Inked

Tattoo1

Well, I have capitulated to the trend and gotten myself a tattoo. I know they’re becoming so common as to be passe’, but I enjoyed the process nevertheless.

If you haven’t guessed, it’s a rendering of Mary (the mother). I’m well aware that the image is typically Western, and bears no resemblance to a first century Middle Eastern Jewish woman. But my interest is symbolic. For me, Mary is a potent religious symbol, provided she is not depicted with her eyes downcast in submission (a woman’s traditional religious role), but instead stares proudly at us, eye to eye. As patriarchy and pain in childbirth was the female curse in the Eden, so is it significant that that it is a woman who births the one intended to liberate us from the curse of oppressive power in all its manifestations.

I’m not sure whether men can be feminists, but at the least I am an ally; and feminism (especially feminist theology) has shaped my thinking. Indeed, it’s feminism that asked me to think critically about what it is to be a man, and what it is not. I’ve learned at least that I don’t need to be a stoic warrior, that vulnerability and strength can go hand-in-hand, and that the longing for beauty transcends gender.

I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys” is a citation from Song of Songs 2:1. It is the female lover’s self-description that in Christian tradition has, strangely but also strikingly, been taken up as a symbol of Christ. And the dove, obviously, represents the Spirit. So if we allow Mother Mary to point to the Father, the tattoo hints at the Christian Trinity, without the all too common reified masculinity.

None of this explains, though, why I got myself inked. No doubt the answer is the same as it is for anyone; vanity. I am used to being stared at – that goes hand-in-hand with disability and wheelchairs – but since my accident I have fallen in hate with my body. While I had been tall, fit, and healthy (yes, I know, vanity), I’m now a potbellied hunchback with a disobedient lump of meat for a body. So doing something artistic with that lump of meat reaches toward self acceptance. It’s my way of saying, “hey, look at this, there is something on my body that is actually worth staring at.”

My thanks to Jin O at kaleidoscope tattoo for her artistry and friendship.

Grace trumps justice

Elly sent me this video today of a woman tumbling 300 metres down a snowy mountain and (spoiler alert) ending up with no more damage than a sprained finger. By comparison, I fell an innocuous metre and broke my neck. Not that I’m wishing an injury on this woman, but …

It goes to show, if you didn’t know it already, that life isn’t fair.

It’s the injustice of life that, at least for me, makes the concept of grace so compelling. Justice is an ancient concept, a virtue that says that one should give to a person what is her or his due. It’s one of the four cardinal (or linchpin) virtues that is meant to colour the decisions and actions of a good person. This explains why many ancient religions applied the notion of justice to God, assuming that if God was good, then people must get what they deserve; the righteous prosperity and the unrighteous damnation.

The problem, as the psalmists and the author of the book of Job noted, was that the logic didn’t seem to work. Evil people prospered and good people suffered.

Some theologians conclude from this that people do get what they deserve. And what everyone deserves is divine wrath, because we are all depraved and utterly corrupted by sin. That anyone at all is “saved” is grace, which is undeserved favour. The problem with this way of thinking is that it makes grace as unfathomable as injustice.

A larger view of grace, however, recognises it as a gift of God’s love that is evident in the goodness, beauty, and wondrous fragility of creation. Grace is said to be both natural and supernatural, the former because the orientation to the good is in all of us, and the latter because the orientation to evil is also in all of us, so we need God’s help. Grace is God’s favour toward us, most potently experienced by his presence in the darkness that is an inevitable part of life.

That this woman survived her fall is testimony to grace. That I am able to flourish with a disability is thanks to grace. That we discover hope in grief is possible because of grace. That we are loved and accepted as sinners is amazing grace. That we find joy in the love of family and friends, who accept us warts and all, is the power of grace.

Life isn’t fair, but if you didn’t know it already, grace can make it beautiful.

