01.04.21 | Spirituality | by Rev. Mark Harmon
Frances M. Young is an ordained Methodist minister and formerly served as Professor of Theology at the University of Birmingham, England. This work was an outgrowth of a 2004 lecture series she participated in. The theme of this lecture series was, “Towards a Biblical Spirituality – Recovering the Past for the Future” (p. 7). In the lecture series and in this book, Dr. Young draws upon her knowledge of the writings of the early Church as a foundation for rebuilding a biblically-based spirituality in our modern world. While she does not propose that we unquestioningly accept the conclusions of the Christian theologians and thinkers of the past, she does propose that we can learn from the “ways in which the earliest theologians and preachers read the Bible…” (p. 7). This work is not, however, purely academic. Dr. Young provides some very personal accounts as concrete examples of faith struggles and the spiritual growth they can produce. Although the personal stories in the book would be of interest and moving to a broad audience, the majority of the content might be too technical for those not engaged in some form of teaching or ministry.
The book opens with a brief introduction that includes a list of Church Fathers and others who are referenced throughout the book as well as a glossary of terms. The opening chapter of the book illustrates through classical Christian writings how early Christians used the “patterns and models found in Scripture” (p. 20) not only as the prototypes for their own lives, but also as the basis for understanding life and creation in general. The focus is narrowed to the exodus story and how the imagery of the desert and the journey left their mark on the early church. After dealing with the way the New Testament writers interpreted this story in light of the resurrected Christ, she covers the desert motif’s literal influence on early monasticism. It is, however, when she moves to the metaphorical interpretation of the desert experience that this topic begins to open up. Using the writings of Gregory of Nyssa as the foundation for the discussion, it is noted that the godly perfection sought by the desert monks cannot be fully attained. Rather than godly perfection being a destination, it is the map for our spiritual journey. In this context, the exodus story becomes a “type” for our redemptive journey. Although we cannot attain godly perfection, the journey affects our consciousness transformed to allow us to better see God and we become aware of the fact that the desert is where we grow and flourish.
The second chapter uses the story of Jacob wrestling with God found in Genesis 32:26-32. After examining how the early Church Fathers interpreted this story and arrived at a moral meaning behind this theophany. However, the examination goes on to look at the story of Jacob in parallel with the story of Job. Job’s story is lifted up as biblical encouragement for “us to be honest about our doubts about God, with our anguish about the way the world is and our frustration at God’s absence” (p. 56). Wrestling with these doubts and frustrations is not with God but ourselves – with our creaturely nature. Once that creaturely nature is defeated, we can then receive God’s blessing. We have to disable this nature because it stands in our way of receiving God’s grace.
The next chapter deals with “The Way of Jesus” which traces the origins of the search for the historical Jesus through the anti-Docetic and apologetic efforts of the early Church. Dr. Young then turns her attention to the monastic movement and how Jesus’ life became a model for how we are to live and die. While this is true, Dr. Young points out it is the concept of Christ kenōsis (emptying out) becomes the most important lesson for living out our spiritual life. When we are self-emptying, we cannot, at the same time, be self-serving. When we empty ourselves, we become open receptacles to receive God’s grace.
Using Augustine’s City of God as the backdrop, the author illustrates how, as Christians, we are citizens of heaven and how that makes us foreigners in the world. With this being the case, it isn’t our national origins, race, culture or language that differentiates us from citizens of the world. Even though we may dress like everyone else, eat the same food and speak the same language, we are still aliens in a foreign land. Once we recognize this and embrace it, the factors the world uses to differentiate those in a group and those outside can no longer be considered. Difference in appearance, customs or speech are no longer a threat, they are something to be celebrated. When we are able to celebrate our differences as people, Dr. Young proposes that we are better able to distinguish the “otherness” of God. The result is that our acceptance of the diversity of humanity “deepens the experience of worship” (p. 98) and our acceptance of the differences between us and God “deepens spirituality” (p. 98). Ultimately our recognition of our heavenly citizenship should have a profound effect on the way we live out our life on earth.
The final chapter deals with the tension between desires which are frustrated and desires which are fulfilled. Dr. Young uses the historical interpretations of Song of Songs to facilitate this discussion, relying on its nature as a love poem to highlight the way God relates to us and the way we should relate to God. While our desire may be godly perfection, we know this goal can never be attained – thus the frustration. However, as we journey along the path the godly perfection guides us along, we receive the grace enabled by Jesus’ redeeming work and we feel fulfilled.
Frances Young has provided an excellent, thought provoking resource for anyone who struggles with the various forms of brokenness in their life. Her exceptional knowledge of the historical Christian writings and lives of the Church Fathers coupled with her willingness to expose her own vulnerabilities makes a very real connection between theology and the reality of life. The ways in which she was able to extract the concepts and processes out of the historical writings and connect them to our post-modern world was also very valuable.
Young’s writing style and the structure of this book were also very effective and certainly a strength. The opening of each chapter with a hymn served to provide a sense of not only the subject of the chapter, but also the path she would take on that particular leg of the journey. In addition, the threads of the desert experience and the journey experience woven throughout the book provided a consistency and the sense of a journey through the chapters.
Perhaps the only area for improvement is in the final chapter. The issue of our desires being frustrated (and sometimes fulfilled) could have been expanded to address a subject that is probably paramount to many believers. In addition, it might have been more effective to begin the book with this topic and then use the other chapters to explain how to improve our biblical spirituality and experience the fulfillment of our desires. With that change, moving “The Way of Jesus” to the final chapter would then serve as a better conclusion.
Francis M. Young. Brokenness and Blessing: Towards a Biblical Spirituality, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007. 140 pp. ISBN 978-0-8010-3504-3.