Thursday, November 7, 2019

The Bible: a book of wisdom and disability


A review of Peter Enns, How the Bible Actually Works (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2019)

In this book, intended for a non-specialist reader, Enns argues that the goal of reading and studying the Bible is not to hear a ready-made answer, but to gain wisdom through a journey of finding God and relating ourselves to the world. He bases this on three premises about the Bible: that it is ancient, ambiguous, and diverse, each of which he explores in some depth, and with a good bit of ironic humor. 

There is no need to argue for the Bible being ancient, but some of the implications of that need to be considered. It reflects a very different culture, and cultural transfers are extremely tricky, especially across time. Another factor is the audience, which is also very different. One particular concern here is (as Enns notes) that much of the New Testament is composed of "someone else's mail." Coupled with language (which includes that most people always read a translation), we find much ambiguity. History is replete with examples of ambiguity and diversity. The Bible has been used to justify "both slavery and its abolition" for one--the list continues with women's role in society, violence, and economic and political power, to list a few. Such opposite uses ought to demonstrate to us that the scriptures are less a rulebook than an invitation to pursue wisdom.

Photo of priest with text: It is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder -- Kallistos Ware
One of my favorite things about history is finding that something isn't really new, and that is the case here. In 2015, the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church of Buffalo posted a meme (above) reminding us of this point. And the culture out of which much of the Bible came also emphasized this idea of seeking wisdom: 
In the tradition of Plutarch: therefore he (Apollo) proposes and sends out problems that use our reason to those who hold a philosophical nature, which creates in the soul a search for the truth, . . . because the origin of philosophy is seeking truth, and because wonder and not knowing is the beginning of seeking, it is only proper that the divine should be presented to us as an enigma (Plutarch, De E Apud Delphos 384, 385, author's translation).
As David Tracey addresses in Plurality and Ambiguity, the nature of a classic: a work whose significance endures because it addresses questions of life in a way that reaches beyond culture. Seeking to find wisdom is a quest, much like the Wesleyan pursuit of holy living. 

When one uses this approach, "contradictions" become an avenue for understanding. The principles of exegesis call for us to understand the situation of a statement. An example given by Enns is Proverbs 26.4-5, which first urges the hearer not to answer fools "according to their folly" at the risk of becoming a fool, but then states we should answer them, for otherwise they will think they are wise. Judgment, hopefully made with wisdom, is a primary tool to understand and move ahead. It is a reminder of many theology classes, where a professor would state two (or more) apparently opposed positions, and ask which was right--to which the answer is "yes". 

Given that this idea may meet resistance (the book is intended, again, for non-specialists, and, I suspect, this includes those who have been told and accept that the Bible is the "Word" without pondering further the meaning of λογος), Enns goes into some depth on variations of the narratives of the Bible, for example, how the book of Chronicles retells the narrative of Samuel and Kings from a much later point in Jewish history. The differences are differences of understanding how God works in our lives. And this is wisdom at work. He also explores the role of wisdom, which is personified as the divine accomplice in creation.

For disability theology, this opens a new dimension of exploration. Enns portrays a Jesus, who, as the λογος, reveals a deeper level of understanding God's work, one that goes beyond simply words on a page. Many of today's discussions of the healing stories focus on medical descriptions of the ailments portrayed. This emphasis overlooks the results, which are that the people portrayed are now included in the community and speak for themselves--it is the lack of inclusion and self-determination that are critiqued in the story, not methods of surgery.

I present two examples for thought. In Genesis 32, Jacob wrestles with God, and leaves with a new name and a disability after being touched in his hip. Disability touches all of us, and so does living a life that strives to honor God. We often hear the cliche, "we're all disabled." Yes, we are (even if we don't subscribe to the idea of original sin) but we often don't live that way. It is a similar situation to those who say "I'm not racist," but overlook complicity in a racist system.

In John 9, Jesus gives sight to a man who had been born blind. This story receives a lot of attention because of Jesus' statement that no person's sin was the cause of the man's blindness. But going further, there is a lengthy exchange among others about the man. His own statements were ignored, even when his parents stated that he was of age to answer. His eventual response was "I have told you already, and you would not listen" (NRSV). People with disabilities are familiar with this problem, and it's often summed up in the slogan "nothing about us, without us." It also reminds me of the times when servers have asked my wife what I'd like to have for dinner. It also reminds me of the assorted people in my life who have rigorously avoided asking me what I want, but either tell me what I need or ask someone else: it seems that, as someone remarked to me a while ago, the people who talk about God having a plan are so often in possession of information about what God wants everyone to do, information that God has not otherwise shared with those involved.