 

The Dark Side of Prayer for Healing

My latest journal article, “The Dark Side of Prayer for Healing:,” Pneuma 36, no. 2 (January 1, 2014): 204–25, has just been published by Brill. if I can be forgiven a boast, I received the following response to the paper:

I have to say that in the twelve or more years I’ve been copyediting Pneuma, this is the best article I’ve ever read. Nancy de Flon, PhD

To give you an insight into its content, the abstract reads:

  • This paper explores the relationship between disability and pentecostal theologies and practices of healing. First, it draws on the testimony of people with a disability, describing the challenge of being the “elephant in the room”: the obviously unhealed in a social space in which supernatural healing is understood to be connected to the gospel, a reward of faith, and a central part of a life and ministry of the church. Second, it deconstructs pentecostal theologies and practices of healing, identifying their potentially alienating effect. Finally, it proposes an alternative orientation, replacing the emphasis upon divine healing with a focus on well-being. To this end, it draws on the holistic intention of the pentecostal Full Gospel and relates this to the virtue tradition, with its concern for long-term flourishing in the midst of the hardship and fragility of life.

I know that journal articles are not everyone’s cup of tea (especially in this era of five-minute attention spans), but I do hope that some of you take the time to read it– available here. I’m certainly happy to engage in any discussion/criticism in the comments section below.

Orson Scott Card and the parable of the woman caught in adultery

the Speaker for the dead
the Speaker for the dead

Here is Orson Scott Card’s (from the Speaker for the Dead) brilliant take on the parable of the woman caught in adultery:

A great rabbi stands teaching in the marketplace. It so happens that a husband finds proof that morning of his wife’s adultery, and a mob carries her to the marketplace to stone her to death. (There is a familiar version of this story, but a friend of mine, a Speaker for the Dead, has told me of two other rabbis that faced the same situation. Those are the ones I’m going to tell you.)

The rabbi walks forward and stands beside the woman. Out of respect for him the mob forbears, and waits with the stones heavy in their hands. “Is there anyone here,” he says to them, ” who has not desired another man’s wife, or another woman’s husband?”
They murmur and say, ” We all know the desire. But, Rabbi, none of us has acted on it.”

The rabbi says, “Then kneel down and give thanks that God made you strong.” He takes the woman by the hand and leads her out of the market. Just before he lets her go, he whispers to her, “Tell the lord magistrate who saved his mistress. Then he’ll know that I am his loyal servant.”

So the woman lives, because the community is too corrupt to protect itself from disorder.

Another rabbi, another city. He goes to her, and stops the mob, as in the other story and says, “Which of you is without sin? Let him cast the first stone.”

The people are abashed, and forget their unity of purpose in the memory of their own individual sins. Someday, they think, I may be like this woman, and I’ll hope for forgiveness and another chance. I should treat her the way I wish to be treated.

As they open their hands and let the stones fall to the ground, the rabbi picks up one of the stones, lifts it high over the woman’s head, and throws it straight down with all his might. It crushes her skull, and dashes her brains onto the cobblestones.

“Nor am I without sin,” he says to the people. “But if we allow only perfect people to enforce the law, the law will soon be dead, and our city with it.”

So the woman died because her community was too rigid to endure her deviance.

The famous version of this story is noteworthy because it is so startlingly rare in our experience. Most communities lurch between decay and rigor mortis, and when they veer too far, they die. Only one rabbi dared to expect of us such a perfect balance that we could preserve the law and still forgive the deviation.

So of course, we killed him.

speaker_for_the_dead___piggy_by_irkenidiot-d3g5hld

Book review: The Bible disability and the church, Amos Yong

One of the best books I’ve read in recent years is Amos Yong’s, the Bible Disability and the Church. The book is a biblical theology of disability, although I would not want its readership to be limited to people with a disability. It is really a form of liberation theology, using the lens of disability to explore the ways in which the scriptures confront and overturn attitudes and cultural prejudices that marginalise, stigmatise and belittle people who don’t fit within the supposed norms of society.

