Philip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace? is one of those books that every knowledgeable Christian is supposed to have read. Tell people that you haven’t and you’ll get that stunned you’re-missing-out look that is generally reserved for the kind of people who’ve never seen the original Star Wars and are foolish enough to admit it in public. Tired of the condescending stares, I finally read it over the past month. What did I think? There are some really good parts to Yancey’s book. I also have some serious reservations.
The best way I can describe Yancey’s book is to compare it to an all-you-can-eat buffet. At such a buffet there are a host of dishes to choose from, and in Yancey’s book there are lots of stories to choose from, examples to pilfer, and anecdotes to observe. Here we have a literary smorgasbord of what Yancey calls ‘grace’. As with any quality buffet, however, while the majority of the dishes are good, a few are truly excellent, and a few are unmemorable. In the same way, I felt that a fair portion of Yancey’s book was good, sections of it were unmemorable, and a few places it really shined. Easily the best ‘dish’ of the book was Yancey’s chapter on homosexuality, which was a section that seriously, honestly, and (very appropriately) graciously documented the Church’s historical position on homosexuality. That chapter might have been worth the price of the book.
The benefit of a buffet—variety—is often also its downside, because in the same way that sometimes an overfilled plate leaves the stomach confused, Yancey’s book left me a little confused about grace. Ingredients mashed together and I lost a sense of what ‘grace’ actually might be in the process. If we were to imagine that Yancey were participating in a kind of spiritual Iron Chef, and had been commissioned to prepare a series of dishes with ‘grace’ as the secret ingredient, then my criticism is that he failed to honor the ingredient in each of the dishes he’s prepared. They blurred; other things were dominant.
This observation points to a deeper and more significant criticism of Yancey’s book, namely, that after reading it I don’t have a better idea of what grace is. And this is a fairly devastating criticism for a book whose central subject is grace. To be fair, Yancey states clearly at the start that “I would rather convey grace than explain it” (page 16); his intention is to evoke the idea—the impression—of grace, and toward this end he relies on stories and images rather than definitions. But the end result was that I got a much stronger dose of Yancey’s impressions than I did of the grace he intended to convey. Throughout the book Yancey documents all sorts of nice things and says, “These are grace;” then he documents not-so-nice things and declares, “These are un-grace.” And the apparent metric Yancey uses for determining grace and un-grace was this: that what is good in the Church and world is grace, and what is bad in the Church and world is un-grace. But what I really came away with in the end was the impression that what Philip Yancey liked was grace, and what Philip Yancey disliked was un-grace.
And this points to a parallel criticism of Yancey’s book, because one of the things that Yancey appears to dislike is the Church, which, historic and present, seems to be the favorite punching bag and bad example of Christianity. Now, in the sense that the Church is meant to be the showcase of grace on earth, Yancey may be right to point out a noticeable lack of grace. But the net effect of Yancey’s stories was that I came away with the distinct impression that while grace may be happening somewhere, it is most likely not happening in the Church. And therefore the Church is not the place to look for grace; we have to turn elsewhere—to literature, to individual stories—to find it.
This begs a question: namely, where should we look for grace? Where do we, the readers, turn our eyes so that we can see and experience the grace of God in our lives? And here Yancey’s book may actually be harmful to our faith, because the truth of the matter is that discontent is not the path to the understanding of grace. In fact, grace will not be found while we cultivate discontent with our circumstances, but rather as we learn to seek God from within our circumstances. The grass of grace is not greener somewhere else, but made green by the Spirit of God shining in a particular moment in our lives. And that is because grace is the supernatural transformation, the glorification, of a particular moment in all its contingencies. If we are always looking elsewhere to find it, we will never see it for ourselves. With this in mind the Church—in all Her mess and glory, and indeed because of them—is the greatest showcase of the grace of God on earth. “While we were yet sinners,” Paul writes in Romans, “Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). Grace is most evident in the self-giving of God to us, as broken and undeserving people. The fact that God continues to give Himself to us, the Church, utterly regardless of both our folly and success, is the great witness to grace in the world. And this great witness to grace within the Church is one that Yancey’s book overlooks.
As I understand it, the problem with Yancey’s approach lies in the difference between subversion and criticism. Yancey, I believe, has set himself out to be a subversive; his intention is to recapture and challenge our perceptions of what grace is (his subversion is also present in numerous individual stories about his counter-cultural friends and experiences). But I think that in this case he is being more critical than subversive; rather than challenging the Church, he’s just down on it. And the key difference is here: that while subversion says, “We must be attentive to the workings of God outside our accepted paradigms,” criticism says, “Grace isn’t here, I’ve got to look somewhere else.”
The difference is clearest when we consider other authors. Frederick Buechner in one place remarks that divine interruptions are an important part of our common worship—a child screaming during a sermon, a vacuum running during Holy Communion; that, in short, we must learn to appreciate the grace of the present moment. Or consider the thoroughgoing sacramental irony embedded in the work of an author like Chesterton, whose whole canon may be rightly described as subversive—always searching the grace of God by examining our present circumstances in new ways. Buechner and Chesterton transform the situation so that we can see God’s grace within it; Yancey looks elsewhere. In the end, it’s a matter of how and where we look for grace.
Grace truly is amazing; Yancey’s book less so. That is not to say that it is a bad book, and I suspect that people who read it will be blessed and encouraged by his many stories. But it remains an impoverished book as well. Read it, then, with the necessary grain(s) of salt: that this is Yancey’s individual take on grace, that the Church isn’t so bad as you might think, and that there is far, far more to grace than this book can account for. But above all, remember to open your eyes to see the grace of God in your present circumstances, and those circumstances, transformed by the grace of God, will teach you to be truly amazed at Grace.