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Featuring guest Philip Yancey

Philip Yancey | Pain and Healing

Philip Yancey returns to the podcast to dig deeper into his many years spent traveling and writing with Dr. Paul Brand.


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Philip Yancey returns to the podcast to dig deeper into his many years spent traveling and writing with Dr. Paul Brand.

Description

Philip Yancey returns to the podcast to dig deeper into his many years spent traveling and writing with Dr. Paul Brand and learning about the marvel of the human body. What we can learn from the human body—about the importance of pain, about healing and unity—can also be applied to the body of Christ. In doing so, we find relevance with many of today’s issues including the coronavirus and the need for the church to find unity among racial tensions.

  • Originally aired on July 23, 2020
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Before You Read

Dear reader,

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Although voices on both sides are loud and extreme, we are breaking through. But as a nonprofit, we rely on the generosity of donors like you to continue this challenging work. Your tax deductible gift today will help us continue to counter the polarizing narratives of today with a message that is informed, hopeful, and faithful.

Transcript

Yancey: 

Oh, I think it is. One of the statements Dr. Brand made which stuck with me goes like this, he said, “a healthy body is not a body that feels no pain.” His whole life has leprosy patients proved that. “A healthy body is not a body that feels no pain. A healthy body is a body that feels In attends to the pain of the weakest part.” If we do that, and if we attend to the weakest part, the part that needs help, that’s a healthy body. We need to relearn that lesson from the body to attend to the pain of the weakest part.

I am Philip Yancey and I’m a freelance writer.

Stump: 

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump. 

When Philip Yancey was a young journalist working on a book about pain, he reached out to a doctor, Dr Paul Brand, who had been working with leprosy patients around the world. Philip had no idea then the impact this relationship would have on his own work and his own life. Today, Yancey is one of the best-selling Christian authors alive. His most recent book is an updated and revised version of two previous books that he published with the late Dr Brand. It is called Fearfully and Wonderfully: The Marvel of Bearing God’s Image. In it they detail the intricate workings of the human body, illustrated throughout with stories from Dr. Brand’s work in India and elsewhere. And they draw morals from this for the metaphor of the body of Christ.

Yancey was a guest in our first series of podcast episodes, almost a year and half ago, and we talked a little about Dr Brand and their work together. In this new episode we focus entirely on themes from the book and their relevance for the crises our world has faced these last several months. Philip always has a good story to tell, and insight worth listening to.

Let’s get to the conversation.

Interview Part One

Stump:

Well, thanks for talking to us again, Philip. What is the COVID situation in your neck of the woods? This is the question all conversations begin with these days.

Yancey:

Colorado is doing relatively well. We’ve had a bit of an uptake in cases but not in hospitalizations or deaths. And our chart looks pretty good. Fortunately, it’s a state with a lot of open spaces. Truthfully, my life has not changed that much. I work in my basement office and take long walks in parks and I still work in my basement office and take long walks in parks. I just don’t go to restaurants or shopping or things like that. 

Stump:

And not much other traveling, I assume. 

Yancey:  

No, all my trips are canceled and I picked up some other projects. It’s amazing how you think you’ve got a blank slate of time available and then boom, it’s completely full.

Stump:

Doing lots of these virtual events, I assume.

Yancey:

A few of these as well. 

Stump:

Well, because of the pandemic BioLogos has pivoted to providing a lot of resources on medicine. And we thought it would be interesting talking to you again, since you’ve recently published or at least rather updated and combined a couple of previous books in which you collaborated with Dr. Paul Brand. This new book is called Fearfully and Wonderfully: The Marvel of Bearing God’s Image. Perhaps we could start with how you first became acquainted with Dr. Brand.  

Yancey:

Yes, decades ago, before I had ever written a book I had the idea of writing a book on the problem of pain because it was a barricade to my own faith, was something that I struggled with and a lot of people struggle with the whole question if God is powerful, if God is is loving, then how can there be such suffering on the planet? So I spent several months in seminary libraries reading books on the problem of pain, the curse of pain, the human fall, things like that. And my wife was working in a medical supply house. She came home with a different kind of approach. It was a little booklet written by a Dr. Paul Brand, I’d never heard of him, called The Gift of Pain. And nothing that I have seen so far had the word gift in the title. Brash young journalists that I was, I just tracked him down. He happened to be at a leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana. I didn’t know there was leprosy in the United States. And I called him up out of the blue and said, “I’m writing a book and you have some pretty amazing insights into pain, could I come interview you?” You could not have put together two more unlike creatures. Here was a distinguished silver haired British surgeon who’d lived most of his life in India. And I’m kind of a post 60’s hippie with wild hair, out to there, not sure of my own faith, full of questions, and it was a perfect match, as it turned out. So we ended up writing three different books together. I spent most of 10 years following him around the world and mining him for all of his accumulated wisdom and insight that was residing in this brilliant mind. And yet, because he was tucked away in a leprosarium, in different countries, no one had ever tapped into that before.

Stump:

So how exactly did you track him down in these days before you could just google his name and find out where he is?

Yancey:

The booklet mentioned that he was at the leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana. So that gave me all I needed. In those days, I went to the Yellow Pages in the library phone book section and called him out of the blue and he was a little hesitant. He said, “well, I’m pretty busy.” I said, “well, that’s fine but if I could just sit in the lobby, and maybe when you have a coffee break or lunch.” As it turned out, we became fast friends. They were missionaries. His wife was a physician as well. And I ended up eating dinner at their home and we had much in common. He had a daughter still at home who played the piano and we would play Beethoven symphonies transcribed for four hands on the piano. So I kind of wormed the way into the family and it was a life changing, transformative experience for me.