Practice a little wisdom. Listen to what God has for you, and listen to others.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Sleep, Pray, Heal: a review


Donna Fado Ivery, Sleep, Pray, Heal: A Path to Wholeness and Well-Being. Sacramento: Adventures in Healing, 2019.
ISBN (paper) 978-1-7336399-5-8, e-book 978-1-7336399-9-6. 18.99USD. Available from AdventuresInHealing.com, IngramSparks, and Amazon.
(Publication date 19 September 2019.)

cover of book, an impressionistic painting of figures dancing,
Sometimes, despite what an old adage claims, you can judge a book by its cover. In the case of this book, that would be a good idea—along with reading it to learn about the cover. There’s a great body of recovery-from-illness literature out there, and this book is part of that genre. Some of this body borders on inspiration porn. In this book, there are also themes that will be familiar to anyone who has read some of these books or who has lived with a disabling condition, such as becoming overtired, having to turn down invitations, disrupted schedules, omissions from life, and finally coming out better than before.

But that’s not entirely the case here. Yes, this is a life narrative, a story of injury, recovery, disruption and improvement. But it’s also well-informed by the “cloud of witnesses” who have lived a life of faith through events that are not only narrated, but linked to often-familiar passages from the Greek and Hebrew scriptures in a way that sheds new light on them and the theological task that embraces all of us.

“Where is God in this?” This is the basic question of theology, and the one that generations of professors have impressed on all of us who engage in it. Theologians ask this question, and not how many angels can dance on the head of pin, as a daily reminder. (For the record, the question of angels dancing on the head of a pin is a later satiric inquiry directed at the foibles of medieval theology, and should not be taken seriously, as medieval thought has much to offer).

It seems to this writer that conventional disability theology often glorifies suffering to the point of denying efficacy to anyone who does not suffer from their disability. It’s a terribly awry application of karmic ideology. You’re not supposed to get better and you’re not supposed to have joy where you are. You need to be woefully incomplete. But you can be full of “special needs” so that others can supererogate themselves for helping you with those “special needs.” And most of those “special needs” consist of roadblocks that those same people have put in your path. It often seems that nowhere, as a favorite video suggests, do we hear that our needs are the same as any other person.

Oh, and while you’re on this path, be sure to respond to the question of theodicy with “it’s a great mystery” and walk away from discussing sharing with God.

And in this refusal to accept such theological nonsense, it seems to this writer that Fado Ivery strikes new ground in a Wesleyan theological understanding of disability. As part of her recovery, she relates taking up painting. The act of painting becomes using “the brushes of the Spirit” that blow into the world, and through a dialogue, lead to new expression and understanding:

Does my suffering serve to make my faith stronger?
No. This is definitely not God’s way of increasing my faith. Suffering and pain are bad. Period. (202)

Thoughts on suffering lead to the sort of remarks that disabled people, as well as those going through other forms of oppression or problematic experiences, will recognize: pain and trial will make your faith strong. She writes that “such words feel like a glib dismissal of my reality.” Then, in a fresh wind that is thoroughly in keeping with the first-century Middle Eastern milieu of Jesus, she notes that the idea that linking suffering to pain as if they were opposites leading to greater faith is the result of dualistic thinking. That sort of thought may be the prize of Western philosophy, but it is hardly the view of the ancient world, or of Jesus! No, the brushes point another way, for there are no polar opposites in God. “Spirituality does not distance me from what is real” (201) and nothing separates us from the love of God.

So what, then, is healing? Far too often, it is defined as recovery, or returning to normal. In this expanded understanding, healing is “wholeness.” One can be healed, whole, and disabled at the same time (188). The disability is part of me, and drawing on the promise of Jesus, the brushes become the promised Advocate, who teaches us to dance with pain, and teaching us, as the fulfillment of the plumb line of Amos, how to balance that dance (244).

We live in a broken world. That’s a statement often used as a way to overlook injustice, or to overlook problems. In a conclusion that looks at living the fullness of life, as she reflects on some of the (stunningly ridiculous, to this reader) arguments advanced at a lawsuit hearing, God speaks that “My love for you far exceeds any measure of fairness” (259). Here is wholeness, knowing and remembering and living that God is beyond measure.  And here is the wide circle of the dance portrayed on the cover, where no one stands alone. It is, she admits, a voice that will not be comfortable—it is not traditional, but it is biblical in the greatest sense.


