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. 




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


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.