Monday, October 10, 2011

"What Good is God?" by Philip Yancey

TITLE: What Good Is God?: In Search of a Faith That Matters
AUTHOR: Philip Yancey
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: Faith Words, 2010.

This is the latest book by Philip Yancey, with lots of references to his previous writings and recollections of his own faith journey. The author entitles this book in a thought-provoking way, showing readers that faith while not easy is possible. Amid a world of suffering, pain, terrorism, heartaches, it is still possible to discover and search for a faith that matters.

The book begins with Yancey's personal near-death experience that rocks him back to memories of his own faith journey. Through the lens of "What Good Is God?" he probes the matter of suffering at the massacre of Virginia Tech University in 2007. Instead on focusing on the pain and hurt, he focuses on the comfort and healing that many have provided.

In asking what good is God on the struggle of China, he recognizes how both the West and the East have misunderstood each other as he ponders about the Chinese economic growth, and how Christians in China are persecuted. He shares about the formidable challenges the Chinese leaders are facing with their domestic issues. He talks about how the West has misunderstood the policies of China. With regards to the persecution of the Church, he acknowledges that the Chinese authorities are more concerned about uprising order in the country than fairness for the Church. Part of the reason for such a negative view of the West is because of the West's historical gunboat diplomacy.

What good is God when it comes to the sex trade? He empathizes with the former prostitutes at his conference, and speaks in a compassionate way that understands their plight without dismissing their true selves. Bringing in grace and healing, he affirms the goodness in each person through stories of empathy.

What good is God when dealing with intellectual skeptics? Here, Yancey writes about his tour of Cambridge, the place where CS Lewis and other great intellects lived. Theological integrity requires one to straddle two worlds.

"As a Christian I must admit that my faith does draw dividing lines: the children of light and the children of darkness, good and evil, life of the spirit and life of the flesh, the natural world and the spiritual world." (103)

He asks what good is God for those in college. He recalls his time in college, recognizing how messed up his own life was then. His time in Bible college comes across more as "I'd wished I'd known."

In probing the issue of apartheid, he sees God's work in terms of a powerful humanitarian movement that is above Church-state separation or religious concerns.

In asking what good is God when faced with the tragedies of natural calamities in Memphis, and the continued issue of racial divide, Yancey points to the future as a unifying hope.

What good is God in the Middle East? Like how China and the West misunderstands each other, here the Arabs and the West have their fair share of misreading each other. Yancey shares a touching story of an American teenager who testifies against all advice, on how Jesus has changed his life. This goes against the perceived Muslim perception of the west being rich, military bullies, and immoral. He then talks about how the Christian Church can actually find a new 'revolutionary character of the gospel' by having a renewed appreciation of the Middle East culture and place.

Yancey flies back to Chicago, and brings readers back to the problem of misfits in Chicago. Speaking as one who had previously endured a decade of 'more sex, more alcohol, more drugs,' the author give thanks for the ministry of AA and the social help organizations. He reserve one of his best accolade for the founder of AA.

"Bill Wilson stripped Christian principles to their basics - helplessness, honesty, repentance, restitution, dependence, prayer, community - and set them loose with a minimum of doctrine and a maximum of love." (233)

He feels that recovering alcoholics and addicts have a special spiritual authenticity that makes faith more alive. That is the reason why he wishes he was an alcoholic.

"Finally, I wish I was an alcoholic because I believe you have much to teach us about what the church can  and should be. Some of the most spiritual addicts I know avoid church because they view it as a place for people who already have it together." (248)
He revisits the topic of suffering and terrorism in Mumbai, September 11, and the horrors people inflict on one another. In 'Grace Under Fire,' he ponders over the retaliation movements where one terror leads to another terror. Instead, what the world needs is not retaliation, but reconciliation. He quotes one of Paul Brand's phrases:

"A healthy body attends to the pain of the weakest part." (271)

In other words, the world needs to show care not just to their own kind, but to all kinds. If every act of terrorism is met not with guns and bombs, but with love and goodwill, the world will be in a better place.

My Comments
This book is arranged in Janus-like looking back and looking forward manner. Using his travels as a way to reflect and look back at the past, Yancey tries to make sense of faith and God in the midst of many struggles happening all over the world. He then looks forward with redemptive stories, scripture and illustrations of grace. He then summarizes his ten trips by recognizing the 'haven of comfort' that can be provided for victims of tragedy and disaster. He asks the Church to be more involved outside instead of being content inside a theological bubble inside. He learns about 'personal discipline, a sense of life's ultimacy, a commitment to the Jesus way' in college life. He talks about alternative ways to resolving social problems. He questions the skeptics to see more openly how faith has brought along much good for the world. He challenges China with the question: "What good is no-God?" He laments the unfortunate use of force by the West which is not only expensive but damages long term relationships with people. He ends as follows:

"The question 'What good is God?' is an open question whose answer God has invested in us his followers. We are the ones called to demonstrate a faith that matters to a watching world. I have reported on ten places where I have seen that question answered - incompletely as it must be when entrusted to ordinary people, yet in a way that assuredly releases the fragrance of hope and transformation. May that fragrance continue to spread." (287)
First-time readers of Yancey's book will find this book extremely powerful and insightful. Those who have read his previous books on grace, disappointment, and the gift of pain, will generally read this book like a mini-summary of what Yancey has written before. Rather than saying that Yancey is re-hashing old stuff all over again, I think the issue is not the repeat messages. The issue is the message itself that needs to be repeated to a world hard of hearing, hard of remembering, and hard of needed grace and compassion. In other words, we all need to be reminded about grace. If there is another title for this book, I can suggest: "What's still amazing about grace."

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


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