Stump:

That first little booklet that your wife found, how developed was that in terms of the ideas that came out eventually then in your collaborative work?

Yancey:

It focused on pain. In fact it has the line in there that I’ve never seen anywhere else. He said “thank God for pain. If there was one gift that I could give to my leprosy patients, it would be the gift of pain.” Because he was really the one who scientifically established that more than 90%, almost all of the abuse, that we associate with the disease leprosy—blindness, missing digits, in some cases missing feet and hands—almost all of that comes simply because the patient does not feel pain and they literally destroy their own bodies. They don’t have that warning system. The plate is too hot, the fire, the charcoal is still burning. The splinter is in your hand. They don’t have those alarm bells going off in their body. The simplest one is going blind. About a third of people with leprosy go blind and it’s because they lack that little tiny pain sensor in the eye that makes us blink. Every few seconds while we’ve been talking, I’ve been blinking and I presume you have to if you’re a healthy person. And a person with leprosy can go hours without blinking. Their eyes dry out, they get infected, maybe they’ll reach up and scratch and not realize it just damaged their cornea and about a third of them do go blind simply from lacking pain.

Stump:

We’ll get to some more of this substance in a little bit. But I wonder too, if you can tell us some more about this process, this collaboration that happened. So you said you traveled with him for 10 years. I assume some of that was to India where he spent a lot of his time. Where else did you go with him?

Yancey:

Yes, he had lived, as a child he lived in the hills, the remote hills of India. And then he went to boarding school in England, stayed and got his medical degree and some experience in construction and engineering. And then he came back to India. So a lot of our initial work was in Carville, Louisiana. Dr. Brand had given a series of chapel talks at a medical college in India. And he had a book, he said that he tried writing a book one time but as he sent it to publishers, they said, well, it’s too long for a booklet, and it’s too short for a book. So I said, well, what happened to it? He said, I think I’ve got it around here somewhere. And he searched around in his desk drawers and finally, I think it was underneath his socks in his bureau drawer. “Oh, here it is, here it is.” And he pulled out this oh, 20 year old manuscript, which was written, it was about the third or fourth carbon copy, very smudged on this lightweight India paper. And I took it back to the room where I was staying and stayed up all night reading it. And I came back and said, would you mind if I took this and tried to make a real book out of it? And he said, sure, sure. So I went and did a lot of research in libraries, both on the human body and on some of the theological faith concepts that he developed and came back to him numerous times. It was a true collaboration. I would say, okay, I’ve got this point here, but I need a good story. Can you tell me a story of a patient who would illustrate this point? Invariably, he would come up with one. And then of course, he went over every word that I came up with. And we just got along extremely well. He became not just a collaborator, he became a kind of a father figure to me. My own father died when I was a year old and he became a spiritual mentor to me. My own faith was just taking shape. I was reacting to an unhealthy church background and frankly, could not have written with any kind of confidence about what I believed. But I could write with great confidence about what Paul Brand believed because he lived it out. You spend 10 years with a person researching them and you see that. 

So I interviewed his scrub room nurses in India. That’s the way to find out what the doctors really like. Talk to the scrub room nurses. And I went to the place where he studied in London, saw the Royal College of Surgeons where he gave lectures and stood on the roof, where as a young resident, he did watching, fire watching, bomb watching during the Blitz of London, in the early days of World War Two. So it was a great adventure for me. For one thing, going to India with a true lover of India, we weren’t on the tourist route. We were on, not just the real life route, we were on a part of India that most people never see. Because a lot of the patients who contract leprosy are of the lowest castes, the what used to be called untouchables, now called Dalits. And I got to know some of them. And my goodness, when you hear their stories and you hear the abuse and the rejection that they go through, these are some of the lowliest people on the planet. And yet, here, Paul and Margaret Brand poured themselves, doing dozens of surgeries trying to put them back together, put their hands back together, their feet back together their eyes, so that they could see again. It was the gospel at the core, these brilliant people just giving themselves to some of the lowliest people on the planet. And yet never once did I hear them complain. They felt they were so fulfilled and joyful about the service they were able to do.

Stump:

You mentioned earlier the influence that he has had on you personally and I’d like to read just a short paragraph that you wrote in the new preface to this book in that regard and then have you respond a little bit about how Dr. Brand’s work and life actually influenced your own faith during this time. So you wrote, “wounded by the church plagued by doubts, I had neither the maturity nor the ability to express much of my own fledgling faith. Yet I could write with utter integrity about Dr. Brand’s faith and through that process, his words and thoughts became mine too. I now view the 10 years I spent working with him as an important chrysalis stage. As a journalist, I gave words to his faith. In exchange, he gave faith to my words.”

