Tuesday, October 17, 2023

So Compassionate It Hurts

Tzemah Yoreh, So Compassionate It Hurts:  My Life as a Rabbi on the Spectrum. N.p., Modern Scriptures, 2022. 

“Nothing about us, without us”

These words have long been the disability community’s mantra. But even now it is routine for anyone living with visible conditions to have “experts” tell “us” what we need. So it is hardly a surprise that neurodiversity, being less visible, is one where it is still routine to brush aside the thoughts of those who live with it. “We” are categorized, labeled, given diagnoses of what is “wrong” and needs to be “fixed.” We are rarely asked what would really help, and even more rarely is there any acknowledgment that we have strengths and abilities. 

Rabbi Yoreh’s story begins with a story of self-discovery that is frequent for many of today's adults: knowing they are different, but not having good descriptive terminology, all the time seeking to understand differences. In the process of exploration, he upends the medical model of a deficit to be fixed and brings us to a social model of having much to contribute. The book is his invitation to join a quest to learn if his success is “because of” or “in spite of” the gifts which autism brings (35).


book cover

Central to discovery is the charge to love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19). To the author's mind, surface answers are not sufficient. He finds resolution by realizing that the task is impossible, rather is it one to strive for. He finds strength from living in a world that has not been built for people like him, which has resulted in better realization of the obstacles that others face.

From that realization he finds other characteristics: a sense of fairness and equality coupled with an understanding that while needed, authority is often balanced toward those with various advantages. He is not a good liar, which is a “freeing” gift (40). But while freeing, this gift has another side: a heightened sense of conflict and of cognitive dissonance. In the end, it creates compassion for those whose sense of equality leads to understanding and kindness in creating space for those who are different.

Another step is the perception that neurodiverse people wish to be left alone, and thus, we hear again, that they lack compassion. The inside reality, however, is that social interaction is draining due to the need to figure out what others are really saying in a given situation. He gives an analogy to expending calories like an Olympic distance runner, but being unable to sweat, and as a result, his CPU overheats. One can love an activity but need breaks. This, in turn, leads to a need for patterns in life—with the result anything out of the pattern is a stress factor.  

Finally, a theological note (and complaint about history education). Many studies link autism to atheism or agnosticism. This is, as I read it, not so much a lack of belief as an inability to grasp the idea of a great otherness, stemming from that pragmatic nature. The early church “fathers” include a school of apophatic theology—one that is very similar, but recognizes some kind of source to all, however inconceivable. Our systems don't do a good job of transmitting ancient wisdom, leaving us to continually re-invent the wheel! 

In the end, whatever chasm lies between understanding the world of neurodivergence and neurotypicality (whatever that might be) and one's idea of the divine, I am sure that she is thrilled with the rabbi’s mantra of “being as kind as possible” (104). If more people had such a level of compassion (or listened to those who do), this world would be a far better place.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

Rabbi On The Spectrum (Facebook) / Author's website


Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Discussing Amy Kenny, part 3


The discussion sessions for My Body Is Not a Prayer Request have finished, but I wanted to share some further resources for those who are interested in following up on topics we touched on. 

Anabaptist Disabilities Network: https://www.anabaptistdisabilitiesnetwork.org/

Christian Reformed Church Thrive: https://www.crcna.org/disability

(Episcopal) Deaf and Disabilities Ministry Exchange: https://www.facebook.com/DisabilityMinstryExchange

Presbyterians for Disability Concerns: https://www.facebook.com/PresbyteriansForDisabilityConcerns and http://www.phewacommunity.org/pdcdisabilityconcerns.html

RespectAbility: https://www.respectability.org/ and https://www.facebook.com/RespectAbilityUSA

UCC Disability Ministries: https://www.facebook.com/UCCDM/ and https://uccdm.org/ 

United Methodist Committee on Disability Ministries Ministries: https://umcdmc.org/ and  https://www.facebook.com/DisAbilityMinistriesUM. Deaf and hard-of-hearing ministries is a separate group, https://umdeaf.org


On 193, Kenny offers a reading list. I have expanded this into the other topics of this series, as well as a few updates that post-date her book, with a look at liberation theology and history, which forms the foundation of all the books. Links included for those I have written about.

Black, Kathy. A Healing Homiletic: Preaching and Disability. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996. Pioneering application of Eiesland’s principles in re-visioning the implications of healing in the gospels.

