On October 2, 2018, Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary was honored to have Philip Yancey as a guest lecturer. As an author of numerous books on the biggest issues Christians are facing today, Mr. Yancey spoke at length on how to share the Gospel with those who don’t want to hear it. Below is a transcript of the interview done with Philip Yancey after the event:
Though the style of your books is rather simple, you tend to draw your readers’ attention to pressing issues of Christian life. It is difficult to call you a theologian, however, unlike you, theologians are not read by everyone. So, what is theology for you?
I began my career as a journalist or, as we say, ‘generalist’. Theologians, of course, are specialists. Long time ago I used to work for a Christian magazine for teenagers. I had to make my ideas simple, interesting and colorful in the way that a teenager could understand. Theologians begin with something they know about. Journalists begin with what they don’t know about. So, you are right, I begin with questions rather than answers. I write about the problem of pain, or prayer, or the Church, but always with a questions ‘I want to know about something I don’t know much’. Theology is the study of God and how we relate to Him. As a journalist, I investigate the questions I have.
What do you think of theological education? Is it for everyone or just a few chosen people?
As a writer, I like to say that my questions are not different from questions of other people. How can God be fair? Can God forgive everything? Why do my some of my favorite prayers do not get answered? Why doesn’t God be more clear or direct. Everyone has these questions. However, most people have jobs. They can only think about those questions in the evenings or on weekends. So, that is my job to investigate those questions full time. I think the theological education is somewhat the same. For period of time you step out of normal life and you spend full-time investigating these questions so that later you could go back and help people who can’t full-time investigate those questions.
As far as fiction is concerned, there are many Christians who don’t find fiction, poetry in particular, useful. What is your opinion of the role fiction literature plays in the life of a Christian?
I think one of the gifts of fiction is that it shows us how to be compassionate. We get inside other people and start seeing the world through their eyes. That is the beginning of love. You can’t really love unless you understand another person. When I look at Jesus, I am amazed at how He can treat every person uniquely. SO, fiction is a way of awakening my compassion to people who are very different than I am so that I could learn to see the world how they see it. Poetry is a bit different. I don’t read enough poetry, but when I do it makes me slow down. It almost a form of meditation. In the world which gets faster and faster we all need time to slow down.
Could you describe in couple sentences what you consider to be the most important for a Christian on his or her way to practical love and spiritual growth?
To me the most important is to consciously spend time around people who are not like you. Even disciples had hard time doing it. Jesus told them, ‘I want you to go to Judea, Samaria…’ They did not do it. It is so much comforting to be around people who look like us, think like us, vote like us, smell like us. We are called to go to people who are very different that we are. Jesus went to people who were not like Him – the Samaritans, prostitutes, tax collectors.
What is your opinion of Christian fellowship and collaboration?
I think it is important for the church, human race in general, to have a balance between unity and diversity. It is easy to have unity if everyone is like you. However, Paul was very clear. The whole book of Acts is about diversifying the body of Christ. Paul is clear saying that in Christ ‘there is not a Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free’. What we have in common is more important than all differences. In Ukraine, for example, I have heard about historically pacifist denominations. Yet they are in the same organizations as denominations who actively support a war. That is a good model for us. During centuries Christian interpreted the same things differently, but we are called to come together in unity. That was Jesus’ last prayer before He died.
How would you describe the time we live in?
I think it is a dangerous time. I don’t know where we will end up. In my lifetime it has gone from communism over here to capitalism. Those of us in the West grew up in freedom. In 1991 the Soviet Union broke apart, and then the period of cooperation started. Now we are going in a different direction. Countries like Hungary, Poland are reasserting themselves. They don’t allow other people in. Our president also keeps those migrants out. I am alarmed with a lot of these trends. I don’t know where we are going.
There is also the word postmodernism when no one knows what to believe in any more. Anybody can make up their mind about anything. That is a risky, dangerous area too. So, I am kind of glad I am as old as I am…
What would you wish our students?
I sense a lot of hope in not just Ukraine but Eastern Europe in general, because you are free to meet together, to study, to explore. It used to be that so many ideas had to take place in secret. It would be illegal to have a Bible study at your home. Even in Russian people would hide the Bible in their backyards. Now that is not truth anymore. It often happens when you have freedom, you forget... When you go through the Old Testament, you can see that when things are going well, kings forget about God, and when things are going badly, they turn to God. I am worried about West, including my country. When economy goes well, I can just sit around and indulge myself. It is a danger of freedom.
Once Jesus said, “You don’t find your life by acquiring more and more. You find your life by giving it away in service to others, and in this process you find your life. In my life as a journalist, I see this again and again. Hollywood stars, athletes, celebrities are the most miserable people I know. But those who give themselves to others realize joy and contentment in life. So, enjoy your freedom but don’t abuse the freedom.