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. 

 

 

 

Friday, June 10, 2022

Still marked

Still marked: a review and response to Jenifer L. Barclay, The Mark of Slavery: Disability, Race, and Gender in Antebellum America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2021.

In 1857, a writer praised the New York Daily Times for teaching “coldly and calmly” the “indubitable fact” of white supremacy. As his opinion letter continued, he noted the need for “wardship” of those incapable of self-government, which included infants, disabled people, and people of color (J. Buford, “A Southerner’s Opinion of the New York Day Book,” New York Daily Times, 26 January 1857, 14).

The “indubitable fact” and its reach is a reminder of Douglas Baynton’s observation that, as a culture of “normal” was taking root, one response that might be heard was that one was not disabled and therefore ought not to be the object of discrimination—but not to challenge allowing discrimination.* At a time when many social institutions and assumptions were under scrutiny, various standards were emerging, with results that are still with us. Among these were supposedly Christian notions of sin as a contributor to difference. Although starting to give way to developing science and concepts of what was “normal,” prevailing notions held back from a clean break: judgments continued a long-standing practice of ascribing various aspects of disabling conditions to unrelated occurrences and then used them to justify oppression and inequality. In turn, such uses contributed to notions of disability as defective or abnormal instead of aspects of diversity.

Economics is the first topic covered. The author shows how disability has led to a presumption of lack of economic value. Under slavery, with its poor working and living conditions, accidents, and disease, an image of uselessness therefore became associated with disability. This idea returned in Nazi Germany to justify the murder of disabled people.

poster from 1930s Neues Volk, “This genetically ill person will cost our people’s community 60,000 marks over his lifetime. Citizens, that is your money.

The next topic is medical advances, some of which led to what we now refer to as the medical model of disability, one which views differences as errors or imperfections to be corrected. The people involved were viewed as feeble objects of charity (have you seen a commercial or telethon lately that portrayed disabled people like this?), and provided ground for the view of slavery as a paternalistic “positive good” that took care of those unable to rise higher.

If you have seen one of those commercials or telethons, have you also seen presentations about how inspiring someone is because they have overcome the obstacles placed in their way by an ableist society? Also known as “inspiration porn,” such coverage is an almost-oppose to the portrayals of uselessness and pity, but they are just as dangerous. Rarely are the social and physical roadblocks noticed when praising someone for “overcoming” their disability.

In many settings, these attitudes of uselessness lead to subversion: slaves and disabled people gather unnoticed and largely unmonitored, engage in various kinds of aid, whether practical or creating a sense of stability and social togetherness in a liminal setting. St. Paul’s paradox of strength in weakness became a recasting of weakness as strength, transforming the classical trickster of myth into a powerful person with qualities of great spiritual strength. Disability is capable of being subversive when it gains attention. However, it’s generally minimized or shut out. Ever wonder why?

Thus arises the author’s point that one failure of abolitionists who crusaded against slavery was not severing the link of racism and ableism behind social hierarchies (150). In an example of the “law of unintended consequences,” these anti-slavery arguments used ableist language to reinforce the need for perceived benevolent guidance, and outsider-directed care. This continued with speech about a deformed nation that reinforced a stigma of disability, and as noted, contributed to inspiration porn and obstacles today. Sympathy and derision went together to minimize and marginalize anyone who was different. Aided by the then-new art of photography, freak and minstrel shows worked with photographs of slave treatment to create sympathy without empathy or improvement for those in need.

Disability is also a “marker of hierarchical relations”— just as slavery, forged in distinctly racialized ways throughout the antebellum years—shaped and defined power dynamics. But what persists is not an end to hierarchies, but new paths of control. Disability continues to provide images and symbols of such control—a person perceived as successful has traits associated with bodily ability and seeks to reinforce such stereotypes. People whose bodies or minds do not match the standard are judged as unable, unintelligent, and irrational. They are shut out of inaccessible locations, forgotten when podcasts are not captioned, overlooked when their minds take a different approach, and only grudgingly granted an occasional presumption of competence. Still subversive, still a threat. Still marked.

 

book cover

* Douglas C. Baynton, “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History” in Paul K. Longmore and Lauri Umansky, The New Disability History: American Perspectives (New York: New York University press, 2001)

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.

