Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church

Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church

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by Philip Yancey

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Philip Yancey, whose explorations of faith have made him a guide for millions of readers, feels no need to defend the church. "When someone tells me yet another horror story about the church, I respond, 'Oh, it's even worse than that. Let me tell you my story.'I have spent most of my life in recovery from the church."

Yancey acknowledges that many spiritual…  See more details below


Philip Yancey, whose explorations of faith have made him a guide for millions of readers, feels no need to defend the church. "When someone tells me yet another horror story about the church, I respond, 'Oh, it's even worse than that. Let me tell you my story.'I have spent most of my life in recovery from the church."

Yancey acknowledges that many spiritual seekers find few answers and little solace in the institutional church. "I have met many people, and heard from many more, who have gone through a similar process of mining truth from their religious past: Roman Catholics who flinch whenever they see a nun or priest, former Seventh Day Adventists who cannot drink a cup of coffee without a stab of guilt, Mennonites who worry whether wedding rings give evidence of worldliness."

How did Yancey manage to survive spiritually despite early encounters with a racist, legalistic church that he now views as almost cultic? In this, his most soul-searching book yet, he probes that very question. He tells the story of his own struggle to reclaim belief, interwoven with inspiring portraits of notable people from all walks of life, whom he calls his spiritual directors. Soul Survivor is his tribute to thirteen remarkable individuals, mentors who transformed his life and work.

Besides recalling their effect on him, Yancey also provides fresh glimpses of the lives and faith journeys of each one. From the scatterbrained journalist G. K. Chesterton to the tortured novelists Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, to contemporaries such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Annie Dillard, and Robert Coles, Yancey gives inspiring portraits of those who modeled for him a life-enhancing rather than a life-constricting faith.

"I became a writer, I now believe, to sort out and reclaim words used and misused by the Christians of my youth," Yancey says. "These are the people who ushered me into the Kingdom. In many ways they are why I remain a Christian today, and I want to introduce them to other spiritual seekers."

Soul Survivor offers illuminating insights that will enrich the lives of veteran believers and cautious seekers alike. Yancey's own story, unveiled here as never before, is a beacon for those who seek to rejuvenate their faith, and for those who are still longing for something to have faith in.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews
"I took the worst the church has to offer, and still ended up in the loving hands of God." The author of What's So Amazing About Grace? utilizes profiles of people of faith to show how faith can survive negative experiences within the church. Honest and probing reflections.

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Chapter 1

Recovering from Church Abuse

Sometimes in a waiting room or on an airplane I strike up conversations with strangers, during the course of which they learn that I write books on spiritual themes. Eyebrows arch, barriers spring up, and often I hear yet another horror story about church. My seatmates must expect me to defend the church, because they always act surprised when I respond, "Oh, it's even worse than that. Let me tell you my story." I have spent most of my life in recovery from the church.

One church I attended during formative years in Georgia of the 1960s presented a hermetically sealed view of the world. A sign out front proudly proclaimed our identity with words radiating from a many-pointed star: "New Testament, Blood-bought, Born-again, Premillennial, Dispensational, fundamental . . ." Our little group of two hundred people had a corner on the truth, God's truth, and everyone who disagreed with us was surely teetering on the edge of hell. Since my family lived in a mobile home on church property, I could never escape the enveloping cloud that blocked my vision and marked the borders of my world.

Later, I came to realize that the church had mixed in lies with truth. For example, the pastor preached blatant racism from the pulpit. Dark races are cursed by God, he said, citing an obscure passage in Genesis. They function well as servants—"Just look at how colored waiters in restaurants can weave among the tables, swiveling their hips, carrying trays"—but never as leaders. Armed with such doctrines, I reported for my very first job, a summer internship at the prestigious Communicable DiseaseCenter near Atlanta, and met my supervisor, Dr. James Cherry, a Ph.D. in biochemistry and a black man. Something did not add up.

After high school I attended a Bible college in a neighboring state. More progressive than my home church, the school had admitted one black student, whom, to stay on the safe side, they assigned to a roommate from Puerto Rico. This school believed in rules, many rules, sixty-six pages' worth in fact, which we students had to study and agree to abide by. The faculty and staff took pains to trace each one of these rules to a biblical principle, which involved a degree of creativity since some of the rules (such as those legislating length of hair on men and skirts on women) changed from year to year. As a college senior, engaged, I could spend only the dinner hour, 5:40 p.m. until 7 p.m., with the woman who is now my wife. Once, we got caught holding hands and were put "on restriction," forbidden to see each other or speak for two weeks. Outside somewhere in the great world beyond, other students were demonstrating against the war in Vietnam, marching for civil rights on a bridge near Selma, Alabama, and gathering to celebrate love and peace in Woodstock, New York. Meanwhile we were preoccupied, mastering supralapsarianism and measuring skirts and hair.

