Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Holy Time, Batman!

Review and response:

Hendren, Sara. What Can a Body Do?: How We Meet the Built World. New York: Riverhead Books, 2020.

Every day, every person meets and is at odds with the built environment. Thus begins this book from a professor of design who includes accessibility in her classes. The book's several chapters illustrate how everyday construction and attitudes create disabling conditions and offers some examples of how it can be changed. Thus the book presents numerous examples, ranging from lowered picture mounting heights to lecterns to curb cuts and even construction materials.


book cover (text on yellow background)

This narrative reinforces the claim that the essence of the social model of disability is that it is environmental factors, such as infrastructure, and not physical impairments, the functioning of one's eyes or ears, or neurological differences which create what we call disability.

I noted a similar argument in reading Jonathan Mooney’s book Normal Sucks (see “…just a setting on the dryer”). Mooney finds peace with his status, and Hendren reaches further: “disability” is no longer a derisive word, but a proud one, and a reminder of (and also a reminder to) the movement that turned another derisive word into a proud one—Christians. When we better understand the principles behind what we practice, and look at our sources without the encrustations of culture, we can find a new way of doing things. Hendren puts this principle to use by tackling design not as a problem, but as a way to fit function to design. The result is what she refers to as charisma (7-8), an interesting choice: in its origins, χαρις is a divine gift. 

In the face of charisma, far too often, “normal” has exerted tyranny: it seems that we must fit in, listen to the loudest, and conform. No wonder that the apostle Paul also told early Christians not to conform to everyone else’s ideas (Romans 12.2)—and it’s good advice for designers, too, as well as wisdom that reaches beyond religious boundaries. Design the world for all, with all their differences. In the end, no body is average and every body is at war with the built environment. But some are given deficit labels like “weak” while others are socially accepted (do you know anyone who considers eyeglasses to be corrective of disability?)—don’t be conformed.

Resisting normal requires reframing who and what we call the problem. What disabled me were limitations not in myself, but within the environment.

This book is highly recommended for thoughtful consideration about the shape of the world: buildings, streets, institutions, language and descriptions, cultural organizations, centers of power, the layout of rooms, how we move through spaces. It is a use-centered view that asks what users need first. In addition to the obvious physical items that we often think of, the author also considers design for Deaf and hard-of-hearing people—again, a social matter, as we know how to design for all, but often don’t.

This is not only for Christians, but it does call those in churches to think about disability. Religious and non-religious ethical values point to standing firm on one's beliefs that should include kindness and thoughtfulness to all. They also point to self-evaluation, and too many churches have forgotten their original calls to practice justice towards all and service beyond nationality.

Time is included in design. We have come to accept the constraints of an industrialized world where everything is scheduled, a world where one must not only be busy, but be busy at an approved rate. We live by the clock. First developed by those outside the mainstream to mark the rhythms of sacred time, clocks have now become a ruler also, one that disconnects us from the body and the seasons. For one example, why do we tolerate school times that require children to walk or wait in the darkness, being killed or injured, or disrupt everyone’s psyche twice a year for “daylight savings”? 

Time measures one of the prejudices against people with disabilities. Don’t be conformed—the early Christians, among others, distinguished the proper time, xρονος from the time of the clock, καιρος. The ancients still have something to teach us. 

Disclaimer: I borrowed this book from the Indianapolis Public Library, with an agreement that I would return it within three weeks. I did this, even though the library no longer levies fines for late returns. 


Friday, July 30, 2021

Disability Pride Month—Toward a Bottoms Up! theology of disability

A review and reflections: Joerg Rieger, No Religion but Social Religion: Liberating Wesleyan theology. Nashville: General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, 2018.

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us….
- - -
“To A Louse,” Robert Burns

Honored more in the breach, this popular saying reminds us that a first step in approaching theology is to remove one’s own “blinders” so that we may see the “structures of sin” that surround us. To make his point, Rieger tells a story of a presentation explaining that John Wesley’s theology is a reversal of top-down religion. At a faculty meeting, the hearers seemed unable to grasp the problem. At a meeting of disadvantaged high schoolers, the message was clearly understood, and discussion added to his store of examples.

