Brokenness and Blessing: towards a Biblical Spirituality

Young, Francis
Darton, Longman & Todd (2007)
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Frances Young is an academic theologian primarily concerned with the patristic understanding of Scripture and a Methodist minister with a severely disabled son, Arthur, for whom she has cared over 40 years. She is concerned about the gap between theologians and what people believe in the pews. Her central point is that although literal and historical approaches to Scripture are valuable these are only necessary preconditions for a spiritual approach.

Each chapter opens with a hymn, discusses the topic through the Scriptural interpretation of the Fathers and draws contemporary conclusions, frequently citing her experiences with Arthur, often in the L'Arche Community.

1. The Desert Experience. The Bible's main purpose in characterisation is not historical but, say the Fathers, to present us with typologies. Thus, the desert experience of the Israelites is echoed in Psalm 95 and then in Hebrews 3; material is taken from the past and fashioned so that it can point to the future. The desert monks lived out the call of the prophets for Israel to go into the wilderness. Saint Anthony and his monks saw that their struggle in the wilderness was against themselves. Lifestyle is as important as doctrine. Gregory of Nyssa crystallised the concept of epektasis (straining upwards). The over-arching story of the Bible is the desert motif, with Exodus as the guiding metaphor. Figures like Sampson, Jonah and Joseph are cast out and rescued. The bible, like drama or novels, is kathartik (purifying). We do not currently read the Bible in this way but fundamentalists conservatives and the historio-critical scholar use it as a weapon: For the Fathers, the words were not literal but transforming; our world tends to regard suffering as a ground for atheism, as bad things should not happen to good people. Young links the Exodus story with her relationship with Arthur and compares Easy spirituality and the wilderness.

2. Wrestling Jacob. The early Church characterises Jacob wrestling as a Theophany, similar to that of Abraham in Genesis 18, with the angle being a pre-figurement of Christ. Clement of Alexandria: the logos is the pedagogue which trains us for salvation. Jerome: the  moral struggle for virtue. Augustine: Esau represents Jews, Jacob Church. Gregory of Nazianzen: the human struggle to know God. Since the Enlightenment, particularly since the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, we have been struggling with the idea of God and theodicy; after Auschwitz, atheism: "For most the wrestling is over, and they are neither lamed nor blessed". But we do not judge God; God judges us; we are only creatures. Thomas Merton and Aseitas: "The power of a being to exist absolutely in virtue of itself". The failure of Western apophaticism. In Scripture, the OT theophanies foreshadow Christ, glimmerings of truth. Humble aporia (being at a loss). Beyond literalism In the Timeaus, adopted by Philo and Justin Martyr, God created form not matter; Gnostics said the creator was fallen from  the spiritual. Tertullian: God created out of  nothing; creator and creature incommensurably apart. Young stands disabled alongside Arthur.

3. The Way of Jesus Irenaeus' recapitulation of the Adam story requires a genuine incarnation; and: "There is no real Eucharist for those who do not believe in creation's goodness and the reality of Christ's flesh." Irenaeus not interested in Christ's history but determined that it was real. So the modern interest in the 'historical Jesus' to combat humanism is not enough when it forgets the spiritual significance of the whole story in Scripture. Polycarp's death a self conscious imitation of Jesus. Fathers interested in the over-arching  significance of the incarnate and kenotic Jesus and in the Eucharist. Christianity does not stand or fall on history but on the incarnation, death and Resurrection of the one who is the son of God, within the whole arc of Scripture; underlining our creatureliness points beyond itself but in modernism "heaven has come down to earth" and we have problems with the transfiguration and resurrection and this breeds unreality about our creaturely condition.  On creatureliness and disability; we need to trust; the wilderness way of trust. Fall and salvation; contrasting Adam  and Kenosis, Babel and Pentecost.

4. Strangers and Exiles God's people as exiles in the world; the two cities in Augustine: earth's city that loves itself and the heavenly city that glories in God (very lucid): earthly city looks for peace; the "mixed" city of God is on pilgrimage to a time when earthly peace will pass away; its people are earthly captives. We are exiles; our citizenship is elsewhere. Links with liberation theology; and disability. The challenge of welcoming difference; purity stunts growth; difference enriches; Mephibosheth; 1 Corinthians 11, 12.21-23.

5. Desire Frustrated and Fulfilled. The bride of Christ. The Song of Songs: the erotic and the symbolic. Targum is a paraphrastic translation; (fascinating) extended targum, including the temple as the bride. Origen and henoptics (higher things). Nature imagery and the spiritual; romanticism. Basil of Caesaria's hexaemeron; the natural order is God's creation. We love god whom we have not seen by loving our neighbour whom we have seen (1 John) but God first loved us. Gregory of Nyssa, the soul as "female" longing for grace. Love of God requires receptivity.

These brief notes demonstrate the scope of the ambition but because the book was assembled from lectures and expanded it suffers from repetition which is why the later summaries are shorter.

I have two major personal quibbles: Young does not question Augustine's apparent inconsistency in rejoicing in earthly creation and characterising us as "exiles" which, on a generous interpretation, means that he was either too subtle for me or, being notorious for his pragmatism, found it difficult to maintain consistency. Secondly and much more important not least in view of Young's feminism, is the unqualified acceptance of the metaphor of the Church as the "bride of Christ". If our earthly Church, though founded by Christ, is incommensurably different (and inferior) to Christ, the transfer of the metaphor makes brides inferior to bridegrooms. this typology requires much more exploration. In spite of this, the exposition of the Song of Songs is fascinating although it does not give enough coverage to the work of Saint Bernard of Clairveaux.

Finally, for non specialists with a good Christian encyclopaedia or access to a search engine this is a good and not too difficult read with some fascinating nuggets for the scholar (the comparison of Babel and Pentecost is novel and suggestive) I was sensitive to the autobiographical accounts of Young and Arthur but I did become slightly weary of the contemporary tendency, at its worst in blogging and Twitter, to settle focus too sharply on personal experience. Too many authors these days seem to begin accounts of epiphanies with the words: "When I was in Peru ...".

Combining the elements of patristic scholarship and a harrowing personal journey was a difficult feat to pull off but Young manages it, just, by never losing sight of her wilderness metaphor. For we who are genuine seekers after a personal relationship with Christ can only do so in some form of wilderness which brings peace after struggle.