Aaron Sands is a voracious reader, cogent thinker, and dear friend. He plays a mean stand up bass--as well as the more portable electrified version--for the very fine band Jars of Clay. This week he told me about a remarkable book he had just read and reviewed, Expecting Adam. I was so taken by the story that I asked him if I could post his review here. He kindly consented. So, here it is:
A month ago I dined in Boston with a group of about 10 people. A variety of backgrounds and worldviews were represented in this room as we discussed the topic of social justice. In particular, we were focused on the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa and all of the issues surrounding it. We considered the vital roles of the global church regarding HIV/AIDS, and looked for ideas to help connect the church body to this opportunity to see God’s hand of mercy firsthand. One of the Harvard students shared how he is currently exploring Christianity because knowledge and reason were coming up short in and of themselves when considering social justice in this world. If one is to ignore the problems in society and simply dismiss them as defective and disposable, then why should he desire to change the world (recognize and work with the problems and find solutions) and make it a better place?
Later that evening I was challenged by another of the students to read Expecting Adam by Martha Beck. I was given a brief synopsis of the book: a true story about a family that has its world turned upside down, about the way real life events shape our view of the world more than the highest acclaimed education. The author and her husband have walked the Harvard road for years, caught up in an environment that gradually shuts out more and more of what they want to hold most dear. Despite the challenge, they are intent on surviving and winning the prize, breaking convention by investing in family and other “outside” interests while maintaining their path to certain success.
I tracked down a copy of the book and read it over two days, taking advantage of hours sitting in airplanes and airports, and I must admit that I devoured the book. It was difficult to put down, to remove myself from the beautiful and mysterious story of this family. Their Harvard journey took an unexpected turn as they found out they were expecting another baby. They were already looked down upon by faculty and peers for having of the distraction of one child at home, not to mention a marriage to sustain. The pregnancy also brought with it horrible effects on her body that she had experienced with the first pregnancy, greatly hindering her studies and ability to function in all parts of life. Then the still point arrived: Early in the pregnancy they were told that the baby had a high probability of having Downs syndrome.
For any mother and father this must be conflicting and confusing news. Why? How? What does it mean? The questions are endless and without much resolve. Considering all of their knowledge and learning, this family dealt with an extreme amount of pressure from all sides. Without a moment’s pause they should have an abortion, said the assumptions of faculty, mentors and colleagues. There should be no feeling involved because it is a matter of principle. Emotions only cause illegitimate confusion and headaches.
But the story is broader than simple facts and words. The subtitle is A Story of Birth, Rebirth, and Magic. From the first chapter Beck expresses the mystery and all-encompassing scope of this life-altering crisis. We learn about the love shown forth, often without provocation, by some new friends. There are visions and unexplained experiences that connect both parents to this baby before he is born. This is real life with real people in real time in a real place, and the answer is not cut and dry like it should be.
During the intense strain on her body during the pregnancy, Martha writes, “I am amazed at how flat-out stupid I was not to acknowledge, or even recognize, my body’s desperate attempts to communicate to me that something was seriously wrong. The only self-defense I have is that our entire society celebrates people who push themselves to extremes, who force themselves onward through pain, fatigue, and injury to achieve all kinds of improbable objectives…if you just try a little harder, bear a little more agony, ignore a little more of your desire to quit, you would be fabulously rich and successful and get away from the bad guys every time.” (150-151) The only thing on her mind was a story about a Harvard student who was told by his professor (and future Harvard president), “My boy, you will find that most of the great deeds in human history were accomplished by people who weren’t felling well.” (149) Harvard joins society in celebrating the Stoic, the unmoved in the midst of struggle and pain. Weakness is not an option. Failure is unacceptable.
But here are some glimpses into her journey from reason alone to her newfound faith: “In the face of such uncertainty, the only things that seem to us worth doing are the ones that allow us to experience the strange and eventful journey of life in its full richness.” (109) Further, “This is the part of us that makes our brief, improbable little lives worth living: the ability to reach through our own isolation and find strength, and comfort, and warmth for and in each other. This is what human beings do. This is what we live for, the way horses live to run.” (136) She has come to a conclusion that collides directly with everything she has treasured in her education and worldview thus far: “The meaning of life is not what happens to people…The meaning of life is what happens between people.” (186)
So perhaps it is cut and dry, just not the answer they expected. From the moment the news came from the doctor, Martha had little doubt about what to do…any doubt had more to do with the surrounding issues than the actual decision. Her husband John eventually felt the same, and not just because he wanted to support his wife and avoid confrontation. He too went through a transformation that personally changed his view of the situation and of the world.
Though the journey is not necessarily safe, often uncomfortable, and very disorienting, it is hard to picture the story without all of its contents. Every small piece of the puzzle contributes to the end result and complete picture, and the reader embarks on the journey hand-in-hand with the Becks. Martha shares an early moment with Adam: “He looked back at me with steady eyes, and I knew what I had known—what I should have remembered—all that time: that his flesh of my flesh had a soul I could barely comprehend, that he was sorry for the pain I felt as I tried to turn him into a “normal” child, and that he loved me despite my many disabilities.” (71) Only the story as it is told in its fullness can explain such a worldview shift. Imagine the look on her professor’s face as she shares how this “defect” has brought her new life, not to mention other people as well.
This story of birth and rebirth is familiar in scope and effect to the experience of any human. The magic some may have difficulty with, since the supernatural can be an uncomfortable territory. Rightly so, perhaps, as Martha herself claims to fear the exclusivity of Christianity and sees her decision apart from the opinions of anyone else, possibly even God. “What mattered was that I had made a choice that felt as though, in the end, it would bring me to the place I needed to go.” (242) Later she adds, “the way back to my real environment, the place where my soul was meant to exist, doesn’t lie through any set of codes I will ever find outside of myself. I have to look inward.” (289) In light of her Harvard education and family background (which is explained in depth), turning inward is contrary to all that she has known her entire life. Yet only turning inward can be just as misguided as only looking outward.
The enchantment added tremendous validity and vulnerability to the story. There is a sense that even Martha doesn’t always understand the who, the why, the how; But she sees the mystery and magic as a valuable element of the story, the “real” aspects of the story. There is a unique and beautiful relationship between mother and fetus that no one except for the mother understands. Expecting Adam enhances that relationship while truthfully retaining the unknown and mysterious.
The Becks do pray for a miracle, especially towards the final days of pregnancy. Without losing joy and excitement even if the child has Downs Syndrome, they plead with God to “fix” their baby in the womb, recognizing that anything is possible and believing that God hears and answers prayers. After the child is born, John and Martha realize a miracle has taken place: “Maybe he didn’t need fixing. Maybe he’s the only one of us who was never broken.” (310) Their lives have been changed forever. The lives of family and friends surrounding them will never be the same. The power of love has been experienced and held fast. “Whoever said that love is blind was dead wrong. Love is the only thing on this earth that lets us see each other with the remotest accuracy.” (220)
If you'd like to read more of Aaron's writing, visit his blog. You might also be interested in the Blood:Water Mission, the organization Jars of Clay has established to mobilize and equip individuals, churches, and communities to effectively respond to the HIV/AIDS crisis.