This story came to mind when I saw a notice promoting a “freedom” rally against critical race theory (among other things) in a neighboring suburb. The notice was unravaged by the onerous demands of fact. For those who have ears and will hear (or read), this theory is an historical process that suggests  we look at formative principles, examine foundations, and learn how they have affected later developments so that we can set out ways in which lasting change may be created, much as Isabel Wilkerson does in Caste

From such analysis, we find links that couple the foundations of the social model of disability and critical race theory. One of Rieger’s principles in this book is often mentioned in discussing disability theology—the unity of the body of Christ, and, in particular, the need of each part for the others, derived from 1 Corinthians 12:21 and Ephesians 4 (the RCL Epistle reading for the 18th week in Ordinary Time, which in 2021 falls on August 1). The way we live, and how we deal with disadvantaged people, does matter. 

This also reminds us that, God is not at the top of an hierarchy, as most theology would have us think. Theology is the work of the people, asking where God is in our world—this is the meaning of kenosis (Philippians 2.7). Wesley set us an example, ministering to the lowest in the society of his day. It was not a patriarchal act of charity, but one of solidarity and refutation of power structures.

I don't believe in charity. I believe in solidarity. Charity is so vertical. It goes from the top tot he bottom. Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other person. I have a lot to learn from other people.

The ultimate expression of solidarity is inclusion. One form of inclusion, following Wesley’s footsteps, is ministry with, not to. It is not bombarding those thought to be outsiders with weaponized “truth,” but hearing the call of the disadvantaged and realizing that we are all one. As Rieger writes, “deep solidarity does not imply that we forget about our differences; the opposite is the case: deep solidarity enables us to find ways to make use of our differences for the common good” (78). 

Disclaimer: I borrowed this book from the Indianapolis Public Library and thereby agreed to return it in three weeks, which I did. Joerg Rieger was my German examiner at the Graduate School in Religious Studies, Southern Methodist University, and impressed me by being perceptive enough to have me read about Wesley's social thought through German theologians. Maybe that's why I passed on the first try.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

… just a setting on the dryer

 A review and response to Jonathan Mooney, Normal Sucks: how to live, learn, and thrive outside the lines (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2019).

What does it mean to be normal?

A young white girl in 1960's clothing asks her mother, what is normal. Mother replies, it's just a setting on the dryer

This a meme I used to introduce the topic “the fraud of normalwhen teaching 20th century historical developments. It often drew the interest of the diverse lot of aspiring artists in the class.

Mooney starts his exposition much as I did—noting that “normal” is only a fiction of statistics, and while the idea has been around for some time, it gained particular prominence at a historical time of  social change. The idea of normalcy has a history, and much of it is related to the history of ranking and stratification that has created a caste-effect in modern life. Both of these have roots and effects in emerging divisions in the middle of the 20th century, and they continue today, reaching far beyond their origins as distinctions become accepted standards.

One often hears the saying “history is written by the victors,” and so are social standards. In a parallel to history, “normal is what is called normal by people who are called normal” (36). That leads to an inherent bias, which is why I challenge those who talk about “history is there whether you like it or not” to include more than the accounts of the winners in their statements.

 “Normal” is a form of self-justification from a group holding power. One of the results of this phenomenon of self-justification is the casual use of various slurs in everyday language, which leads to a lack of recognition of the reality of the problems from many in a place of privilege (for an example, see “The harmful ableist language you unknowingly use). In a steadily compounding spiral, society compounds its habits of overlooking the contributions that people who are different bring to the table.

The effects of this enforcement of “normal” have been devastating, resulting in invisibility and dehumanization. The idea of eugenics grew from its fascination with removing difference, coupled with quantification movements (i.e., statistics that measured deviation), all focusing on isolating and labeling some people as a problem.

To learn more about the effects of any change, one should ask what life was like before the event. In the case of normality, historical documents show us that differences were once celebrated, perhaps with an attitude that they encompassed touch of eccentricity or oddness, but accepted as part of a diverse world. It was the rise of the field of statistics in an increasingly scientific-oriented society that gave an impetus to the idea. By 1914, 36 states had institutions that segregated anyone considered “feeble-minded” and by 1930, 41 states banned non-eugenic marriage or practiced forced sterilization. In 1935, such ideas became the law in Germany. We know how that went, don’t we?

The idea of normal is also where the popular modern inspiration porn slogan of “overcoming” disability comes from. It proclaims that enough heroic effort can do anything, which led the late Stella Young to critique the popular aphorism that “the only disability is a bad attitude” as she reminded us that “no amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp.” 

