Brokenness and Blessing: Towards a Biblical Spirituality. Frances Young. Baker Academic (2007).
Book review by Kathy Dickson, ADNet Field Associate
Difference. Discovery. Journey. Pilgrimage. These themes emerge and reemerge throughout Frances Young’s Brokenness and Blessing: Towards a Biblical Spirituality. The resulting book teaches and challenges, beautifully tying in an understanding of disability by relating it to biblical and theological interpretation from a variety of perspectives. A deep look at scripture and ancient writings offers an academic analysis, yet Young’s use of metaphor, hymns, and personal experience creates a balanced read of both scholarship and pastoral response. In this review, I will offer a brief synopsis of the book’s content and then concentrate on Young’s remarkable capacity to weave scholarship, personal narrative, and art through and with each other into a richly relevant texture of wisdom, celebration and lament.
Frances Young, the Edward Cadbury Professor of Theology at the University of Birmingham emeritus, organizes Brokenness and Blessing through a series of individual chapters, each of which focuses on a theme and portion of journey.
In chapter one, “The Desert Experience,” Young leads readers through a classical reading of scripture, one in which people understood “their own lives were once shaped by patterns and models from in Scripture, and conversely, people read their own lives into scripture” (20). She works to claim why it is “important self-consciously to reclaim this tradition in our postmodern world and how it might enable us to approach the Bible more imaginatively and creatively” (20). Doing this could allow for Scripture to continue to be a true resource in our world. Focusing on the desert motif and the works of the early Fathers, she creates a journey through biblical understanding and says that using the Bible figuratively “provides maps and guides for the journey” (35). We must make the Bible our own.
“Wrestling Jacob,” is oriented around the story of Jacob wrestling at the Jabbok in Genesis 32:24-32. In the story, Jacob is both blessed by his assailant and lamed by him. Later in the text, Young summarizes her take on the story: “Disability is the condition of blessing” (121). Yet Young also follows patristic exegesis of the text to derive a moral reading: “It is hardly surprising … that Jacob should wrestle with himself before meeting Esau. He had to take responsibility for what he had done. To receive forgiveness is the hardest thing on earth, because it means admitting you were wrong, and to do that you have to step down from the pedestal of self-justification” (58).
Using story and example, Young writes of how “The Way of Jesus” gives perspective to vulnerability: “the way of Jesus, in its acceptance of vulnerability and mortality, puts human life into proper perspective while opening horizons beyond itself” (73).
She points to the L’Arche Communities, in the way of Jesus shaping their lives. This could be a point of argument for some, because though the L’Arche communities are founded in the Christian faith, some communities practice a variety of religions. However, the “self-emptying” or kenosis found in the life of Jesus, is certainly a fundamental practice of being in community in L’Arche from what I can tell. Young articulates this sense of emptying quite well here, discussing touch and the daily physical acts of human caring as sacramental (74). Connections such as these are the profound observations she is able to make, bringing the essence of biblical spirituality to a tangible and real understanding.
In “Strangers and Exiles,” Young argues that welcoming difference lies at the heart of the Gospel and deepens spirituality and the experience of worship: “It is being open to meeting the strangeness—welcoming the difference—of others, which allows us glimpses of God’s Otherness” (98). She contends at multiple points that we must welcome the stranger, because we are strangers ourselves.
Reflecting on Israelite law, Young claims that the person who is the “other” is a sign of what Israel truly is, and refers to the biblical “gēr,” or resident alien, as a term for the one whose “condition cannot be changed” (88). She resonates with the work of Rev. Ian Cohen, who says that we should “not care for those with disabilities because that does us good—that would be patronizing charity. Rather, we care for them because they reveal to us who we really are—that is how ‘the Other’ matters. As gērim, they show us that we too have the soul of the gēr” (91).
While we need to recognize difference, we should never imagine that welcoming difference will be easy, and yet such welcoming is at the heart of the Gospel (91). Here we find yet another example of how tying disability with deeper spirituality makes for a beautiful approach: “…there was a stunning sense of exaltation and of the presence of God where the body of Christ welcomed differences” (99). She suggests that our postmodern world “requires our reading of scripture to challenge exclusiveness, to go beyond mere tolerance to respect, to recognize how fundamentally important is the “Other” for our own identity” (101).
Young even claims that biblical spirituality demands more than self-fulfillment, as one discovers oneself through others, especially through those who are different (101). “The way of Jesus involves self-emptying, and it is when we can allow the ‘other,’ the stranger, those who are different, to challenge our self-sufficiency that we learn what it means to be his disciples” (121).
