Sunday, August 29, 2010

Book review : - What's So Amazing about Grace?

(Picture credits here)

We often hear that hymn, 'Amazing Grace' being sung at church - but have we ever asked ourselves just what's so amazing about grace? Philip Yancey has, and the end result of his question is the book aptly titled 'What's so Amazing about Grace?' '

For those who may not know him, Philip Yancey is a prolific author of many Christian (although not Catholic) books, ranging from 'Disappointment with God' to 'The Jesus I never knew' and 'Where is God when it hurts'?

The book begins with a description of 'Grace' as the Last Best Word. Grace is described as amazing, encapsulating the essence of the Gospel -a thing which can only be found in Church, even as the world can do so many good things but cannot offer grace. He contrasts it with 'ungrace', a concept elaborated further on. Nevertheless, Yancey offers the caution that he would rather convey than explain grace - and the rest of the book is spent doing just that.

In this regard, Yancey adopts a reverent and yet exuberant tone in his writing. - He is awe-inspired and yet brimming with excitement in sharing with the rest of the world what grace is.

The main text is divided into 4 parts:
  1. How Sweet the Sound
  2. Breaking the Cycle of Ungrace
  3. The Scent of Scandal
  4. Grace Notes for a Deaf World
In Part 1,Yancey uses Karen Blixen's tale of Babette's Feast to illustrate what grace is. Essentially, it is a gift that costs everything for the giver and nothing for the recipient. It is entirely free. Grace is in Yancey's words, 'Christianity's best gift to the world', far stronger than vengeance, racism or hate. However, it is in Church that grace is so rarely found, instead 'ungrace' abounds whether by way of strict legalism or a lack of unity. He then goes on to show how guilt exposes a hunger for grace and by extension, love. Yancey builds on this theme by sharing a modernised version of the Prodigal Son parable and ends with the proposition that grace defeats mathematical understanding - God already loves us as much as an infinite God can love.

Part 2 opens with a heart-rending family tale of hatred and anger with no happy ending in sight - caught in the cycle of ungrace. Yancey ends the tale with the observation that grace is unfair, and unreasonable following from the previous chapter. He then makes the point that forgiveness is the only remedy for ungrace. It is an unnatural act, but grace lies in the act of taking the initiative to forgive, defying the entirely natural law of retribution and fairness. He proceeds to argue a strong case why we should forgive - for Christ through His becoming human now understands and makes it possible for us to live free of guilt and be able to forgive in turn. Yancey takes this personal theme and extends it to nations across the canvas of history where forgiveness features - World War II, the fight for equal rights for blacks in the 60s and the late Pope John Paul II's attempted assassination.

The next Part talks about a place for people who don't fit in - what does Grace say about the deviants from the norm and sinners? It makes room for them, and helps us heal our vision to see and love them for who they are. Yancey cautions, however, that grace is not a 'get-out-of-jail' card which allows us to continue living in sin as a life built on love of God soon makes that impossible. Conversely, overly strict legalism pushes grace away - pride and competition renders God but a faraway concept.

Finally, the last few chapters cover how we can make grace a part of this world - Yancey begins with a story of a childhood hero who has now fallen, and takes refuge in a flawed morality instead of grace. Among others, he talks about how living a truly Christian life is akin to 'patches of green' in an inhospitable climate and how grace is in itself a turning to God for grace, who loves us despite our defects and sees our neighbours as sinners, equally loved by God. in short, a grace-full Christian is one who looks at the world through "grace-tinted lenses".

All in, reading this book was an emotional experience, with many of Yancey's stories striking a chord in me - in particular the tale of the family trapped in a cycle of ungrace. Although his attempts to make this a global issue is uneven at times, he has mostly succeeded in making the point that grace is the calling for every Christian, every man and woman in this world.
This is not a book about lists and things to do, it engages the heart and mind in considering the world, the people around us and ourselves, even God in a new and clearer light.

A highly recommended read - have your initial ideas challenged and move closer to Him, discarding that mathematics and logic of fairness per se!

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