This book is highly recommended (along with Mooney’s Facebook page)as another example of the new day for many that has come with the growth of the civil rights movement and its social theory of disability: what disables me is not anything of myself, but the environment. With that, the theological world has slowly begun to see disability, like any difference, as an element that is to be honored as part of the divine plan“Am I normal? No, I’m not. No one is” (216). There is no one way to be a human—to be human is to be diverse.

Disclaimer: once again, I have irritated Amazon by borrowing this book from the Indianapolis Public Library. As per agreement with them, I returned it within the specific time period, and hope that others are now appreciating it as well.




Wednesday, June 2, 2021

A change in subscribing

The powers that be of Blogspot have decided, in their infinite wisdom, to drop the feature which allowed some of you to subscribe and receive the posts by e-mail. So I started an announcement-only group. In order to subscribe, send a blank e-mail to

Thanks for reading! 

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Gospel Empowerment

A review and response to Dennis R. Edwards, Might from the Margins: the Gospel's Power to Turn the Tables on Injustice (Harrisonburg Virginia: Herald Press, 2020).

As every year draws to a close, Lake Superior State University issues a list of words that should be banished from use . I watch for it with generally fulfilled hope that we might find respite from banal, overused, and oxymoronic language. But one word that stands high on my personal list has yet to make it to this esteemed group: I’ve long been tired of “empowered.” It’s not the idea of empowerment that bothers me, it’s the paternalistic and hypocritical way in which the word is usually used. Only rarely are pronouncements about it accompanied by true empowerment—usually it means that responsibility for things that go wrong has shifted down, but not the authority to change the patterns that caused the problems. 

So I rejoiced when, early in the book, the author stated “I no longer use such language. The power of the Gospel comes from God, not from other humans—particularly not from those who fear losing control and influence” (31). It is those who fear losing control who use these tactics the most, as a soporific to make others think they’re getting somewhere.


book cover, silhouette of a head

This book explores various aspects of power within the gospels in relation to the church. Edwards focuses on racism as an African-American, but notes that many other abuses exist: he explicitly extends its reach to patriarchy, wealth, and being physically attractive or able-bodied. This group includes the people who typically are at the top layers of social stratification, and they also typically view their position as resulting from their own work or strength, or flowing from a sense of divine right. Later in the book, Edwards extends the traits to include charisma and extroversion, which work together to create an atmosphere of self-promotion. This is a close relative of social Darwinism, a self-justifying ideology that turns away from the idea of adaptability as a virtue in favor of survival of those who label themselves the fittest. It’s odd that those who champion the use of Darwin as a social phenomenon are often those who deny Darwin’s thoughts elsewhere, but such is how things often go.

The gospels call us to freedom. But too often, the gospels are used to construct misleading readings that justify our prejudices and the systems that support them. The gospels are a story of empowerment, but have been turned from a story of outreaching grace into a series of propositions and rules that one assents to. Did you dance? Out. Did you go to the movies? Out. Were you born with a disability? Oh, my, what sin are you hiding? Did you give someone a quarter? Oh, good. Did you think about the reason why that person needed the quarter? We won’t talk about that.

Into this breach between grace and practice step the prophets, who see behind the world's glamor and status symbols. Prophets point out injustice as they call people to hear God. They call for action, because the well-being of God’s children is endangered, and they are angry, because things are not right. 

Prophets call to us across the ages. The Negro spirituals are a historical example: they connected slaves to the biblical story, and found a way to live in faith with a God who promised deliverance for those who lived as chattel. Their songs still offer hope to everyone who is marginalized. In this light, I  think of the ability to discern a different, more honest reality during this “Autism Awareness Month.” These prophets have a message that we comfort ourselves with that “awareness” that tries to avoid “acceptance.”

Prophets offer hope. This includes hope for many whose disabilities mean that their “bodies struggle in environments not designed for them” (139). Those who are disabled, whether physically or otherwise, along with others who experience suffering, are the ones who can truly understand hope. Hope is not, as Edwards reminds us, a vision held by an affluent teenager in some bedroom community who hopes for a Lexus on her birthday. Hope comes from those who live with the painful realities of life, those who are also the ones who can understand what renewal is like, what it is like to be where God intends.

If this idea strikes a chord and you see this in time, the Methodist Federation for Social Action and the Association of Ministers with Disabilities are sponsoring a discussion with Kathy Black, one of the first theologians to take on ableist misreadings of the gospels in her book A Healing Homiletic. It's on April 17, 2021, and you can check it out here 

Disclaimer: I borrowed this book from the Indianapolis Public Library, with the understanding that I would return it in three weeks, which is exactly what happened. I also notice that they have now ordered six more copies. Empower on! 