Disclaimer: I was provided a free advance copy of the book for proofreading and an honest review.



Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Mapping omissions

"it's more fun not being so easily definable"
Chris, Crip Pastor

Do you ever wonder where you fit in? I suspect that most of us do. Maybe that is why maps have long fascinated me. As a kid, I'd look at them a lot, and when I started driving, would order topographic maps of the places that interested me (something that usually coincided with watching trains). And today, if there's a quiet moment, I'll fire up Google Maps and look at some place that comes to mind.

The search for a place is not an idle thing, even if it's more fun not being definable. And there's more here than planning photographs of trains. Understanding geography helps to make sense of history and why events unfolded as they did.

cover of History of America in 100 MapsThus, my library having completed the acquisition process, I recently read A History of America in 100 Maps by Susan Schulten  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018). It's a large, beautiful book, and is also available at a reasonable price.

My first interest in this book was as an approach to teaching history. Even today, teaching history is far too often just reading a lot of dull text that relates dates and events, with no clue as to why one ought to care, beyond answering questions on an exam. It is small wonder that social media is full of misleading memes--if not outright falsehoods. And none of this teaches logical thought, so the lack of even the barest rationality is no surprise either.

To some extent, I think this what publishers, driven by book adoption boards, want. If we focused on real matters of concern and knew how to see parallels, more than one politician would be unemployed. (If you want to learn more about book adoption boards and dull textbooks, look at James Lowen's page Lies My Teacher Told Me).

This book represents a different approach. Using 100 selected maps from the British Library, Schulten tells the story of the Americas from early European discoveries in the 1500s to today's technology. There's a lot of fascination with ineptly drawn features, at least until we remember that these people were doing the best they could, making political points, and that we're still making mistakes ourselves (yes, that's a lesson to learn from history).

One of the critiques of this book in reviews at Amazon is that's too limited. Anyone who has worked in history ought to be able to tell you that choices are always required. “I am conscious on finishing this book that it could be written all over again under the same title with entirely other subject matter; and then a third time, still without repeating” (Barbara Tuchman, The Proud Tower: A portrait of the world before the War: 1890-1914, xvii). A better all-around understanding of this principle would greatly help in our society today--there are often viewpoints that we don't consider, and may not know of.

And what's not there is one of the strengths of this book. It points to diversity, and provides enough inspiration to get out there and do your work. Maps are one of the most prolific items to appear on the internet. And as you will learn, maps are not just about geography, there are maps of patterns, industry, and even propaganda (those disingenuous maps of counties or states and their voting patterns that purport to argue a case are nothing new).

There's a place for us
West Side Story

Therefore, I hardly expected to find disability-related maps in the collection. So guess what? I'm going to mention them now! Chris recent wrote about disability visibility. So let's start thinking about map visibility. Today's technology has provided the capability to crowd-source all sorts of accessibility features, and to update them frequently. Google Maps announced the addition of accessibility information to their maps, but they do rely on contributions. And who better to provide accurate information? So lend a hand, there or at another site. It's time for us to get on the map too.

Disclaimer: the Indianapolis Public Library provided me this book with the understanding that I would return it within a set time, which I did. 

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Simulation Incomplete

Labels

When you label me,
You negate me,
Your simulation incomplete.

So, clearly,
Please hear me,
As I tell you what I need. 

Inclusion
Acceptance 
To know I am enough. 

In this way, 
Living forward,
What it means to be
God's love.
--Chris Wylie

My friend, and co-conspirator who wrote the poem above, Chris of Crip (sometimes Kintsugi) Pastor remarked a few days ago while writing about a particular event that he is not trying to join in some "oppression Olympics," what with so much of nation in an attack mode lately, but to share experience. It is true that even allies don't often fully understand, but almost everyone can be in solidarity from common roots--as I once said about another group at seminary, we all have an interest in being judged for who we are, not by appearance.

As I read that, my thoughts turned to conversations about disability simulations. In a simulation, limbs are tied to splints, blindfolds worn, or similar measures. The intent is to give a feeling for what it's like to live with a disability. The idea of giving a feeling is true enough--I once had a class of interior designers try to simply enter a room and reach the wall switch while in a wheelchair. It was an enlightening time. 

