25/07/2015

Soul Survivor (by Philip Yancey)

I love to re-read books by my favourite authors, though I usually try to wait at least five or six years between re-readings. Philip Yancey is a Christian writer whom I first came across over fifteen years ago, at the recommendation of a friend. I find his writing to be honest and encouraging, sometimes almost a lone voice amongst American evangelicals, talking about grace and love in a way that’s a lot more appealing than much of the so-called ‘religious right’.

It had been ten years since I read Yancey’s ‘Soul Survivor’. My edition is subtitled, ‘How my faith survived the church’, although that’s perhaps a bit over-dramatic; others of his books describe his background and gradual rediscovery of a new and more authentic faith rather better. Still, this is a fascinating book, charting the lives and writings of thirteen other writers, all of whom affected Yancey in different ways, and helped his faith along the way.

It’s an interesting selection. All but one of the chosen writers are men; the exception is Annie Dillard, a poet who specialised in writing about nature. All but one of the chosen writers are - or were - Christians; the exception here is Mahatma Gandhi whose non-violent principles were, in many ways, more powerful than any other method of making governments listen.

There’s a mixture of nationalities amongst the chosen thirteen, a wide variety of writing styles, too. Yancey met most of them at some point, became friendly with some, worked alongside one of them for some years. What binds them together is that each one brought something new to his reconstruction of faith, and his understanding of who Jesus was and is.

I have to admit that ‘Soul Survivor’ is a bit heavy going. It’s not the kind of book to read in one sitting; I couldn’t even manage one chapter at a time, as I found my mind wandering after ten or twelve pages. I compromised by reading half a chapter per day, and that worked well. It wasn’t that the accounts were dull, or the writing repetitive; it’s more that I’m no history buff, nor am I particularly interested in many of the writers quoted amongst Yancey’s choice.

Since first reading this, I have in fact read (and very much appreciated) books by two of the selection: Henri Nouwen, the Catholic priest who did so much to reach out to others, and also Paul Brand, the brilliant doctor who first discovered why leprosy causes so much disfigurement. Philip Yancey worked alongside Paul Brand to produce one of my all-time favourite volumes, ‘In the Likeness of God’. I have also read some of GK Chesterton’s non-fiction writing; until I read the account in this book, I knew him only as the author of the ‘Father Brown’ detective series.

On the other hand, I have not the slightest interest in reading Tolstoy, Dostoevsky or Shusaku Endo. Nor do any of the others appeal. I had wondered if, on re-reading this book, I might be intrigued by some different writers and look up their works; that didn’t happen. My background is very different from Yancey’s, and my tastes are too. The first Christian writer who inspired and encouraged me was CS Lewis, whose work has shaped much of my own theology. The second was Adrian Plass, and the third was probably Philip Yancey himself.

If you’re interested by how different kinds of writing can affect someone’s faith profoundly, then this is a good book to read. If you like Yancey’s writing and are interested in some of the background to how he reached his current beliefs, then this fills in some of the picture well.

However, as a stand-alone book I didn't find it particularly inspiring; I’m glad I re-read it, but it didn’t do anything for me, and I wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction to his work.

'Soul Survivor', first published in 2001, has remained in print, with a new paperback edition in the US in 2003, and another in the UK in 2007. Unsurprisingly, it's now available in Kindle form too.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

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