Rumours of Another World: What On Earth Are We Missing by Philip Yancey (Zondervan, 2003)

My last book, Soul Survivor, had the subtitle "How my Faith Survived the Church." I got one letter from a pastor who said, "Philip, I get so tired of you criticizing the church that I feel like writing a book called HOW MY CHURCH SURVIVED YOUR FAITH! You're right. I have been open about problems with the institutional church. I grew up in a toxic, almost cultic church, and I hear daily from readers who are "in recovery" from such churches. The year I began writing Rumors of Another World, however, I took four separate trips to Europe, which has a very different religious scene. In countries like Czech Republic and Denmark, as few as two percent of the population ever goes to church. Conversations with such people kept echoing in my mind as I wrote. My concerns broadened from "How do I ferret out the truth of Christian faith from the overlay the church puts on it?" to "Does the Christian view of the world make any sense?" -- Philip Yancey

In matters of faith, many people occupy the borderlands. Some give church and Christians a wide berth, yet still linger in the borderlands because they cannot set aside the feeling that there must be a spiritual reality out there. Others find it difficult to articulate why they believe as they do. Perhaps they absorbed faith as part of their upbringing, or perhaps they simply find church an uplifting place to visit on weekends. But if asked to explain their faith to an atheist, they would not know what to say. -- Philip Yancey

The success of J R R Tolkein's Lord of the Rings triolgy, Philip Pulman's Dark Matter trilogy, books like The Tomb of God and The Mystery of the Crystal Skulls, the growing interest in New Age philosophy, show there is a deep human yearning, in all matters spiritual. Maybe it is the age old yearning for a good yarn which has been handed down from oral traditions giving us the Icelandic, and Nordic and Celtic sagas. Maybe it is post-millennium blues.

It is not only in the spiritual realm. It is true in the social realm too. Another World is Possible, is the cry from across the world as people take control of their own lives, their environment, and organise at grass-roots level. The world is too important to be left to politicians whose own interest is self-interest, whose snouts are so deeply embedded in the trough they cannot see the world around them, let alone understand what is going on.

But man cannot live by bread alone, he also needs a spiritual dimension.

Philip Yancey almost lost his faith, driven away by the Church and its lack of grace. He regained his faith, not from the Church, or from Christian teachings, although the Bible did help, but from the writings of some of the greats of literature, people like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, who have an intrinsic understanding of the human condition. [see What's So Amazing About Grace and Soul Survivor]

Rumors of Another World is Yancey's attempt to move on from toxic churches and abusive religion.

I admit that I am at times a reluctant Christian, plagued by doubts and 'in recovery' from bad church encounters. I have explored these experiences in other books, and so I determined not to mine my past yet again in this one. I am fully aware of all the reasons not to believe. Yet Rumors is my attempt to discover for myself why I do believe."

Yancey writes books for himself, a personal odyssey, but at the same time he has an uncanny knack of asking the same questions that bothers all of us, and at the same time, sometimes providing some answers.

I write books for myself. I write books to resolve things that are bothering me, things I don't have answers to. My books are a process of exploration and investigation. So, I tend to tackle different problems related to faith, things of concern to me, things I wonder about and worry about.

Yancey reconises there are a lot of people, maybe the vast majority, who occupy a nether region, he calls it the borderlands, outside the Church, but not outside faith. People whose needs need addressing, but who have fallen by the wayside, administered to by no-one, left to wonder in a spiritual wilderness. It is to these people he tries to address with Rumours of Another World.

Borderlands are in-between places, such as the "no-man's land" between countries that dispute territory. In matters of faith, people enter the borderlands from two different directions. Some, like me, flee an unhealthy church experience yet still believe in an unseen reality worth pursuing. Others find church an alien experience: everyone else knows when to stand up or sit down and what to sing, but to an outsider it may seem foreign and off-putting. Even so, almost all people have a religious sense at various times. Many describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious." I call such people "borderlanders."

Man can dissect, but can he appreciate the whole? A master of trivia and lacking any understanding of the profound.

What we disparagingly refer to as 'primitive man' had a far better understanding of the sacred than so-called 'modern man'. In our quest for modernity and rationality, we have lost something along the way.

For far too long the Church has withdrawn from the natural world and all its beauty, and seen suffering as akin to holiness. This is seen at it most perverse in the Catholic sect Opus Dei, where gratuitous self-inflicted pain is celebrated as good, bringing the victim closer to God.

When we see a beautiful flower, a painting, listen to music, we get a hint of another world, that another, better world, is possible.

Thomas Merton acquired his faith through art, Simone Weil through poetry, St Augustine through the good things in life.

The beauty of the natural world gives us hints that another world is possible.