Shortly after the turn of the millennium, in the spring of 2000, I experienced a fast-motion recapitulation of my life. The first day, I served on a panel at a conference in South Carolina addressing the topic "Faith and Physics." Though I have no expertise in physics, I got chosen along with a representative from Harvard Divinity School because I write openly about matters of faith. The panel was lopsided on the science end, for it included two Nobel prize-winning physicists and the director of the Fermilab nuclear accelerator near Chicago.

One of the Nobel laureates began by saying he had no use for religion, and in fact thought it harmful and superstitious. "Ten percent of Americans claim to have been abducted by aliens, half are creationists, and half read horoscopes each day," he said. "Why should it surprise us if a majority believe in God?" Raised Orthodox Jewish, he was now a confirmed atheist.

The other scientists had kinder words for religion but said that they restricted their field of view to what can be observed and verified, which by definition excluded most matters of faith. When my turn came to speak, I acknowledged the mistakes the church had made and thanked them for not burning us Christians at the stake now that the tables had turned. I also thanked them for rigorous honesty about their own nontheistic point of view. I read from Chet Raymo, an astronomer and science writer who has calculated the odds of our universe resulting, as he believes it did, from sheer chance:

If, one second after the Big Bang, the ratio of the density of the universe to its expansion rate had differed from its assumed value by only one part in 1015 (that's 1 followed by fifteen zeros), the universe would have either quickly collapsed upon itself or ballooned so rapidly that stars and galaxies could not have condensed from the primal matter . . . The coin was flipped into the air 1015 times, and it came down on its edge but once. If all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the Earth were possible universes—that is, universes consistent with the laws of physics as we know them—and only one of those grains of sand were a universe that allowed for the existence of intelligent life, then that one grain of sand is the universe we inhabit.

After the panel two more Nobel laureates, another in physics and one in chemistry, joined the discussion, along with some thoughtful Christians. One of the physicists asked to see the quote by Raymo, whom he knew as a personal friend. He pondered a moment, thinking out loud, "Ten to the fifteenth power, ten to the fifteenth . . . let's see there are 1022 stars in the universe—yeah, I can buy that. I'll take those odds." We then moved on to the critique of religion. Yes, it has done harm, but consider the good it has accomplished as well. The scientific method itself grew out of Judaism and Christianity, which presented the world as a product of a rational Creator and thus comprehensible and subject to verification. So did education, medicine, democracy, charitable work, and justice issues such as the abolition of slavery. The atheistic physicists freely acknowledged that they had no real basis for their ethics, and that many of their colleagues had served Nazi and Communist regimes without a twinge of conscience. We had a fascinating interchange, that rare experience of true dialogue resulting from different perspectives on the universe.

A day later, my wife and I got up early and drove a hundred miles to the thirtieth reunion of our Bible college class. There, we listened to classmates describe the last three decades of their lives. One told of being delivered from arthritis after ten years when she finally dealt with unconfessed sin in her life. Another extolled the advantage of sleeping on magnets. Several were suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome, and others from severe depression. One couple had recently put their teenage daughter in a mental institution. These did not seem to be healthy people, and I felt sadness and compassion as I heard their stories.

Paradoxically, in narrating their lives my classmates kept resurrecting phrases we had learned at Bible college: "God is giving me the victory . . . I can do all things through Christ . . . All things work together for good . . . I'm walking in triumph." I left that reunion with my head spinning. I kept wondering how the skeptical scientists would have reacted had they sat in on the class reunion. I imagine they would have pointed out a disconnect between the observable lives and the spiritual overlay applied to them.

The very next morning, a Sunday, we arose early again and drove two hundred miles to Atlanta in order to attend the "burial" of the fundamentalist church I grew up in, the one with the many-pointed star. After moving to escape a changing neighborhood, the church found itself once again surrounded by African-Americans, and attendance had dwindled. In a sweet irony, it was now selling its building to an African-American congregation. I slipped into the very last service of that church, which had been advertised as a reunion open to all who had ever attended.

