What Good Is God?: In Search of a Faith That Matters

What Good Is God?: In Search of a Faith That Matters

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by Philip Yancey

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Journalist and spiritual seeker Philip Yancey has always struggled with the most basic questions of the Christian faith. The question he tackles in WHAT GOOD IS GOD? concerns the practical value of belief in God. His search for the answer to this question took him to some amazing settings around the world: Mumbai, India when the firing started during the terrorist… See more details below


Journalist and spiritual seeker Philip Yancey has always struggled with the most basic questions of the Christian faith. The question he tackles in WHAT GOOD IS GOD? concerns the practical value of belief in God. His search for the answer to this question took him to some amazing settings around the world: Mumbai, India when the firing started during the terrorist attacks; at the motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated; on the Virginia Tech campus soon after the massacre; an AA convention; and even to a conference for women in prostitution. At each of the 10 places he visited, his preparation for the visit and exactly what he said to the people he met each provided evidence that faith really does work when what we believe is severely tested. WHAT GOOD IS GOD? tells the story of Philips journey--the background, the preparation, the presentations themselves. Here is a story of grace for armchair travelers, spiritual seekers, and those in desperate need of assurance that their faith really matters.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The search for God in the midst of horror, disaster, and loss has confounded believers for centuries. How does belief actually matter in the lives of those who suffer? Yancey, popular journalist and public speaker, travels the world and attempts to make some theological sense of the hurting people and devastated places he observes, from Virginia Tech to Mumbai. The author is very adept at walking the fine line between being "in" the world and being "of" the world. His global treks allow opportunities for dialogue with other cultures and religions, but his grounding is clearly in Christian scripture, which serves as a safe port when he encounters choppy secular waters. Particularly moving are the author's stories about China and his trip to a convention for former sex workers in Wisconsin. Somehow, redemption shines through in all of these encounters, and faith in God and humanity emerges intact, if a little bruised. The author truly believes that God can be found in the lives of ordinary people all over the world, and his compelling stories may just convince others, too. (Oct. 19)
From the Publisher
"I love Philip Yancey's work. He is a brilliant, graceful writer."—Anne Lamott"

Few are better than Yancey in providing answers that can soothe a faith that's almost been shattered."—Charles R. Swindoll"

There is no writer in the evangelical world that I admire and appreciate more."—Billy Graham

Christian Retailing
"Yancey continues the thoughtful examination of the challenges of authentic faith for which he is known...Reflecting on his experiences and sharing some of the messages from his speeches, he notes that 'we are not designed to bear pain alone' and how desperate situations provide an opportunity for believers to model Christ."
Billy Graham
"There is no writer in the evangelical world that I admire and appreciate more."
Charles R. Swindoll
"Few are better than Yancey in providing answers that can soothe a faith that's almost been shattered."
Anne Lamott
"I love Philip Yancey's work. He is a brilliant, graceful writer."
Phyllis Tickle
"Philip Yancey is a much respected and treasured colleague whose gift for speaking candidly, faithfully, and pastorally all at one and the same time is a constant model for those of us who work in the field of religion writing. Even more to the point, it is a benison for thousands of his readers and, thereby, for the Christian world in general."
Rosalynn Carter
"Philip Yancey is one of my favorite writers. His observations on religion and how it fits into modern life leave me looking at faith in a new light."
Makoto Fujimura
"There are very few authors writing today that I drop everything to pay attention to; Philip Yancey is one of them, and I am glad I have WHAT GOOD IS GOD? and many other of his books to stop, ponder, and pray through to grow in grace."
Dr. Tim Johnson
"Out of all the spiritual writers flooding the marketplace, Philip Yancey has been - for me - a unique beacon of both brutally honest and warmly compassionate insight. There are many writers who emphasize one or the other but no one who so capably offers both in almost every sentence."

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Read an Excerpt

What Good Is God?

In Search of a Faith That Matters

By Philip Yancey


Copyright © 2013 Philip Yancey
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-446-55984-3


The Story Behind the Stories

When the hardcover edition of this book came out in late 2010 I wrote a few guest blogs for the likes of CNN.com and the Huffington Post. The heated responses soon gave me a glimpse of how much hostility the topic of religion stirs up.

