of it deals with the world’s issues: how we misidentify our impulse to worship, or how our contemporaries construct ethics via opinion polls (there’s a particularly interesting look at Peter Singer’s failure of integrity when his ethics conflicted with his mothers’ degenerative illness). But here’s where the slipperiness of the problem is most evident: his writer’s eye slides all over the issue, landing in a number of places without necessarily bringing them together into a cohesive whole. This is the chief failure of the book, which seems to promise a prescription for effective grace but offers instead a grab-bag of possibilities, approaches, diagnoses and descriptions. The reader may look for a conclusion; there are many, and none. Maybe the closest Yancey comes is in the idea of quenching thirst: quoting Malcolm Muggeridge, he writes “‘…fame… success… pleasure… I beg you to believe me… add them all together, and they are nothing… measured against one draught of that living water Christ offers to the spiritually thirsty…” (209).
This lack of cohesion could be unavoidable. Grace is not programmatic; the universe is not a machine. And many times Yancey’s presentations of effective grace have the quality of paradox, of backwardness to the way we’re oriented, that make them so hard to intuit. He tells the story Agua Viva (Living Water), a restaurant in Lima, Peru, run by an order of nuns, whose customers are never clued into their faith. They don’t preach, they simply provide the best food and service in the city, serving God by serving their patrons exceptionally well, and using the proceeds to fund acts of mercy. It communicates – their patrons, Christian and non- alike, praise the nuns for a Christianity that shines. It’s non-intuitive, to communicate grace without once mentioning Jesus.
And Yancey himself identifies the impossibility of his task in a section he identifies as “…at the heart of the underlying issue…” (98). “…[M]ost people draw conclusions about the Christian faith by observing the lives of ordinary believers, not by studying doctrine. But… Jesus-followers don’t always follow Jesus…” That is, we ourselves are God’s plan for effective grace, but we’re the worst, messiest, most unprepared agents of God’s agency. “Why choose a plan with the odds stacked against it? It’s like turning over a Fortune 500 company to a gang of six year olds. I find a simple answer… God is love… [I]n some incomprehensible way, we ordinary pilgrims have the capacity to bring parental pride to the God of the universe.” (103-104).
Perhaps acknowledging this failure, Yancey concludes with a short section of smaller prescriptions. He writes specifically about the problematic intersection of Christianity and politics (Yancey is deeply averse to the Church’s attempts to co-opt the state), and makes a suggestion about a Christian orientation to the contemporary world: “Rather than looking back nostalgically on a time when Christians wielded more power, I suggest another approach: that we regard ourselves as subversives operating within the broader culture.” (260).
Wrestling with effective grace: as noted earlier, it’s necessary that someone do this task for us and with us. We’ve been largely unsuccessful at it ourselves, resulting in a damaging default for the Gospel. “…[O]ur clumsy pronouncements, our name-calling, our stridency – in short, our lack of grace – has proved so damaging that society will no longer look to us for the guidance it needs.” (249). Engaging with Yancey as he corrects us may be vitally important to turning this around. The cumulative thrust of the book may stay with us long after the text’s unevenness dissipates. As Yancey himself writes, in conclusion to an anecdote about an atheist writer who was surprised by a graceful relationship with a Baptist church, “I imagine the words she heard while sitting on a pew in Lynchburg will gradually fade from memory. Perhaps her experience of being loved… will not.” (94).
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com