PHILIP YANCEY. Where the Light Fell: A Memoir. New York: Convergent, 2021. Pp. 300. $21.00 US.
Philip Yancey’s memoir, Where the Light Fell, begins in Georgia, primarily during the 1950s and 1960s, a time of overt racism and civil rights activism. Yancey, a well-known Christian author, nevertheless begins his story not with that broader setting but with an account of his growing up in a strict, unloving home. His mother and fundamentalist churches they attended wreaked havoc on Yancey and his brother Marshall’s emotional and spiritual development.
As a college student, Yancey was shocked to discover the truth about his father’s death from a severe case of polio: “[My father] convinced himself that God would heal him, and then [by rejecting an iron lung] gambled everything—his career, his wife, his two sons, his life—and lost” (5). This pivotal event, which Yancey was too young to remember, haunted the family of three for decades to come. It brought an end to his parents’ plan to become missionaries. Yancey says, “My growing-up years were dominated, even straitjacketed by a vow [mother] made—that my brother and I would redeem that tragedy by taking on the mantle of our father’s life” (5).
Church members saw Yancey’s mother as an accomplished Bible teacher and a model Christian parent. At home, she was unpredictably angry, frequently spewing hateful criticisms and threats to her young sons. Yancey notes, “I want to run up to someone I recognize in church and say: ‘Please, please can you help us? I need someone to know what’s happening at home.’ Then I remember my mother’s reputation and realize that no one will believe me (127).”
Philip Yancey’s brother, Marshall, was a musical genius and a brilliant student. He frequently verbally challenged their mother while Philip quietly retreated. During high school Marshall was a zealous Christian. He enrolled in a fundamentalist Bible college where, at first, he flourished, but later experienced a spiritual crisis. Subsequently, he entered Wheaton College which led to the second pivotal moment in the brothers’ lives, later identified by both brothers as “The Curse.” Yancey’s mother adamantly opposed (liberal) Wheaton College. She shouted at Marshall: “I’ll pray every day for the rest of your life that God will break you. Maybe you’ll be in a terrible accident and die. . . . Or, better yet, maybe you’ll be paralyzed” (215). While at Wheaton, Marshall suffered a complete mental breakdown. Throughout the remainder of the book, Yancey tells his own story while also tracing the story of Marshall’s suffering.
As he grew up, Yancey was experiencing his own spiritual crisis. In his fundamentalist churches, he played the role of a good Christian. He prayed out loud, gave his testimony, and participated in all church activities. As an older teenager, however, he began to have doubts about his faith.
In the same fundamentalist churches, from pastors and guest speakers, Yancey heard scriptural justification for racism. From school and field trips he heard the myth of the south: the Civil War was described as the “War of Northern Aggression” and the “Lost Cause.” Later, through readings, Yancey realized he had been lied to and began to reckon with his own racist thoughts and behavior.
Yancey’s high school counselor suggested that he could get scholarships to Duke University or Davidson. However, Yancey chose not to resist his mother’s wish. He enrolled in Bible College where the rules were as rigid as in his home and church. During his sophomore year he began to ask challenging questions in class; he became cynical and resistant to the college’s rules. To his great surprise, while attending a required New Testament class on the gospels, Yancey found himself wanting to learn more about Jesus through studying the gospels. At his brother’s suggestion, he read authors such as C. S. Lewis. During this period, Janet—Yancey’s future wife—came into his life. Through the gospels and his loving and trusting relationship with Janet, Yancey discovered a loving God.
Yancey has spent the last fifty years writing over thirty books. He reflects, “In this memoir I have written a sort of prequel to my other books. . . . In retrospect, it seems clear to me that my two life themes, which surface in all my books, are suffering and grace” (298). He continues, “Over the years I have encountered some of the worst that the church has to offer and some of the best. . . . The time had come to attempt to make sense of the confusion of life in the only way I know how—by writing” (301).
Brethren in Christ readers are among the millions of readers around the world who have benefited and grown spiritually from reading and discussing Yancey’s books. Despite his reservations about the term, Yancey identifies as an evangelical. In Yancey, Brethren in Christ readers have found a writer who can be trusted with topics such as suffering and doubts. Older Brethren in Christ readers will identify with his former churches’ strict behavioral code and with a time when personal testimonies in church were the norm.
Where the Light Fell is a personal and revealing memoir. Descriptions of Yancey’s painful childhood can be difficult to read; some readers may choose not to read the book for this reason. However, even in times of suffering, Yancey shows how God’s light and grace fell into his life. Some of the events in this memoir have been included in earlier books. Loyal readers and new readers will appreciate Yancey’s recounting of personal experiences that have shaped his life and writing.