But it wasn't complete--it lasted an hour. An hour is not a lifetime (or the time of a life since an injury). After a quite troubled week of access problems, I list some real-life things that a disability simulation will probably never convey:
  • making a hotel reservation well in advance, confirming it by phone, and arriving to find that the accessible room isn't available after all
  • asking extensively several times at a theatre about wheelchair seating, only to find that you've been given inaccurate information, and have to sit by yourself in isolation
  • being told that a place is accessible, only to find a step or two when you arrive, and then being told, "well, it's only a small step"
  • the exhaustion of taking a 20-minute paratransit trip that picks you up an hour late, takes two hours while the driver crams in a last-minute addition (which takes you past your house twice) and ends up taking more than 2 hours, so you miss dinner and part of your meeting
  • the time that evaporates as you call ahead, plan ahead, and hope (as noted, sometimes to no avail) for an event
  • entering a restaurant in winter, looking forward to eating with friends in a warm atmosphere, you see that there are a lot of open tables, but you are taken to a cramped booth (with fixed seats) next to the take-out door
  • being on the upper floor of a hotel when the fire alarm sounds and the elevators shut down
  • being on the upper floor of a hotel when the power goes out
  • giving your wheelchair to an attendant on an airplane, not knowing if you will ever see it again, if it will get shuffled to the wrong place, or if it will be damaged 
    in case of fire, use stairs -- person in a wheelchair on stairs
  • the look of surprise when someone realizes that, despite some problem here or there, you are an intelligent, functional human being worthy of respect
  • and finally, the feeling of being alone when you are too exhausted to go out, or left out because of access or transportation problems, or someone hasn't caught on to the previous item yet.
--Tim Vermande
-- illustration by G. Lake Dylan

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Education and exclusion

What does it mean to be "educated"? The author of this meme on Facebook has an idea:
Text box with background photo of a Hitler rally: education is not memorizing that Hitler killed 6 million Jews; education is understanding how millions of ordinary Germans were convinced that it was required; education is learning how to spot the signs of history repeating itself.

As most people will tell you, education is not just being able to spout information (or misinformation) in response to questions. While that kind of learning can be profitable, as recently watchers of "Jeopardy" might know, it does not mean that one is able to discern how these things happened (as watchers of the same show also found, at least until a librarian with discernment learned to beat the champion at his game).

Along with the signs of history repeating itself, there is a need to understand diverse events and discern their commonality. This is why professors ask students to write essays about apparently unrelated topics (one of my favorites was the link shared by movable type, color lithography, peanut butter, Spam, Clarence Birdseye, and avocado green). 

This is also why we like open discussions, because people bring in new connections. One of these connections came to mind during the last week, while discussing church opposition to the Americans with Disabilities Act. As it progressed, we developed a feeling that the early church was very inclusive. Jesus was denounced by the religious authorities for partying with sinners and undesirables. The book of Acts and the Epistles tell of attempts to exclude people--all of which collapsed. The Christian world expanded to include Gentiles, Romans who ate meat sacrificed to idols, Samaritans, and a host of other undesirables. Paul, constantly aware of his own past, constantly sought to include everyone. 

But somewhere, that was lost. Part of this was self-survival. Creeds arose to draw boundaries. In the process, they did not just define a boundary, but to exclude (writers such as Elaine Pagels have explored this idea further). The Apostles Creed was a low-level form of this tendency, but the Nicene creed spelled out a great many doctrinal points and anathematized anyone who diverted from them. 

Along the way, such definitions came to merge with cultural ideas (for an example in one field, see my review here), and in the late 1900s, disabled people found themselves excluded from the provisions of the ADA when it came to churches. Nearly every day I read on a disability site about this. As I and others have found, you can get in trouble faster for insisting that the accessible parking (if it exists) at a church be reserved for people with disabilities than for preaching heresy--I distinctly recall one incident related by a friend who was told that it "wasn't very Christian" to call police for a violation (I asked if they had mentioned that it wasn't very Christian to park there without the proper permit). And, as this article asks, why are so many excluded from ministry positions? Will we face the challenge, and will our allies rise to join us? 

By the way, if you're wondering about the exam question, here's a hint: the link has do with technology that was popularized and made profitable by someone other than the inventor.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Anniversary thoughts

Today is the 26th anniversary of the fateful day when we and our parents walked down the aisle of a church, and as my friend Mark says "in front of God and everybody" nervously mumbled a few words about loving and living together. No one has asked yet, but I offer one observation.

a TARDIS (blue police call box) opens to reveal a series of bookshelves

Beware of gateways.
Biblioesclavio leads to librocubicularism.

You are forewarned!

