Book review 11: “What’s So Amazing About Grace?”

Philip Yancey has written many books, but probably his most famous is “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” which I reread recently.

It is a book that sets out to challenge the church to be people of grace: of forgiveness, kindness, understanding, generosity. People whom sinners, addicts, failures and criminals might be tempted to approach for help and advice, instead of saying, as he quotes one woman as doing, “Church? Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.”

He doesn’t actually define either grace or “ungrace”, but shows the latter as any attitude of relentless condemnation, selfishness, unforgiveness, self-righteousness.

It is from this book that the famous quote comes (but I can’t this minute find it!)

Grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more… And grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us less…

My favourite Yancey book is “Soul Survivor.” Yancey was brought up in a very strict and also racist church in the southern USA, and he has reacted strongly against it. In “Soul Survivor”, he gives potted biographies of people – some of whom he met and interviewed, some of whom were long dead, like Tolstoy and GK Chesterton, in whose lives or writings he found more wisdom and grace than in his childhood church.

All of his writings are saturated with this change in his life, and possibly none more so than “What’s So Amazing…”

It’s a book that has made a huge impact on many people, and its challenge is powerful. You’re sensing a “but”, gentle reader, and this is largely I think because Yancey’s extremely anecdotal and story-telling style is not my favourite for a book of spiritual guidance.

Many of his stories are powerful and well-told. I love the retelling of Jesus’ parables in modern garb: some of them surprisingly well camouflaged. And he bravely faces the problem of “cheap grace” – if everyone can be forgiven who repents, why not keep sinning? In illustration, he tells of a life prisoner who chose to commit murder rather than suicide, so that he could escape from the jail – to heaven, by repenting before his execution. Suicides don’t get to repent before death.

But although he’s surely right that the novella and film “Babette’s Feast” convey a powerful message about love and grace, did he need to spend seven pages retelling the plot in detail? The constant stream of stories made it hard for me to follow the actual structure and teaching of the book.

Every reader will have their favourite stories. Many of them are great.

This read I was also particularly challenged by chapter 18, Serpent Wisdom, on the relations between church and state. In our often hugely intolerant society it was sobering to be reminded of a political opponent who visited Richard Nixon in his disgrace to show him that he was still loved. It is also salutary to remember that when Yancey says that being cosy with the state is dangerous for the church… he’s thinking of right-wing American politics, and we all say “hear hear”… but some of the same goes for the left.

I love his expansion of CS Lewis’ description of Christians as “jolly beggars”. “We creatures, we jolly beggars, give glory to God by our dependence.”

But of course I have theological quibbles.

  1. If everything about God can be reduced to love, and Jesus overturned all the OT “categories of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ (chapter 12, No Oddballs Allowed) – well, why were the rules and categories there, and why did Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel bother writing so many dozens of chapters of condemnation that we hardly ever read, because they’re so repetitive and horrid? (This is a topic for another post.)
  2. Does God really have nothing to say to someone who (say) has watched their family tortured and killed, beyond “I love you. You’ll feel better if you forgive the torturers”? Yes, I’m looking still for a bit of maybe not vengeance, maybe not eternal punishment, but at least vindication. Did God stop being a God of justice at the cross?
  3. The motivation for serving God should be gratitude. “A person who truly loves God will be inclined to please God.” (chapter 14, Loopholes). Yes, I agree, but occasionally this argument sounds like “Hooray! You don’t have to exhaust yourself trying to earn God’s favour out of duty! Isn’t that wonderful? Now you’ll want to exhaust yourself doing all the same things, and you’ll be grateful for the opportunity, won’t you?” Which is actually not less tyrannical if you’re tired.

I think I should reread some more Yancey. And I think I should regularly remember his call to action, that begins:

“If the world despises a notorious sinner, the church will love her. If the world cuts off aid to the poor and suffering, the church will offer food and healing. If the world oppresses…” (Read chapter 19 for the full manifesto paragraph.)

Amen, brother.

Love from the PPI Blogger

1 Comment
  • Malachi Malagowther

    9th December 2019 at 1:29 pm Reply

    This is a very welcome antidote to all the hyperbole, half truths and aspirational promises of the election campaign. All politicians seem to be saying that if only voters would give them the super-power of a democratic mandate they will be able to solve all the world’s ills and take us to the Utopian uplands of blissful harmony where everyone is valued and there are no more tears. Instead the Blogger reminds us that God has a different and more gradual route for enabling human progress that isn’t always straight-forward and generally doesn’t involve the granting of super-powers.

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