When I was young, I didn’t know what to make of Philip Yancey’s books, including the phenomenal What’s So Amazing About Grace?
What I read of them was searing and raw, and described the church with great honesty. I wondered if he might not be a little bit blasphemous, and put the books away. Later, when I had matured into my faith a bit—and a time when I was deeply disillusioned by the behavior I had encountered in the body of Christ—every word he’d written suddenly made sense to me.
For a long time now, Yancey has remained one of my all-time favorite authors. So when I learned about his memoir, Where The Light Fell, I bought it without so much as needing a preview. And having finished, I want nothing more to go back and re-read all of his books again—because, despite being quite different in style and genre than the others, this text nonetheless picks up on the same rich and echoing through-line of all his other work.
Most readers of Yancey will be familiar with certain events in his life that have played into his prior works: the nearly-fatal vehicle accident, his life as a journalist, his Bible school rebellion-turned-conversion. But Where The Light Fell focuses on the untold part of Yancey’s story: his childhood and growing-up, with his brother, under a widowed mother.
I won’t spoil the book by going into great detail, but I will say that the three primary figures of the story remain Yancey himself, his mother, and his older brother Marshall. A fourth character, his deceased father, figures prominently as well—and indeed, it is Father Yancey’s story, or perhaps the end of it, that sets the tone for the entirety of the book.
Yancey’s father, who had hopes of becoming a missionary in Africa along with his wife, died tragically early from polio. Raised on the stories of his father’s devotion to God and aware he has been dedicated to God on his dead father’s behalf, Yancey finds out much later—in college—that he has only been told half the story. His father died of polio, yes—but only after being removed from the hospital against medical advice by his wife, both of them convinced that a ‘faith healing,’ instead of medicine, would cure his illness. His father dies instead, a “holy fool,” as Yancey puts it, coaxed into an early grave by believers certain of a positive outcome.
This theme recurs throughout the book: pious believers, convinced of their righteousness, can incur great damage and great costs through choices and behavior that seem, to them, good and just. Yancey’s mother, in particular, stands out as the embodiment of this. A devout believer who has a pristine reputation at her church and as a Bible teacher, she perpetrates a great deal of abuse and damage on her sons (often in the name of God). The narrative hinges on an unspeakably cruel comment she makes to her eldest son, Marshall: one that Yancey witnesses, one that essentially disintegrates whatever remained of the family, and one which has resounding implications for the two brothers over the course of the rest of their lives.
It is to Yancey’s credit a that he can write about an abusive, miserable upbringing—and about the resulting consequences, particularly for his brother—without sounding pious, self-righteous, or smug. He avoids trite platitudes and generalizations, and while he clearly defines his mother’s cruelties and plainly finds them abhorrent, he also draws her as a complex figure: a woman herself a victim of un-grace from a difficult upbringing, alone and afraid, unable to give grace to her children when they desperately need it.
And Yancey is unsparing with himself as well, detailing the coping mechanisms he created to manage his home life, his own small cruelties, his complicity in racism and un-grace. He is almost, I would venture, less kind with himself than he is with anyone else in the narrative—but it is clear, as he recounts with a sort of wonder his very unexpected Bible college conversion (he was on a ‘special’ prayer list at the school and on the verge of dropping out), that God has had an unmistakable, profound, and permanent influence on the man he was and might have been otherwise.
It makes sense that someone who writes so well and with such searing honesty and compassion about suffering and pain in the Christian life would have encountered no little amount of it himself. And his story struck me for other reasons, too: his acknowledgement of what it means to step away from one’s culture of origin and see it with new eyes, his references to God’s presence made apparent to him in nature and in words, and his ability to hold tension without feeling the need to resolve it.
In Yancey’s memoir, self-proclaimed Christians sometimes do horrible, hypocritical, painful things. They wound their own children, even. They create generational discord. They are racists. They lie and live by legalism. They do not extend grace. They cause unspeakable suffering in the name of love.
They also listen. They care. They give grace when it is not expected and when it is unearned. They fight racism, or somehow, astonishingly, forgive it when it is directed at them. They are not perfect, but they love. They serve. They become anchors along the way, the people who keep a doubting Yancey from drifting away entirely.
Yancey’s book accepts that he–that we–live in a world where both things can be true. And it is to his credit that Yancey uses his memoir to offer no once-for-all solutions for the contradictions and tensions and struggles he exposes. That’s because solutions aren’t necessary. At memoir’s end, there is no storybook ending and no promise of one. What remains is God alone—the same God who made Himself vividly real to a rebellious young skeptic at a Bible college, and whose grace and whose presence have continually transformed a broken heart.
Over the course of the memoir, it becomes clear that Mother Yancey dedicated her sons to God with a clear vision of what they would become. Ironically, despite not becoming whatever his mother had envisioned, the younger Yancey has grown into a scribe and a lion of the faith whose words have influenced more than I can imagine. That he can now write his own story with such kindness and forgiveness for those who figured in some of his deepest hurts is perhaps his greatest testimony and evidence that he has become exactly what his mother hoped, whether she sees it or not.
Grace, un-grace. Where The Light Fell makes it clear that the joy of favor freely given can make a life in spite of the most miserable circumstances—and that grace denied can break it.