The follow is an interview, conducted by Charles Dunahoo, CEP Coordinator, with Philip Yancey, New York Times best selling author. His recent book, What Good is God? In Search of a Faith That Matters, (Faith Words, 2010, 287 pages) sets the stage for the interview. Yancey is the author of numerous books that CEP recommends including: Disappointment with God, Where is God When It Hurts, Finding God in Unexpected Places are among the list of challenging, helpful, and available books.
Charles:Philip, I appreciated your candidness, honesty, and insights as I read What Good Is God. That is definitely a relevant question and title. What is the key message you would like for the readers to take away with them?
Philip: The question, “What Good Is God?” is asked by many people today: not only by skeptics like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, but also by people of faith puzzling over personal challenges and wondering why God doesn’t answer their urgent prayers. As a journalist, I look for real-world answers, and my travels have taken me to many to many countries. I’ve included some of the best answers I’ve found [in this book].
I answer the question on three levels. First, God is in the business of transformation, and I tell stories of individuals transformed by God’s grace, including prostitutes, alcoholics, Dalits (Untouchables) in India, and leprosy patients. No matter how low we fall, God’s grace goes lower still. Second, I see God’s goodness expressed in community. At a place of trauma, such as in Mumbai, India, or on the Virginia Tech campus, or in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the church responds with hope and comfort as well as on-the-ground practical help.
Finally, as Jesus predicted, the yeast of the Gospel affects all of society. If you Google the statistics on countries that are the most prosperous, most free, most free of corruption, most just in gender issues, with maybe one or two exceptions you’ll find the top twenty countries are all countries with a strong Christian heritage. On all three of these levels, the goodness of God manifests itself among us flawed human beings. By reporting on these stories, I hope to encourage Christians and answer some of the skeptics-not by argument but simply by describing the fruit of the Gospel.
Charles:We share a common concern about Christians living in a bubble, isolating themselves or being isolated from the real world. You have seen this in your own experience and as you have traveled. What would you say the church needs to do to prepare Christians to live outside the bubble and take the faith into the marketplace?
Philip: I’ve often puzzled over Jesus’ strong criticisms of the Pharisees, who were among the most moral people of his day. They worked hard to obey all of God’s laws, and yet in the process they fell victim to pettiness, to judgmentalism, to lack of compassion, to rigid legalism. Reflecting on Jesus’ criticisms, I concluded that their main problem was that they hung out around other Pharisees all day!
In a nation like the United States, with a strong Christian population, we too can insulate ourselves and build safe “bubbles” to live in. The only cure is to get out into the real world. I work to find organizations and book groups so that I interact regularly with nonbelievers, both to understand their different perspective and also to try to practice what Jesus said, to act like yeast in bread, like the preservative of salt. Jesus spoke of small things when he described the Kingdom: the smallest seed in the garden grows into a great bush and the birds of the air come and nest in it. I don’t worry about the size of the church; rather, our calling is to be faithful, in the world, and let God grow the fruit.
Charles: Based on your experience and observation what advice would you give to those of us involved in education and discipleship as it relates to the “rising generations” whose religion has been described as “moralistic therapeutic deism?”
Philip: That’s a beautifully descriptive phrase-I think it comes from Christian Smith-and shows how the broader culture of the individualistic West has infiltrated the church. Mainly, we need to articulate what it means to be a counter-culture. We live in a celebrity culture that judges people on such qualities as fame, power, and beauty-exactly the opposite of Jesus’ approach. We live in a culture of personal fulfillment and satisfaction; after all, our country’s founding documents promise “the pursuit of happiness.”
The Sermon on the Mount is a good place to start. You can’t read that sermon and come away with a religion of moralistic therapeutic deism. Jesus describes a God intimately involved with our lives, and blows away our moralistic assumptions.
The PCA has a great respect for solid theology, combined with biblical knowledge, as Tim Keller is demonstrating so well. You have your work cut out for you in the current cultural climate, I know.
The best cure, though, is to get out into the real world and serve the needy, as Jesus did. Deism doesn’t do much for an alcoholic or sex addict struggling to get free. A therapeutic religion doesn’t do it for a young couple challenged by a child with serious birth defects. The church needs to become a truly caring community that puts the radical demands of the Gospel into practice.
If you look at the appeal to rising generations of people like Shane Claiborne or David Platt (author of Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream), it seems clear that young people especially respond to a more meaningful, even sacrificial faith. And, of course, short-term missions take young people to places like Haiti and India where a shallow, self-indulgent faith has no place.
Charles: Philip, I thank you for taking the time to respond to our questions. As I read through your book, I too was struck by the reminder of just how many people are honestly asking this question: What Good is God? Francis Schaeffer said that we must encourage honest questions and then provide honest answers. Your book will help us not only be aware but also enable us to respond more clearly to such questions.
Your responses to the people in the situations described in the book are both substantively and sensitively framed. Your travels and encounters set forth in this book, from Blacksburg, Va. and the Virginia Tech campus after the massacre, to Mumbai, India, to China, Africa, and the U.S. reflect a realism that will challenge the reader. Just to hear one say, “What good is God? He rescued me from sex slavery and drug addiction. God brought me back to life!” That’s what this book is all about, and we need to read it.
Philip, your closing words reach out to us in a heart wrenching way…”The question “What good is God?” is an open question whose answer god has invested in us his followers. We re the ones called to demonstrate a faith that matters to the watching world.” Thank you.