Review of Frances Young, Arthur’s Call: A Journey of Faith the Face of Severe Learning Disability

arthurscallFrances Young. Arthur’s Call: A Journey of Faith the Face of Severe Learning Disability. London: SPCK, 2014

The former Edward Cadbury Professor of Theology at Birmingham University has given us a profoundly moving theological memoir on parenting, love and disability. Building on her 1985 work in this area, “Face to Face”, which was a narrative essay in the theology of suffering, Arthur’s Call is a masterful example of a theological and pastoral memoir.

The book divides into seven chapters; the first three of which are written primarily as biography. In the opening seventy pages we are given a parent’s eye view of what it is like to live with a child with severe learning disability. We are granted access to Young’s inner life. We hear first hand what it was like for Young, having successfully defended her PhD thesis at Cambridge a few weeks earlier, to give birth to Arthur and then be told he was “brain damaged, microcephalic (that is with an abnormally small head)” which would mean he would likely be dependent on her for the rest of his life. Young, with great grace and dignity, allows us to experience the pain and challenge this meant for her from the daily difficulties in feeding to the attachment Arthur made to a plastic hammer that he still uses 46 years later.

Young writes “Consciously or unconsciously all parents have dreams for their children. We had to accept we would dream no dreams. We began to reflect on how important it is to let children develop their own lives…” I was struck by how significant the words of both friends and strangers were to Young during those early days of coming to terms with Arthur’s condition. Young allows us to witness the inner wrestle of her faith in God, even to the point where she describes her own faith as being 50:50. Evangelicals will struggle with some of Young’s theology but will benefit from her questions, her honesty and many of her observations. For example when reflecting on miraculous healing, Young explores the fact that healings from the kind of genetic abnormalities that her son lives with are unheard of and indeed wonders whether a healing would rob her son of his identity. This is a fascinating question but Young's conclusion that “extraordinary things happen maybe, but the definition of a miracle as a breaking of the laws of nature is surely theologically suspect,” makes me wonder how she understands the resurrection narrative.

For me the most powerful part of the book is when, in light of her own personal story, Young moves on to theological reflection. The key chapters for me were chapter 4, 5 and 7 which are Creation, Cross and Arthur’s Vocation respectively.

One of the most interesting ideas at the heart of Young’s chapter on creation was a fresh perspective on the nature of suffering. Young argues that modernity left no room for God because it was humanistic and optimistic. Modernity thought suffering was eradicable if humanity could simply come up with the right formula. Postmodernity has not shifted our assumption that life was meant to be perfect and thus “the biggest problem for religious belief remains the issue of arbitrary suffering.” Reflecting on this, Young observes that having read a great deal of Christian literature from early centuries, she found a “lack of concern with this problem.” Despite the ubiquitous experience of suffering, Young concludes that in earlier centuries there was a greater understanding of the nature of creatureliness and our dependence on God.

Similarly in her chapter on the cross, Young’s argument is that it is “through tragedy that we discover what is most deeply life giving, and the clue is provided by the cross along with lives like Arthur’s.” Young raises questions about the classical, evangelical and liberal approaches to the atonement: “the whole approach to atonement offers a moralistic and individualistic gospel. The question remains: what relevance has this to Arthur? Isn’t he so limited as to be innocent as a baby?” Young’s thoughtful exploration of these questions nevertheless let me frustrated. Without any substantial engagement with scripture she concludes: “Just as I couldn’t believe in a devil of a God who would punish me for some misdeed or other with a child like Arthur, so I could not believe that the cross was a sacrifice to propitiate or placate God’s wrath.” What do we do if scripture demands this and we can’t bring ourselves to believe it? Do we bend scripture to the limits of our beliefs, using our own rationality, experience or emotions as the standard to which scripture must measure up?

In her chapter on Arthur’s vocation Young gives us a rich reflection on not just Arthur’s call in the world but how all of us no matter how broken, fallen or damaged can be useful in God’s purposes. Young writes of Arthur “might not he and others like him have a vocation to enable the shift in values… away from individualism, dominance, competitiveness, to community, mutuality.” I found Young’s conclusions here very profound especially as someone who regularly brings children from vulnerable backgrounds, many of whom also have learning difficulties, to church. Our foster children have benefited in numerous ways from being included in our church family. But our church has also benefited through the presence of these children in their midst. Like Arthur they point to a broken yet beautiful creation, the majestic power of the cross to include all people and how tragic circumstances somehow draws the best out of community.

Frances Young has given the church a great gift in this book. Her honesty and humility as she has wrestled with the joys and challenges of caring for Arthur alert us to pastoral, practical and theological concerns we may well have ignored. You won’t agree with all of her conclusions but you will find yourself both profoundly moved and challenged.

This book review was originally produced for Anvil Journal. The Journal is currently transitioning to a new partnership with CMS. During this phase, book reviews are being published by Fulcrum.

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