Saturday, June 28, 2014

Book Review: Disability Studies and Hebrew Literature

Book Review

Disability Studies and Hebrew Literature compiles twelve articles reflecting current scholarship on disability as portrayed in the Bible and early Christian thought.  Edited by Candida R. Moss, PhD (associate professor, University of Notre Dame) and Jeremy Schipper, PhD (associate professor, Temple University), the essays are organized in rough epochal order. Each contributor utilizes his or her primary methodology to lift nuance and make visible disability imagery common in antiquity through close analysis of the text. Critical readings include textual, post-colonial, feminist, and gendered perspectives.

The first six articles examine passages and cultic prescriptions in the Hebrew Bible, weaving a narrative of gendered and sexual representations of impairments resulting in the inability to fulfill the first commandment: be fruitful and multiply.  The resulting social construction of disability is evident primarily in the relationship to the worshiping community.  Close readings of the different Biblical authors and textual redactors reveal a prevalent approach which marginalizes barren women and impotent eunuchs from sacred spaces.  Polemics against idols utilize stigmatizing language of disability.

Yet, threads of restorative hope and empowerment are woven through the literature.  Barrenness is used to emphasize YHWH’s sovereignty over the human condition; after all, fertility is a limited temporary abled condition of a temporarily-abled body (TAB). Circumcision is an example of an injury that is socially enabling. The inverse of a physically disabled idol is the potential for communication, animation, agency and status within YHWH’s worshipping community: Rachel implores the patriarch Jacob for agency, Hannah engages the shrine at Shiloh, and eunuchs govern over the able bodied.

The remaining essays explore the interrelationships between healing, disability, chronic illness, and demonic possession found in the New Testament.  Three essays focus on the eschatological subversion of Christ’s ministry.  The continuing counter narrative is illustrated in the comparison of the two eunuchs found in the prophetic restoration of Isaiah 56 and the post-pentecost reality of Acts 8; Philips baptism of the Ethiopian welcomes the marginalized foreigner with a disability into full inclusion of the worshipping Christian community.  The counter cultural struggle in an imperial setting nuances the utility of divine power revealed in John’s healing accounts.  Physiological characteristics, limiting priestly functions in Levitical codes, no longer disqualifies full inclusion with the worshipping community;  and are explicitly overturned in the Luke-Acts narrative.

The final three essays examine the impact of a delayed parousia in the early scriptures and church fathers understanding of disability.  Paul’s thorn, Peter’s suffering, and ancient attitudes towards epilepsy and demoniacs reveal a return of marginalization of those with disabilities as lessons were spiritualized and new ethical holiness codes were devised.

Disability Studies and Biblical Literature presents a compelling examination of how socially constructed disability in antiquity has resulted in our modern normate understanding while simultaneously cautioning modern readers to avoid retrospective projections. The use of different perspectives and analysis of binaries help nuance the ever changing construction of disability throughout scripture. Pentecostals will appreciate the re-introduction of power dynamics into healing narratives as seen through the post-colonial perspective and invariably connect it to the continuing expansion of the Pentecostal movement in the post-colonial two-thirds world of the 21st century. Theologically conservative evangelicals, wary of miracle and healing stories perhaps perceived only as the moral improvements of characters, will seize upon salvation history's restorative purpose and focus the churches primary mission on the eschatological vision presented in the disability friendly passages of Luke-Acts.

These essays provide an excellent introduction to Biblical scholarship, debate, and literature on passages that inform our understanding of disability and the Christian response.  This volume will be useful for pastors faithfully preaching through disability texts.