In answer to the question "What good is God?" I mentioned that I have seen positive benefits on three levels. First, on an individual level, faith can help transform the lives of the needy, such as prostitutes, alcoholics, Dalits (Untouchables), and leprosy victims—the stories recounted in my book. Second, the community of faith also responds with comfort and practical help to those in need, both in natural disasters, such as an earthquake in Haiti or a hurricane in New Orleans, and in human ones, such as the mass murders at Virginia Tech and Newtown, Connecticut.

Finally, the gospel spreads like yeast in bread, as Jesus predicted, affecting whole societies. I recalled my first trip to Sweden, not long after I had read historical accounts of the Vikings. For two centuries many prayers in Europe ended with the line, "Lord, save us from the Vikings. Amen." Yet modern Swedes are known for their charity, cleanliness, honesty, courtesy, and hospitality. What happened to change a culture from raping-and-pillaging barbarians to this admirable society that tourists like to visit? Christianity happened. It took several centuries, but gradually the transforming power of the Christian gospel percolated through the entire culture.

Perhaps I'm naive, but I had no idea that such assertions would whack a hornets' nest of protestors. A couple of thousand posted comments took me to task. What an idiot I must be! How can I possibly suggest that religion ever does any good! Don't I know about the Crusades and the Inquisition? Religion does little but delude people, strip them of money, and foster violence and ethnic division. Here are a few samples of the comments, quoted verbatim:

• God makes waffle batter fluffy. His only power. Little known fact.

• Whatever good religions do has absolutely nothing to do with the alleged goodness of an alleged god.' Contrariwise, it is not difficult to show that following biblical injunctions is more likely to lead to harm than good. It seems people are good in spite of religion rather than because of it.

• Religion and a nickel will get you a cup of coffee.

• The question for evangelical ministers isn't whether there is or isn't a God or whether God matters. The question for their flock simply is; WHERE'S THE MONEY? SHOW ME THE MONEY!

• if there is a god, he sucks. no good god would allow some of the things going on around us to exist. consequently, if there is no god we would have no one to blame. assuming there is a god he doesn't do any of us any good at all.

• I have asked the "what good is god" question many times. And I have always come to the conclusion that god either does not care, or does not exist. Evangelicals have only been around since about 1730. They are a cult, with no more credibility than the people who are devoted to Scientology or Latter Day Saints.

Obviously I had hit a nerve. Some responders got more personal, such as the one who posted about my life-threatening auto accident, "He needs his neck broken, I think. Too bad he didn't die before writing such a pathetic book. What a waste of paper and medical resources." Or the one who said about my photo: "The guy looks like a wacko, like all evangelicals.'"

In my writing I've often mentioned the toxic effects of religion gone bad. And in my career as a journalist I've met my share of religious characters who seem more suitable for World Wrestling Entertainment than for spiritual leadership. In fact, the CNN.com and Huffington Post responses caught me off guard because I'm far more accustomed to hearing from Christian flamethrowers who judge me soft on their pet issues. Clearly I had underestimated the intensity of antireligious passion out there.

Let me back up and explain how this book came about, why I might want to write a book with this title in the first place. I grew up in the American South, where religion permeates the very atmosphere. Go shopping in a small-town grocery store in the Bible Belt and even today you may hear a greeting like this from the chatty checkout clerk: "Honey child, you're new around here, ain't ya? What church y'all goin' to?" Unfortunately, during my adolescence I was going to a fundamentalist church that inoculated me against religion and obscured any notion of a loving God. Much like the skeptics who posted the hostile comments quoted above, I defiantly asked, "What good is God?" I went through a period of withdrawal and only gradually rediscovered the gospel as truly good news.

A child of the 1960s, I began my writing career with a youth magazine known for its edginess. We took seriously the slogan of that era, "Don't trust anyone over thirty." Later I wrote books with sassy titles like Disappointment with God and Church: Why Bother?; my most personal book, Soul Survivor, had the subtitle How My Faith Survived the Church. Those titles accurately reflected my personal journey from skepticism back toward a cautious faith.

About the time I turned fifty, after writing a dozen books, I went through an identity crisis. I woke up to realize the ground had shifted. Whereas as a student I had used college chapels as a time to catch up on magazine reading, now college chaplains were inviting me to speak! Before, as a journalist, I had asked the questions; now when a new book came out journalists and reviewers were asking me the questions. Earlier I had traveled to places like India, Russia, and Somalia to gather material for my writing, making all my own low-budget arrangements; now publishers in such countries were inviting me as their guest, to lecture.

