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What’s So Amazing About Grace?

After ‘The Jesus I Never Knew’ this is probably Yancey’s second best
book. (In case you don’t know this popular writer, he’s Editor-at-large
for the evangelical magazine Christianity Today).

Grace, says C.S.Lewis, is Christianity’s unique contribution among
world religions. ‘Grace means there is nothing we can do to make God
love us more… and grace means there is nothing we can do to make God
love us less,’ is Yancey’s best attempt to define a marvelous but
elusive concept (p.70).

This book is a polemic against ‘ungrace’ – particularly the North
American Fundamentalist/legalistic variety. It is a wonderful collection
of anecdotes, quotes and stories – from Yancey’s personal experiences of
grace/ungrace, and from films, movies and other media – and a powerful
diatribe against the ungrace involved in the last three evangelical
Christian paradigm shifts – Bible belt legalism, racism, and homophobia.

For me the two highlights of the book – worth the $12-99 I paid for
it at Open Book bookshop – are chapter 13 – ‘Grace-healed eyes’ , the
sad story of his homosexual friend Mel White’s collision with
Fundamentalist bigotry, and Babette’s Feast: A Story, which drives home
the truth that grace costs everything for the giver and nothing for the

What’s So Amazing About Grace opens with the sad story of a
prostitute who came to a counselor for help. ‘At last I asked if she had
ever thought of going to a church for help. I will never forget the look
of pure, naive shock that crossed her face. “Church!” she cried. “Why
would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself.
They’d just make me feel worse!”‘

President Bill Clinton’s equally sad comment (said before the
Starr/Lewinsky episode) : ‘I’ve been in politics long enough to expect
criticism and hostility… But I was unprepared for the _hatred_
(Yancey’s emphasis) I get from Christians. Why do Christians hate so
much?’ (p.226)

A good test as to whether your church is grace- or ungrace-filled
might be Tony Compolo’s provocative/prophetic ploy when speaking at
Christian colleges. ‘”The United Nations reports that over ten thousand
people starve to death each day, and most of you don’t give a sh– .
However, what is even more tragic is that most of you are more concerned
about the fact that I have said a bad word than you are about the ten
thousand people dying today.” The responses prove his point: in nearly
every case Tony got a letter from the chaplain or president of the
college protesting his foul language. The letters never mentioned world
hunger.’ (p.201) (My test: ask an evangelical congregation to vote on
the question ‘Does God love the Devil?’)

To be picky for a moment: Yancey is a better writer than he is a
biblical scholar. His evangelical cliche ‘The Book of’ (Romans, Second
Corinthians etc.) is not the way scholars write. Some of his biblical
references could have been more carefully considered within their
socio-cultural context. And I would have liked a discussion of Abuse and
Grace: how does an abused person relate to significant others in terms
of grace – differentiating between the abuser and subsequent persons
where ‘transference’ occurs, and between the person and the abusive

Some good quotes:

# ‘The great Christian revolutions come not by the discovery of
something that was not known before. They happen when somebody takes
radically something that was always there’ (H. Richard Neibuhr) (p.

# Mark Twain used to talk about people who were ‘good in the worst
sense of the word’ (p.31)

# Theologian Karl Barth, after writing thousands of pages in his
Church Dogmatics, arrived at this simple definition of God: ‘the One who
loves.’ (p.55)

# W.H.Auden’s version of the old maxim ‘Hurt people hurt people’: ‘I
and the public know / What all school children learn, / Those to whom
evil is done / Do evil in return’ (p.86)

# Humorist Erma Bombeck’s prayer: ‘Lord, if you can’t make me thin,
then make my friends look fat’ (p.87)

# Henri Nouwen defines forgiveness as ‘love practiced among people
who love poorly’ (p.92) …As the Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt said,
the only remedy for the inevitability of history is forgiveness;
otherwise, we remain trapped in “the predicament of irreversibility”

# Coziness between church and state is good for the state and bad
for the church (G.K.Chesterton) (p.248)

I belong to a reading group; last Friday night’s discussion on this
book was quite memorable. We go to asking, for example, why, in our
church, people who declare their homosexual orientation inevitably have
to leave. (But it’s one thing to curse the darkness, another to light a
candle. Hopefully Yancey will provoke some positive responses as well).
It’s a good book. Go out and buy it.

Philip Yancey, ‘What’s So Amazing About Grace?’ (Zondervan /
HarperCollins, 1997)

Rowland Croucher,
October 1998


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