Yancey:

That’s very true. In fact, that’s a line that I came up with at his funeral as I stood before the people who had been affected by him. There were some patients and then world class surgeons who had flown in just to honor him. And I said, as I look back, we had a strange exchange because I did give words to his faith and he gave faith to my words. It really only takes one person, Jim, who truly lives out the faith. I had seen a lot of Christians who seemed to be smaller because of their faith. They reeled in. They had fewer life experiences. They were uptight. And here was a person who had an adventuresome life from the very beginning and did things, and then brought me along, to places where many people never go. And a lot of people would look at their lives and say, oh my, what sacrificial life they have living in a leprosarium in India, you know, without air conditioning and missionary salaries. He always insisted on just getting the same salary as locals, not at not a Westerner salary. And they would immediately correct and say, “no, no, no. You’re the ones who are losing.” And it came to convince me that the statement Jesus made that’s repeated more often than any others is really true. Jesus said something like this. He said, “you don’t gain life, you don’t find your life by acquiring more and more. You find it by giving it away.” And in the process of doing so you find it. And I don’t know of two people who were more full of gratitude. They had a very humble faith. They prayed deeply. I heard Dr. Brand speak many times. He would spend as much time preparing for a chapel talk for 15 people, many of whom were leprosy patients, as he would for St. Paul’s Cathedral, where he also spoke. And he just lived out his faith. He was also a scientist. He had endless curiosity. He knew the name of every bird, every plant I asked him about. He was always experimenting. He was very environmentally minded. So in those areas, caring for the earth, simple living, these are lasting lessons because America, the United States and the Western world in general, tempts us toward acquisition and prestige and salaries and a CV by our name. And Dr. Brand turned down the option to be head of orthopedics at Stanford University and also at Oxford University to work with leprosy patients in India. How many would do that? And yet he never thought that as a sacrifice, he thought of that as a calling and one for which he was deeply grateful to God.

Stump:

It sounds like he gave more than just an intellectual answer to questions or doubts that you were having. Yet was there some of that too? In terms of…in the paragraph I read, you wrote about you had been plagued by doubts. Were those answered just by his life or were there arguments as part of this too?

Yancey:

Well, there were certainly discussions. I had this resource and whatever question I had, as I read a book, I would run it past Dr. Brand. We started with the question of pain, theodicy. And he began by saying, we physicians are a bit like the complaint department of the department store, so that the only people who come to see us are people whose pants don’t fit or whose toy doesn’t work or whatever. And you get a jaded opinion of what the world is like. And he said, that’s what physicians think, because people only come to see us when they hurt. He said the reason they come to see us is because they do hurt. That’s the value of pain. He said, I’ve spent my life just marveling at the genius behind the human body. He worked with a whole cadre of engineers trying to come up with some artificial hands and things like that. And he said, things that we physicians take for granted like the healing of a muscle—and he went on to describe the intricate fibers of a muscle that magically almost come together like the teeth of a comb, and, and regrow in their original position—he said, physicians are used to this, we just tell you take it easy for six weeks and it’ll grow back. But the engineers when they see that, they’re marveling. They’re just trying to get a machine to work much less one that’s organic, that heals itself, and that with no direction from outside, knows exactly where to go to facilitate that healing process. So he was a true worshipper really of the God who gave us the human body. And despite the fact that he heard mostly from people whose bodies aren’t working so well, he spent his life just marveling at how well the human body was designed, is designed.

Stump:

Well, let’s turn more specifically to this book itself, which is a kind of extended meditation on one central metaphor, the body of Christ. And for Dr. Brand, the human body and its many parts make for this really compelling way of teasing out aspects of the body of Christ. So he explains, or the two of you explain, in some detail the way skin works, the way bones work or the blood and so on. You yourself must have learned a fair bit of anatomy and physiology in the process of this collaboration.

Yancey:  

I did and so far I haven’t gotten a single person to let me operate my surgical skills on them.

Stump:

Well of course, his work with leprosy, as you’ve described, the importance of our ability to feel pain is the kind of centerpiece of this and in some sense the lodestone of your own work, I think. We’ll talk a little bit more about that in a bit. First, I’d like to dwell in a section called The One and the Many, in which there are several examples of the specialization of human cells and tissues and how they collaborate to make this one organism that is us. There are a couple of passages that jumped out at me here, one of these I’m reading from page 32, “each day, we live at the mercy of organisms one trillionth our size.” I think it’s fair to say that’s one message that has finally been acknowledged by almost everyone in the world these days, right? There’s some fascinating discussion of the body’s natural immune system to these tiny invaders. But the really interesting takeaway for me in this section was that it’s the specialization of our cells that leads to the unbelievably more complex lives that we have, compared to the tiny self contained bacteria and other single celled organisms. Do you think at all about what it is about human beings that makes us the same, makes us different? We’re part of the animal kingdom, but something so much more, right?

Yancey:

Right. And that analogy, the body, of course, is not one that Paul Brand came up with, it’s one that I think Apostle Paul came up with. And it’s really critical in the New Testament. It’s used over two dozen times, almost 30 times. I think, as Paul sought some sort of metaphor that captured what the church should be he should it be a temple, should it be a field, should it be….no, it’s a body. It’s like a body. And then in First Corinthians 12 he gets very detailed and he talks about different parts of the body, that there are some parts that we value more than others, the eye for example. People look after their eyes, people put colored contact lenses in it, you put makeup around your eye, you make sure you have nice looking glasses because people are looking at your eye. But you can actually get along quite fine in life without an eye. Helen Keller proved you could do well neither hearing nor seeing, just with the sensation of touch. And then there are other parts of the body, he said, which do not get that kind of attention, but yet they’re the ones that are the most important. In fact, you said they’re the ones we treat with special modesty. And I’ve asked doctors, with a kind of a twinkle in my eye, what do you think Paul was talking about here? And they say, well, it’s clearly kidney cells and colon cells. You can get along without a lot of things but you can’t get along if your kidneys shut down, you have a few days to live. If your colon shuts down you have a few days to live. And haven’t we seen in this COVID-19 epidemic, haven’t we seen kind of a reversal of what we think is important? We used to think, oh, celebrities, they’re really important. LeBron James, he’s great at putting a round ball in a round hoop, so we’ll pay him $20 million a year. Now, school teachers, they’re nice, but they’re not worth 20 million. They’re worth maybe $60,000 a year. I think we have discovered that we may have our values a little skewed in this country. You can get along without sports, without professional sports. A lot of parents have discovered you can’t easily get along without teachers because suddenly they’re in charge of trying to get their kids to learn. We certainly can’t get along without janitors. They are as important to our safety in airports, as the pilot is now, because they’re the ones who are going around and sterilizing, sanitizing the seats and the banisters and the armrests on the airplanes. And so we’ve seen this kind of reversal of what’s important. Nurses are important. Chaplains and hospitals are important. Health care workers, frontline people, they’re the critical people that keep a body working. And the same is true in the church. We all have different gifts. Paul goes on to say, there are some who are born teachers, and we put them up in front of people, but they’re no better than the people who put out the chairs for the class because if the chairs weren’t there, the class wouldn’t be there. And it’s just a handy metaphor to use. And as it happened, Dr. Brand and I spent several hundred pages trying to make applications of that metaphor.