Bushman, Richard. The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities. New York: Vintage, 1993. A survey of one of the few trickle-down theories that have worked, chapter 3 traces the Enlightenment notion of a well-ordered body, but doesn’t carry through to disability (although that is not the topic of the book).

Cone, James. A Black Theology of Liberation (50th anniversary edition).  Maryknoll: Orbis Books 2020. With Wilkerson, important background for Kendi as well as the tone of the disability movement.

Davie, Ann, and Ginny Thornburgh. That All May Worship: an interfaith welcome to people with disabilities. Washington: National Organization on Disability, 1997. OP, available online: https://sacredplaces.org/uploads/files/462725613607030908-that-all-may-worship.pdf.

Davis, Lennard, ed. The Disability Studies Reader, 4th ed. New York: Routledge, 2013. Wide-ranging textbook, a more comprehensive version of the Nielsen history listed by Kinney.

Eiesland, Nancy. The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994. Groundbreaking application of liberation theology to disability that proclaims God as disabled. Includes a Eucharist that got me into trouble in seminary.

Gutierrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation (15th anniversary) Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1988. From a Catholic priest who originated the term liberation theology.

Hiebert, Theodore. The Beginning of Difference: Discovering Identity in God’s Diverse World. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2019. http://flyingkittymonster.blogspot.com/2020/08/a-theology-of-diversity.html

Jordan, Winthrop. White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812. Penguin, 1969. http://flyingkittymonster.blogspot.com/2020/05/white-over-black.html

Kenny, Amy. My Body is Not a Prayer Request: Disability Justice in the Church. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press. https://flyingkittymonster.blogspot.com/2022/08/sturmisch-bewegt.html

Melcher, Sarah, Mikeal Parsons, Amos Yong, eds. The Bible and Disability. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2017. More comprehensive than the Yong book that Kenny cites in her list. https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=51631

Rieger, Joerg and Priscila Silva, “Liberation Theologies and Their Future: Rethinking Categories and Popular Participation in Liberation” Religions 14 (7, 2023): 925 (https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14070925)

Walker, Robert L., ed., Speaking Out: Gifts of Ministering Undeterred by Disabilities. United Methodist Association of Ministers with Disabilities, 2012. Ecumenical, stories of people with disabilities called to ministries.

Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. New York: Random House, 2020. http://flyingkittymonster.blogspot.com/2020/11/a-caste-for-casts.html


News items that came up during the discussions.

Dingle, Shannon, “This is why disabled people were no devastated by the Christian silence on health care” Washington Post July 28, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/07/28/this-is-why-disabled-people-were-so-devastated-by-the-christian-silence-on-health-care/: among the justice concerns that churches need address about disabilities.

Garson, Justin, “Seeing Depression as Having a Purpose Could Aid Healing” Psychology Today June 19, 2023. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-biology-of-human-nature/202306/how-seeing-depression-as-purposeful-may-promote-healing: on the question of why conditions are labeled “disorders”.

Kase, Em, “Make your local LGBTQ+ Pride Event Wheelchair Accessible” https://unitedspinal.org/make-your-local-lgbtq-pride-event-wheelchair-accessible/: far too few “inclusive” events are really inclusive

Velle, Elaine, “National Gallery of Art Apologizes for Removing Visitor with Disability” Hyperallergic July 25, 2023. https://hyperallergic.com/835400/national-gallery-of-art-apologizes-for-removing-visitor-with-disability/: “So many disabled people have had experiences being excluded at galleries and not being able to attend. A lot of times, disabled people get exhausted from having to ask over and over so they just stop.”

Monday, August 7, 2023

Discussing Amy Kenny, part 2

The second discussion session of Amy Kenny's My Body is Not a Prayer Request tied up some loose ends from before and then turned to the medical and social models of disability and their implications. 

We started with some addenda to  the previous discussion. 