I recognized acquaintances from my past, an unsettling time warp in which I found my teenage friends now paunchy, balding, and middle-aged. The pastor, who had served the same congregation for forty years, emphasized the church motto, "Contending for the faith." "I have fought the fight," he said. "I have finished the course." He seemed smaller than I remembered, his posture less erect, and his flaming red hair had turned white. Several times he thanked the congregation for the Oldsmobile they had given him as a love gift: "Not bad for a poor little pastor," he kept saying. During the expanded service, a procession of people stood and testified how they had met God through this church. Listening to them, I imagined a procession of those not present, people like my brother, who had turned away from God in large part because of this church. I now viewed its contentious spirit with pity, whereas in adolescence it had pressed life and faith out of me. The church had now lost any power over me; its stinger held no more venom. But I kept reminding myself that I had nearly abandoned the Christian faith in reaction against this church, and I felt deep sympathy for those who had.

That single weekend gave a snapshot reprise of my life. Where do I belong now? I wondered. Long ago I rejected the cultish spirit of the church I had just helped bury. Yet neither could I share the materialistic skepticism of the scientists on the panel. Though they may wager on one fantastic grain of sand arrayed against the forces of randomness, I cannot. Theologically, I probably fit most comfortably with the evangelical Bible college, for we have in common a thirst for God, a reverence for the Bible, and a love for Jesus. Nonetheless, I had not found there much balance or health. Sometimes I feel like the most liberal person among conservatives, and sometimes like the most conservative among liberals. How can I fit together my religious past with my spiritual present?

I have met many people, and heard from many more, who have gone through a similar process of mining truth from their religious past: Roman Catholics who flinch whenever they see a nun or priest, former Seventh Day Adventists who cannot drink a cup of coffee without a stab of guilt, Mennonites who worry whether wedding rings give evidence of worldliness. Some of them now reject the church entirely, and find Christians threatening and perhaps even repellent.

One of Walker Percy's characters in The Second Coming captures this attitude well:

I am surrounded by Christians. They are generally speaking a pleasant and agreeable lot, not noticeably different from other people—even though they, the Christians of the South, the U.S.A., the Western world have killed off more people than all other people put together. Yet I cannot be sure they don't have the truth. But if they have the truth, why is it the case that they are repellent precisely to the degree that they embrace and advertise the truth? One might even become a Christian if there were few if any Christians around. Have you ever lived in the midst of fifteen million Southern Baptists? . . . A mystery: If the good news is true, why is not one pleased to hear it?

His last question rings loud. If the gospel comes as a eucatastrophe, J. R. R. Tolkien's word for a spectacularly good thing happening to spectacularly bad people, why do so few people perceive it as good news?

I became a writer, I now believe, to sort out words used and misused by the church of my youth. Although I heard that "God is love," the image of God I got from sermons more resembled an angry, vengeful tyrant. We sang, "Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight . . ." but just let one of those red, yellow, or black children try entering our church. Bible college professors insisted, "We live not under law but under grace," and for the life of me I could not tell much difference between the two states. Ever since, I have been on a quest to unearth the good news, to scour the original words of the gospel and discover what the Bible must mean by using words like love, grace, and compassion to describe God's own character. I sensed truth in those words, truth that must be sought with diligence and skill, like the fresco masterpieces that lie beneath layers of plaster and paint in ancient chapels.

I felt drawn to writing because for me it had opened chinks of light that became a window to another world. I remember the impact of a mild book like To Kill a Mockingbird, which called into question the apartheid assumptions of my friends and neighbors. As I went on to read Black Like Me, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," my world shattered. I felt the power that allows one human mind to penetrate another with no intermediary but a piece of flattened wood pulp. I saw that writing could seep into crevices, bringing spiritual oxygen to people trapped in air-tight boxes.

I especially came to value the freedom-enhancing quality of the written word. Speakers in the churches I frequented could raise their voices! and play on emotions like musical instruments. But alone in my room, controlling every turn of the page, I met other representatives of faith—C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, John Donne—whose calmer voices traversed time to convince me that somewhere Christians lived who knew grace as well as law, love as well as judgment, reason as well as passion. I became a writer because of my own encounter with the power of words, and I gained hope that spoiled words, their original meaning wrung out, could be reclaimed.

Ever since, I have clung fiercely to the stance of a pilgrim, for that is all I am. I have no religious sanction. I am neither pastor nor teacher, but an ordinary pilgrim, one person among many on a spiritual search. Unavoidably and by instinct, I question and reevaluate my faith all the time. When I returned from the head-spinning weekend among physicists, Bible college classmates, and Southern fundamentalists, I asked myself yet again, Why am I still a Christian? What keeps me pursuing a gospel that has come to me amid so much distortion and static, that often sounds more like bad news than good?

Every writer has one main theme, a spoor that he or she keeps sniffing around, tracking, following to its source. If I had to define my own theme, it would be that of a person who absorbed some of the worst the church has to offer, yet still landed in the loving arms of God. Yes, I went through a period of rejection of the church and God, a conversion experience in reverse that felt like liberation for a time. I ended up, however, not as an atheist, a refugee from the church, but as one of its advocates. What allowed me to ransom a personal faith from the damaging effects of religion?

