A recent congregation-wide challenge had me heading to our library. The challenge was designed to help individuals and families develop new spiritual practices. There were daily, weekly and monthly challenges spread over a forty-day period. One of the monthly challenges was to read a book from the church library.
I hadn’t really engaged with our church library because my cursory glances found that the books were mostly Christian romance and children’s titles, neither of which held great interest or relevance to me. I did look a little closer and found some more ‘theological’ titles, so I looked for a book that might be a challenge or good teaching material.
What’s So Amazing About Grace was the book that I chose. I knew of the author Philip Yancey and recognised the title. I checked the copyright date. It was 21 years old. I remember it being talked about when I was in my mid-twenties, but I dismissed it at the time as American pop theology! I was sorely mistaken.
While this book is not a heavy systematic theology on the doctrine of grace, it is meaty enough to challenge, explore and question the Christian understanding of grace. It has obviously had an impact on a number of lecturers and ministers that I have crossed paths with in the past two decades – many of the stories contained in the book have been used in sermon and lecture illustrations I have heard. It explores, using personal anecdotes, books, movies and Biblical accounts, the nature of God’s grace toward humanity but also our responsibility to show grace to others.
It starts with the true story of a prostitute, who is telling her horrific story to a worker with Chicago’s ‘down and out’. When the worker suggested to her that she should give church a go, her response was “Church…Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.” This story (p 11) was one of the driving forces for Yancy to write the book. Yancy questioned why today’s prostitutes would run from the church, when prostitutes of Jesus’ day flocked to him? Why was much of the American evangelical church (and I suspect this is not unique to the United States) known as a place of un-grace rather than a source of healing, acceptance, protection and nurture?
Grace, as C.S. Lewis once noted at a British conference on comparative religions, is the one thing that sets Christianity apart from every other religion in the world. Grace is Christianity’s ‘unique contribution’. As Yancy states, ‘Only Christianity dares to make God’s love unconditional’ (p 45). The childhood saying remains true – ‘There is nothing we can do to make God love us more. There is nothing we can do to make God love us less.’ This profound and almost offensive message is the focus of this book.
There is a deeply personal level to this book. Yancy grew up in a fundamental church. His early life was marked by racism and homophobia. He describes the types of attitudes that were commonplace at his Bible College – extreme strictness concerning hair and skirt length, rules for dating and abstaining from smoking, drinking and dancing. His church and Bible College were places of un-grace and he has had to work through those things as he has ministered. It would be interesting to see how his attitudes have changed, matured or otherwise in the intervening 21 years.
There are a couple of chapters that are politically outdated now or American centric – the fall of Communism in Europe, Clinton’s administration, American Christian history, for example. While interesting from a historical perspective, there are newer situations and personalities that could benefit from an analysis of grace. How would grace deal with Trump as US president or with Australia’s treatment of refugees on Nauru and Manus Island? A whole chapter is dedicated to homosexuality and the extreme prejudice and emotional abuse that the church has historically heaped on the LGBTIQ community.
Perhaps the Uniting Church Assembly’s recent decision ‘to hold two equal and distinct views on marriage’ and ‘to allow its ministers the freedom to conduct or to refuse to conduct same-gender marriages’ can be viewed as an act of grace by a Church wrestling with a difficult topic. The chapter on violent and systemic racism in the United States mostly focuses on African Americans. It has little to say on the systematic genocide of Native Americans by the British, who went as far as to deliberately infest blankets with smallpox to kill a generation of children. Could the Uniting Church’s affirmation that ‘the First Peoples of Australia, the Aboriginal and Islander Peoples, are sovereign peoples in Australia’ be another act of grace that seeks to start to break down 200+ years of racism, stolen generations, land grabbing and colonisation?
Yancey touches only briefly on domestic violence and it is mostly to do with how the church treats people who are divorced, considering it or dealing with abortion. His anecdotes suggest that there is a lot of un-grace surrounding these issues as well. Given the ABC’s exposé on domestic violence in churches and its consistent links to distorted understandings of male headship theology, perhaps the Assembly’s adoption of a statement that commits the Uniting Church to repudiate all teaching and theologies that justify domestic violence, is another act of grace that seeks to stand beside those who have suffered at the hands of an intimate partner.
The Chapter entitled Loopholes was one of the most interesting and challenging. It explores the concept that Paul dealt with in the Letter to the Romans. The apparent loophole in the grace equation is that if God forgives, and this act somehow displays God’s glory, why shouldn’t we sin even more, so that grace increases as well and God’s glory is magnified? If people know beforehand that they are going to be forgiven for whatever they do, why bother being good? Grace, however, is not a license for immorality. Repentance, according to Yancey, is not just a technicality, but a deeply rooted emotional and spiritual necessity. The vivid pictures being ‘dead to sin’ or ‘slaves to sin’ in Paul’s words, highlight the true freedom found in living under grace. It is an act of love and gratitude to live out grace in one’s own life and extend it to others. I see the Uniting Church trying to be a place of grace in this nation, as hard as it might be.
Dr Katherine Grocott