by Kendra Thompson
Earlier this fall, I stumbled upon a podcast interview with one of my longtime favorite writers: Philip Yancey. The interview was about a recent book he had written, but this one was different from his previous works. Where the Light Fell is a memoir of Yancey’s troubled youth, marked by fundamentalism, loss, grief, abuse, and abandonment. The three-hundred-page book reveals a need for the grace he writes about in earlier Christian volumes. The title is a nod to St. Augustine’s recognition of beauty in unlikely places – touched by light.
One of my favorite litanies from the Book of Common Prayer is attributed to St. John Chrysostom. In it, God’s presence is promised “when two or three are gathered together.” With this sentiment in mind, I couldn’t help but hold other souls with me as I read Yancey’s life story. I had no idea the depths of what he endured, but I couldn’t help but see the resemblance to other narratives I know, too. As I read, I carried my own parents’ stories with me. My mom and dad, who are close to Yancey’s age demographic, also grew up in a Baptist church that condemned dancing and sent women home if they wore slacks to Sunday worship. I also thought of a pastor I worked with when I was just starting my vocation in parish ministry, whose home life as a child resembled the poverty and instability of Yancey’s. As my heart ached with the author’s, I thought of countless other friends and parishioners I’ve known who wanted nothing more than a blessing from a zealous parent and instead received their curse.
When I picked Where the Light Fell up from the Dordt University Library, I was quick to flash a screenshot of its cover to my parents. Had they read it? (Duh.) Probably as breathlessly and obsessively as I have. I marveled to my dad, “He writes so honestly and articulately about his fundamentalist past. And yet, it holds no condemnation. How does he do that?”
I have long appreciated that the Christian Writer Philip Yancey was not only a Christian but also a Writer. I was an ‘on fire’ teenager in the evangelical south in the heyday of Christian ‘stuff’ stores passing for booksellers. Some of the titles and volumes insulted my intelligence even back then, but not Yancey’s. He is a writer who strives to know his subject whether it is the various and sundry creatures that inhabit our blue planet, theological mysteries as deep and necessary as grace, and now, in his 2021 memoir, he even dares to put in front of his readership the un-tidied narrative of his Georgia childhood, youth, and the family saga that both supports and haunts it.
Yancey admits to coping with an emotionally volatile home by hiding in the quiet world of words, books, and ideas. In some ways, he reveals the safety of his other works; where he has kept himself at a distance, studying an idea, exploring it, but blurring the personal stories from his own life to protect the characters in them and the one composing them. But this book is an unveiling. Yancey is honest about his troubled home, the surprising truth of his own father’s death, and even some of the apologetic moments he’s had – atoning for past insensitivities, cruelties, and failings. At the end of Where the Light Fell, I want to wrap my arm around his shoulder and call him “Brother.”
Usually a compulsive book-buyer, I feared I might not actually read this one, so in a low-risk move I checked it out at the library on campus where I work. To my delight, I was told I could borrow it until late February. No need. In five days and as many sittings, I finished it; reading it breathlessly and anxiously, with tension in my neck for the very real characters who unfold on the pages. But even though I could have bought the book, and would have delighted in filling its margins with scrawling effusive commentary, it seems fitting that I would check this book out from an academic library, because, over the past week I have been its student. Not only learning the backstory of a writer I admire, but also the importance of making peace with a past that one might hesitate to embrace whole-heartedly. Even more, thanks to the quotes at the start of each chapter from works ranging from Fowler’s Stages of Faith to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, I found myself drafting a reading list of works I haven’t touched before, but now want to, because of how they shaped this author’s life.
I realize that this book might not be for everyone. It is intense and un-sanitized; which is probably why Yancey contracted it under a secular publisher. He is honest about his theological doubts, does not mince words about troubled family relationships, recalls stories of sex and substance abuse; dares to include the word ‘shit.’ But if you’ve ever held onto faith in God even as the world tries to beat all goodness out of you, I commend this book to you. Yancey’s testimony of God’s grace is honest, captivating, and it is nothing short of a miracle that he still dares to cry ‘Lord, Lord.’
Kendra Thompson is a wife, mother, writer, and minister living in Northwest Iowa. Her work has appeared in Spectrum, Body Love for All, Poet’s Choice and These Interesting Times. You can find more of her writing on her blog www.crylaughsnort.wordpress.com