I began to listen to my own longings as rumours of another world, a bright clue to the nature of the Creator. Somehow I had fallen for the deception of judging the natural world as unspiritual and God as antipleasure. But God invented matter, after all, including all the sensors in the body through which I experience pleasure. Nature and supernature are not two separate worlds, but different expressions of the same reality.

When I take a walk in unspoilt countryside, I get a hint of another world. When I listen to the Era trilogy by Eric Levi or listen to the music of Hildegard von Bingen, who described herself as 'a feather on the breath of God', I get a hint of another world.

Before the Church drove the feminine out of Christianity, sex was seen as a sacred act, a means of experiencing God.

You need eyes to see and ears to hear, Jesus said to those who doubted him. It takes the mystery of faith, always, to believe, for God has no apparent interest in compelling belief.(If he had, the resurrected Jesus would have appeared to Herod and Pilate, not to his disciples.)

Yancey discovered in St Augustine a connoisseur of women, art, food, philosophy, indeed, all that was good in life.

Yancey takes a healthier attitude than most to sex. Whilst I was reading his thoughts on sex, I was on a beach surrounded by stunning women, who if they had been any less naked, would have been wearing nothing at all. They looked very desirable, I found them very desirable. Why should this be, unless part of a greater plan?

It is on sex, that the Church has done more damage than in any other area. Religions before Christianity, saw sex as sacred, a means of crossing the transition zone and meeting God. Aphrodite, had temple virgins, with who men would have sex.

The ecstasy of sex, is the closest most of us get to meeting God.

Yancey devotes a good third of Rumours of Another World to sin. An old fashioned word, an outmoded concept? Yancey thinks not, and sees it as a cause of a dysfunctional world. Does a little sin matter? Yancey says yes, and sees a little sin in the same light as a few cancer cells. The effect multiplies and goes with disastrous consequences. Yancey's attitude to sin, is very similar to the Gaian concept of the role of Man to regulate, to act to create stability and order. [see Keith Parkins Christian Theology and Gaia]

Yancey sees sin as a block between ourselves and God, preventing communication across the transition zone.

The seven deadly sins have become in today's modern world, seven deadly virtues. Our entire greedy grasping world is built on them.

The seven deadly sins, are internal, unlike murder, theft etc, which are external. Do they really matter anymore, are they any longer important? Yancey thinks yes, as unless the internals are right, we will have external dysfunction.

Guilt is seen by Yancey as equivalent to physical pain. It is a self-reinforcing corrective response, that should cause us to correct our behaviour. It is not external rules which govern good behaviour, but our own conscience.

Yancey gives the example of a man who at the end of each day, confesses his sins, then lists what good he has done that day, then, finally, expresses his gratitude to God. Maybe an example we all should follow.

Christianity is not something you do on a Sunday, and only a few hours at that. It is something that should infuse your entire life, especially your working life. The sort of work you do, how you treat your customers, your clients, your employees, your work colleagues.

As a politician, morality is not something to be shed once outside the church, to be conveniently forgotten when you sit inside the council chamber making important decisions on behalf of the local community. If not, you are no different to the corrupt councillors and officials you sit alongside. And you cannot absolve yourself of your responsibilities and lack the courage of your convictions by ducking the issue and walking out the room. As a Christian you have a moral obligation to set an example, to show some moral fibre. Anything less, and you let yourself down, let alone the community you represent. No one said being a Christian was easy. We all have our cross to bear.

The Benedictine monks broke down the barriers between secular and spiritual: To pray is to work, to work is to pray. Benedictine monks produced beautifully illustrated manuscripts, whilst at the same time toiling in the fields, improving the land. Thomas Merton commented: 'You tell more about a monk by the way he uses a broom than by anything he says.'

Medieval churches and cathedrals often have little nooks and crannies where no one but God can see, and yet the craftsmen still took a great pride in their work. Compare with the late 20th century where everything is gloss, a cheap veneer with nothing behind it. One of the best illustrations of this can be seen in the new Liverpool Cathedral. The architect Scott took a great pride in his work, down to the finest details. After his death and before completion of his great work, how things changed. The original design called for sandstone. Concrete blocks, coated with sandstone dust were used instead of sandstone blocks. In hidden stairways and out of sight, where Scott stipulated sandstone, shuttered concrete was used. The poor quality workmanship and cost cutting shows. An application was recently made to English Heritage to finance some work on the earliest part of the Cathedral. Once the money had been obtained, it had to be diverted for emergency work on the most recent part. And it all started with such good intentions, medieval craftsmanship was to be used in the construction of the Cathedral and was until the death of Scott.

'We are not trying to please men but God,' the apostle Paul said about his own work which brought him so much adversity. 'For none of us lives for himself alone and none of us dies for himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.'