  • Another factor for acknowledging justice concerns is not only opposition to the ADA from religious organizations, but later to laws such as the Affordable Care Act, particularly those dealing with pre-existing conditions, coverage of mental health, and universal coverage.
  • The “crip tax” (63): costs of disability that aren’t covered by insurance. Examples include the Indiana vehicle excise tax: an adapted van can cost $60,000, and if bought as a finished unit, which is often necessary, the tax is charged on the full price, instead of an unmodified van.
  • Compounding historic opposition to the ADA and similar measures, churches have a troubled past. Eugenics was once popular among churches as well as elsewhere, and resulted in so-called ugly laws, involuntary sterilization, and unnecessary institutionalization. Thinking of Kendi's book, racial laws often specified that a small amount of Black ancestry resulted in a legal description of being racially Black despite appearances, similar to determinations of Jewish ancestry of the Nuremberg Racial Laws. People with disabilities were the first to be killed in that period as well (Aktion T4)
  • ADA accommodations are enforced by civil lawsuit. They have been used as a scapegoat, e.g. Georgia voting locations that made voting difficult for minorities were "needed" because of a lack of ADA-compliant accessibility. 
  • Transportation is often a problem: ride-share drivers often zip by or refuse people with service dogs or assistive devices. A local residential facility doesn’t operate its transportation van on weekends, relying on ride-share, which can be uncertain. 
  • Restaurants seat people with visible disabilities in unsuitable locations, and while there’s less of it, servers often ask a companion what a disabled person desires. See the list on 52-53 for many other real-life situations.
  • One can also get stuck in a loop: an agency or company can’t legally say no, but never get around to saying yes.

Kenny mentions a medical model of disability (10ff). It is one of two that are generally used, the other being social.

  • The medical model focuses on medically diagnosed impairments as something to be fixed and made “normal.” It is an individual point, and leads to variations from “normal” being labeled as “disorders.”  
  • The use of “disorder” in a diagnosis is increasingly challenged. Trauma responses, for one, are not disorders: as one member stated, PTSD is “a reasonable response to an unreasonable experience” and a healthy response, which, if not expressed, can lead to serious problems. (An emerging term is “moral injury”). Likewise, neurodiverse conditions such as Autism Spectrum Disorder are not something that is wrong, but a different pattern of activity. (For a thoughtful article along these lines, see  Justin Garson, “Seeing Depression as Having a Purpose Could Aid Healing” Pyschology Today June 19, 2023. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-biology-of-human-nature/202306/how-seeing-depression-as-purposeful-may-promote-healing)
  • Stigma is often part of a diagnosis, and especially mental problems. “Mental illness” is often scapegoated in media and politics. 
  • Mental illness is often wrongly equated with neurological conditions.
  • Reality is that those with mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violence than perpetrators. Mental health is often difficult to get covered by health insurance, compounding the problem.
  • One result of the medical model is the charitable appeal, portraying people with disabilities as the object of pity, and asking others to provide relief through patronizing appeals for donations and actions that involve doing things for disabled people. The Labor Day Telethon is perhaps best-known in American culture, and it has led to much discussion of “inspiration porn.” The term was coined by the late Stella Young, known in disability circles for saying that a good attitude can’t make stairs into ramps. Rather than celebrate accomplishments in context, it holds disabled people up as inspiring examples of “overcoming” their disability and is regarded as exploitation by many.
A woman sitting in a power wheelchair states: that quote, the only disability in life is a bad attitude, the reason that's bullshit is ... No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp. No amount of standing in the middle of a bookshelf and radiating a positive attitude is going to turn all those books into braille. Stella Young.

The social model acknowledges the reality of medical diagnoses and impairments, but maintains that people are disabled by built environment, culture, and similar factors. The diagnosis not the ultimate arbiter. As a cultural model, it challenges what is considered "normal." It focuses on Universal Design, a growing movement in the design of facilities that enables community integration. For example, ramps and power doors also benefit delivery people and parents pushing strollers.
  • As we have been reminded this summer, following the Revised Common Lectionary, Genesis states that God’s creation is good (Genesis 1.31) in all of its diversity.·
  • In churches, the social model is reflected in full participation and use of “ministry with” rather than the charitable model of “ministry to.” It is not an “outreach ministry” but an “inclusion effort.”
  • Concerns in churches include community integration and inclusion, leadership development (many still refuse or place serious obstacles to disabled leaders at any level).·       

·      The group is now taking a break. Sessions for Fat Church are scheduled after the break, and then there will be sessions covering all three books. A resource list for this book will follow soon.

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Discussing Amy Kenny, part 1

A church in the Indianapolis area is conducting a summer reading group for three books. The first was Ibram Kendi, How to be an Anti-Racist. The second, which I am leading, is Amy Kenny, My Body is Not a Prayer Request. The third (late August) will be Anastasia Kidd, Fat Church. 