Stump:

So this brings up the importance of expertise too. So within the body, these specialized cells that do different things. Because BioLogos is a science and faith organization I can’t help but ask about the scientists within the church. Are these parts that have been treated with special modesty for too long, I wonder? At the beginning of this pandemic, I had hoped that this might actually be an occasion for the work of scientists to be more seriously valued by the church, than it often is. Unfortunately, I’ve seen, I think, too much of their reaction fall along the predictable lines of the culture wars and treat scientists and health professionals who are frantically working for our welfare that they’ve still too often been treated with suspicion and disdain. I quit keeping track of the conspiracy theories about Dr. Fauci. But what do we learn from our bodies about this importance of expertise or specialization?

Yancey:

Well, I share your dismay about how science has been treated by part of the population, probably not the majority. I think, almost everybody is hoping that these scientists in their laboratories who are experimenting with some 200 different possible medications and on a frantic search for a vaccine, they really are our hope to end the epidemic. It will not end unless they come up with something that either treats it or prevents it. And when the history of this time will be written, the scientists, from what I can tell, have been spot on with their predictions of the progress of the epidemic. And to put it in the hands of politicians or non-specialists, we’ve seen how confusing that can be. And the countries, as I look at the different countries around the world, those that truly devise a plan based on the recommendations of the scientists, they are the ones who are doing better than the United States. We’re among the worst in terms of contagion, particularly and just not being able to control the reaction. But that’s actually if you expand the body analogy to the whole country, we need newscasters, we need politicians to pass the laws, we need factory workers to produce shields and protective equipment and masks and the scientists are at the forefront because they’re the ones who understand what disease is all about. It’s a beautiful example of how we need each other. And certain skills don’t transfer very easily from one person to the next. I can write about the epidemic. I certainly can’t help anyone who is sick in the way a doctor can but we all have our place to play. And a unified body is a body where all the different parts work together towards the same goal. And that’s sadly what we haven’t had very much of in the United States.

Stump:

The emphasis in this section of the book on unity and diversity brings up the other pandemic in our country today, the renewed exposure of the systemic racism in our country in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. You grew up in the South in a church community that didn’t exactly provide you with helpful guidance on race shall we say. Can you describe some of that for us here?

Yancey:

I can. It was a very conservative church. I went to several and they and they were all alike in this regard. The largest one, there were I think about 1500 members, was a very healthy church, they had a strong foreign missions program with something like 170 missionaries supported by that church, but when the civil rights movement hit Atlanta, one thing that happened was that groups of African Americans would go to different churches and try to gain entry, just to attend, not to make trouble but just to attend. Well, our church, this large church, printed up cards, and I still have one of those cards, and gave it out at the door, they would post deacons at the door and if any African Americans did show up or other races for that matter, they would give them a card saying we know that you’re not a serious worshiper, that you have your own churches, you’re not welcome here, please go away and gave it out. And they also taught the curse of Ham theory. The crazy theory that comes in, I think Genesis nine where, Ham’s not even involved, or Canaan is the person who did something wrong, but somehow Ham got cursed and somebody said, well, that must be where the black race, where dark skinned races came from, and they are to serve in the tents of Shim. And our church took that very literally. It was a mean spirited, it was the Old South. You can see where the anger that is being expressed in protest movements today came from. From the pulpit., our pastor would talk about Martin Lucifer Coon instead of Martin Luther King, who of course was a citizen of Atlanta. 

That’s the environment I grew up in. And was part of. You know, when you’re a kid, you believe what these adults tell you. And then I found out it was wrong, and I was a large reason that I went through a crisis of faith because if the church is wrong about race, maybe they’re wrong about Jesus, maybe they’re wrong about the Bible. And that was a huge issue for me growing up. Boy, you get one thing wrong and you can turn people, many people, who were my friends in the church, I’m sure are out of the church today because they realize the church lied to me and misrepresented reality. Which I think is something that you folks in BioLogos face all the time because my church didn’t believe in dinosaurs either, you know. It believed in a 6000-year-old earth and when you are raised that way, and then you go to universities and find out, hmm, there is another way of looking at these facts here, it can be a crisis of faith. And we need to be intellectually rigorous as we look at the Bible, we need to not isolate ourselves but face the facts of the earth as they are and I appreciate what you’re doing. And I appreciate what some people did like Dr. Brand in widening my horizons and convincing me that you don’t have to trade away your mind to follow Jesus. Quite the contrary. You may have to trade away some people that were important in your past, you need to keep growing and Dr. Brand was a huge influence for me in doing that.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hi Language of God listeners. Here at BioLogos we think that asking questions is a worthwhile part of any faith journey. We hope this podcast helps you to think through long held questions and consider new ones but you probably have other questions we haven’t covered yet. That’s why we want to take this quick break to tell you about the common questions page on our website. You’ll find questions like “How could humans have evolved and still be in the image of god,” “how should we interpret the Genesis flood account?” and “What created God?” Each with thoughtful and in depth answers written in collaboration by scientists, biblical scholars and other experts. Just go to biologos.org and click the common questions tab at the top of the page. Back to the show!

