Autism and the Church
Bible, Theology, and Community
- ISBN: 9781481311243
- Published By: Baylor University Press
- Published: November 2019
Grant Macaskill’s Autism and the Church: Bible, Theology, and Community is primarily a work of applied biblical exegesis, informed by a well-documented description of a particular disabling condition and the author’s sensitivity to the lived experience of people with that condition.
Chapter 1 offers definitions and descriptions of autism, from etymology and disease etiology to characteristics and common misperceptions. The title of the chapter, “Real Autism,” is a miniature argument in itself; most of the information therein is readily available and possibly already known to anyone looking to pick up a book entitled Autism and the Church. But popular portrayals of autism, conflicting and contested advocacy for persons with autism, and binary thinking about disability status have no doubt led to a great deal of mistaken assumptions and beliefs about autism. Correcting those mistaken beliefs and assumptions is a necessary beginning. Autism expresses itself diversely, with variation in levels of impairment, typical characteristics, and likely co-morbidities. To triangulate the Bible, the Church, and the lived experience of autism requires rather more accuracy about the latter than is typically on offer in non-specialist contexts, and Macaskill’s account attends carefully to that need for accuracy.This sometimes leads to less certainty rather than more, but that is a strength rather than a weakness: when self-advocates vehemently disagree on whether person-first language (“person with autism” versus “autistic person”) is respectful or demeaning, a careful account must treat the matter as open rather than settled.
Chapter 2 offers norms for reading the Bible productively in order to “think biblically about autism” (45). Macaskill appropriately distances himself from such projects as finding “autistic” characters in the Bible (46-47) or collecting facile proof texts of supposedly biblical advice about autism (48-49). Instead he offers interpretive principles that should guide responsible biblical interpretation in general and especially with respect to such an extra-biblical issue as autism. Macaskill links these principles to “the ‘rule of faith’ that governed the interpretive practices of the early church” (69), though without tracing this lineage. (Few works aside from the author’s own are cited in this part of the chapter, but perhaps he details the history of these practices in his other works?) In any case, though intellectually rigorous devotional readings of the Bible are common to all branches of the church, the descriptions of these hermeneutical lenses place Macaskill’s book within a particular stream of Christianity—outside of which some of his concerns may not have the same urgency or relevance (on which more below). “The Church” in relation to which autism and the Bible are here discussed is congregational evangelicalism; problems and concerns addressed are those that arise at the intersection of autism and evangelical piety and practice; and the solutions that “thinking biblically about autism” might suggest are solutions that presuppose a specifically evangelical approach to “thinking biblically” at all.
In chapters 3 and 4, Macaskill details the way people with autism find themselves marginalized and devalued in churches, not because of properly Christian practices of community formation but because of practices of social formation that have been insufficiently interrogated and transformed by biblical values. The liturgical practices he describes fall recognizably but not uniquely within a certain stream of evangelicalism, which prioritizes “the delivery of an act of oratory, framed by music led by charismatic performers, followed by social times in which we can enact our precious normality” (89). Markers of ostensible health in these churches are similarly derived from secular and economic systems rather than, for example, the book of Acts (see 73, 81, 87, and 125). Practices instantiate and cultivate and disclose values, and insofar as the local church instantiates and cultivates the economic values of secular society or the social values of neurotypical people, it discloses its commitment to those values—even where they trump a church’s professed dependence on or commitment to biblical values. To the extent that social practices constructed according to neurotypical people’s preferences are elided with Christian liturgical practices, autistic people will be alienated and excluded, and the local church will be at variance with biblical descriptions of ecclesial unity and practice. Where their literalism and distaste for pretense expose the distance between a community’s state values and its practiced values, neurodivergent persons find themselves twice excluded: thoughtlessly excluded from rituals of inclusion, and intentionally excluded for expressing critiques of that distance (see 89, 99, and 116).
Chapters 5 and 6 offer potential solutions to this problem by moving from these critiques toward affirming practices that would respect, include, and support autistic church members. Macaskill attempts to find biblical language that makes space for the possibility of growth without insisting that an autistic person merely “camouflage” his condition or conform to social patterns that do not conduce to his flourishing (156-157). The sensory, social, language, and behavioral traits associated with autism (detailed with sensitivity and tact in the first chapter) may be experienced by some autistic people as non-disabling (and even preferable to neuro-typicality), but chapter 5 focuses on conditions that are profoundly (and often invisibly) disabling: depression, addiction, and anxiety. Chapter 6 offers specifically Christian practices of church-being, though these are, again, embedded in a decidedly evangelical framework. Whether and how a non-verbal person might be recognized as having faith and/or being saved (164-170), the usefulness of scripted prayers and lectionaries (174-175)—these issues are well-theorized and -practiced in other traditions, and the rigorous focus on biblical warrants for suggested practices is unlikely to commend itself to those who recognize other warrants for pastoral practice. (On the other hand, it could offer a useful corrective for those who assume that the New Testament has nothing to offer on these matters.)
Macaskill’s interlocutors are primarily those working at the intersection of Bible and disability (Saul Olyan, Amos Yong) and theology and disability (Brian Brock, Nancy Eiesland). Other profitable conversation partners—Hans Reinders, Martha Nussbaum, Eva Feder Kittay, Mike Oliver, Deborah Creamer—were perhaps too far outside his field to seem worth including (?). Disability studies is a fairly young field with a smaller and less defined canon than other more established subdisciplines in religion (systematics, biblical studies, bioethics, liturgical studies, etc.). Still, scholars in those more established subdisciplines exploring the intersection of those disciplines and the discipline of disability studies are producing interesting and vital work, and Macaskill certainly does so here.
Sarah Conrad Sours is associate professor of religion at Huntingdon College.Sarah Conrad SoursDate Of Review:April 30, 2022