The High Calling of Journalism: A Candid Interview with Philip Yancey

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The High Calling of Journalism: A Candid Interview with Philip Yancey

Philip Yancey is the author of 20 books that have sold more than 15 million copies in 35 languages. Thirteen of his books have won Gold Medallion awards from the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA) and two, The Jesus I Never Knew and What's So Amazing About Grace? were selected as ECPA Book of the Year. Yancey worked as a journalist for 20 years. He was editor and eventually publisher of Campus Life magazine. For many years, he wrote a monthly column for Christianity Today and still serves the magazine as Editor at Large. Yancey lives with his wife in Colorado, but travels internationally in search of compelling faith stories. The High Calling interviewed him about his vocational calling and his latest book, What Good Is God?

Christine SchellerWhat Good Is God? seems like a different book to me than your previous books.  I don’t recall you ever doing a collection of speeches with commentary before.

Philip Yancey:  I couldn’t find a model of a book that had combined journalism and related speeches in context.  So, it may be a different book, period.

Christine Scheller:  How did you come up with the idea?

Philip Yancey:  It came about after my wife Janet and I were involved in the Mumbai situation that I wrote about in the last chapter.  I was scheduled to speak downtown the night of the terrorist attacks in which 175 people died.  Our meeting was canceled, of course.  Instead, a smaller group of people spontaneously came together in a church and asked me to speak to them.  I looked out over that shocked and grieving audience—what could I say?

It was such a traumatic experience. When we left, I realized that I’ve been in all sorts of interesting situations.  It actually reflects what has happened to my career apart from my desires.  I feel most comfortable as a journalist taking notes, interviewing people and writing. I’ve done it for so long and have had so many books published that people started seeing me as a content person, as someone who could guide them. This was an identity crisis for me about ten years ago.  One way I resolved it was to accept overseas assignments, because I just don’t like the celebrity culture in the United States. Internationally, people are very grateful to have someone come and speak.  Because of the conditions in the places I visit, I generally don’t feel like I’m being pampered. So, it seemed like a healthier way to handle the success I’ve found in writing.

I’ve done a lot of thinking over the years about the difference between writing and speaking.  They are very different crafts. I’ve had to do both, kind of simultaneously.  As we were leaving Mumbai, I made a list of interesting places we’d been, on a napkin.  It wasn’t the same list that ended up in the book, but it was a long list of the places where there were behind-the-scenes stories going on. So, yes, it was different for me.  I don’t know of another book quite like it.  The journalism part is the fun part, because it’s the narrative part. What I said at the time is what put me on the spot, in terms of the question:  How does my faith relate to a situation like this?  That’s a good healthy thing for me to do.

Christine Scheller:  It’s interesting that you should describe the book that way, because, as you know, The High Calling is an outlet that focuses on the high calling of our daily work.  In the book, you wrote:  “My journalistic adventures have become for me a way to test the truth of what I write.”  I thought that was fascinating, because you obviously accept these invitations to speak and I imagine your hosts expect you to say something encouraging or inspiring.  And yet, you’re talking about testing the truth of what you write by those adventures. How do you work out the tension between testing what you are writing and doing what you’re called to do in those situations?

Philip Yancey:  I certainly didn’t plan some of them, like the Mumbai situation or even China, where I had some secretive, even scary meetings with the underground church.  But, if you travel as much as we do and go to the kinds of places we go, like Burma and Somalia, you are going to find your faith tested. Years ago, as a journalist, I was really attracted to people who put their lives on the line. In modern terms, that would be dealing with earthquake victims in Haiti or the people in Darfur.  I would go and seek out those stories, first because I thought those are the people who really deserve the spotlight. Instead, we’re talking about Angelina Jolie and Lindsay Lohan. Second, these were the kinds of people that I wanted to learn from and be like. Dr. Paul Brand was the biggest influence on me.  He was a British surgeon who spent his life among people with leprosy, mostly the “untouchable” Dalits in India. As I was around people like that, I realized I used to feel sorry for them. I don’t feel sorry for them anymore. I want to emulate them and learn from them. I would deliberately accept those kinds of challenging engagements, rather than invitations to speak at cozy Christian conferences in the U.S..  I would tend to choose the ones that would be more likely to have a journalistically interesting back story.