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Professing Crip: a review of Mike Mather's book

Once again, the dynamite duo is at it. This time, Chris wrote a poem in response to my thought on Michael Mather's new book. So for the bibliography purists:  A review of Michael Mather, Having Nothing, Possessing Everything: Finding Abundant Communities in Unexpected Places. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018.


You can commend my can-do attitude
But I don't need you to claim it 

The power of love rests with me
And, I am here to say it 

You don't have all the answers I seek
And, I'm not very terribly meek
Though I hear they shall inherit the earth 

I am here, full agency 
Professing crip, I come as me 
Knowing my full worth

Bringing heaven into our shared space 
A little mercy with lots of grace 
In my body, just as I am 
My owned reality


cover of Having Nothing, Possessing Everything


When I lived in northern Indiana, I heard a lot about a United Methodist church known as Broadway Christian Parish UMC. It sounded like a good place, but my mobility problems made it difficult to get across the city to attend. Several years ago, when, having traded the status of professional student for professor, we moved to Indianapolis, a familiar name popped up—Broadway United Methodist Church, and, to my wonder, a pastor who had moved from one city to another, but managed to be at a church of the same name! 

Thus I came to meet Mike Mather, as we met to talk about his congregation and its work. It was a worthwhile discussion, and a partial tour (due to accessibility problems) that (still due to accessibility problems) left me still looking for a church home.  

Now Mather has written a book that chronicles his work at these two inner-city churches. It’s an eye-opening story that gives anyone a lot to think about, such as programs, the nature of the abundant life, prejudices, grass-roots approaches, and this theological historian’s favorite angle: who controls the narrative and what their viewpoint is.

It’s a book that is well worth reading if you are at all concerned about poverty and what our society could do about it. But it’s also well worth reading if you have ever thought about what our society and especially our churches could do about disability, chronic illness, and mental illness. This shouldn’t be a big surprise: disability and related problems (medical expenses, limitations on work, stigma for a few) are leading factors in poverty. When I was in seminary, our disabled student organization found that we shared many concerns with the African-American students: being judged based on exterior appearances, dealing with obstacles—some placed by those who thought they were helping—and charity performed as supererogation. And the disability parallels continued throughout the book.

In the early chapters, Mather relates that the biggest spiritual problem he faced at first was that the poor didn’t believe they had any gifts, and the rich didn’t believe they had any needs. Every day in religious circles, “disability ministry” groups discuss whether their subjects can understand and comprehend what the “leaders” wish to communicate. And every day, those “leaders” discuss what they can do for others. On the next page of the book is a revelation and solution—one that, interestingly enough, mentions disability: when another pastor met with a blind group, they stated “Just because you have sight doesn’t mean you can see.” Coming out of that meeting, Mather says of one member, “He is blind, but he sees” (31-32).

The book is about hidden abundance, and there are many facets beyond economics. Another pair of statements also reflect the realities of disability. The first is that life and its struggles are hidden from outsiders, as are the gifts present among the members. Couple this with Mather’s realization that he began to learn that he had tools to fix people, not to help them (45). It’s a reminder of the disability motto “nothing about us without us.” Another way to put this: ask us what we need and what works. The most effective organizations that I’ve been part of are those which let the members set the agenda.

Mather also takes on one of this writer’s least-favorite buzzwords, “empowered.” He notes that people in all walks and statuses of life can do a lot, and have power already. Using buzzwords like this tends to convince people on the margins that they don’t have any power unless it is granted to them. As Mather states, this completely avoids identifying problems correctly, and isolates those who need help from being involved in developing actions (56). In this light, many social service agencies and organizations and congregations make two significant mistakes. The first is not identifying the actual problem. The second is providing answers or remedies without talking with or involving those we intend to help. This double isolation is not at all hospitable, not welcoming others to the table and not accepting their gifts (78). Indeed, it shows that most of the labels we use are, as Mather quote Sam Wells, “a mask we put on people to hide their true wealth” (114).

As an aside, in a different context, buzzwords like “empowered” are also used to transfer responsibility without granting real authority to change things, which is something else that people with disabilities will be familiar with. One of my colleagues concluded after a discussion that the essence of inspiration porn is congratulating disabled people on overcoming the barriers placed in their way by able-bodied people. If our neighbors (and let’s not forget how Jesus defined who is our neighbor) are God’s children, we should act like it. Our neighbor is not something to be fixed, but is one of our fellow humans who contribute to the well-being of all (119, 134). If our churches and other agencies could grasp this vision, it would be a breakthrough for all people—poor, disabled, and everyone else. One doesn’t need sight to see, or legs to walk, when we have the mind of Christ.