Wheaton magazine

Volume 23, Issue 2
Wheaton magazine // Spring 2020

Radical, But Ordinary

Few Christian writers have had the international reach and impact as Philip Yancey M.A. ’72, author of The Jesus I Never Knew. Yancey brings this honesty and conviction to his books, which have sold more than 15 million copies and been translated into 40 languages. He knows firsthand the meaning of suffering, doubt, fear, and grace.

Yancey was raised in a fundamentalist church in the segregated south. As a young boy, he experienced a “crisis of faith” in response to the hellfire messages preached from the pulpit. Books like To Kill A Mockingbird and Black Like Me had a profound impact on Yancey as he witnessed the blind racism in his community. “I felt a real sense of betrayal,” Yancey says. “If I couldn’t trust what the church said about race, how could I trust what they said about Jesus in the Bible?”

What followed was a time of spiritual wandering. “Cautiously, warily, I returned,” writes Yancey, “circling around the faith to see if it might be true.”

Yancey cites three reasons for his renewed faith: (1) the majesty of nature, (2) the soul-reaching power of classical music, and (3) the joy of romantic love. Ultimately, he says, gratitude for the beauties and wonders of the world led him back to the hands of a gracious God. Paraphrasing G. K. Chesterton, Yancey notes, “The worst moment for an atheist is when he feels a deep sense of gratitude and has no one to thank.”

His years spent in the Wheaton College Graduate School provided the necessary space for inquiry: “At Wheaton, I was free to let out the questions that had already been there. Before, I’d had no arena in which to voice them.”

After graduating with Highest Honors in Missions in June 1972, Yancey worked as a journalist in the Chicagoland area. He served as editor of Campus Life and editor-at-large for Christianity Today, while writing for various publications, including The Saturday Evening Post and Chicago Magazine.

Yancey says he primarily writes books for himself: he begins with his own uncertainties. “I started writing about questions. What’s So Amazing About Grace? Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?

Over the years, Yancey gained a reputation for his willingness to explore the challenging topics of the Christian life, such as the reality of doubt, the importance of grace, and the presence of suffering. Two of his books were named “Book of the Year” by the Evangelical Publishers Association: The Jesus I Never Knew and What’s So Amazing About Grace? He has also been the recipient of 13 Gold Medallion Awards. He has interviewed presidents (Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton), dined with celebrities (Bono), and covered famous writers (Annie Dillard and John Updike, among others). Fellow Wheaton alumnus Billy Graham ’43 even famously noted, “There is no writer in the evangelical world that I admire and appreciate more.”

“Philip has lived out his faith in the public eye, encouraging fellow pilgrims to be honest with their questions, struggles and yearnings about faith,” says Beverly Hancock ’84, President of the Alumni Association Board of Directors. “Few achieve the level of recognition and impact that Philip Yancey has attained through his extensive writing and speaking.”

Through it all, Yancey remains humble and unpresuming.

He fondly recalls a particular day when he was booked for back-to-back speaking engagements. First, Yancey attended a VIP political event at a convention center in Denver, dressed in suit and tie. Second, he spoke at a graduation service for inmates at a federal prison, who were receiving seminary degrees. “I feel so much better about my use of time in the prison,” he says. “I was amazed at the flourishing of faith in the least likely place.”

This attitude of giving back is central to Yancey’s work and platform. Fame was never his goal. “I wasn’t expecting success or effectively working toward it. I was just writing my books,” he laughs. “When I experienced success, there was a crisis of spiritual discipline. My challenge now was going to be to properly steward what God had given me.”

Yancey’s wife Janet, a former missionary kid, encouraged him to pursue international travel and share their resources with the church abroad. “We got to see the kingdom of God through different eyes,” says Yancey. Together, they have traveled to 87 countries. “I was in Russia a month after communism caved; in Germany shortly after the Berlin wall fell; in India for the Mumbai bombings,” Yancey recalls. This past year alone, Yancey visited Cambodia, Singapore, Vietnam, and Lebanon. “Those places don’t pay,” he says. “But that’s part of how I steward the success: by spending my time among people who couldn’t afford it if I were charging.” 

Other times, Yancey’s speaking engagements bring him to the heart of suffering here in the United States. In 2007, just weeks after Yancey suffered a broken neck from a near-fatal motor accident, he was asked to speak at Virginia Tech. The community was reeling from the recent school shooting, which claimed 32 lives. Survivors faced the same question Yancey posed in his 1977 book, Where Is God When It Hurts? Though warned by his doctors that a flight could be fatal, given the precariousness of his recovery, Yancey was determined to be present with the grieving. And so he went.

"Don’t ever get so comfortable with the ordinary part of life that you forget to be radical."

When he’s not sequestered in front of his desk, he can be found hiking the fourteeners in Colorado, skiing, jogging, or reading Russian novels. The more his work has become defined by contemplation and reflection on spiritual issues, the more he desires to be out experiencing God’s world.

“Everyone has a different calling. I have a different calling than you do,” says Yancey. “Don’t ever get so comfortable with the ordinary part of life that you forget to be radical.”