Book Review: Vanishing Grace
Title: Vanishing Grace
Author: Philip Yancey
[Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of Vanishing Grace via BookLook Bloggers program. I was in no way compensated or asked to write a positive review. I was asked only to be honest and fair in my review which I was. Thanks for stopping by and reading.]
I think the first Philip Yancey book I read was The Jesus I Never Knew and when I read it I was simply blown away. Along the way, I have read just about everything Yancey has published in book form and even used one or two of his video series' in Bible studies.
Yancey's work has been a blessing to me not only because of the work he himself has done but because of the work he has introduced to me through his writing. He introduced me to Annie Dillard and Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Walker Percy. He introduced me to GK Chesterton and Thomas Merton and Dr Paul Brand. There have been others, yes, and Philip Yancey has had a way of making these authors and artists seem like old friends–like I am sitting in my living room with a fireplace and a glass of wine enjoying their company and conversation.
Vanishing Grace follows Yancey's standard model and if I hadn't read What's So Amazing About Grace many years ago this book might have impressed me more. The problem, as I see it, is that there's not really all that much about it that is new. That's not to say the book is merely a mirror of the former book as much as it is to say that I have read enough of Yancey's work to be able to say that I've been there, and I've done that. I've read his criticisms of the church, he doubts about faith, and his enthusiasm for artists and activists. New packaging; same story.
Yancey explores things in the book that at some level irritate him about the church. And the truth is, if all I ever read about the church was Yancey's experiences as a young man growing up in a southern Fundamentalist kind of congregation, I suppose I would hate church too (not that Yancey hates the church, but that he struggles mightily against some of the more challenging aspects of it). I have my issues with the church: after serving a church for nearly ten years and buying a house with their blessing, I was asked to resign. That was five or so years ago and I have largely let go of it because in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't matter. There's a sense in which I wonder if Yancey has ever let go of those negative experiences of his youth or if they continue to color the way he sees things in the church. After reading so many of Yancey's books, I'm kind of bored reading about how terrible the church was when he grew up in the south.
The book does what Yancey does: he explores the church, the world, and himself. Maybe not always in that order, but always with a keen attention to detail. As per usual, Yancey is a very well read individual–now he even begins to explore internet resources like blogs. Nevertheless, he always comes back to his favorites: O'Connor, Volf, Weil, and others. I liked that he also interacted, at some level, with some newer folks: Keller, Collins, N.T. Wright, and Eugene Peterson. He touches base with all the big name evolutionists we would expect: Dawkins, Hawking, Hitchens, and Gould. And of course he interacts with the Bible and some of the ancient commentators on the Bible.
I am certain that a lot of people in the world have a lot of problems with the church–Yancey not least among them. Throughout the book he identifies and labels the church's faults. He then goes on to highlight several ways, in each category he explores, how the church–or at least people who are somewhat loosely affiliated with the church–is going out of its way to buck the trend of gracelessness so evident in churches like the one in which Yancey grew up. I think it is difficult to come face to face with our sin and Yancey certainly pulls no punches when it comes to brutal honesty about the failures and faults of the church. But if, as Yancey rightly notes, "Jesus turned over the mission to his followers" (98; one of only 3 or 4 places I underlined in the book), the what are we to expect? He goes on to note that he struggles with the 'ascension' of Jesus (99) because it was the 'ascension that turned loosed that company of motley pilgrims known collectively as the church.'
And here I admit that Yancey's consternation is somewhat flummoxing to me. If Jesus set us (the church) free, then what are we to expect but that the church, made up of humans–albeit redeemed humans!–is going to foul things up every now and again? The ascension isn't about Jesus floating up to heaven on a cloud. It is kings who ascend to a throne and Jesus is no different. Jesus, ascended to the right hand of God, now rules from the right hand of God, seated. There's more. In the Revelation, Jesus is described as one who 'walks among the lampstands' (where the lampstands represent the church). Jesus ascended. Jesus among the lampstands. It's not so much that Jesus has set us free–that is, to run around without any help or guidance or direction or oversight or discipline. At this point Yancey kind of loses me because I'm not sure if he a) doesn't understand what ascension means or b) chooses to ignore what it really means. There is no Christianity without the church.
Yancey remains one of the finest journalists and storytellers the world knows and for this I appreciate his work. I think Yancey would tell his readers that the church has a lot to offer and that, ultimately, the church is a good thing. But I think he might also tell people to proceed with caution. I think he might also tell his readers that even though the church is a good thing perhaps working as a church outside of the church is a better thing. His distrust of the church is somewhat apparent, but his praise of those who do Jesus things while belonging to the church only tangentially is also quite apparent. Take that for what it's worth. At the end of the day, Yancey has written a book that even for my criticisms was hard to put down. I was always awaiting the next anecdote and the next quote and every now and again he perks up with childlike wonder at the changes that Jesus brought into a person's life. This is when Yancey is at his best.
I'll end with a quote from Chesterton that Yancey includes in his book that to my mind is one of the best things he wrote: "Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who new the way out of the grave" (158). Although, to be sure, I think the renewal he speaks of must include words and deeds. I think the words need to be more full of grace and less of hate and I think the deeds need to be, well, more.
PS-I am still not a huge fan of the way Yancey writes his notes. I'd prefer endnotes with numbers, but that's a small thing.