Soul Survivor

(How My Faith Survived the Church)

by Philip Yancey, 2001

Hodder & Stoughton, 307 pages

What’s a good Easter read? Undoubtedly Philip Yancey’s Soul Survivor.

The subtitle is itself intriguing. “How My Faith Survived the Church”. If truth be told, countless believers down the centuries have been traumatized by the church.  Many still are.  As sheep led before its shearers is dumb, so has many a people of God suffered silently under overbearing elders and insufferable preachers.  At long last comes a book with whose author we could shed a sympathizing tear.

Yancey begins with a chapter on the trauma he had been through as a seeker after the truth. Having been deeply scarred, he finds inspiration in an array of what were for him spiritual luminaries. Some on his list I did not know of before; some, you may question if they should be there as they weren’t or weren’t ostensibly Christians; and some, whose saintliness would seem quite beyond comprehension for some of us.

Leading the list is someone whose credibility is still being debated – Martin Luther King Jr. Yancey quite blandly states the fact of King’s immorality: King’s adultery and plagiarism are acknowledged givens. Yancey himself had been taken to task by two college presidents for hailing King as a modern “prophet”.

Yancey, in defence of his own assessment, cites the presence of moral deviants in the Hall of Fame of Hebrews 11, and dryly observes that we appreciate Solomon’s proverbs even as we disapprove of his lifestyle.  What is it about Martin Luther King that draws such sympathetic deference from Yancey?

“Occasionally, grace and power descend on great and flawed leaders to convict and lead us on.” (p. 39)

For Yancey, King’s stature spells hope for the hopeless. If God uses only perfect specimens of humankind, then only hypocrites would qualify. And if hypocrisy be the homage of vice to virtue (after Pope, I think), then far too often has that tribute been accepted unquestioned.

King wasn’t the only rogue in Yancey’s gallery of spiritual luminaries. There was Tolstoy who lived a tortuous life, whose own defence of his vision was that God’s holy ideas should not be judged by Tolstoy’s own inability to meet them (p. 125). Or in Yancey’s own words, “An idea cannot be held responsible for those who profess to believe in it.” (p. 127)

To cap it all, there was the Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo whose avowed intent to tell the story of apostates who had been unjustly “twice damned”: by the silence of God in the face of torture; and the silence of history afterwards.  While Endo’s near-veneration of treachery is both moving and disturbing, it at least throws light on the profound sense of trauma on the part of those caught in the morass of their ethical limbos. Is there really no redemption for them?  Both Endo and Yancey hint otherwise.

Somewhat less disturbing, and yet no less provocative, are characters like Mahatma Gandhi and Frederick Buechner.

For Yancey the example of Gandhi stands as a rebuke to our modern self-serving gospel of prosperity. Yancey carries a story of how Gandhi once travelled third class in a train.  When queried as to his mode of transport, Gandhi remarked that he travelled third class because there wasn’t a fourth class. And Yancey could not help but contrast that attitude with his own sense of excitement at collecting mileage points in air-travel for upgrade to business class. Touche!

Yancey’s article on Frederick Buechner is special for me in that Buechner (with the notable exception of King) was the only preacher included in his “gallery” of saints.  It is significant because Buechner, as a preacher himself, was sick of sermons and rebels against that note of falsity he hears in most preaching.  In Buechner’s own words,

“I’ve found that most ministers preach out of their shallows more than out of their depths…  I rarely go to hear them and when I do, I feel guilty about my negative reaction. So many churches remind me of dysfunctional families, full of loneliness and buried pain, dominated by an authority figure.” (p. 254)

That rebuke was for me an inspiration toward the search with Buechner for that “subterranean presence of grace in the world.” (p. 241)

So much for sinners like King, and cynics like Buechner.  Yancey also writes about what I might call genuine “saints”. For me, they appear “saintly” only because their goodness far transcends what we mere mortals would often normally regard as human decency.

