Where the Light Fell: A Memoir

Philip Yancey, Where the Light Fell: A Memoir (Random House Audio, 2021), unabridged, 11 hours, 17 minutes. 

Back in the late 1990s, I read several of Philip Yancey’s book. Twenty some years later, I find myself going back to his books for inspiration. This is especially true for What’s So Amazing About Grace? While Yancey often drew from personal stories, in this book he provides even more personal details of his childhood. Yancey was only a year old when his father died of polio. However, he was a college student, bringing home a date, when he accidentally learns the details of his father’s death. An iron lung kept his father alive, but he decided that instead he would trust God. Supported by all the people who were praying for him and against medical advice, he left the hospital. Sadly, it didn’t work out. Raised in poverty by his mother, he grew up not knowing the reasons behind his father’s death. 

Secrets and mysteries abound in Yancey’s childhood world. A bright student, he starts school a year early and skipped the second grade. Although three years younger, he was a year behind this older brother throughout school and college. The two brothers were raised in Southern fundamentalistic churches with a holiness strain. Although their mother came from Philadelphia, she too had been raised in a church that taught the “curse of Ham” (an interpretation of scripture that assigns those of color to subservient positions within society). The two brothers grow up believing the myth of the Lost Cause and of vengeful God. It’s a frightful time as the Civil Rights movement gains strength as unrest around the Vietnam War increases. In time, both brothers revolted against their childhood. As the book ends, the older brother is attending an atheistic church in California, while the younger has become a popular Christian author. 

From the beginning, the Yancey’s boys were their mother’s hope to fulfill her own dream of becoming a missionary to Africa. From an early age, she tells them the Biblical story of Hannah, who consecrated her son to the Lord and gave him to the priest, Eli, to raise him up in the temple (see 1 Samuel 1-3).  For Yancey, he admits this is his least favorite story in the Bible. The pressure upon these two boys, growing up in the church (at times even living on church property where their mother leads the Sunday School) was immense. 

While there is much to lament about Yancey’s childhood, he’s not bitter. “Nothing is wasted,” he acknowledges. He credits this upbringing for teaching him the importance of language and to develop a love of scripture. While he grew up with sermons mostly from Paul or the Old Testament, he learned enough about Jesus to dig deeper. He also appreciates the way the church of his youth was a family.  “Like a family, [church] is a cluster of dysfunctional people. As he fully understands the gospel story, Yancey discoverers grace and finds the strength to move into a deeper relationship with God and with all God’s children. 

Part of the credit for Yancey comes from his wife, who had grown up in a missionary home. The two found solace with each other. Married for 50 years, Yancey doesn’t say much about their life together. This memoir focuses on Yancey’s early years.  

Sadly, Yancey’s story doesn’t end in a fairy tale. His brother and his mother haven’t spoken in decades. Yancey has sought forgiveness from some whom he’s hurt, there are others with whom he’s not been able to reconcile. The president of his college (which he never mentions by name), remains upset over the stories he told while being a student there. But in other cases, such as with his high school nemeses, Hal, he’s able to develop a new friend. Even one of his childhood pastors, of whom he’d been critical, found himself moved by Yancey’s writings on grace. Looking back, he admits to wishing he had discovered grace much earlier in his ministry. 

Toward the end of the book, Yancey digs again into the story of Hannah, whom his mother had used to make him and brother feel guilty for not following her plan for their lives. He notes that it was not Hannah nor Eli that gave rise to Samuel. God called Samuel. We live for God, not for the expectations of others. Yancey claims there are two universal themes in his writings: suffering and grace. He brings them together in these pages.  

I listened to the audible version of this book. The author read his own work, which is always a benefit. However, I will also buy a paper copy of the book as there is much I would like to revisit.  I recommend this book, especially for those who come out of a fundamentalist background or those raised up in the era of Civil Rights.  

24 Replies to “Where the Light Fell: A Memoir”

  1. This book sounds amazing. What a tough upbringing and yet scripture helped the family through, except for the Curse of Ham. I’ve never heard that term but what a discouraging teaching for youngsters. Interesting how different the two brothers are, yet each has found his own way of coming to terms with early childhood. Thanks for sharing your review. I will be looking this author up and adding to my TBR shelf.

    1. Yancey points out the fallacies in the curse of Ham, which was a terrible misuse of scripture in an attempt to “justify” slavery. I have enjoyed everything Yancey has written, but this book is my favorite.

  2. Rising above those things that bring us down or rather never truly expose us as we may have hoped, there is always (with desire to rise above everything that holds us back) always forward. Thanks for this review, interesting to read. Enjoy your day, and week ahead Jeff.

    1. The ability to rise above what brings us down is where we experience the possibility of new life. I hope you had a great week, too.

  3. It takes a brilliant author to draw a reader back many years, or even decades, later. I find myself brought back to Wayne Dwyer’s writing, but it no longer has the power-packed impact it did on my younger self.

    Be well and safe, Jeff.

  4. Sage
    Thanks, thought I had read all Yancey’s books. Will definitely read it, and as always your reviews are inviting!🤔

    1. This book just came out–in October–so you’re excused for not reading it! When you read it, let me know what you think.

    1. It was a good read and hopefully this book will be helpful, especially those who come out of a fundamentalist background.

  5. Thanks for the review, Jeff. It sounds like a great read and I will have to look into it as I will have some spare time coming up during the holidays.

    1. I hope you enjoy the book, if you read it. I know I make lots of recommendations! I won’t have much time to read till after the holidays.

  6. This book seems very close to the bone and real. Family relationships are always convoluted and can be dicey.

    The iron lung always seemed like an instrument of torture to me. I was a kid when a neighbor girl contracted polio and came home in one, and I remember how that affected everyone in our neighborhood. We visited her, of course, but whenever we did, I had such a hard time keeping a smile and not showing how I really felt. We moved a few years later, and I always wondered what happened to that girl. Obviously, I’m not anti-vaccine!

    1. With the way you’ve handled family situations in your writings, Lee, you might find Yancey helpful. Thankfully, the polio vaccine came out shortly after my birth, so I never had to deal with it. My mother told me of being quarantined after having been exposed. She couldn’t go anywhere (except to the tobacco field). That would have been in the late 40s. I also remember a mother of a friend who had been in an iron lung. She never seemed to be in the best of health, decades later.

  7. Sometime way back when, I read some of Yancey’s stuff, but not this one. I read “Disappointment with God” a long time ago at a time when I felt just what the title suggests. I remember it being a tremendous help and comfort. I love his emphasis on grace.

    1. Suffering and grace are the major themes in his writings. While I enjoyed his earlier books, this one was so personal and gave an insight into Yancey’s life.

  8. I’ve never read any of Yancey’s book, though I’m certainly familiar with his name. This sounds very good and I will add it to my wishlist.

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