Interview Part Two

Stump:

With respect to the diversity and the racism that we face in the country today, I wanted to ask you about a paragraph in the book, page 48 which reads, “in a healthy church, unity trumps diversity. Paul, who as a faithful Pharisees, used to thank God every day that he was not born a slave, a Gentile or a woman, changed dramatically. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female for you are all one in Christ Jesus, he told the fractious Galatians. Such ethnic and gender categories melt away in significance compared to the new identity that we share.” Of course there the Apostle Paul was writing in very different circumstances than ours today. But as BioLogos has been engaged in this topic for the last several weeks and listening to people of color in our network, hear them recoiling even at the idea of simply dissolving those differences, of being colorblind say, because it sounds to them like we’re saying those differences don’t matter. I wonder if you have any thoughts about this in light of circumstances today and what that ideal that the Apostle Paul was advocating for how that might be applied and in circumstances like ours today?

Yancey:

It’s a great question and frankly, it’s a lot easier to be around people who are just like you. It’s a lot easier to run a church comprising people who are just like me, who look like me, think like me, see the Bible as I do, vote like me, smell like me. I happened to go to a church in Chicago, LaSalle Street Church, for a good 15 years that intentionally welcomed diversity and it causes problems. We had a breakfast for senior citizens and it was open to street people. So in a January morning in Chicago, all sorts of people would show up who’d spent the night outdoors. And the sanctuary upstairs was warm. So they would stay for church and often they caused problems. They would snore loudly or one guy would throw things in the middle of the service and they didn’t know how to behave in church, you know. My wife was the director for a senior citizens program. It was mostly African American in the old Cabrini Green housing complex, which was ultimately torn down. She organized helpers who would be assigned one of the senior citizens and be their advocate, take them to the doctor’s office when they needed, bring them drugs, bring them groceries, whatever. And you’d see these yuppies pull up in their little, you know, Mini Coopers into Cabrini Green with a bag from a pharmacy and go upstairs to Mrs. Jones and give her her her drugs

And the senior citizens— Jen and I went to a number of African American churches and they’re pretty exciting places. I mean, they know how to have funerals, they know how to have music and I am sure that compared to what these seniors were used to, our church was boring as all get out. It was pretty white bread. But they came because this was their church. This was the one that was reaching out to them. This is the one they leaned on and depended on. And we tried to have a mixture of music and we had counterculture people. There are all sorts of people there. It’s where grace is put to the test. And I read the passage you read there from Galatians, when you think back to Paul, Pharisees hung around themselves all the time. They liked being among themselves, they could compare their holiness to each other. And they felt much superior to everybody else. So I’ll just hang around other Pharisees. One thing they didn’t like about Jesus was that he would go out with sinners. My goodness, he could be polluted. And Paul, as a good Pharisee, prayed every day, “thank you, Lord, that you didn’t make me a woman, that you made me a man, not a woman, that you made me a Jew not a Gentile, that you made me free, not slave.” And yet that same Paul, when he got the message of the gospel, prayed the prayer that you just quoted, saying that in Christ, there is no Jew nor Gentile, male and or female, slave nor free. That is radical. And I think back to our church, we didn’t please everybody. And in fact, there was such a diverse service, I’m sure there was something that offended various parts of the congregation. But we had in common our commitment to the gospel which meant caring for those who are in need and learning from those who had wisdom. And it can happen. 

I remember hearing an evangelist from India. India is a country that stratifies diversity. So, we know about the caste system from the Brahmins down to the Dalits. They’re actually 5000 sub-castes and they’re rigorously enforced. So a Dalit, or an untouchable, cannot go into a Hindu temple, is supposed to be a Hindu follower, but can’t even worship a Hindu temple. And in many places women cannot as well. And I heard an Indian evangelist who said in India, as I have been around people with other religions, because it’s the second largest Muslim community in the world, and then of course, Hindu majority and Christians and Jains and Jews and everybody. And he said, other religions can mimic almost everything that you Christians can do. You talk about healings, we’ve got healings. You talk about answers to prayer, we’ve got answers to prayer. You talk about people raised from the dead, I’ve heard Hindus talk about people raised from the dead. But there’s one miracle that I’ve seen in the church, the Christian church, that we can’t duplicate. And that is exactly what you quoted from Paul, to have men and women, slave and free, Dalits and outcasts, all of them together, worshipping the same God, to somehow, out of that, for a unity to emerge. We can’t do that. And that’s the great light that you Christians can show the rest of India.

Stump:

And I guess that doesn’t necessarily entail being blind to the differences that are among us, right? That has been so offensive of late when there’s often a response by people that look like you and me of, no we don’t see color. We’re just trying to treat everybody as humans. When people of color feel as though that takes something away from them to not be seen as who they are. So instead, there’s a kind of unity that comes with that diversity that’s still intact, or I’m obviously struggling for the words for how to describe that here.