What happened? I asked myself. My approach has not changed. Each time I write a book I strive for honesty and transparency about my doubts and questions. Wary of propagandists, I have always clung to my identity as a freelancer, turning down assignments that would make me beholden to a constituency. Yet publishers and agents and marketers kept pushing me into the spotlight and trying to create a public persona out of what I do in isolation and privacy. Worse, some media people began treating me like a spokesman or, horrors, a guru. "What are the greatest trends you see facing the church today?" a reporter would ask, and truthfully I wanted to respond, "How should I know? I've been sitting in my basement office moving words around on a computer screen."

I should mention that on personality tests I score off the charts as an introvert. Writing is a lonely act, and I am quite content to hole up in a mountain cabin with a stack of books for a week at a time, speaking to no one but the Starbucks clerk. Two things softened my attitude and helped me come to terms with my identity crisis. First, I began to connect with readers.

I remember saying to my wife when I mailed off the manuscript of What's So Amazing About Grace?, "This is probably the last book I'll write for evangelical Christians—I'll get blackballed." The book did, after all, contain a chapter about my friendship with the gay rights advocate Mel White and another chapter about President Bill Clinton, not a favorite among evangelicals. I was wrong in my prediction, and the reception of that book helped convince me that Christian readers have more openness than the news media might lead one to believe. There is a place, I decided, for the Christian writer who raises questions as often as he or she proposes answers.

Second, I began accepting invitations to speak, giving priority to ones that came from other countries. "Most writers don't make good speakers," I often hear, and I am grateful for those lowered expectations when I stand before an audience. Trips prove exhausting and expensive and the public events in developing countries often feel like "combat speaking." Several times in India the electricity shut off in the middle of a meeting, leaving me shouting into the dark with no working microphone. In the Philippines cell phones went off every few minutes; one man said loudly, "Hello, Ma? I'm in a meeting. Just a minute and we can talk," as he walked up the aisle to the exit. I have spoken through a crackly bullhorn on a beach in Myanmar, nearly fainting from the heat and an attack of diarrhea. In Australia I spoke to a group that included Aborigines, who had the disconcerting habit of giggling throughout my talk and heading out on walkabouts whenever they felt like it.

Along the way, though—and here is why I wrote this book—I found that my experiences while traveling raised in urgent form the very questions that have always troubled me. My travels have taken me to places where Christians face a refiner's fire of oppression, violence, and plague. How should a Christian respond in northern Nigeria when Muslim extremists blow up a church? What words of comfort can the tiny Christian community in Japan offer to the families of the twenty thousand who died in a tsunami? More personally, what will I say when I'm asked to speak in such places?

I decided to write this book as my wife and I were completing a tour of India sponsored by my publisher. I had lectured on themes from my books in five cities and the last stop involved a public event in India's largest city, Mumbai. As it happened, that was the terrifying night when terrorists attacked tourist sites with grenades and guns, killing more than 160 people. The city went under lockdown and we had to cancel the scheduled event. Instead I spoke at an impromptu service at a small church in the suburbs on a night shrouded in fear and grief.

During the long plane ride home from India, still rattled by our narrow escape, I thought back to other intense times from my travels. Shuttling interview subjects into dingy hotel rooms in China in order to avoid detection by the secret police. Listening to accounts from the dazed students at Virginia Tech just after their tragedy even as I was still recovering from my own life-threatening accident. Interviewing a roomful of prostitutes about their grim life stories. As I get involved in such extreme situations one question looms above all: What good is God? What does religious faith offer peasants undergoing persecution, or students recovering from a campus massacre, or women who have spent years of virtual slavery in the sex trade? If I can find an answer, or even a clue, to the question of what good is God in situations like these, it will help me with the hard questions of faith that confound all of us at times.

December 2012 brought about perhaps the most severe test of all. The nation was reeling from news that a twenty-year-old kid in Connecticut had burst into an elementary school, where he methodically proceeded to shoot dead six school staff members and twenty first graders. Just before Christmas I got a call from the pastor of one of the largest churches in the area. "I know you were involved in the aftermath of the Columbine High School shootings, and you also spoke at Virginia Tech. Our community needs some answers to hard questions right now. Could you speak to us on 'Where Is God When It Hurts?'"

A few days later I found myself in front of a couple of thousand people in Newtown, Connecticut. To my surprise, though, I found my faith strangely strengthened as I prepared for the meetings. We Christians at least had an explanation for the existence of evil, as well as a clear mandate to bring suffering people comfort and hope. Newspapers like the New York Times, I noted, had called on priests, pastors, and rabbis to respond to the tragedy. Prominent atheists kept quiet. What could they say? We live in a meaningless universe that came about by accident. What should we expect but pain, death, and obliteration?