The impetus for the book is Amos’ love for his brother, who was born with Down Syndrome, although the book is concerned with the broader concept of disability. In his earlier Theology and Down Syndrome: Reimagining Disability in Late Modernity, Amos recounted his brother’s story in detail and developed a more systematic and scholarly analysis of disability. Where the previous book is scholarly (one Amazon reviewer who loved the book nevertheless noted “I have to admit I didn’t always necessarily understand everything being said as the language is much more geared toward theologians”) The Bible and Disability is written for a lay audience. It would, for example, stimulate rich conversation in a small group or around a family dinner table. For those of you in Australia, the soft copy is available from Koorong for $15 (see here). I read the Kindle version, which will only set you back $10 (see here).

** I should admit that this point that Amos is a friend of mine, although he has not bribed me for a positive review **

over the next little while (and sorry, I’m notoriously slow) I might make a few comments on each of the chapters. In terms of the first chapter I have the following observations/comments (and if you decide to download a (legal) copy why not add yours):

  1. the first question that arises concerns the definition of “disabled”. Amos touches on this issue only briefly but I feel the matter is vital. The lines between ability and disability are grey indeed. In the case of down syndrome or spinal-cord injury (SCI) the situation is normally clear-cut, although a person might have a disabling SCI and look relatively “normal”. Likewise, how do you draw a distinction between a person with an intellectual disability and someone of below average intelligence? (An issue that is especially troubling in a court of law) How do we distinguish between illness and disability, especially if the former is permanent? How severe must a physical or intellectual limitations be to be classified as a disability? And how do we distinguish between the degradation of old age and disability? All of this leads me to conclude that the question of disability is in fact not just about people living on the margins but is pertinent to us all. There is every chance that at some point and in some way we shall all be disabled, and this fact makes Amos’ work all the more important.
  2. What language do we use to speak about disability? Amos notes the difference between the nomenclature “disabled person” and “person with a disability”. The former highlights the disability whereas the latter highlights the person. What labels are appropriate and what are derogatory? In hospital, my friend and I would call each other spastic, and especially enjoyed what we called “spaz pong” (ping-pong for those of us whose arms spasm and pretty much miss every shot). Was this derogatory to others or ourselves? Is it appropriate between friends but inappropriate now that I’ve put it on the page? Does it matter who uses the label and how they use it? These might seem like insignificant issues, but they get to the heart of the problem that Amos is trying to address. The language we use matters, because it reflects the attitudes we have about disability.
  3. Amos addresses a fascinating issue about whether we should judge disability as something needing to be fixed. Let me quote him in full:

Disabilities are not necessarily evil or blemishes to be eliminated. Should we avoid losing a functional arm or leg if we can? Of course. But many who have lost the functionality of an arm or a leg lead very productive and satisfying lives – they don’t need to be healed. More complicated are the congenitally disabled. Still, people who were born without certain appendages or who have grown up without certain sensory capacities live quite well-adjusted and normal lives with what they have. Should we try to “fix” those who are different among us so that they can be just like us? Most problematic are those whose disabilities are a constitutive part of their identities. My brother Mark is a case in point. How can we fix or erase his chromosomal condition without eliminating him altogether?”

Which brings us to the primary point that Amos is trying to make, and again it is best if I quote him in full:

Historically, and even across wide swaths of contemporary life, ableism presumes that people with disabilities are subhumans, menaces to society, or objects of pity, dread, or ridicule. And just as with racism and sexism, the excluded minority population internalizes the views of the dominant culture so that people with disabilities also come to understand themselves and act in ways that confirm the expected stereotypes. This book opposes the exclusions legitimated by our ableist worldview, and seeks to challenge normate assumptions with perspectives derived from the experience of disability.”

What Amos is saying is that disability is not primarily medical but social. The tendency for us is to think, “how can we fix this person? ” A much better question is, “how can I respect this person?” The truth is, that as a person with an SCI I generally do not feel excluded or mistreated. In fact, my friends and family, and the broader society, normally treat me as they would any other person. But I am fortunate in this regard, because the experience of most people that act a little different and look a little different is that they are treated differently. The extent to which the Bible is used as a document of exclusion or inclusion is the focus of Amos’ work.

all that in chapter 1 – and in some future post I will comment on his analysis of the scriptural contribution.