Monday, March 29, 2021

The Valkyrie rides on Michigan Road

To many theologians, the root of sin lies in the notion of rank. This notion generates social structures that lead to stratification and stigma, as Isabel Wilkerson has shown—primarily in race, but applicable to most of our social institutions.

The arts are not immune to this, as noted by Rae Linda Brown in her biography of Florence Price. So it is hardly a surprise that Indianapolis gained notice for an ill-worded job advertisement that fueled suspicions of racial bias. Suspicions of such bias have lurked around the city for some time, especially since the museum began to levy admission fees for entrance.

Since history is there for us to learn from whether we like it or not, let’s look at some parts of this claim that proponents of the statement may not like. Yesterday marked an anniversary: on March 28, 1871, Richard Wagner lodged a complaint with his publisher over the publication of the Walkürenritt in a stand-alone version (you can see a short comment about this at my Facebook page). The idea of popular settings of just a few minutes extracted from a four-hour long opera that was the second of a series of four, and the same not being performed in the specially-built Bayreuth theater, was appalling to him.

It was not the first cultural fit thrown by culture snobs. In 1797, as deafness was creeping upon him, Beethoven scandalized the musical world of Vienna with his opus 11 trio, whose last movement is based on a popular song, “Before I go to work.” We don’t need to stop there: for one of many examples, think of the Renaissance composers who foreshadowed Sister Act by using the tunes of popular love songs as a setting for liturgical texts. Or King David, dancing in the streets, which also upset people (2 Samuel 6.14-22).

The old adage from Qoheleth, rendered in the Vulgate as nihil novum sub sole is, it would seem, a universal value (Ecclesiastes 1.9). So should we be surprised to see cultural snobbery rearing its head again? As Lawrence Levine details in his book Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy In America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), the forces that seek to create an artistic hierarchy and enforce rules about it have long been with us. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn reminds us that Shakespeare was well-known in early America and widely performed. And after The Bard, or between the acts, came the farces.

cover of Highbrow Lowbrow

Post-civil war America was rapidly undergoing industrialization and social stratification. Income inequality soared as the wealthy channeled tax relief to themselves. However imperfect, the Founder’s ideals of egalitarianism found in the preamble to the Constitution seemed to fall by the side. In theological terms, the (sinful) human tendency to categorize and rank took hold. So it’s hardly surprising that some people decreed that the culture of immigrants and others of lower social standing was less pure than that of the winners of social Darwinism.

As this happened, “the arts” became sacralized: something to be protected from the masses, who were provided with their own entertainment. And protest happened! Since its 1880 opening, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art had been closed on Sunday, the only day which the average worker had off. After years of debate, the museum opened for the first time on Sunday on May 31, 1891. It was a small victory, although, like many, not full: in 1897, the director of the museum defended ejecting a plumber who tried to enter wearing overalls. More recently, in 2002, when a radio station frequency swap in Dallas would have restricted coverage of the city’s classical music station, some members of the council warned about making presumptions of who the listeners were. And now, the cycle is playing out again here in Indy. The museum has promised changes. Quo vadis?

Disclaimer: I bought Highbrow, Lowbrow while in graduate school and later apparently shared it with someone, and it never came back. So I used my notes and a library copy (which I returned on time) here. I have never been a member of the Indianapolis Museum of Art but did attend a few faculty development programs there, and often visited when it was free. 


Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Saving classical music

This is a copy of an essay from 2002 for Naxos which won the grand prize on the topic. It can be found here, but I'm publishing it to my blog to make it more readily available. 

In the US (at least) many churches are adopting a so-called "shopping mall" approach to their outreach. They use a variety of methods--support groups dealing with many topics, interest groups, traditional salvation appeals, child care, user-friendly services, to name a few--to get people in. Although sometimes criticized as marketing God like a box of soap, these means are successful for many congregations.

My take-off on this is that getting people to listen to classical music (and spend some money on it) requires a similar approach. It can't just focus on attending concerts. There are several areas that will appeal to people, depending on their background and interests. There are also various levels of knowledge/literacy. Therefore, I will address several areas, and I am sure there are several others. I will mix this with studies in American cultural history (my current graduate school work).

If classical music is to survive, it must become the cultural property of everyone, not just a few. There is a widespread stereotype (at least where I live) that a high level of affluence and liking "classical" music go hand in hand (and it's not seriously resisted by many of those involved, who variously enjoy status or the profits that come from selling expensive goods).