Yancey recounts the story of Dr Paul Brand with whom Yancey had collaborated in Brand’s research on pain. As someone acutely aware of the problem of pain, Paul Brand, on the one hand, chose a life of poverty in India and treated his patients as people rather than problems; and yet he could, on the other hand, appreciate both good food and fast cars!  It is a mind-boggling act of balance that spells both sanity and saintliness. Yancey’s assessment of Brand is an inspiration for those on a quest of what godliness really entails:

“It is indeed possible to live in modern society, achieve success without forfeiting humility, serve others sacrificially, and yet emerge with joy and contentment.” (p. 64, 65)

The only other controversial figure I might mention in this brief review would be Dr Everett Koop. Appointed surgeon-general during the Reagan administration, Koop had been villified for his support of AIDS programmes, as well as his stance on abortion.  In Koop’s mind, fairness was a straightforward issue.  His famous illustration was that of a gun battle between a robber and a policeman. Both had arrived for treatment. The doctor’s duty (even Christian doctor!) was to treat the more seriously wounded of the two; and not the more moral of the two.  This seems to me to be the kind of moral-cum-spiritual astuteness that we find difficult to establish.

I have but scratched the surface of the issues raised by the personalities treated by Yancey in Soul Survivor. Soul Survivor seems almost like Yancey’s own list of the “heroes of faith”, and there are thirteen of them altogether. They are the people who sustained his own faith in both God and humankind.

It’s a book I want to share with you in the hopes that, if you, too, are struggling with your faith and have been deeply disillusioned and traumatized by the pathetic version of Christianity you see around you, then you too will recover some semblance of faith and sanity.  

 “From death to life, thou mightst him yet recover.” (Michael Drayton)

 

(Reviewed by Rev Ng Seng Chuan)

CHAPEL NOTES

Choices and Consequences

 

The speaker on 7 April was Debbie Lee.  Debbie is a free lance trainer who worships at the Wesley Methodist Church .  The month of April will feature students who have completed their first year of speech communication classes sharing their thoughts on the book of Ruth.

The speaker began with the story of Daniel and his three friends.  They chose to remain faithful to God at the cost of their lives.  The issue of faithfulness to God in the face of life’s dire circumstances is one of personal choice.

The message may be summed up in four action words: accept, acknowledge, commit, and act.  Before going into some detail concerning these strategies, the speaker also dealt with the nature of earthly ills.  These are spelt out in terms of trials from God, temptations from the evil one, trespasses as a consequence of actions by others, and troubles arising from one’s own evil deeds.

The story of Ruth requires that we take four steps.  First, we need to accept our situation rather than grieve too long over it.  When Naomi accepted her situation, she could look beyond her own grief to the well-being of her daughters-in-law.

Secondly, we need to accept God’s sovereign control.  Naomi was aware of God’s “visitation” in Judah , and this awareness aroused in her the desire to return.

Thirdly, we need commitment.  Ruth demonstrated real commitment to God in being willing to accompany Naomi in her return to Bethlehem .  By contrast, our sense of commitment is described by the speaker as being more akin to “deliverance without disturbance.”

Finally, we need to act upon what we believe in.  We often know what we ought to do about the predicaments we find ourselves in, but lack the resolve to act upon what we know.

The message ended, aptly enough for chapel at a theological school, upon the note that it is possible to graduate “summa cum laude” from the seminary of affliction.

Chapel Speaker on 21 April will be Mr Chng Joo Ching.

NEWS BITS

Congratulations! The Faculty and Staff of BGST rejoices with our alumni as they graduate from Regent College on 26 April:

Master of Divinity (M Div)
Mr Beh Soo Yeong
Mr Amos Ang Boon Leong

Master of Theology (Th M)
Mr Quek Tze-Ming

A BLESSED 
BIRTHDAY TO ...


Ms Grace Chng  12/4

Ms Goh Li-Ern  13/4

Elder Yong Teck Meng  14/4

Mdm Grace Yap  14/4

Mr Ng Beng Hong  14/4

Ms Lim Keng Hee  15/4

Ms Chew Chee Kuan  16/4

Mrs Reine Teo  16/4

Ms Therma Cheung  17/4

Mr Leslie Tsen  17/4

Ms Chan Hsiao Yun  17/4

Mr David Chan  18/4

Mr Kang Cheng Guan  18/4

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