Review of: Vanishing Grace – Remembering the Promise of Faith

A Review of Vanishing Grace by Philip Yancey

I was attracted to Philip Yancey’s Vanishing Grace (Zondervan, 2014) by the back-jacket copy: ‘“Why does the church stir up such negative feelings?” Philip Yancey has been asking this all his life as a journalist. His perennial question is more relevant now than ever: in a twenty-year span starting in the mid-nineties, research shows that favorable opinions of Christianity have plummeted drastically—and opinions of Evangelicals have taken even deeper dives […] Why are so many asking, “What’s so good about the “Good News?”’

vanishing graceMy own experiences suggest a few answers: I was raised in an independent fundamentalist Baptist church, where rigid gender roles and authoritarian parenting blurred into severe physical child abuse and scenes of bloody domestic violence. Groaning beneath our pastor’s harsh version of ‘Christian child discipline’, I lost faith in the power of prayer and in the goodness of god. During my mid-20s, I gave religion a second chance; but when I discovered the exact messages that had marred my childhood still going out from the pulpits, I became solidly confirmed as one of the “Nones”.

Still, I can’t help remembering the promise: a welcoming community headed by a benevolent pastor with answers for life’s thornier problems. I’m sure that I will never return to the fold of believers, but I do cling to the hope that future Christians might raise their children in churches that have learned from the past and adapted to become more like their ideals. Because of that hope, I was drawn to Philip Yancey’s Vanishing Grace.

Out of the gate, Yancey impressed me with his willingness to engage with the width, depth and breadth of the church’s problems: ‘Divorce rates among Christians mirror the rest of society’s, as do the rates of physical and sexual abuse; sexual promiscuity among Christian teenagers is only marginally lower; only 9 percent of evangelicals fully tithe their money; evangelicals are among the most racist of any groups surveyed by George Gallup; Catholics have more abortions than the national average.’

Additional research spans across centuries and continents, touching on everything from high-profile scandals and private hypocrisy, to the enmeshment of religion in politics and the destructive power of hierarchal and authoritarian thinking in relations between the genders and generations. Yancy includes figures from surveys and polls (‘In total, 52 percent of those surveyed judged that religion does more harm than good.’) as well as anecdotes from private conversations with the disillusioned (‘“I tried religion […] The whole time I was sitting there I wanted to get out.”’)

In the early portions of this book, Yancey seems intent on following the advice of Lutheran scholar Martin Marty, who he quotes in chapter two: ‘”Hold up the mirror if you are a believer, and ask whether anything anyone is saying or doing gives legitimate grounds for antireligion to voice itself and creates a market for [antireligious ideas]”’. Unfortunately, the rest of Vanishing Grace veers away: after outlining all of the ways that churches have harmed the spiritual, emotional, and physical wellbeing of individuals, families, and entire communities, Yancey spends the remainder of his book strategizing about how evangelical Christians might win over new converts. By chapter three, it is evident that Vanishing Grace is not about correcting destructive doctrine and behavior, but rather about new ways to market the same old brands.

‘According to Barna surveys, 61 percent of today’s youth had been churched at one point during their teen years but are now spiritually disengaged,’ Yancey writes. On the previous page, he details the common experiences of many ‘postChristian’ youth, who carry memories of ‘a domineering parent, a youth director or priest guilty of sexual abuse, a nasty divorce which the church handled clumsily’. But rather than suggesting that churches get serious about rooting out problems that flourish in of their own congregations, Yancey frames the wounded as little more than hardened targets, who he likens to bitter divorcees: ‘A divorcee won’t easily fall for sweet nothings from a suitor — she’s heard them all before — and has a basic distrust of romance.’

With this view in mind, Yancey’s advice boils down to various strategies for psychoanalyzing the seriously aggrieved in order to come up with more sophisticated emotional manipulations and smoother, more tailored pick-up lines: ‘To communicate to postChristians I must first listen to their stories for clues to how they view the world and how they view people like me’; Yancey writes, having apparently forgotten a previous and very salient point, made using a quote from a woman of his acquaintance: ‘“It seems to completely undermine sincere relationship building if you are looking at people as ‘targets’ to convert.”’

Ultimately, Vanishing Grace does a fair job of explaining why people are abandoning the burning ships of modern evangelical faith. But rather than recommending changes that might put out the fires, this book is mostly about how to lure the previously wounded back on board. In my opinion, this kind of ‘gospel’ is the worst of all bad news: it spells another trip through the ringer for those whose battered remnants of faith can least afford it; and it is also bad news for those who are born into churches that are best at turning vulnerable seekers into hardened spiritual divorcees.

To my mind, the central flaw in Yancey’s logic is his conviction that those who have fled from toxic religion are left in a perpetual state of spiritual longing. Making this point, he quotes author Henri Nouwen: ‘“God help me to see others not as my enemies or as ungodly but rather as thirsty people. And give me the courage and compassion to offer your Living Water.”’ But for me, letting go of religion meant releasing an endless source of unhappiness and pain. Looking back, I don’t feel the least bit wistful about it. Eventually it doesn’t matter how much you polish up the promise: people will remember your faith for what was delivered.

 

Vanishing Grace is available at Amazon here.

 

M. Dolon Hickmon is a freelance columnist for The Freethinker and OnFaith. He explores the intersections of religion and child abuse in essays published around the web, as well as in the pages of his critically acclaimed novel, 13:24 – A Story of Faith and Obsession. You can follow his writing on Twitter @TVOS1324.

Review & Commentary