Christine Scheller:  I see.  Did you study journalism in school? 

Philip Yancey:  I did graduate work in Communications at Wheaton College.

Christine Scheller:  And then you worked for Campus Life?

Philip Yancey:  Right.  I was there for about ten years full-time.  That’s where I learned to write, really. We had a small staff. As people started leaving, I became editor and then publisher. I did all sorts of things in advertising and circulation and marketing that I didn’t really care about, but that were necessary to keep the magazine going. Eventually I decided that I had to write so I quit that job and became a freelancer.

Christine Scheller:  Did you write your first book after that? 

Philip Yancey:  I wrote my first book Where Is God When It Hurts? weekends and nights while I was on staff at Campus Life.  My second book, Fearfully And Wonderfully Made, was written in the same way. One reason I decided to make a change was that when I turned in Fearfully and Wonderfully Made I thought, “I could have used another few months on that,” but I didn’t have another few months.  The only way to do it was to leave the full-time job.

Christine Scheller:  You write in the introduction to this book that you are an introvert and you are perfectly happy to go home and be in quiet place writing after going on these excursions.  What do you do to manage the level of extroversion that’s required?

Philip Yancey:  Interestingly, a lot of people who are in the public eye are introverts. Probably not politicians, but a lot of actors and comedians say they are introverts. The strain for me is not standing in front of a microphone and talking.  I have learned to do that, although it was not easy at first.  The strain for me is chatting. That is such a draining and difficult thing.  An introvert doesn’t mind in-depth conversations with people he cares about.  But, when I’m speaking to a couple thousand people, then I have a book signing, I have thirty-second conversations with people I’ll never see again. That’s what’s really hard for me, because some of the people obviously need more than thirty seconds.  And yet, there’s a long book line, so we don’t have more than that.  Those people I direct to Janet, my wife.  She’s a trained social worker.  She can spend the ten minutes with them that they need.  I can deal with simple questions.

Christine Scheller:  So, you work as a team.

Philip Yancey:  That’s right. It is quite a commitment for her.  She had her own career, first as a social worker and then as a hospice chaplain.  She gave those up for the purpose of traveling with me internationally.  She’s a missionary kid, so she likes the multi-cultural aspect of what we do.  It’s a real service.  It doesn’t feel the same to her as having her own career, but it’s every bit as valuable.

Christine Scheller:  You also wrote in the introduction that you wonder why you keep circling back to the problem of pain. Have came up with an answer to that question?

Philip Yancey:  I suppose it’s because it’s around us all the time, and it’s a huge deterrent to faith—or at least presents a mystery of faith.  Some people use it as an excuse to turn away from God.  Some people use it as an impetus to wrestle with God.  In either case, it’s the rock against  which our faith crashes.  Whether it’s personal, like somebody who you love getting cancer, or a global tragedy, suffering raises questions.  I have to keep coming back to pain because life does that.

Christine Scheller:  You had a serious car accident in 2007…. Did that bring the issue of suffering to the forefront in a new way? 

Philip Yancey:  The accident did not involve any “why me” questions at all. I hit a patch of ice.  In a sense, I got the advantages of that kind of intense situation without the disadvantages. I had the advantage of spending most of the day facing death. We are all going to die, and some people don’t have that advantage.  If I had been killed in the accident, I wouldn’t have had that time of reflection.  If I had a protracted illness that took a couple of years, I would have a long time, but also a lot of agony to go through.  I got a concentrated dose of being flat up against the ultimate questions without the long-term consequences.  I wasn’t paralyzed and I didn’t die.