Yancey:

I think if we thought in terms of culture rather than race, it would really help. Several times I’ve been to countries where they’ll have an international church. I remember there being one in Beijing, China. In fact, I spoke there. And you had to show your passport at the door. If you were Chinese, local Chinese, you could not enter because they were afraid you would try to convert them. But inside there were more than 100 different countries represented. And it was the most marvelous presentation of culture, because they had four or five different styles of music. There were the African singers in the close harmony And there was a jazz group, I think, from the United States and then some nice hymns and an organ concerto from Europeans, you know. And if we looked at the colors, we would say, oh, yeah, they’re different. But that’s not what we were considering we were considering the gifts of culture that were being presented to us. And it was helpful for me, growing up, growing out of racism to see that we had cultural differences. And my white culture was actually pretty, it looked pretty poor in comparison to the richness and the depth of what I saw in a lot of African American culture. It’s too bad that we look at race through skin, through skin color. And clearly the cultures, each one has its own depth, each one has its own richness. As I travel around the world, I’m just amazed at the diversity that is represented. I’d hate for every country I went to to serve meals like McDonald’s and have television just like the United States. Unfortunately, more and more do. But I think it impoverishes the local culture when they do that.

Stump:

Let me bring the topic of pain back in but I think it’s still intersects with this topic of race we’re talking about here too. In the section on pain in the book, there’s a chapter called The Unifier and you write, “pain makes another related contribution that often gets overlooked—it unifies the body.” And the example again comes from leprosy where the parts of a person’s body that are afflicted come to be thought of as something foreign to my body. Say, a hand that has no feeling is treated as something other, even something expendable when he tells the stories of the teenage patients who would try to shock people by say thrusting a thorn all the way through their painless hands, right? Well, as I read this, I was reflecting again on our current pandemics and wondering whether we’ve treated parts of our body with similar disrespect. Those who are suffering the most from COVID are disproportionately black and brown. When we flout our freedoms and act as we please are we treating these parts of the body as a deadened hand the way these rowdy teenagers who had leprosy were treating some parts of their body? Is that a fair comparison in any stretch do you think?

Yancey:

Oh, I think it is. One of the statements Dr. Brand made which stuck with me goes like this, he said, “a healthy body is not a body that feels no pain.” His whole life has leprosy patients proved that. “A healthy body is not a body that feels no pain. A healthy body is a body that feels and attends to the pain of the weakest part.” If we do that and if we attend to the weakest part, the part that needs help, that’s a healthy body. And you expand that to the human community, I would go beyond the examples you gave and make it more global. I heard just this week from a friend in Lebanon, their currency has declined by 80%, in large part because of the COVID crisis when the economy collapsed. And in the United States, you know, we see the stock market that has recovered is doing pretty well and there are a lot of people out of work, but more and more they’re coming back. And there’s some reason for optimism. But in other countries, it is just tragic. In India, the cities shut down many of the employment opportunities and you had hundreds of thousands of people marching back to their villages with no income, just trying to feed their family. There was a tragic case of one of these crowds that was following railroad tracks down to their village and they fell asleep on the railroad tracks and an unexpected unscheduled train came along and ran over, killed 16 of them. In Africa, there are countries with zero ventilators. None. I mean, we are concerned about shortages here and there, and we should be concerned. But unfortunately I haven’t seen any of those in the news. We tend to get very focused on our own situation in the United States and those who are connected with missions like International Justice Mission or World Concern, World Relief, World Vision, you can get some information that way and they’re doing their best. But a lot of people are cutting back their giving right now, understandably, we don’t have the same amount of money that we used to. But we need to attend to the pain of the weakest part. The rest of the world still looks to the United States as a leader when something bad happens. How are we going to respond? Do we care? And unfortunately, I think that has changed a lot. People don’t anymore so much looked at the United States as the place to turn when you’re in need. We were giving out mixed signals and we tend to be very self focused. We need to relearn that lesson from the body to attend to the pain of the weakest part.

Stump:

Any advice on how to bring back feeling, to bring back the feeling of pain in those parts of the body that we need to be able to feel again?

Yancey:

Well, one thing I do is I try to get most of my news from non-US sources. The BBC, you could go online and get a global view from the BBC that it’s harder to get from CNN or Fox or some of the other outlets. There’s a magazine called The Week or This Week that reproduces some editorials and news stories from around the world. So I try to first actually read the magazines and emails and direct mail appeals that come in from Christian missions that I support. Because they really are on the front lines, and they deeply need our help at a time like this. It is a time when people are afraid and anxious and in many cases facing death. And it’s a beautiful time for us in the church to bring a message of comfort and practical help and hope. That’s what Christians should be doing at a time of crisis. And it does…it’s an opportunity in one way. I saw in The Guardian newspaper, a British newspaper, that whereas on an every Sunday, only five or maybe six percent of people in the UK, United Kingdom, attend church, twenty five percent of the population are tuning into Christian services now and then. They’re interested, they’re scared. They want to know they were wondering about the problem of pain. They’re wondering if there is a God, what if I’m dying? These are important questions we have some answers for and the only way to get people to listen to those answers is to be with them present and with actual comfort. 

