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.