It was good in that it was a test of my faith, of what I truly believed.  I did have to face the question: does my faith matter?  I realized in that moment that it’s almost the only thing that matters. Most of what we spend our lives worrying about and obsessing over doesn’t apply when you may be dead in a few minutes.  What I believe and who I believe God is and what I think about what happens next, those things matter a lot. It was like a magnifying glass that concentrated things that I believed. But, I wouldn’t compare it in any way to people who have a child with a permanent disability or paralysis or something like that.  That’s a whole different order.

Christine Scheller:  Do you have lingering pain from your injury?

Philip Yancey:  I have some stiffness and soreness and the vertebrae occasionally don’t line up.  Arthritis or bone spurs could develop and there may be surgery down the road.  But, everybody says wait as long as you can.  So, I am.

Christine Scheller:  In the “House on the Rock” chapter, you mention that you experienced a loss of retirement savings in the 2008 economic crisis. How did you apply the principles that you are talking about in this book to that situation?

Philip Yancey:  I think what we have gone through as a nation and throughout the world exposes where we put our trust. I must admit that for a few days, I was not in a panic, but it was hard to come to terms with the fact that money we had worked years to accumulate was just gone! I would find myself thinking about it too much.  I was not obsessing over it, but it had more control over me than I would have predicted.  I had to face that as a spiritual issue and ask God to give me the kind of perspective that the Sermon on the Mount talks about:  “Don’t worry.  God takes care of the flowers and the birds.” As a freelancer, I face certain instabilities that other people don’t, like health insurance and retirement.  Times like that are good for me, I think, because they call out who I’m really trusting. 

Christine Scheller:  A story that stuck with me from a previous book of yours was about how you had achieved a certain level of wealth from the success of your career, and you were very careful about the stewardship of that wealth, especially when it came to giving. The Lord prompted you to put a $100 bill under someone’s door. You had to relinquish control of how the recipient used that $100. Was that a training moment that served you when you lost your savings?

Philip Yancey:  Yes. I truly believe that it’s those moments of testing that reveal to us what we’re really trusting.  In the case that you referred to, it’s absolutely true that I was trying to be generous, but I was trying to be generous in my own controlled, tax-deductible, almost Pharisaical way.  I was missing the whole point of giving, which is responding joyfully—“cheerfully,” as the Bible says—to a human need right in front of me.  I was missing it, because it was just part of the scheme of my life. It wasn’t an offering, as it should have been.

Christine Scheller:  It is unusual for someone to make a living as a book author. What would you say are the factors that contribute to your success? 

Philip Yancey:  A number of things. I’m so grateful now that I had that ten-year period at Campus Life.  Whenever I speak to a writers group at a university or a college, I say, “Whatever you do, don’t leave here and start out as a freelancer. That’s suicidal.” In an office environment, I learned disciplined work habits and deadlines. Even more important, I learned that the reader is in control.  More than any other factor, including even your skills, the reader determines your success.  I’ve seen again and again where very talented young people will take a Master’s in Fine Arts. They write beautiful poems and no one will ever read them because there’s no market for them.  It’s sad, but it’s true.  Often, those kinds of Fine Arts programs teach you to take self expression to the extreme. There’s a place for that and I read some of those books.  But I came out of an industry where if we didn’t satisfy the readers, the magazine was dead.

Once you pay for a book, you’ve already got it, but readers are asked to renew a magazine subscription.  If the editors are not fulfilling what they want, they don’t renew. I learned early on that the reader is the boss; the writer is not the boss.  If a writer doesn’t communicate in a way that the reader comes away with a feeling of satisfaction—maybe they disagree with you, but at least they’re glad they read it—then you’re in the wrong business.  That was an important lesson for me.