Stump:

Thanks. So obviously, you wrote the book, before the present crises of COVID and race were where they are right now, in our consciousness. I thought it was interesting how it applied so well to those. Let me bring up one more subject from the book though that tracks a little more closely with the normal sorts of topics that we deal with here at BioLogos. Still dealing with pain and the emphasis throughout the book I think is rightly on the redeeming nature of pain, how it’s a good thing that we’re built the way we are so that we can feel this pain. I was wondering though, about drawing out Dr. Brands and your views on the problems that our bodies encounter. And of course, there is lots of talk in the book about disease and when things happen to us in that sense, but so much of the book is an exaltation of the human body and it’s amazing capabilities. Without taking anything away from that, I wonder whether he ever talked with you about the parts that don’t seem quite so well designed. I’m sitting here and I have to keep shifting my lumbar support around because my lower back isn’t quite optimized for the kind of life that I lead and wisdom teeth where there’s no room for them. These kinds of examples that we bring up now and then. Is everything designed exactly how we’d expect a masterful engineer to do it in our bodies? I’m just wondering if you and he ever had conversations along those lines.

Yancey:

Well, I’m glad you asked that question because we certainly did it. At first Dr. Brand did spend most of his time talking about the wonders of the human body and he helped me appreciate the things that most of us don’t like. So when we get sick, you know, there’s vomiting, there’s diarrhea, there’s coughing, there are all these things that we don’t enjoy. And he would one by one say, well actually think about vomiting. This is an amazing mechanism because your entire digestive system is oriented toward getting food particles down into the lower parts of your body. And they have to somehow find a way to reverse and go against their nature and expel them. Well, I’ve never thought about that before. 

But he actually had the experience of trying to think like a designer of the human body. He was given a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, several million dollars, when he was in the United States, to try to come up with an artificial pain system. Most people are trying to get rid of pain, he was trying to invent it. And it was to protect his leprosy patients. Not just leprosy patients. Many of the principles he discovered, applied to diabetes and other numbing diseases as well. In fact, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop told me that Dr. Brand’s discoveries were probably preventing about 70,000 amputations per year just because he alerted the medical community to be much more aware of painlessness and the problems that can result. So okay, so his job is to create pain. Well, he can’t deal with the entire body. It’s way too complicated, but what about the hand? The hand almost always gets damaged in the leprosy person. And the hand however is…every particle of pain sensors anywhere in the body is beautifully designed according to utility. So for example, the hand can sustain a lot of pressure so that I can squeeze a hammer very tightly. But it also has to have pain so that I have to know what I’m squeezing. And he could develop pressure sensors that let you know if you’re squeezing at a certain resistance. But, how do you tell the difference between squeezing a stick and squeezing a shard of glass? They tried all these different techniques and they couldn’t find a mechanism that would have nearly the sensitivity and the diversity of the human body. 

The same thing was true with the foot. The foot can sustain much more pressure than the hand because you’re walking on it all day long. You don’t want to be reminded every time you take a step. Every part of the body is different. So many times he would say things like, many times I wish that the trachea was much more sensitive, so sensitive that it would be impossible to smoke cigarettes. Still, lung cancer is one of the leading killers in the United States today, and around the world maybe the leading killer, just smoking cigarettes. Wouldn’t be great if we had a trachea that was more sensitive, so that it would be painful to smoke a cigarette. We’d save all these health problems. Well, on the other hand, what about the people with allergies, they would be miserable all the time if their trachea were even more sensitive. Or skiing. I live in Colorado, we talk about skiing. And we were watching the Olympics one time and he would say, I used to think, wouldn’t it be wonderful if our bones were a little thicker and denser and heavier, then we wouldn’t break them as often. Well, actually, then you couldn’t do figure skating. Then you couldn’t do ballet. 

The body in all of its components is a series of trade offs. And that’s true across nature. So for example, a hawk can see much better at distance than human beings can, doesn’t make them superior to us, its just a different skill for a different reason. A beagle is much better at smelling through his nose than a human can. Humans are made for cooperation. We have a great cooling system, better than almost any other animal, so we can run long distances. We have good endurance, but we’re not good for short sprints compared to a cheetah, for example, or even a grizzly bear. And when you’re designing a whole series of creatures, you have to make these trade offs. Now the one that people like Richard Dawkins really pick on is the heart. They said if only our heart had more of a blood supply or had larger vessels that provided blood to it, then we’d solve all these heart attacks that are unnecessary and people could live longer. Well, what was the heart designed for? It may not be designed for the kinds of modern stresses that we put on the heart, you know? It’s very good at hard work and keeping a person healthy. But we now know how much stress and how much high fat diets and how many things like that can affect heart functioning. So I don’t think you can say…I’m with you on the lumbar. I don’t know the answer to that one. It seems like maybe a little more reinforcement down there would really help. But I do have a lumbar support in my chair, so I found ways to compensate.

Stump:

Did you ever talk to him about evolution? Did he accept the at least the science part of evolution and how some of these things that we have today are perhaps the result of different quirks of our ancestry as opposed to being intentionally made exactly the way they are?

Yancey: 

Yes, we did. And, of course he believed in evolution. Like most of us, he didn’t really have ways to express the macro evolution of from one species to another. That wasn’t his specialty. And he tried to stay away from that. He did believe that our advances and understanding DNA coding seemed to indicate that there was a designer involved, because how can language or why should language evolve if there are no speakers of that language? If nobody can read a code, you know, how would a language even evolve? What function would it serve? It seemed to be a sign of intelligence. He always enjoyed avoided the term intelligent design because of course it was associated with a movement that he felt he didn’t feel completely comfortable with. But he believed there was great design not just in the human body but in all of nature. It’s just amazing. I’ve been working all week trying to get some little plants to grow and weeding and fertilizing and watering faithfully and all that. And then I look outside my window and there’s a whole forest of evergreen and fir and spruce trees and all they have is air and rain. And just by themselves they just grow up. And they were far more beautiful and impressive than anything I’ve been able to develop in my garden. So he had that sense of wonder and sense of gratitude to the Creator. But was confident that evolution is a part of that process in ways that he didn’t feel comfortable expounding on.