“Desire Frustrated and Fulfilled.” points to how a biblical spirituality is not achieved, or self-satisfied, or comfortable, but always longing. Yet in the “Christian tradition, it is also always grace received, the fulfillment of promises, the acceptance of Christ… the sense of being both at peace and aware of continuing need” (110).
In this final chapter, Young continues to outline methods of the Fathers as a means to suggesting approaches for our own time, revisiting the role of creation in a biblical spirituality, the soul’s receptivity to God, and the elusiveness of God. “We see only the outskirts of God’s ways, in creation, in Scripture, in the saints, in the poor and the stranger, in the ordinariness of life, which has its sacramental dimension as it points beyond itself. Yet in the incarnation God accommodates the divine self to us, talks with us as friend… and washes our feet” (119).
Much of the strength of Young’s work derives from her consistent writing style. Each chapter begins with a hymn or poem, followed by analysis of scripture as seen through the eyes of a variety of church fathers. She does this masterfully, pulling in theological argument and personal narrative as a mother of a person with severe disabilities, while wrestling with ancient beliefs and their contemporary weight. Her writing is dense, yet concise; she uses both primary and secondary works, and moves easily between complex theological frameworks to applicable storytelling to teach.
Young works to rediscover the wilderness way that lies at the heart of the Bible, using the Bible and the work of the Fathers as guides for the journey (34-35). She does this not to take over their work, but to explore the freedom with which writers in the patristic era approached the biblical text so that she can find approaches that make sense in our context (48).
The particular strength of her work, however, lies in how she weaves each of these threads through her personal experience and stories with her son Arthur, a person with severe disabilities. These stories, Young intimates, helped her come face to face with the deepest parts of her humanity: “The need to … journey into the unknown … allowed me a renewal of faith, and soon afterward a sense of vocation in which Arthur became a central part of my ministry … through the wilderness of coping with Arthur, I have had privileged access to a deeper meaning and value—indeed the deepest truths of Christian theology” (33).
Readers can delight in her use of metaphor, analogy, and comparative work to bring ancient interpretation alive, and again, making intentional connections with her own biblical understanding and personal experience with Arthur, which takes her scholarship to a more powerful level of application in her own sense of vulnerability: “For long I struggled with the problem of evil and suffering, embodied for me in my disabled son; for how could I go on believing in a good Creator God when a newly created being was so flawed?” (59). These statements might hit a nerve in a reader such as me, for she, through her own life experience, digs straight at the questions her audience could be asking—the same sorts of questions modern society raises around the issue of disability, regardless of field or level of scholarship.
She is able to move beyond this intellectual argument into an everyday human understanding: “I stand alongside him [Arthur] as a vulnerable creature, disabled, and mortal, knowing my creaturely limitations and my lack of knowledge, especially of God. I know my need of God … yet again and again I find myself lamed and blessed … I meet God in human form; I discover glimpses of Christ in the faces of some of the most damaged and disabled persons” (59).
I too, have had this experience, as a niece to my beloved aunt with Down Syndrome, long before I had language of theology to articulate this kind of knowing, but I also struggle with her lack of person-first language at various points throughout the text. As a reader, I find Young’s habit of putting Arthur’s disability before the word “son” repeatedly problematic. Perhaps our generational difference provides a different lens for just how problematic I find this, but yet, the use of this type of language has surely become a part of how I understand and wish to relate to someone with a profound disability.
While Young’s generation may account for some of her circumlocutions for Arthur, and while her book draws a more comprehensive picture of how she understands disability to be a powerful entity through which to see God, I am not quite content to ignore this issue.
Yet, with even this said, Young’s overall work is indeed a journey. The fundamental sense that created things are vulnerable and mortal lies at the heart of her discussion of spirituality woven with disability (56). Young says, “It is not about us wrestling with God but about us wrestling with ourselves until the created nature is defeated and we are fit to receive God’s blessing” (57). And again, “Indeed, acceptance of disability is the condition of blessing” (56).
The “creatureliness” Young points to continually is also a place of challenge to our culture obsessed with perfection. She finds, instead, beauty in so-called “damaged” bodies and treasure in vulnerable and fragile persons, as seen through L’Arche (76). She even goes so far as to say that glory comes through a kenosis which germinates the fruits of the spirit, perhaps found in a martyr, or the same sense in someone such as a L’Arche assistant. It is here, she says, that we are able to become “receptive of God’s grace” and where we can “discover the way of Jesus and the fundamental shape of a biblical spirituality” (80).
This would likely not be the first instinctual perspective of a Christian in a modern culture, which is itself reason enough for any follower of Christ to read this book as an exercise in discipline and mind-opening to a way of seeing in the world.
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