This post shares notes and thoughts from the first group session, July 23, 2023.This places the start of the discussion during Disability Pride Month, which centers around the ADA signing on July 26, 1990. 

I see a common root among the three books: liberation theology, a movement whose origins come from Latin America in the 1960’s (although, historically, one could make the case that the principles and many movements date to late antiquity). Liberation theology argues that the Bible shows a God who has a particular concern for the oppressed, who has worked through history to bring change for these groups. 

When I was in seminary, our disabled students group allied with the African-American students group on the basis of liberation theology. We discussed the problems arising from judgments based on external appearances without considering the abilities of those involved. The three books in this group are linked by attitudes and activism informed by this approach. Kendi’s work shows the need for anti-racism: action and advocacy against racist attitudes and structures (it should also be noted that Kendi narrates his own growth in this area). Kenny likewise calls for anti-ableism: challenging prejudice and discrimination in attitudes, and structural changes, including but not limited to the built environment and exclusionary practices. 

We discussed points of contact with disability, including:

  • the vagueness and problems of rapidly evolving language, of often not knowing what to do, not having a diagnosis, having an unusual condition, or being misinformed (this can also include the difficulty of keeping up with medical advances, such as recent findings in neurodiversity)
  • seeing people for who they really are, not for the disability
  • not talking about it, or using euphemisms ("infantile paralysis" for polio, "differently abled") and similar fearful responses akin to early reactions to HIV
  • some churches that do not believe a disability exists, which is especially true of those with neurological differences being told to behave or believe and be healed; as the book title indicates, some churches have taught a theology of miraculous healing instead of inclusion in the community 
  • being "out": many disabilities are invisible, and because of discrimination concerns, the people who have them are often reluctant to disclose
  • general invisibility: it was only in the 1960's that people with disabilities began to appear in public social life; today's social media has been helpful in resolving this, as well as creating a sense of community and support 
  • impairments that are not viewed as a disability, vision correction being one example--this has a long history, including the Reformation theologian John Calvin (see section IV here) or being letf-handed (once regarded as a sign of being cursed, and still difficult in many situations)
  • housing is still a problem, with refusals to accommodate and a general lack of physical access features. 

We then discussed various topics that arose (and touched on others that we will likely come back to).

    A young girl asks "Mom, what is normal?" A 1950's looking woman answers, "it's just a setting on the dryer."
    • One of the first steps is to recognize that the modern idea of "normal" is a fraud whose origins lie in statistical methods that are used to create and then justify categories and ranks. Further, “disorders” are often the result of differences in development or structures, or normal reactions to events (e.g, ASD, PTSD). See Jonathan Mooney, Normal Sucks (New York: Holt, 2019). http://flyingkittymonster.blogspot.com/2021/06/just-setting-on-dryer.html
    • Universal Design is a movement emphasizing the benefits for everyone from accessible design—e.g., ramps and power doors benefit people pushing strollers or delivering packages. (https://universaldesign.ie/). This also relieves the feeling of being singled out as "that" person who has to be accommodated.
    • Striving for justice needs to include accounting for opposition to the ADA from many churches, seeking equity so all can participate, and inclusion at all levels of organizations. 
    The study uses a discussion guide provided by the Christian Reformed Church Disability Concerns unit, and my review after first reading the book.

    Thursday, November 17, 2022

    A box for God

    Human understanding often accepts received assumptions as something contained in a box. Inside the box is truth that is beyond examination, and thus cannot be tamed or controlled. “God” is a case in point. Moses tried this at a bush and lost. But he was not alone: years later John Wesley continued to ask if people would limit God. C. S. Lewis explores such limits in his less-well-known Space Trilogy, as a character states that "the laws of the universe are never broken. Your mistake is to think that the little regularities we have observed on one planet for a few hundred years are the real unbreakable laws, whereas they are only the remote results which the true laws bring about more often than not, as a kind of accident" (C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, in The Space Trilogy, New York: QPBC, 1997, 710), again reaching outside the box. Thoughtful study with the brains God gave us should lead to thinking about something too big to be one thing, and to conversation and exploration rather than categories of control. 

    book cover

    Kristin Swenson engages in this process in her recent A Most Peculiar Book: the Inherent Strangeness of the Bible (Oxford University Press, 2021). A book that contains “lofty wisdom, inspiration, comfort, and guidance” also contains “bewildering archaisms, inconsistencies, questionable ethics, and a herky-jerky narrative style” that is often made worse by similar tactics from translators. The crux of it all is that “God . . . is simply far more complicated than these reductive efforts can sustain” and “far too big to be just one thing” (xii-xv). And back to where we started, compounding this is that much of what we think we know is a collection of received assumptions, interpretations, traditions, music and other arts, and simplified stories told to children (xvii). 

    Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer's “cheap grace” that makes religion a market commodity in keeping with much of American culture, Swenson refers to “cheap faith” that reflects this god-in-a-box attitude of a power to be controlled and manipulated, as Moses tried to do at the burning bush. As a collection of books, authors, reflects cultures and practices in languages that are quite different from today’s, the Bible still invites us to explore as an act of faith  (36, 57, 101). 

    I can do all things through a verse taken out of context

    To get beyond this, a good beginning is to approach the Bible and not assume that we know what it says and let it speak to us. Doing this recognizes that the Bible is diverse, and requires the use of all of our faculties in the same way we are to love God (231). In doing that, we ought to rethink received traditions and interpretations in light of new knowledge and experience. People with disabilities will be familiar with this idea. The Bible repeatedly enjoins us to fair and equal treatment, but in its pages we can also see the persistence of outcasts created by stigma and discrimination. The old notions about disability still keep God and all of us boxed away.

    We might ask who the outcasts are as well as how those people came to be outcasts. We might also ask why a book that asks us to think of everyone as our neighbor has been taken by some to allow—if not command—discrimination. The teaching of Jesus about disabilities would be a good lesson. We see that he does not wipe out the old—rather, he reminds us of what the Torah and Prophets mean without the accretions of traditions from culture. Jesus repeatedly included people with disabilities in his work, and went so far as to restore them to society. And he never sent them a bill, told them to start a Go Fund Me, complained when their debts were remitted, or sent them home hungry. The Zen-like and Moses-comprehending Jesus hasn’t changed.

    This hit home after reading a recent CBC opinion article about October’s disability employment awareness month: a tale of being told someone can’t do a job, without even a cursory evaluation. The medical model of something being wrong with the person, rather than the limitations of facilities, results in pervasive ableism. This box of ableism is compounded in churches by not considering what the Bible really tells us and an unwillingness to confront cultural attitude. The truth will set us all free, but we have to explore beyond the boundaries of the box of cheap grace. That, again, is the kind of thoughtful study using the brains God gave us, but it also requires conversation, not the imposition of control.

    Disclaimer: I borrowed this book from the Indianapolis Public Library, promising to return it within three weeks, which I did, even though they no longer threaten to fine late returns. In this I was aided and abetted by borrowing it as a Kindle book, which is automatically returned. They also kindly reminded me that by using my library card, I have saved over $700. 


    Wednesday, August 17, 2022

    Stürmisch bewegt

    Recently, disabled people and advocates have been speaking about another “ism” that diminishes people—ableism. As I have joined with others in explaining, ableism makes false assumptions about disability and leads to discrimination and exclusion. So I am pleased to join the Psalmist and be glad to enter this house of the Lord and share some thoughts about reading a new book:

    Kenny, Amy. My Body Is Not a Prayer Request: Disability Justice in the Church. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group, [2022].

    book cover

    Gustav Mahler described the final movement of his first symphony as the cry of a wounded heart
    . This book is a similar cry—more than once, Kenny states that she is screaming. The stormy dissonance of the opening of the movement is reflected in Kenny’s first page as she tells of an encounter: “God told me to pray for you . . . . God wants to heal you.” Like Kenny, many of us have been there as the ultimate ableism loads presumption upon presumption and tops it with a divine imperative. 

    These early chapters are hard, because the scream story continues with more recitations that will be familiar to many people with disabilities. Like much racism, ableism lurks in structures beneath the surface, formed on a foundation that we often overlook. Accommodations are considered an add-on, a patch to the structure, not an essential of design. 

    The implied statement of ableism is that something must be fixed, that people with disabilities are not whole, and that our faith is lacking. This leads the author to state that the real need is to be freed from ableism. In the same process as outlined by Beth Allison Barr, where cultural notions create faulty theology, we see a chain of thought: disability makes people uncomfortable, leading far too many to presume sin lies behind it, with the result that scripture is twisted to fit presumptions while overlooking the passages that don’t fit those cultural notions.