So, I think these two things:

  1. The discipline of the office environment. I work long hours every day.  I never start off waiting for inspiration.  I just do it and then go back later and try to clean it up.
  2. The reader is in control.  When I write my books, they are usually at least 100 pages longer than the drafts that get published, because I find I’ve been writing for myself.  I’ve been writing about things I’m interested in.  And then, later, with the advice of some cranky, trusted friends, I realize that not everybody is interested in the same things I am interested in. So, I have to go back and edit them in a different way. I’ve done that with every one of my books.  They all turn out quite different from what I had envisioned or what I would have wanted as a reader. 

Christine Scheller:  Throughout your writing, there’s been this thread about the impact of both racism and fundamentalism on your life.  Again, in this book, both of those things are prominent.  Have these two issues that you faced as a young person continued to shape you and your work at some level? 

Philip Yancey:  All I have is my life. I can step back and see that I’m really talking about principles of religion or about human divisions. I can generalize or make it more abstract, but writing only works if it is specific—if it is contextual and personal. I don’t see many churches today that promote the same kind of legalism that I experienced growing up, except overseas, where I find all sorts of parallels, because the most uptight Christians are the people who become missionaries and sometimes replicate their legalism on the mission field.

If you step back, I’m really talking about grace and love.  Racism is the enemy of love and legalism is the enemy of grace.  These are the issues that Jesus stressed so radically that we keep finding ways to oppose. I have to keep going back, even though I know not many of my readers have gone through an experience like I did at the Bible college I attended.  However, by being specific and direct, I may well provoke something relatable in them.  For example, perhaps a person was mistreated at their church when they got divorced.  Well, that’s a whole different situation than I’m describing, but, by reading about my experience, theirs comes to the surface and then they can take what I’ve written and apply it in a personal way to themselves.

Christine Scheller:  I appreciated the fact that you affirmed some of the good that has come out of that school in this book, even though the negative overshadowed it, because life is so messy.

Philip Yancey:  Yes, well, there is a lot of good.

Christine Scheller:  Has traveling the world changed your view of God?  Has it either expanded your view of God or created more questions for you? 

Philip Yancey:  I have learned that there are an increasing number of questions that I trust God with and not myself or other human beings.  Take eternal punishment, for example. I just say, “Boy, the God I know is a fair God.”  What I am sure of is that at the end of time, whatever judgment looks like, no one will be able to stand before God and say, “You were not fair,” because I know that God is fair, and not only fair, but merciful and gracious.

Jesus is the best clue we have as to what God is like and He is consistently gracious and merciful, especially to those who are failures. He is harsh to uptight, judgmental people, but merciful and gracious to the failures. He seems to draw out the smallest kernel of faith in each person that He’s with. So, I presume that that’s the way God is going to judge humanity.  And, the old question about, “Well, what if they’d never heard of Jesus?”  I happily leave those questions in the hands of the God I trust. At the same time, when I think analytically about Christianity and Islam and Hinduism and Buddhism and look at their effects on culture, and then study their doctrine, I feel much better about my faith. So, I’m not threatened in the sense of “Is this true?” so much.  I’m threatened more by the way human beings try to nail it all down.  I’ve learned to trust God.

Christine Scheller:  It sounds like traveling internationally gives you a sense of humility about your own knowledge of God?

Philip Yancey:  Oh, very much so.  I think it’s in the chapter on the Bible College, where I talk about what a small proportion of the world even uses a word like “evangelical.” It’s something like 10 percent.  It’s easy to think, “We’ve got the truth!”  Well, a lot of other people think they’ve got the truth too, and they see it differently. 

Christine Scheller:  In a recent column for Christianity Today, you said you’d happily keep the label, but you want evangelicals to live up to it better.

Philip Yancey:  That’s right.  One of the things I try to do in this book is tell Good News stories.

A friend of mine went to a debate between the atheist Christopher Hitchens and his Christian brother who says, “I’ve been around you people (meaning atheists).  You won’t even pick up the check.” I have been around Christians who have made great personal sacrifice in their lives to serve and help other human beings.  That’s one of the stories I want to get across again and again.