 

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

The New Miracles

 The New Miracles: a response to Katie Booth, The Invention of Miracles: Language, Power, and Alexander Graham Bell’s Quest to End Deafness (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2021)

Classical tragedies revolve around a plot line of a character who acts out of a perceived noble intent. However, the character overlooks a flaw in that intent, and that flaw ultimately brings the character down. There’s a way in which this is true of Alexander (Alec) Bell, the inventor of the telephone. Bell sought to make communication easier—but in the process, overlooked that he sought to quash a culture. His efforts to promote oralism and bring an end to the use of sign language, and his promotion of early eugenics, have left a legacy that Deaf people still contend with, even though the end result has been to open new channels of communication. 

Booth explores this complex legacy as she opens the book with a story about her Deaf grandmother being in a hospital. Whenever grandmother sought to sign with someone, “she was treated as a bother,” and the staff would only respond to Booth or her mother’s spoken requests (3). Some discussion of law corrected parts of that problem, but it led to reflection on her grade school history classes, where she learned that Bell invented the telephone. This seemed “as absurd as introducing Adolf Hitler as a vegetarian who once ruled over Germany” (12).

 

cover of the book, a portrait of Bell

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.

Bell lived in a time of change: industrialization was creating systems emphasizing and transforming “normal” from mathematics to identity and proclaimed them as the path to a new age through eugenics. “Freak” became the umbrella term for racial, ethnic, developmental, gender, and physical differences. The tragic flaw enters: there is little indication that Bell was insensitive to suffering and inequality. Booth recounts several instances where he was distressed by racial discrimination. But, in a move that we all might be forced to confess, he did not recognize his own involvement in “a larger struggle between normalcy and difference, between saving and being saved, between empowerment and charity” (77), thus setting the stage for the tragic character’s downfall.

John Wesley was an admirer of the classics and early church fathers who struggled with these concerns. Today’s “nothing about us, without us” was not yet a motto, but concerns that those on the margins should be heard are clear from his writings. He famously “consented to be more vile” – to change his ways in seeking inclusion. Sadly,  Bell followed the thinking of many in his time who saw defects as something to be eliminated rather than embrace more social models and accommodation. Today the struggle continues: do people who are different have “special needs” or functional requirements? Are they included in leadership, or are they a target group (ministry with or ministry to)? Is a difference a weakness to be hidden? As the author notes, does empowerment come through assimilation or recognizing and honoring diversity? We still struggle, which is why the classics are still with us. The new miracle, as Teilhard de Chardin wrote, will come when we harness the energy of love, the love that was central to Wesley.  

Normal abnormal disclaimer: much to the chagrin of various greedy corporations, I borrowed this book from the Indianapolis Public Library, and even though they no longer charge late fines, I did return it on time.

 

 

 

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Beep!

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).

cover: a woman riding a scooter, pulling a kite in the air, along a lake


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.


The children also learn some history. Bubbie tells them that “long ago, people who had trouble walking were stuck indoors” (6). Although the pandemic has interfered recently, 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.


For 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 gets 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 spaces.

accessible space blocked by snow plowing
blocked accessible space

At 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 learns 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

Opening prospects

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.
cover of book, title with photo of a group standing and lifting hands
The book is divided into two parts: the first, a chronological narrative that is primarily organized geographically, and a second that covers more recent events, concluding with future prospects and needs. A central development in this history is the development and acceptance of sign languages, which in turn supports a Deaf culture. In turn, that acceptance becomes one aspect of recognizing disability rights. It is also essential in the development of a friendlier theological stance.

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. 

As social movements produced disability legislation, the church found a path for participation through its long-standing social justice tradition. Coupled with the waves of disability rights movements and legislative affirmation, this has brought back the question of disability vis-à-vis cultural difference. A possible resolution seems to be in the social model coupled with liberation theology, a movement that began among Latin American Catholics. One example is the ecumenical Claggett Statement of 1985, which states that Deaf people do not need to be cured of an impairment but do need relief from social exclusion and cultural oppression. It also charges churches to end the practices of charity that portray their objects as disadvantaged, to consider differences to be gifts, and to develop forms of worship that convey the Deaf culture.

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.

Also published at H-Net Reviews.
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