Copyright 2001 by Philip Yancey

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Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church 4.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you suffer from Evangelical Tunnel Vision (ETV) you most likely will not benefit from this powerful book by Philip Yancey. If, however, you're willing to entertain the possibility that there is a much larger world out there than allowed for by your 'home-grown' spiritual upbringing, this book will rock you. I'm confident there will be those of a narrow, if not legalistic stripe (they could not possibly see themselves as such) who will take offense that Yancey attributes such personal significance to the faith journey of people who are not of their theological persuasion. Yancey, himself makes allowance for this in his first chapter which is worth the price of the book all by itself. Without apology (appropriately so) Yancey's purpose in writing the book is to honor those who have pulled him out of his 'religious' box into the realm of a spiritual existence validated not by church traditions or a doctrinal statement, but by the sometimes radical reflection of Jesus living in the life of the one serving him. That for me was a refreshing and very challenging breath of fresh air. The writing is fluid, transparent, and even at times painful for Yancey in his honesty. It is a call to those who would be disciples, not just church members. Whether you respond positively or negatively to the book will be determined in large part by which of those two identities is more important to you. In any event, read it!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is the best I've read in a very long time - maybe ever. Philip Yancey deals honestly and candidly with difficult issues surrounding Christianity. He's not afraid to ask (or answer!) questions that others neglect. He features in this book thirteen individuals who have shaped him as a person and a Christian. The reading was both fascinating and profound. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved yet another of Yancey's books. This book deals with the ways that we humans and our institutions get in the way of seeing God. He delves into the lives of others who have struggled with this issue. Ultimately, he helps us see a loving God more clearly.
JoyReader More than 1 year ago
Soul Survivor is a book worth reading, from a historical standpoint (vignettes from many well known people's lives are told - i.e. Gandhi) as well as from a personal standpoint. The subtitle of "How My Faith Survived the Church" is catchy but so true. Yancey, and most other thinking people, has had negative, disillusioning experiences that tie in with 'religiosity', churches or people who claim to represent God. Yet Yancey brings his readers back to the place of remembering and confronting the fact that TRUE FAITH is not about faith in a human being or a human being's ideas about God -- rather, true faith is FAITH IN GOD HIMSELF. And that faith in God Himself can not be shattered by human failings.
JosephSchneller More than 1 year ago
Yancey is a spiritual cowboy; he¿s a straight-shooter unhindered by manmade fences. He willingly shows you both his scars and his still-present wounds. He is free-range, unconcerned and unselfconscious as he roams into church-labeled ¿Badlands.¿

When I first began the book, Yancey seemed to be making unfairly broad generalizations, overly rough criticisms of the Church. But when I realized his background (his racist, legalistic church upbringing mentioned on the back cover), I began to better appreciate, and better relate to, his hungry search for truth. Now, I admire his intellectual, spiritual guts. By insightfully exploring the life journeys of thirteen exceptional people (who were also confused, determined, generous, and sinful beings), he brought new perspective to my own pilgrimage.

In Soul Survivor, Yancey addresses the harmful, unbiblical teachings presented in the specific church setting of his early life. But he doesn¿t wallow in a cesspool of complaint; rather, he moves forward to discover and explore God¿s gracious, merciful heart. In so doing, Yancey sets an example for others who have been hurt in a church setting, for others who need to separate erring leadership from an unerring God....
(Please see the rest of the review on my faith-and-humor site,
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was very impressed with the honesty and transparency of Yancy in this book. It is a much needed and yet graceful look at the human-ness that plagues the church, revealing the flaws without dwelling on them, seeing the possibilities of goodness. An excellent work for anyone who is searching spiritually.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Philip Yancy is the most thoughtful Christian popular author today. This book is excellent for those disillusioned by the Christian church as well as those who are too dogmatic within the church. His thoughtful discussion of incredible people will identify many autobiographies and literary works for future reading.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Once again, Phillip Yancey has written a book for the rest of we prodigals who experienced so many confusing and ambiguos rules and creedos in church, but could never put into the right words how we felt about it. By revealing his mentors in the faith, both new and old, and equally weak and strong, he educates the reader without being academic and give insight that reveals the depths great women and men go to within themselves to have a right relationship with God. I have never read a book where so many of my own thoughts were put to paper. I especially liked the recommendations of books to read at the end of each chapter. That will supply a reader with enough material to last until his next book comes out!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Insight into what influences Yancey was great
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