    Culture teaches us that people are valued for their productivity, and disabled people are not productive (and if they are, they require costly accommodations and extra time). We are “ministered to” instead of “with,” reinforcing a segregated second-class status, and silenced from instructing others. When the ADA was adopted, some churches strongly opposed it, and many are still not compliant or accessible (or when they are, clumsily so). It’s a sign that disabled people are not considered fully human, which both picks up from and contributes to eugenics.

    What to do then? After Mahler’s cry of wounded despair, hope emerges in themes of contemplation that transform the despair. Kenny finds hope in disabled people who, among all others, can best grasp that Jesus shows the way to transformation. His call to μετανοια has urgency. Although generally translated “repent,” which has become a religious buzzword with no more meaning than empowerment or some of the other corporate gibberish that has infested our language, its call is to renew the mind, to transform our ways. Instead of the medical model of fixing things, she asks us to embrace disability and use that model in interpreting Scripture. In this light, the healing narratives are not about cure and eradication, but restoration and acceptance. Old stories gain new life: Jacob is changed from a schemer to a forgiving Israel with a limp.

    In these and many other examples, we come to understand interdependence in a renewed and transformed society. Accessibility becomes the beginning point, not a destination or a checklist. All of creation is good; and our eschatology is also transformed: Micah says that God will gather the lame and those who have been driven away.

    Mahler is a “heavy” composer of deep themes and subjects, but he has his own kind of wit if one will hear. So does Kenny—and it is copious, and often directed at the medical model. Referring to cayenne pepper ointments, she writes that they only made her hunger for a vindaloo curry; or that despite x-rays and radioactive injections, she never gained superhero powers as Marvel stories might lead one to believe. Turning her sights to the Bible, she states that the description in Daniel 7.9 sounds like “a wheelchair to me, and one that gives new meaning to burning rubber.” Ezekiel 1.15-21 describes God with a massive mobility device that is lifted by four angels with fused legs and colossal wheels that encase wheels that glisten like topaz. If God uses a fiery, shimmering, turquoise wheelchair why shouldn’t we?

    Ableism, with its cultural roots, is often selective. In one example, she asks if people with eyeglasses have been targeted for prayers of cure. John Calvin even attributed their design to science and learning as a gift of God that correct natural changes, while leaving other devices (such as mobility aids) to the realm of differences resulting from the corruption of sin. (Selective ableism note: of course, he needed glasses for himself. There’s an interesting YouTube video exploring this idea). Why can’t these other adaptive devices become mainstream, and even display a little fashion? But then, as Kenny writes, it is human-made stuff that is orderly (especially for lawyers-turned-theologians), while God’s canvas of creation is wild, unruly, and exquisitely messy.

    In the end, Mahler finds a sort of peace. It is somewhat defiant, especially near the end, as he directs the horn players to stand and point their bells outward. He later went on to write several more symphonies, each of which explores an aspect of transformation, of finding peace, of living with meaning in an exquisitely messy world. I look forward in hope that Kenny will also grace us with more of her thoughts and findings as well.

    Disclaimer: I borrowed this book from the Indianapolis Public Library, once again to the consternation of someone, I'm sure. The only stipulation was to return it within three weeks, which I did. 

    Thursday, July 21, 2022

    More Usual Suspects

    A review and disability-oriented response to Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2021.

    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. 

    Text box, in the beginning, God said, followed by mathematical equations, ... and there was light!
    As I would tell my history class, let’s begin at the beginning: the origins of patriarchy. Barr starts with the story of a church that refused to hire a man as church secretary. He was in need of employment and had the desired skills. The reasoning had nothing to do with ability and everything to do with the idea that a man was above such work.

    Behind this “reasoning” is a cultural history: as agriculture emerged, so did structured communities, along with designations of rank and status, marking some people as more worthy—whether of authority, certain kinds of work, or other elements of social identity. As cultures develop, such notions often are conflated with religious belief, and over time, become a hermeneutical standard, a move over time that is generally with the loss of their origins. Generations of students, including myself, have written about the imago Dei and social structure and now Barr joins us, noting that patriarchy was a result of human sin. It exists, but is not God’s desire.