This attitude to classical music (along with other arts) is a comparatively recent development. In earlier America, concerts were widely attended by a cross-section of the populace. They were very different, though. They might intersperse marches, play shorter selections of long works, include a popular song, and so on. Now, I prefer to listen to a whole Mozart symphony, but if playing single movements gets people introduced to it and listening to the rest, I'm not going to complain.

But around the turn of the 20th century a group of self-styled guardians of culture made Beethoven and his kin into idols, whose holy works must be appreciated only in a suitable setting (and only by those properly prepared). We might add to this that the performances often became stolid, stodgy exercises, losing the vitality that some artists are beginning to reclaim (especially, it seems, on Naxos, if I may throw that in). And one of the lost pages of history, the Astor Place riot, showed that such things mattered to many people.

It may be that such things still matter to many people, but some have closed off their input. Do we know the real size or potential of the classical audience? The success of "Elvira Madigan", Amadeus, Pachelbel's Canon, Mozart in MASH, and so on point to a wider interest than is often supposed. I am often asked where to purchase the music from a particular movie. Ravinia packs them in for jazz as much as the Chicago Symphony. There's a very popular rack of Naxos recordings at the entrance to our local bookstore (too popular, I can never find what I'm looking for). Most recently, a proposal to move the tower and frequency of WRR, a classical station owned by the city of Dallas, brought wide-spread reaction that resulted in scrapping the proposal. Of particular interest, much of the opposition came from the south side of the city, which would have had reduced coverage. The south side is predominantly Black, and is not one of the areas that the Jaguar and Hummer dealers target when purchasing advertising time on WRR. The councilperson of one area affected stated that the city should not presume that classical music was not part of the life of his constituents. I suppose it's true that someone working at minimum wage and barely paying the rent isn't going to attend a concert, but that doesn't seem to stop them from listening to the radio.

So why doesn't this market seem to matter, or show itself?

An easy target is the cost of attending a classical concert. It's getting out of hand for even middle class people. There's no easy solution to this--orchestras are still filling the seats while losing money.

Developing a wider audience, both in numbers and depth of its members, is something I can say more about. It seems that our schools (at least from an American perspective) are doing little or nothing. When they teach music, it's what we call "preaching to the choir"--aimed at those who are already interested. Little is done to introduce students to a variety of music and thus create music lovers. There is little effort to introduce people to the joy of playing an instrument (and what effort does exist is directed to developing a few virtuosi or band players). The solution is multi-faceted. Parents must care enough to demand that schools teach music (and arts) and not just focus on reading (important as that is)--that schools be a place of learning and education, not just trade training. I could go on--administrators who know nothing but paperwork instead of real supervision and sharing, and so on.

I'm not sure how to get this going, either. Schools are broke and the people are submissive. Maybe we are entering a new Dark Age. That's pessimistic, but the more the MBA-mentality of "what's it worth" as the ultimate expression takes over, the more music will suffer. It has a value that isn't readily expressed in terms of The Almighty Dollar.

I think the music business needs a little openness to technology. I know several people who came to classical music through Walter/Wendy Carlos--but I see little acknowledgement of that work as a serious effort. And I don't want to see people playing instruments replaced by computers, but my MP3's--or even better, NoteWorthyComposer files (which let me see the score
while it plays)--are fun, a good way to get to know the music. Bach was always complaining about his forces, Beethoven about the instruments available--what would they do today?

To some extent, the brunt of this falls on the recording industry. It is the most visible, and recordings are the primary exposure for most people. But people are frustrated by recordings. Because popular music is merchandised, there is no service, and the selection of other genres at many stores is nearly non-existent. I am always amused while browsing the classical section of the local bookstore (which is halfway decent, although  disorganized) when some kid comes to ask if he can help with anything. He thinks Beethoven is a dog in a movie. So what happens when people do hear something they like? Radio stations sometimes have their playlists at a web site, which is a great idea. That leads to what is perhaps the one concrete suggestion I can make: Naxos should put its index of movie music on the web and label it clearly so search engines will find it. Then make sure people can actually buy the recording. Then think about a similar way of putting non-movie music, something that gets beyond facing an alphabet of unfamiliar names, with those marvelous downloadable samples. Possibilities are "if you like this... try that;" music you already know, music from commercials, and expanding the movie list to TV shows.