As a Christian, what could I say? Once again I was driven to the question of this book. What actual help does God offer in difficult times? What difference does God make?

At a press conference in the early 1980s a reporter asked the novelist Saul Bellow, "Mr. Bellow, you are a writer and we are writers. What's the difference between us?" Bellow replied, "As journalists, you are concerned with news of the day. As a novelist, I am concerned with news of eternity." Ironically, it was my career as a journalist that pointed me toward the news of eternity. My journalistic adventures have become for me a way to test the truth of what I write. Can "the God of all comfort" truly bring solace to a wounded place like Newtown, Mumbai, or the Virginia Tech campus? Will the scars from racism ever heal in the American South, let alone South Africa? Can a Christian minority have any leavening effect in a hostile environment such as China or the Middle East? I ask such questions each time I take on a challenging assignment.

Defenders of the faith rise up with point-by-point rebuttals of the skeptics who openly mock Christian beliefs. As a journalist I approach such questions differently. I prefer to go into the field and examine how faith works itself out, especially under trying conditions. A faith that matters should produce positive results, thus providing a practical answer to the underlying question, "What good is God?" Does this faith that I profess make a difference in the real world?

Technology manufacturers have a phrase: "the tabletop test." Engineers design wonderful new products: smartphones, tablets, video game consoles, ultrabook computers, MP3 players, optical storage devices. But will the shiny new product survive actual use by consumers in the real world? What happens if it gets pushed off a table accidentally or dropped on a sidewalk? Will the device still work? When I spend time in challenging places my own faith undergoes a tabletop test. Do I mean what I write about from my home in Colorado? Can I believe that, as the apostle John promised, "the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world"? Can I proclaim that truth with confidence to a woman struggling to feed her children without reverting to prostitution, to an alcoholic battling a lifelong addiction, to an inmate in southern Africa's most violent prison?

I must admit, my own faith would be much more perilous if I knew only the U.S. church, which can seem like one more self-perpetuating institution. Not so elsewhere. Almost always I return from my travels encouraged, my faith buoyed. Only a third of the world's Christians now hail from the West, and I have been privileged to see remarkable evidence of God at work: the reconciliation miracle of South Africa, the greatest numerical revival in history breaking out under a repressive Chinese government, Indian Christians turning their attention to the most outcast group on the planet.

I wish the folks who commented on my blogs for CNN.com and the Huffington Post could see in person the difference that Christian faith makes around the world. Ask a villager in India, "What is a Christian?" and though she may not know any theology she may reply, "I'm not sure, but once a week a van arrives with a cross on the side and doctors and nurses spill out and treat all our wounds and sicknesses, without charging us." Christians run the best schools in many countries, operate feeding programs for prisoners, make microloans to help the poor start tiny businesses, hire lawyers to help free women and children caught up in sexual slavery—and they do so with little fanfare and not much money because they believe that's what Jesus expects from his followers.

As a writer I want to bring such scenes of good news to the jaded West, for such stories rarely make the headlines on CNN. I have come full circle, I suppose, from a critic and skeptic to a defender of the faith. The gospel I came to believe only reluctantly has indeed passed the tabletop test for me because I have seen God at work in the world in ways that give me hope.

My travels have given me an added benefit as well: extended time with readers. Writers need the reminder that what we do in isolation may indeed touch people, and so the highlight of all such trips takes place when I meet the readers of my books. In Africa I meet people with biblical names like Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, Beauty, Precious, Thanks, Witness, Gift, and Fortune. Filipinos have even more exotic names: Bot, Bos, Ronchie, Bing, Peachy, Blessie, Heaven, Cha Cha, Tin Tin ("My friends call me Tin Squared," she laughs).


Excerpted from What Good Is God? by Philip Yancey. Copyright © 2013 Philip Yancey. Excerpted by permission of FaithWords.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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What People are saying about this

Charles R. Swindoll
Few are better than Yancey in providing answers that can soothe a faith that's almost been shattered.
Billy Graham
There is no writer in the evangelical world that I admire and appreciate more.
Rosalynn Carter
Philip Yancey is one of my favorite writers. His observations on religion and how it fits into modern life leave me looking at faith in a new light.
Anne Lamott
I love Philip Yancey's work. He is a brilliant, graceful writer.

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