What’s ‘So Amazing’ is That He Wrote a Classic on Grace

Where the Light Fell, A Memoir by Philip Yancey | 9780593238509 | Booktopia

I have just finished the gut churning, heart breaking memoir that Phillip Yancey released last week.

How this man came to write so eloquently about the subject of grace is a beautiful mystery. It could have gone so much differently… His title ‘Where The Light Fell’, makes a lot more sense having heard his story.

Let me lead you into it without spoiling it. Yancey is 71 now, so a few years older than me and he grew up in the centre of a fundamentalist religious world that I remember all too well.

The first chapter opens with his father (a pastor) having contracted polio and being hospitalised in an iron lung. He and his wife decide to exit hospital and ‘trust in the Lord’ for his health needs. He is convinced that God will heal him, but he dies in around 6 weeks and in the aftermath Yancey’s mother dedicates her children to missionary service in Africa. As the story unfolds it’s as if she put a curse on their lives.

Yancey also writes about her theology of ‘perfectionism’ (she believed she hadn’t sinned in 12 years…) that held her captive and prevented her from showing any vulnerability. She was harsh woman and especially tough on her kids, while presenting a face of love and joy to others around her.

Yancey grows up on the outer in school and lives in a caravan / motor home with his mum and his brother. The story focuses largely on the world in which he grew up – racist, Southern Baptist and deeply committed to maintaining pretences no matter what.

I remember this world and part of the reason I am a pastor today is because I was compelled to be part of creating something that doesn’t reek of the same pompous religious tones, but rather was a place of grace and authenticity. Yancey clearly ‘transformed his pain’ (to quote Richard Rohr) into magnificent writing that was never afraid to explore the hard questions in an accessible way.

I expected to hear more of Yancey’s life as a writer / communicator but this was a ‘family history’. In many ways a truly tragic story, but one that is well worth reading. We see two lives (Yancey’s and his brother) take two very different trajectories and both were a response to their upbringing. This isn’t a book for the faint hearted, because it is littered with stories of dark religious behaviour that in places is simple abuse. But if you have ever read Yancey’s classic ‘What’s So Amazing About Grace’, then this story will give context to his writing.

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