We live in a world where everything is scheduled down to the last minute. No-one has time for anyone, no time for what matters. Jesus probably had a busy schedule, but he always found time for those who came to him with their problems. No one was too unimportant.

The sacred, the spiritual, is not something we reserve for church. As Meister Eckhart said: 'If the soul could have known God without the world, the world would never have been created.'

We have a beautiful world around us, so why do we destroy it? Why do we poison the land, sea and air with our toxic chemicals, cut down the forests, slaughter our fellow human beings?

As I write, the world's biggest arms fair is about to take place. Or the Farnborough International Airshow 2004, as it prefers to be known. The United Nations say that 90% of war-victims are civilians and at least half of these children. Ironic then that Farnborough International 2004 should portray itself as a fun day out for the family, using children to foster acceptance of the weapons systems on show.

The airshow propaganda acknowledges:

This is a time when the aerospace sector faces many challenges, and Farnborough is the moment when we become most visible to all our audiences. We need a highly professional operation to ensure that we use that moment to convey the right messages to the right audiences as effectively as possible.

The airshow propaganda was produced by the PR company Luther Pendragon, whose clients include McDonalds!

As I write, an employee of Lockheed Martin was beheaded in Saudi Arabia. There was understandable public outcry at this barbaric act, but where was the public outcry at the mutilated bodies, the victims of Lockheed Martin helicopter gunships and missiles in occupied Iraq and Palestine?

Headquartered in Farnborough is BAE Systems, one of the world's biggest, and certainly one of the most aggressive, arms companies. Protest against arms sales is an airshow tradition. Do the people who work in the industry see the mutilated body parts their products leave behind? There was public outcry following the beheading of an employee of Lockheed Martin. Deathly silence for the dismembered bodies that are left behind after attacks by their missiles and helicopter gunships. How many employees at BAE Systems have had to collect up the body parts left behind by their cluster bombs (landmines in all but name), how many have witnessed the long slow death of their victims who have been radiated by depleted uranium munitions?

As I write, why are the churches in Farnborough silent about the arms fair taking place in their own back yard?

Why is there so much suffering in the world, why does God allow it to happen? In asking the question there is an implied criticism of God, conveniently ignoring the fact that the suffering is man made, and if we wished, we could easily call a halt.

Susan delivered a well thought through and researched sermon on suffering one evening at St Peter's, Yancey (Where Is God When It Hurts? and Disappointment With God?) devoted two whole books to it, Richard Harries (God Outside the Box) devotes substantial space to it. Clearly a subject that vexes.

We in the affluent West do not understand what suffering is. In a world where half the population starves on less than $1 a day, we sue junk food companies for making us fat. In a world in which the poor are pushed off the land, are slaughtered in our proxy wars as we steal their resources, we tuck into the 'cheap' food (cheap only if you don't count the cost in blood sweat and tears) produced off their land, drive around in our gas guzzling vehicles powered by their oil, whilst at the same time complaining at at the high price of fuel, work in the factories that produce the weapons systems and call it honest toil. We wring our hands at the suffering in the world, but stand silently by. Occasionally a few of us do learn what real suffering may be like, when we stick our heads above the parapet, and are clubbed by the state, only then do we briefly, become as one with those who really suffer.

As Yancey says: 'In my visits to churches overseas, one difference from North American Christians stands out sharply: their views of hardship and suffering.'

Talking to persecuted Christians in China, not once did Yancey hear them say they prayed for relief from their suffering. They bore it with dignity. Thought it a price worth paying to be Christians.

When Yancey visited Burma, a country which is one huge prison camp, he found the same. He was told: 'When you speak to pastors, you should remember that probably all of them have spent time in jail because of their faith.'

Having written two books on the subject, Yancey offered to talk about 'where is God when it hurts'.

He was told: 'Oh no, that's not really a concern here. We assume we will be persecuted for faith. We want you to speak on grace. We need help getting along with each other.'

I usually enjoy reading Yancey, but I did not enjoy Rumours of Another World. Whether it was because I was in the mood or not I do no know, but I just could not get into it. It seemed to me, nothing but disjointed ramblings with the occasional insight that makes Yancey usually a pleasure to read. The middle third on sin could have been omitted, and made a better book, but it still would not probably have been worth reading. A pity, as Yancey is usually such an excellent writer and a pleasure to read.

Philip Yancey serves as editor-at-large for Christianity Today. He is the author of several books on Christianity including: The Jesus I Never Knew, The Bible Jesus Read, What's So Amazing About Grace?, Soul Survivor and Where Is God When It Hurts?.

Books Worth Reading
(c) Keith Parkins 2004 -- July 2004 rev 1