    A careful reading will reveal that many biblical passages and stories undermine, rather than support, patriarchy. The Torah has many provisions for an inclusive society, one that doesn’t promote rank and status. And then there’s Paul—a survey of history shows that in the early and medieval church, his writings were hardly ever used to support the status quo. Paul was writing to teach early Christians to live counter-culturally in their Roman world, and how to resist the patriarchy of the day. (With serendipity in “full” mode, the Alban newsletter of July 18,2022 notes, “In Scripture, we can see the connection between behavior and culture when we reflect on the Apostle Paul’s comments . . . . a transformative vision for a Christ-centered culture by advocating for new ways of behaving within the Christian community.”)

    Abetting our assumptions about patriarchy are vagaries of translation. Few people read the preface to translations. If one did, they would learn that King James sought to support male, royal authority—and many recent translations refer to maintaining that tradition. Many modern Christians thus hear in Paul a masculine authority, such as wives should “be subject.” Paul’s original audience would have heard a command to love as Christ did, to efface the self, and not to regard the family as a vehicle for personal gain.

    Compounding these assumptions, we are reminded that translation is not a science and not literal. So readers often lose track of who is speaking and who is addressed. Moreover, the letters we have are one side of a chain of correspondence. Paul is often addressing what was happening (i.e., “women be silent”) and reacting in disbelief (“What!”) to offer correction. As Barr points out, Paul had reason to challenge such accretions: “In a world that didn’t accept the word of a woman as a valid witness, Jesus chose women as witnesses for his resurrection” (87). It should also be noted that Paul describes himself as a mother, much as Jesus did, and mentions women prominently among the leaders of churches.

    Many translations have also wreaked havoc on gender. Inclusive readers are hardly a recent invention: in the first chapter of Genesis, a human (inclusive gender) is created, אדם ('adam). This was rendered in the Vulgate as homo/hominem (an inclusive gender term) and then as man in English. At that time, "man" was gender inclusive, but over time, it was often taken to apply to males only.

    M. I should probably not venture into the hopefully unintentional hypocrisy of those who tell us that “man” is inclusive but then act as if it’s “male” only. An example of this is 1 Timothy 3:1–13, where the Greek uses non-gender-specific terms, but many English translations use a series of male-specific pronouns—none of which are in the Greek text.

    book cover, a repeated series of an image of a woman's head, bowed

    Aside from the gender concerns raised in this book, I am (unsurprisingly) interested in the parallels to the argument that prevailing views are accepted as cultural foundations, and in turn used to justify theological positions. This is part of what lies behind Theodore Hiebert’s ideas that we have misunderstood God’s diversity due to mistranslation and cultural assumptions.

    In the realm of disability, we have a Gospel example: in John 9, Jesus converses with a blind man, treating him as a real person, and then tells those around that their notion that disability is the result of sin is all wrong. The extension of this story also illustrates why we need a social model of disability: the leaders refuse to acknowledge that the man is whole, and prefer to argue with his parents than to hear the man himself. (This does not exhaust the material available in this direction).

    In a similar approach, Jenifer Barclay’s The Mark of Slavery argues that the legacy of slavery created much of the modern language of disability and influenced theological views which have survived even though slavery has not (at least legally). As our industrial-technical age has emphasized reading and similar technical competencies, society has singled out conditions such as dyslexia and some neurodiversity in a way that previous ages did not. This parallels a change of reading the λογος (logos) of John as “The Word” to be understood and given a fixed, specific understanding, one that departs from the classical idea of principle, grounds, reasoning, and patterns. In the process Barclay follows, these become stigmatized as disabilities rather than different approaches or understandings, and we lose much of the richness of the Gospel stories.

    I also remember a remark from one person that in many ways, the oldest human disability is being female. It’s hardly surprising, then, that this book is needed--and that there is one more matter to address. In closing, Barr writes about the 1995 movie “The Usual Suspects,” which, near its end, has the line “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” She begs to disagree, saying that the greatest trick was convincing Christians that oppression is godly (172). As Matthew 23.27 reminds us, the harshest words of Jesus were to self-appointed guardians of privilege and rank, of systems that give some people power over others. 

    Disclaimer: I borrowed this book from the Indianapolis Public Library, once again pushing some generously-compensated CEO toward having to consider whether he will have to cancel a subscription to heated car seats or something similar. A nice feature of electronic borrowing for people like me is that the book is returned automatically at the end of the lending period.