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Christian Book Reviews, Author Interviews, Excerpts

Listening In … with Philip Yancey and Steven Curtis Chapman

  • CCM Magazine
  • 2004 2 Feb
Listening In … with Philip Yancey and Steven Curtis Chapman

There are many influential people in and around the Christian community who have important things to say. And when two of these people converse behind closed doors, their discussion is often compelling and enlightening. With this in mind, we are pleased to unveil this special new section in CCM Magazine. Each month we’ll invite you to eavesdrop on a conversation between one of your favorite Christian artists and another high-profile personality in today’s culture.

And who better to launch our inaugural discussion than Steven Curtis Chapman and Philip Yancey? Chapman is considered by many to be the voice of Christian music. With 13 releases and nine million albums sold (the most recent being the tribute to his wife, Mary Beth, "All About Love" on Sparrow Records), he has won more Dove Awards (47!) than any other artist.

Yancey, meanwhile, is the world-renowned author of immediate classics such as "What’s So Amazing About Grace?" and "Where Is God When It Hurts?" He has sold more than 14 million books and recently released "Rumors of Another World: What on Earth Are We Missing?" (Zondervan).

Are people interested in what these two think? No doubt. And since they had so much to say to each other (and because it was too good to cut), we just had to run it in two parts. So look for the rest of their conversation in the February issue and, in the meantime, enjoy!

Steven:  I’m in the process of writing a new album, and that’s usually six months to a year of really thinking, praying and just saying, “God, is there a specific message?” Over the years I’ve always sort of had a theme, something that’s just kind of been a common thread through all the songs. [Recently going through difficulties with some good friends] really had a lot of influence on the songs and just wrestling with: “God, where are You in the middle of this?” kind of pain and disappointment. With each of those themes [in the new album] it seems like a book or several books have been part of the inspiration. I wrote the album "Speechless" (Sparrow) a few years ago, right at the time your book on grace [came out]. "What’s So Amazing About Grace" (Zondervan) was a big part of just shaping my ideas, thoughts and heart; so I’m sure I owe you a lot of royalties from some of these songs!

Philip:  You can have them!

Steven:  I have to spend a lot of energy in getting back to “square one.” I have to forget the success of the last thing — or the lack of success of the last thing in industry terms — and just get back to thinking:  “OK, forget everything I’ve ever done as best I can” and “God, You’ve brought me here for such a time as this. What’s this time about?” And I found myself saying, “Man, I wish Philip would come out with a new book!”

Philip:  I’ve often thought about the difference between the act of writing and the act of reading. Take one of my books:  It takes, say, 18 months to write. If I’m writing on Jesus, I’ll read 100 books on Jesus. I’ll go to movies, and I’ll think about Jesus all day long. My reader — even the most faithful reader — encounters that in six to eight hours, usually with the TV going in the background. So the experience of what I spent and what they spend is different. And I’m sure it’s true with you:  six months to a year thinking about an album; and when people get the finished product, they learn the tune. When they go to a concert, they don’t want to hear any of your new stuff, and they don’t even want to hear you talk. They just want something they recognize over and over. And so the experience of that compared to your gestation and birth — it’s a weird thing.

This is an interesting example because the book ["Rumors"] changed as I was writing it. I started out writing a book on how the daily Christian life works: How does prayer work, how does guidance work? The year before I started writing, we took four trips; and they were all to Europe. They were to places like Denmark and the Czech Republic, both of which have about a 2 percent church attendance rate. And when I would start to write “How Does Prayer Work,” I would think of my conversations with people in those countries. And their questions are:  “What if there’s not even a God?”

Steven:  Wow, OK, we’re going way back to “square one”!

Philip:  So I kept backing up, backing up, backing up and then, in the process, the book changed. When I finished the book, I went back, read it and realized, “You didn’t write for those people.” I ended up cutting out 25,000 words between January and May, when I turned it in. And I keep thinking, “Man, if I could just figure out those words in advance, I’d save a lot of time!” But it was that whole thing of having to get it out of my head. Then I step out into the readers’ shoes and realize:  “They’re not going to take all of this religious talk. I’ve got to use their language, their concepts and work from there — rumors, not facts.”

