Sunday, August 25, 2013

Book Review: Divine Towels

Most current theologies of disability construct new possibilities by rejecting previous philosophies as unsuited for the modern world.  Every once in a while, however, an author will rely on the historical tradition of faith and call people to a new, yet centuries old way of living. 

Divine Towels in an intriguing book: while not strictly a theological treatise, it does contain multiple reflections on the transcendence, immanence, and character of God.  Technically, the style of writing arises somewhere in a vortex of inspirational literature, parable, and Christian mysticism – a cross between the 19th century George MacDonald and The Shack’s William P. Young.  Do not read this as a novel; the action is interspersed with long devotional thought.

While not explicitly stating as such, this twelve-years long labor by novice author Beau Jason McGlynn draws upon his own experience as an adult with Cerebral Palsy (CP) and his relationship with his own mother to craft a modern retelling of the Madonna and Child.  In parabolic form, Jesus is successfully re-imagined as an adult with a disability who has the motivation to heal others yet understands his own limitations necessitated by the purpose of the cross.

As true in most pietistic literature, the Christian laity is called to become more engaged in both praxis and service outside of the worship service.  Furthermore, existing institutional structures of church and medicine are considered corrupt:  the church is redeemable but the reliance on a biomedical framework is rejected.

Many evangelicals will embrace the devotional flavor, but find difficulty with mystical rituals. Disability theologians will applaud the rejection of medicine as healer, but will find an Augustinian Christian worldview difficult to accept.  Editors will undoubtedly want to tighten and strengthen the movement.  Yet Divine Towels proves to be valuable as an expression of what it means for a person with a disability to be used by God to minister to others.  People with disabilities are not only important parts of the body of Christ – they can be active parts as well.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Book Review: A Constructive Theology of Intellectual Disability

What does it mean to be human? Disability theology has long sought to access the biases of anthropology in the understanding of the formation of the imago Dei in those with profound intellectual disability. Molly C. Haslam (PhD.-Vanderbilt) advocates for a new perspective in A Constructive Theology of Intellectual Disability: Human Being as Mutuality and Response. Haslam reflects upon her more than twenty years’ experience as a physical therapist in this first theological work.

This 134 page treatise integrates a phenomenological example which gives voice to the critique of common anthropological models in Christianity. Haslam is concerned that disability theology continues to utilize outmoded anthropology, which requires a conceptualized distinct agential self and its corresponding intellectual aptitude. The author suggests that anthropology be constructed in terms of mutual relation instead of capacity. Utilizing the dialogical model of Martin Buber’s [I-It] and [I-Thou] relationships, the author posits that the image of God is discerned in the mutual relationships between created beings and their mutual responsiveness, even in non-symbolic ways.

Haslam begins her critique by engaging Gordon Kaufman’s theological anthropology which privileges the imago Dei in the agential capacity of co-creators with God. She rejects this option as not broad enough to embrace those with profound intellectual disability who lack the ability for purposeful action and self-reflection. The author continues by assessing George Lindbeck’s anthropology; humans are defined as those with the capacity to decipher linguistics and symbolic expressions in order to understand the covenantal story of God and his people. Haslam goes further when questioning the motive of Stanley Hauerwas’ disability theology; does it serve individuals with disability or are persons with disability subservient to the story? She chooses to embrace Kaufman’s concept of biohistoricity – appreciating all religious claims as locally valid in time and space over against an unchanging narrative.

Utilizing her vast experience of working with profoundly intellectually disabled persons, Haslam draws out illustrations of non-communicable and pre-linguistic individuals unable to differentiate self. Those same individuals, however, show responsiveness in the presence of others, eliciting a dynamic of mutual response, and resulting in the cultivation of ongoing relationship. These scenarios give force to her development of anthropology based on Buber’s idea; the existence of human being can only be defined in mutual relations and the pursuit of knowing God through [I-Thou] relational presence. For Haslam, this model is most relevant as it relies on relationships through the interplay of will and grace outside the control of self. As this model does not see the other as an object, it eliminates all self- serving acts and allows the focus to be on mutual helping and healing.

Haslam concludes with a re-examination of the historical construction of Imago Dei. She rejects the substantialist conception found in both Aquinas and Calvin, whom both elevated intellectual reason as the discrete marker of God reflected in humanity. Informed by Martin Luther and Buber, she embraces a mutually participatory relational concept which includes God as a participant. Her un-anthropomorphized concept of God as yearning itself, however, is informed by the mystical writings of the 5th century Pseudo Dionysius. Only in this context, does she believe that individuals with profound disability can participate fully as image bearers of God.

Haslam’s analysis of traditional anthropology reveal some shortcomings. Christian theologians have been reluctant to address items related to the anthropology and the necessarily related soteriology in terms of individuals with profound disabilities. The development of a framework of mutuality and response through selfless relationship bears promise as it relies on the inner working of the Trinity.

Some evangelical readers will rightly wonder if the rejection of the narrative drama of redemption in favor of one informed by mysticism is preferable while developing such an anthropology. Haslam premises the work with an acceptance of a modern notion of the universe which understands God as a concept within the realm of knowledge and not as an actor on history. Her suggestion that this anthropology can extend to all animals and inanimate objects in the universe potentially under-privileges the very population she desires to serve. The heart of this work, however, is valid. The author, by illustrating the failures of current thought and practice points us towards a direction in which mutual responsiveness and authentic relationships are required for being human.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Book Review: Lessons From Katherine

In recent years, a new genre in disability related literature has emerged.  While not scholarly in nature, lessons can yet be extracted.  This new narrative emerges from the perspective of the parent of a child with disability - most often the mother.  One such story is Lessons from Katherine, written in an easy conversational style by Glenda W. Prins, an ordained United Church of Christ minister.

Lessons from Katherine is not a recounted biography of the adopted daughter Katherine, but an up close and vulnerable 157 page diary of the author’s spiritual struggles through life in a context tempered by disability.  In fact the story is not focused on the multiple disabilities of Katherine, but on the inability of the author to cope with lost dreams.

Inability defines this work – inability to achieve ordination as a female, to conceive a child, to navigate the complex bio-medical world successfully, to keep a business afloat, to sustain a marital relationship, and to communicate openly with God.  Yet despite these disabling conditions, the author eventually finds resolution within the tension: ordination is achieved, businesses become restored, relationships are reconciled and new life emerges.  The human journey is messy yet redeemable.

Lessons from Katherine unveils a seldom lifted curtain on the emotional stress families affected by disability undergo.  It reveals the mindset behind a parent doing whatever it takes for their child.  Do not look for pithy comforting statements in this book – it is full of anguish and emotion.  Nor is this a guidebook – lessons learned are not articulated to be replicated.  Perhaps the major insight gleaned is reflected in the epilogue – experience with disability does not make one a better person, but a different one.

As a parent of a child with a disability, I can relate all too well to these genuine scenarios. As a disability advocate, I see how much further society must go. As I read and compare the blogs of young moms today, however, I am struck by the difference in tone and hope.  This book is an important historical reminder of the accomplishments made through the pain of the previous generation.

For professionals in the special education or human disability service sector who desire to understand real family dynamics, this book provides a partial glimpse.  Yet this is not just for professionals or those impacted by disability.  It is a journal of how a person develops a faithful spiritually, tears and all, during times of continual crisis. Spiritual journeys are often personal.  This memoir will comfort some and create questions in others – but can be worth the time to read.

[This review is updated  from the one provided to the publisher - for original review, click here.]