Monday, November 8, 2010
You can imagine my enthusiasms back last year, March of 2009 to be precise, when I read the essay on the last page of Christianity Today.
One of my all time favorite authors, Philip Yancey, wrote a piece called “The Dream that Won’t Die” in which he highlights a visit to Hyderabad and a meeting with Dr. Joseph D’souza. He spoke of the Dalit problem in India. Nearly one quarter of the 1.3 billion of the nation’s population suffers a shameless racial discrimination rooted in more than three thousand years of religious tradition: the Hindu caste system. While casteism (as some call it) was declared illegal in 1948 under the first Constitution adopted by the new independent state, the law has not been taken seriously. It remains unenforced in most states. Yancey went on with enthusiasm to describe the proliferation of English speaking schools for Dalit children that are a direct and frontal challenge to the curse of untouchability. Yancey documented the transformation, from hopelessness to expectancy. From surrender to a full on blitz toward smashing the glass ceiling. Many are breaking through.
I read that article last year shortly after returning from Hyderbad myself. I sat in that same room with Dr. D’souza. Matthew Cork and I launched our book project. I embarked on what would become a ten month immersion into the whole movement: reading books, communicating regularly with my new friends in India, interviewing countless participants, visiting folks who shared the vision and mostly writing. Certainly Yancey would want to talk.
So I wrote a LeaderFOCUS-length letter. I told the author how I admired his work. Yancey’s a thoughtful Christian writer. He asks the big questions. He shuns the cliché ridden, predictable words and phrases that fill too many so-called Christian books. (I don’t know if so many “Christian” writers think they need to speak a familiar Christianese to secure their audience or if they are just lazy. Not Yancey. He is neither insecure nor lazy.) He reads widely. He interacts with the classics. He ponders cinema and theater. He is a serious student and keen observer of social, cultural and political trends. He avoids labels; as he himself is difficult to label. He is deeply theological, but not polemic, as though he believes he knows better than the rest of us and needs to prove it. He assumes his readers are thinking along with him. He respects us. He trusts us with his innermost reflections. He takes risks. This is the kind of stuff I told him in my email letter; and then I made a modest proposal.
Since we share a passion for the transformation of Dalits in India and we admire the same champions who are in country leading the charge, I would do just about anything to get a few hours face to face, I told Philip Yancey. I’ll pay the freight. If it means purchasing a plane ticket, so be it. I’ll go anywhere. Anytime. At your convenience, I added, leaving no room for ambiguity.
Then I hit “send.”
It took several months, but a reply finally came. I understand that Yancey has sold some fourteen million books. I am one of countless fans. When he sits down in isolation and writes as I so often do, he knows there will be tens of thousands of readers who will eventually track his line of thought. He may be sitting alone in a room with his keyboard and monitor recording the tapping of the keys, but he isn’t really. His readers are right there along with him. His books are a conversation. So I suspected that my modest proposal has been made countless times by other wannabes who long to connect with a hero, hoping some of that mojo will rub off.
Well, the note ultimately came. From Yancey himself. I opened the email with enthusiasm, wondering as I clicked the mouse if my next stop on the browser would be cheaptickets.com; perhaps a round trip to Denver. I read the text…
“I don’t meet with writers anymore,” it said. That was about it. I exhaled. My shoulders drooped. I leaned back in my chair.
Maybe it’s because I’m getting older. Maybe I’m just naïve. Maybe it’s that Dale Carnegie book I read back in Bible school – with a little Norman Vincent Peale and Crystal Cathedral thrown in. Or maybe it was Life of Brian… “always look on the bright side of life…”
But I’m not giving up.
On October 20 this year, I got a second personal note from Yancey. Here’s the opening line (verbatim): “If this is an irritation for you, and DOUBLY sorry if you get more than one of these… My publisher talked me into forwarding it to folks who have written me. I promise you that you are not on anybody’s marketing list; I just pulled these from my personal address book.” So, it appears as though I’m still on his list; his personal address book even. The potentially irritating email was a not-so-subtle announcement of his most recent book, What Good Is God? Truth be told, I was not annoyed.
So within minutes I had my free sample downloaded on my digital reader. It didn’t take long. (I love that thing.) Just a few pages, and I’m hooked. Religion is taking a beating out there in the marketplace of ideas these days. Check out the new raft of books by atheists, former evangelicals, burned out millenials, fed-up scientists, weary educators and general cynics. If you prefer video, browse around YouTube. Yancey enters the fray. “What good is God?” I’m half way through now; can’t put it down. India, the Dalits and D’souza get a high profile. When we met again with Dr. D’souza back in that same room last month, he told us about his personal note from Philip Yancey. They are now fast friends.
So, I haven’t let it go. Yancey and me… on some cedar deck up in the Rockies taking in the crisp mountain air, glittering aspens, a bubbling creek and the jagged peaks over there on the horizon against a deep blue cloudless sky. Talk of books, the lonely and exhilarating and painstaking process of word crafting and the liberation of untouchables.
Maybe it’s “The Dream that Won’t Die.”
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2010