Steven:  I have to admit, I started reading [the book], got into the first part, and I thought, “Well, this is probably going to be one of those great books that is written to the seeker person.” And here I am currently wrestling with thinking, “God what do You want me to communicate; what would You give me to say?” I’ve found myself saying to God as I started reading "Rumors": “What do You want to say to Your church? Obviously that’s the voice You’ve given me. Those are the people who I speak to most, so I’m going to see where this takes me.” What is so powerful about the truth is that when it’s communicated and expressed in a creative and artistic way — a way that God has gifted you to do — truth speaks to the heart. It’s amazing, though, that you ended up cutting out 25,000 words. I want to hear those other 25,000 words! 

Philip:  I’ve got them in a computer file called “junk”!

Steven:  You have to do the extended versions…

Philip:  Like these DVDs...

Steven:  Exactly — the bonus features!

Philip:  One of the things I’m trying to do in this book is reclaim the world. Somehow Christians “shrank” down. We only deal with what’s “spiritual” or what’s “supernatural.” Everything else in the world we’ll leave to the artists, or we’ll leave it to whomever. And that’s such a small view of the world, and it’s not God’s view of the world.

Read the Bible. When God appeared to Job, Job had a theological question: “Why do bad things happen to me?” And what did God do? He said, “Let Me take you on a tour of nature,” and He talked about snowstorms, mountain goats, the ostrich, crocodile, wild horses, etc. And at the end Job said, “OK, I give up!”

God was pointing to the rumors around him, just saying, “Look Job, look around you. If I can create these things, if I can create a world that works like this, don’t you think I’m smart enough to know what I’m doing with your life even when it doesn’t look like it?” When Job understood that he said, “Well yeah, You’re God; I’m not. I can’t even create one snowflake, much less a blizzard.” So God uses the world as His artistic deal.

To me, the most obvious thing about God is that He is an artist who loves beauty. I live in the Rocky Mountains and go hiking. There are mountains called “14'ers” (14,000 ft. mountains) — 54 of them. And I’ve climbed 38 of them, so I’ve spent a lot of time up there above the tree lines.

So what do I see? I see a carpet of wildflowers, and I’m thinking, “Why is this here?” At most, 200 people have seen this site or perhaps the Great Barrier Reef, the great tropical reefs. There’s nothing more beautiful on Earth than these unbelievable tropical fish. For most of history we didn’t even know they were there until Jacques Cousteau invented scuba gear, which was in 1950. Nobody even knew the greatest art in the world was already there just swimming around.

Why is that there? Well God didn’t put it there just for our enjoyment, or He would have made it a little more accessible! There’s something about His own enjoyment, His pride in artistic creation: “Look what I can do with hydrogen, carbon and nitrogen.” In a garden, there are things we have to do to get things to grow, and then I go into a forest; and all it is, is the sky, the sun and the rain. No fertilizer, no tilling, and all over the planet God does this. And I think of all that’s involved in the DNA and the chromosomes and all of that in these plants to do that.

That’s the most obvious thing about God: He’s creative, He loves beauty. And the reason I call it "Rumors of Another World" is because it was really those rumors that awakened me. Music was one of them because I started sensing beauty and goodness in the world, and it didn’t match up with this really narrow, kind of scowling, angry God that I grew up with. In the book I quote G. K. Chesterton, and he said, “The worst moment for an atheist is when he has a profound sense of gratitude and has no one to thank.”

Steven:  Yeah, I love that quote!

Philip:  And that’s exactly how I felt. I said, “Wow, I feel really grateful; but where do I go?” So those were the rumors that awakened me — maybe the problem was my view of God. I thought, “I need to get to know the God who created all of this.”

Steven:  What point was that in your life?

Philip:  It was in my college days. Ironically, I was attending a Bible college, but I was the campus rebel. People would pray for me and would try to exorcise demons from me, and I had my defenses up. They would say, “God is going to break you one day!” And that was the theology [I was taught]: If you rebel against God, He’s going to smash you and pulverize you.