Christine Scheller:  In your Christianity Today column, you also sounded a little disheartened about the state of Christian publishing. You were lamenting the fact that publishers want smaller books and that sort of thing. I wondered if you might be retiring.  Was I absolutely off base in thinking that?

Philip Yancey:  I’m not retiring from writing; I just retired from writing that column. I would say my being disheartened has more to do with American culture than anything else. We are becoming a very shallow culture.  My goodness, the celebrity ethos has taken over completely.  Turn on the television and you see that over and over.  There’s very little substance.  And so, everything gets shorter.  Everything is entertainment oriented. Our churches reflect that.  A thirty-five minute sermon without a Power Point or video clips is rare these days.  That’s not true in other countries so much.  So yes, I am disheartened, not just about Christian publishing, but I’m disheartened, as every writer is, about all of publishing.

Christine Scheller:  If we are supposed to be responsive to the readers, what do we do?

Philip Yancey:  Actually, I think it’s an opportunity for the church to be the guardian of the best of culture. It would be great if we were the ones who were preserving good music and scholarship and all those things.  And, in some ways, we do.  But also, there is a very strong tendency within our church culture to just follow the general culture.  The church does that to a degree that alarms me.

Christine Scheller:  Would you consider preserving a high standard of writing part of how you glorify God in your work life?

Philip Yancey:  Yeah.

Christine Scheller:  And so, how do you write a dense book like your book on prayer, when books obviously need to sell?

Philip Yancey:  My publishers have often suggested things like a little book of excerpts or including quotes from my books in collaborative gift books.  I say no, because I didn’t write a paragraph; I wrote a book. Then they say I can make money doing it. And I say, “Well, that’s too bad.” In the book on prayer, I say that on good days at the end of the day, I ask myself, “What did I do today to give God pleasure?”  I think that’s something that we’re in danger of losing.  In the middle ages, there was the idea of working for the glory of God. I’ve been to buildings in Oxford, England, for example, where art work was hidden behind the walls as an act of worship, because the craftsmen believed that God would see it. Nobody else would.  Then, centuries later, the art works were discovered.  There’s always a temptation to make books smaller and to chop them up and just keep feeding the machine, but I don’t think that stuff lasts, generally.  Why are C.S. Lewis’s books all still in print nearly fifty years after his death? Because, he gave everything he had to each book.  He didn’t cut corners.  That is part of what I perceive as my calling. I don’t just write for my readers; I also write for permanence and to do the very best that I can to answer that question, “Did I do anything to give God pleasure?”

Christine Scheller:   I have one last question. When you’re laying your head down at night, is there any particular story from this book that sticks with you more than the others? For me, the chapter about the sex workers is heart-breaking.

Philip Yancey:  Yeah.  As soon as you asked the question, my first thought was also the sex workers.  Part of it is because it was a unique opportunity for me to get behind the stereotypes. If I turn on CNN as I’m having lunch, which I do almost every day, I’ll see people like prostitutes presented as a group, or welfare recipients, or…fill in the blank. It’s easy for all of us to do that.  I certainly do it. Here I had a chance to get to know them as women, as human beings and as people who had lived very difficult lives.  I think that is what writing should do and what faith should do.  Both should peel away the stereotypes and labels so that we see the world with God’s eyes.  God doesn’t see stereotypes.  God doesn’t see races.  God doesn’t see genders.  God sees objects of love.  The more we can do that, the more we can express what God is like to the rest of the world. The church doesn’t always do that well.  But, there are enough stories that encourage my faith. As I go out in search of a faith that matters, I do find a faith that matters.  I hope that this book is a light that encourages other people, too.

Christine Scheller:  Well, I think it is.  I enjoyed it tremendously.  And, I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you about it.  I thank you for your work over the years.  It’s always meant a lot to me.

Philip Yancey:  Well, great!