Stump:

So the subtitle of your book is The Marvel of Bearing God’s Image. So all of this, the extended metaphor of the body of Christ and the intricate description of our anatomy and physiology, has a place somewhere in this theological view of human beings as something different, right? As something unique and especially commissioned to have this role, to bear God’s image to the rest of the planet. Can you say a few words about that?

Yancey:

Yes, I will. It’s kind of a strange word, because it now means almost the opposite of what it used to mean. So companies and definitely politicians have these image machines. After our president’s tweets, the next day, you know, people are trying to clean up his image and trying to present him in the best possible light. Every politician does that. That’s not just Donald Trump. Every politician has image people who are trying to polish their image so that they will look better. And that’s true of athletes, it’s true of actors and actresses as well. That’s not how the word was meant in the Bible, for sure. It meant exact likeness. It’s something that reminds you of something else so that when you see one thing you think, oh, that reminds me of. So you see a little baby and say, oh, he’s a spitting image of his daddy. Because something about his hair or something about his ears or whatever, remind you of his father, who in other ways is very different looking. That’s an important—back to the body of Christ—that is a significant concept for why we are here as a church. We are here to represent the image of God. Jesus was here and according to Hebrews and Colossians, he was the exact likeness of God. And I tell people, if you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. Forget these old images of the grandfather in the sky. You know, that’s not it. God is like Jesus. Jesus is a person of compassion and comfort, and healing. Follow Jesus around and you’ll find out what God is like. And that was a huge development in my own faith because I was raised with this harsh, punitive Old Testament God, and it had to be corrected by the image of Jesus. 

Jesus was the exact likeness. We are not. But when he left, he said, I’m turning it over to you. You now are to be the ones who will teach people what God is like. I’ve done my part in three years, but I’m gone. I didn’t affect the United States, I didn’t affect Europe, I didn’t affect Asia. Jesus only affected a few people in one little tiny part of the world. And then he said, you are my body. My body is leaving, I’m ascending. But you now are my body. And the only way that people are going to know what God is like, is if you show them. And that’s why it’s so important, Jim, on things like unity and diversity and reaching out to the weakest part for those who are in pain. It’s so important because that is what God does. That is what good is. That’s God’s essence. His essence is love. And the only way people will know that is if we demonstrate it as the body of Christ here on this planet. 

Stump:

Hmm, nice. Thank you. Well, I highly recommend the book, Fearfully and Wonderfully. What are the next projects you’re working on?

Yancey:

One is a somewhat COVID related one. I have long appreciated a book that John Donne, the great English poet wrote almost 400 years ago, 1623. Bubonic plague was the plague back then. It was one of the worst waves of the plague in London, about a third of London was killed and another third ran away to try to escape. And he was Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral and then he got sick. And he assumed, and the doctors assumed, it was bubonic plague and he prepared to die. But he did not go gentle into that good night, as the poet says. He railed, he disputed, he writhed, he protested, and he wrote this beautiful book called Devotions Upon Emergent (or emergency) Occasions. Some of the words from that book have become very familiar. “No man is an island.” “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, the bell tolls for thee.” Phrases like that, beautiful phrases, great insights about how to handle a crisis. The problem is, they were written in 1623. I counted up one of his sentences and it had 234 words in it. There aren’t many people who will read a 234 word sentence these days. So I took the, I boldly dashed in, bull in a china shop, and decided to do a modern paraphrase of John Donne’s devotions, along with some explanatory material and relation to what we’re going through right now. But he has such good insights, I wanted a broader public to be exposed to his thoughts, his wrestling with God. And I’m just about finished, couple more weeks and I’ll look for a publisher. But it’s been wonderful to realize we are not the first people to go through something like this. And in fact, in those days without any medicine really, or medicine that made it worse, blooding, and purging and things like that. We have a lot to learn from somebody, it reduces down to one person alone, wrestling with God.

Stump:

Well, we look forward to that. So thank you very much for bringing greater visibility to the work of Dr. Brand through the book we discussed here Fearfully and Wonderfully. And let me say that your work has been really helpful and provoking for me personally. And so I appreciate that so much. Thanks for talking to us again and I hope we can do it yet again in the not too distant future.

Yancey:

Well, I hope so. I’ve felt great kinship with BioLogos because you have rescued many people’s faith just as there were a few key people like Dr. Brand in my life who helped rescue my faith too.

Stump:  

Wow, very good. Thank you, Philip.

Credits

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the remote workspaces and homes of BioLogos staff in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Find more episodes of Language of God on your favorite podcast app or at our website, biologos.org, where you will also find tons of great articles and resources on faith and science. Finally, if you’re enjoying the show and want to help us out, leave a review on iTunes, we love hearing from and it helps other people find the show. Thanks. 


Featured guest

Philip Yancey

Philip Yancey

Philip Yancey, author of books like Disappointment with God, The Jesus I Never Knew, and What’s So Amazing About Grace, is one of the best selling Christian authors alive today. His interactions with Christians from around the world and his early church experiences inform his writing on faith, the problem of pain, and unexpected grace. He holds graduate degrees in Communications and English from Wheaton College and the University of Chicago. Yancey lives in Colorado as a freelance writer and avid hiker.

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