Theology, Disability, and the Body of Christ
- ISBN: 9781481310123
- Published By: Baylor University Press
- Published: September 2019
Within Wondrously Wounded, Brian Brock not only discusses theology, disability, and the church as a theologian and ethicist, but also utilizes a “theological hermeneutics of experience” (xiii), since he writes as a father of a son, Adam, with Down syndrome and autism. He incorporates stories of living with Adam—at home, in public places, and in church—throughout the book, likening his process of self-discovery to Augustine’s process of understanding himself and his relation to God in his Confessions. Brock has come to understand that he cannot understand himself apart from his relationship with Adam and that humans cannot understand who they are apart from their relations to others and to God, the creator.
The title emphasizes “the entanglement of blessing and suffering at the heart of the story of God’s people” (xv). Brock seeks, in the volume, to “offer a theological reconstitution of the very idea of disability” (xvi, italics original). While many see disability as a “departure from what human beings were meant by God to be that befalls an unfortunate few” (xvii), he notes that many with disabilities do not struggle with their disabilities.
According to Brock, modern societies have undertaken various projects to make buildings more accessible. While this is good, Brock argues, “accessibility modifications have made everyone’s lives easier without demanding more substantive change. They may have even stalled progress in increasing the hospitality of secular society by generating the illusion that interpersonal change is less important than infrastructural improvement” (1). He calls readers to go down the harder road of bringing about interpersonal change.
In part 1, Brock draws upon early Christian and Greco-Roman sources to discuss the phenomenon of anomalous births. Ancient people tended to see anomalous births as either curses or wonders, but in the modern period people have come to see them as biological accidents. Brocks calls upon contemporary Christians to retrieve Augustine’s understanding that “every human being in existence is good because they are created by God exactly as they are” (16, italics original). While Plato and Aristotle advocated for the exposure and abandonment of infants with birth defects, texts like the Didache and church fathers like Tertullian disavowed abortion and infanticide. Brock notes, drawing upon the work of Peter Brown, that early Christians welcomed into their communities socially marginalized and abandoned children (25). He also points to the ministry of Jesus and argues that works of compassion need to be rooted in the mercy of God.
Brock continues his discussion of anomalous births in part 2 by discussing contemporary prenatal screening practices. Out of his own experience and his research into these testing practices, he contends that while prenatal medicine could be used to aid in providing care, it has too often had a negative impact on those with disabilities. In the face of anxiety and fear about raising children with disabilities, he calls upon contemporary Christians to have a “doxological cultural hermeneutic” (10)—one that allows Christians to experience the birth of a child with disabilities as a wonder, bringing anxieties to God in a “praying and worshiping community” (78).
In part 3, Brock broadens his account from part 2 in order to address modern medicine and medical ethics, providing a critique of the practice of selective abortion and the lack of proper care for those with disabilities. Testing must be accompanied by a willingness to listen to patients and their advocates. In addition, Christians must “add their voices as advocates for those who must negotiate the healthcare system alone” (136, italics original).
Brock writes in part 4 that while Western societies often seek to provide a more humane environment for those with disabilities, providing better opportunities for employment or accessibility, many of those with disabilities are humiliated by these policies. He writes, “We have come to the pivotal theological problematic presented by disability: human beings need to be rescued from seeing themselves as fundamentally ‘able’” (142, italics original). He notes, however, that the power of sin keeps us from accomplishing this feat by willpower alone. He engages the work of Frans Rosenzweig and Dietrich Bonhoeffer to discuss how wonder invites us to redemption and the freedom to love God and neighbor. Christians should also seek to understand disability as a krisis (decision), which is “both a judgment and invitation” (172).
In part 5, Brock notes that many modern Christians want to be “inclusive.” He says, however, that inclusivity is not a Christian or biblical notion, but one that arose in late modern, liberal societies. Christian scripture instead offers an alternative politic. For example, in 1 Corinthians 12, “The politics of the body of Christ arise from an economy of service to one another for mutual upbuilding” (203, italics original). The Holy Spirit gives the members of the body individual gifts so that they can serve one another. While churches often fail in providing hospitality to those with disabilities, the church must come to recognize those with disabilities not only as recipients, but as givers of gifts within the community.
Throughout the volume Brock critiques the notion that there is an “us” and a “them”—that “we” need to bring “them” into the social sphere that “we” inhabit. Brock contends that the label “disability” has a limited function in order to recognize certain special needs, but denies that it is a “substantial theological category” (218) since Christ has broken down the dividing wall (see Eph 2:14).
While Brock does discuss the gifts of the Spirit within the church and his experiences bringing Adam to worship services, he does not spend much time discussing the communal life of churches outside of the worship service. What would it look like for the church to engage and apply Brock’s conclusions in their life together? Despite this critique, Wondrously Wounded is an impressive achievement. Within it, Brock engages a wide range of voices from ancient, medieval, reformational, and modern theologians to medical ethicists and disability researchers. It would benefit not only theologians who are already invested in theological reflection upon disability, but those interested in theological anthropology, medical ethics, and ecclesiology.
Shaun C. Brown is associate minister of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Garland, TX, and adjunct professor at Johnson University and Hope International University.Shaun BrownDate Of Review:July 11, 2021