At the start of a graduate school class titled “The History of Christian Doctrine,” the professor apologized for the title, saying that “doctrine” probably sounded dull. The class wasn’t, thanks to his guidance, but it’s a reminder that whether we like it, whether we find it exciting or dull, history is there, whether we like it or not, especially when it’s full of surprises that we’d prefer to forget. And as this book’s historical survey of a theological topic progresses, we find out that there is much that’s been forgotten, thereby tilting the view that many have of this history.
Thursday, July 21, 2022
Friday, June 10, 2022
Tuesday, April 19, 2022
Pursuing a more complete story, Bell’s work began with his father, who sought to devise a universal alphabet for missionaries. Using this, they could read the Bible aloud in any language, even they didn’t understand it. (We’ll save the theological discussion of this notion for another post). Believing that speech was what made one human, it followed that any sentient being needed to learn to speak—with a voice, not with signs. Despite abundant examples, which included his own mother, Bell stuck with that notion, which led to the idea that being Deaf was a burden, a marker of an unacceptable difference, and something to be eliminated through training and marriage restrictions.
Wednesday, January 19, 2022
Bonnie Sherr Klein, Beep Beep Bubbie (illustrated by Élisabeth Eudes-Pascal),
Vancouver: Tradewind Books, 2020 (ISBN 978192689023)
Am I reverting to childhood? After enjoying Doorkins the Cathedral Cat, now I’m reading another children's book and enjoying it, too. But then, in Matthew 18, we are told that Jesus of Nazareth said we should be like children. Full beep ahead!
It’s a charming story. Bubbie is the grandmother of two siblings, Kate and Nate. She arrives for a visit on a new scooter that beeps a lot. The group rides away on the bus to a market. Here they have a great time (told in story and art).
Along the way, there’s a lot to think about. The children face their fears and deal with them. At first, Kate is afraid that Bubbie has changed by using the scooter. But as the story proceeds, Kate learns that the scooter, like all mobility devices, is a helpful tool. The person using it is still the same beloved character.
children also learn some history. Bubbie tells them that “long
ago, people who had trouble walking were stuck indoors” (6).
Although the pandemic has
people with disabilities are no longer expected to stay at home and
hide. Even the “ugly laws” and many other ableist restrictions
have been repealed or removed—although anyone who tries to scoot or
wheel around most areas will find that a
lot of infrastructure problems remain.
one infrastructure concern, there’s riding the bus, with all of its
steps. No problem, the
children learn, as the bus
has a ramp. Some of us who’ve
had a lot of public transit experience will
be happy to learn that the ramp works and the operator knows how to
use it. When the group
on the bus, some some people
complain that they have to move to clear the access space.
Remarkable, isn’t it, that
we also have to clear able-bodied parkers and whatnot out of accessible parking
the park, other children are shown using wheelchairs, and the text
states that they make friends. After playing and enjoying the market,
they return, where there’s another history lesson. At
home, Kate starts reading and
about Frances Willard, who
named her bicycle Gladys. In a sign of acceptance, she asks
if they can name the scooter
Gladys and decorate it.
In the end, this is a wonderful story about learning, one that points out many dimensions of disability and the effects of accessibility. Go Gladys!--and the next time someone asks if I want a bicycle horn for my wheelchair, I may say yes.
Disclaimer: I was provided with an electronic copy of the book in response to a call for reviews on the Disability Studies in Humanities group.
Thursday, December 30, 2021
Lana Portolano. Be Opened!: The Catholic Church and Deaf Culture. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2021. 336 pp. $33.66, paper, ISBN 978-0-8132-3339-0.The author describes this book as a Deaf pilgrimage: a hearing person’s overview of history, Catholic Deaf culture, and language. Her interest was sparked by adoption of a Deaf child. In a parallel of the path of many parents of children with any disability, her entrance into Deaf culture was without any background, personal experience, or guidance. To her credit, rather than assume that she knew the child’s needs, she pursued an informed path and then shared it with us.
The title is drawn from a pericope in the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus cures a Deaf man by saying, “Be opened!” These words become a recurring theme in the book, a point of both critique and a prospect of hope. Portolano notes in opening the topic that the baptismal ritual once stated that the purpose of the sacrament is to touch the candidate’s ears so as to receive the divine word. When applied to the Deaf, this reflects an attitude of ableism, in common with many religious uses of disability metaphors. It also reflects attitudes that the condition requires medical or other intervention, rather than being a social difference that requires cultural adjustment. The need for such adjustment becomes, throughout the book, a call to the church and other social institutions to change their ways.