But that’s not what He did. He came alongside and started gracing me with good things. Romantic love was part of that as well as nature and music. I realized: “God doesn’t want to break people; He wants to seduce them!” God doesn’t have to prove Himself to anybody; but He does want to love people, and He wants them to love Him back. Power doesn’t get you that.

Steven:  The last album I wrote was an album of love songs called "All About Love" (Sparrow), and it was a record written to my wife. We’ve been married 19 years. We have had 19 years of, as my pastor says, “holy headlock.” It’s been way harder than we ever imagined and way more glorious and wonderful. You’ve come alongside and walked with me through the journey of the unknown. It was confirming and so encouraging to me because so much of the material of this album that I wrote is that thing you explained. Not that I’m deserving of it at all, but this is a revelation here that I feel like I’m on to. And you stick that in a four or five-minute song. Then you put it on an album called "All About Love," and people go, “Oh that’s a love song album. Aww that’s sweet; Steven wrote that for his wife.” And I’m over here going, “No wait, there’s more… you’ll also realize that God is trying to show you some profound things about Himself!” And I wrote a song on there called “Echoes of Eden” that really is sort of my version after reading the “Designer’s Sex” chapter. This was not the first time I have read your books talking about sex, romance and intimacy; and I remember reading a chapter you wrote about some of these things, about: “It’s not that we’re too naked; it’s that we’re not naked enough.”

Philip:  Right. It’s in "Finding God in Unexpected Places" (Moorings).

Steven:  Right. The wheels were already turning, and that gave them a good spin — just to consider why it is that songwriters have yet to exhaust all these images of “When I look in your eyes I see heaven” and all these sort of heavenly metaphors that have been thrown around for years. Is it because, as you say in this book, that is as close as many people will ever get to experiencing God?

Philip:  I think it really is. And I think culture is really schizophrenic about sex. On one hand, we glorify adultery. Every night you turn on a new TV show, and it’s at the heart of it. Then when somebody actually does it like, Kobe Bryant, the reaction is: “Oh can you believe he did this?!”

I quote the song by Bloodhound Gang:  “We ain’t nothin’ but mammals so let’s do it like they do it on the Discovery Channel.” I live in the Rockies; and there’s an elk who lives on the hill behind us. In the morning you can open the window, and you can hear him. I've watched him, you know! And what I find is we don’t “do it” like him at all. Most humans prefer privacy. This guy doesn’t care whether I’m looking or not.

We sing these songs, but the songs are deceptions; they’re lies because we make it sound like the animal way is the best way. But when anybody tries, that contradiction is obvious. Well, what’s the difference? The difference is that sex touches our souls. It’s the most tender thing about us. Most married people would tell you it’s complicated, it’s not easy, and it’s not nearly like it should be in the movies. It’s just a soul issue. It’s not just exchanging bodily fluids. To me that’s a rumor. That’s a rumor of: “Why are we here? Why is sex here? How is human sex different than elk sex?” There are a lot of really obvious differences. So what do those differences tell us about what God had in mind if God designed it — if He is the designer? And that’s a very powerful rumor for me.

Steven:  Well I hope someday you’ll take those 25,000 words that were left over and do that book and also the extended version. I think there’s such a need for that kind of discussion about intimacy and romance in sex. I think there can be so much more redemptive art, discussion, books and writing about romance and about what God has really designed. I remember a mainstream writer asking Toby McKeehan [of dc talk] “Don’t you feel limited by the fact that you can only write about your faith? Don’t you wish you could just write about whatever?” I was encouraged by Toby’s response because he said: “I would feel incredibly limited if I couldn’t talk about my faith. That is an endless, bottomless well to draw from.”

Philip:  I had that experience as a writer. I started as editor of Campus Life. And we would do articles on hang gliding and mountain bikes and stuff like that. But what I found was it got to be pure mathematics after a while. “OK, here’s a mountain bike, here’s the formula of the article. Here’s what you do.” And it wasn’t touching the deepest part of me. To my surprise, my writing became much more inward and spiritual, touching the spiritual aspects of me. My calling is to write the very best books I can about the things that matter most to me.

Enjoy the rest of Steven’s and Philip’s conversation in next month’s CCM.

© 2004 CCM Magazine.  All rights reserved.  Used with permission.  Click here to subscribe.