The nature of disability has been a long-standing religious issue. In the traditional medical model, it is considered a deviation from normal, animpairment that needs to be corrected. Theologically, these deviations have often been considered a recompense for sin. So it is not surprising that Deaf advocates have maintained that they are not disabled, but are a cultural minority. More recent social models cite deficiencies in attitudes and infrastructure, such as the lack of physical access (e.g., ramps, elevators) or, as is often the case here, the lack of captions or use of signed language. As this social model has gained ground, theologians have come to emphasize this approach as respecting diversity in creation, not deficit.
At some points, the chronological narrative is a challenge to follow across the geographical lines. However, there are common themes, one of which is sign languages. With a long history, they were a tool that opened the door to Deaf education. But they were also an oral tradition in an increasingly text-oriented world, and thus much is lost. The main narrative begins with sixteenth-century Catholic schools. One will find familiar figures here, such as Laurent Clerc (1785-1869), who began his religious life in the Catholic Church, and many who are obscure. One will also be reminded of social and political differences. With Clerc as an example, after some early work in England, he met Thomas Gallaudet (1787-1851), who invited him to the United States where he established a nonreligious public school. The story of Roman Catholic developments is intertwined with others, particularly among Anglicans and Methodists, whose work often predated that of Catholics. Another concern is that Deaf people are scattered, and only recently has technology been able to bridge this gap. Thus, in a manner similar to Black churches (as noted by Eileen Southern in The Music of Black Americans, 1997), these institutions often became community bases for Deaf people and denominational boundaries were secondary. Another aspect is that in the United States, government-funded schools became common by the mid-nineteenth century. Although nominally disestablished, they often had strong Protestant leanings, obscuring the work of Catholics.
Theological issues are also part of the story. The passage in Mark is the only place where Jesus communicates with a Deaf person, which he does by cure. Some take this as an instruction to reject sign language—but the author protests: they have not read the story carefully, as it implies the use of signs to summon the man from the crowd. A similar situation exists with statements such as “faith comes by hearing” (Romans 10.17). There are also stories of reversal: St. Francis de Sales, who would be named the patron saint of Deaf people, was friends with a Deaf man named Martin and learned signing from him. When a nobleman asked Francis if teaching the young man was worth the effort, and if it would not have been easier to pray for a miraculous cure, Francis replied that he had learned so much from Martin through their friendship that it never occurred to him to ask God to make Martin a hearing person for his own convenience.
The theological explanations also include points that may not be obvious to non-Catholics, such as a requirement to use valid forms or words during the Mass and absolution. Because of this, early Deaf candidates for orders spent decades in limbo, awaiting rulings from Rome. This began to change with the Second Vatican Council, 1962-65, whose approval of vernacular languages seemed to clear the way for sign languages, which by this time were recognized as full languages.
These trends are reflected in the ongoing flowering of Deaf culture after Vatican II, spurred by technologically aided movements and cross-cultural understanding. A result has been the emergence of a “Deaf World” that identifies a diaspora with a bond of deafness that transcends other cultural difference. Building on this idea, Deaf members have established networking associations and become leaders, pastors, and role models. Yet, noting that many see the church as a “hearing institution” that overlooks them, the author lists still-needed changes, such as national offices, seminary training, and more use of modern media. Direction is needed in effective delivery to both hearing and Deaf audiences, Eucharistic prayers and liturgy in sign language, and theological questions on the use of female or non-Catholic interpreters.
I find hope in this book as well as challenge. Susan White notes in Christian Worship and Technological Change (1994) that a historic theological focus on texts overlooks technological advances (recall that Portolano cites textual focus as a reason for loss of Deaf history, which is generally an oral tradition). If we turn with open minds, using visual arts to relate stories through such media as statuary and stained glass windows would be comparable to encouraging the use of video screens and social media today. At the same time, technology is always a two-edged sword: technological devices such as cochlear implants are often viewed as an attempt to erase the culture, so the future remains open.
As a postscript, the book has a useful companion website, https://www.icfdeafservice.org/beopened, with examples of sign language and liturgy. No log-in is required to use it.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No
Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.