Book Review: Theology and the Experience of Disability: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from Voices Down Under
This book is a collection of essays that emerged out of a conference that Laidlaw College and Carey Baptist College partnered together to host in 2013, born out of a shared conviction that the church needed to answer the gospel imperative of embracing deeper ways of being human, and to overcome the exclusions that many with disabilities encounter by being a place of welcome and belonging for people with disabilities and their families. John Swinton, from Aberdeen University, Scotland, and Amos Yong now at Fuller Seminary in the United States, were the keynote speakers and each have a chapter in the book, as well as those who presented in the conference. The editors, Andrew Picard and Myk Habets have structured the book to give movement to the central themes of “being, belonging and becoming” (5), and the chapters are therefore set to move from “action, to reflection to renewed action” (6).
In the first section “Theology, Disability and Being” focus is given to the possibilities that emerges from a theology of disability with regards to what it means to be human, it holds a range of views which emerges from scholarship and life with family members who have disabilities. In the second section “Theology, Disability and Belonging” possibilities are proposed where the church shifts from including those with disabilities to becoming places where people with disabilities really belong. And the third section “Theology Disability and Becoming” brings about a focus on the possibilities that can emerge “when a theology of disability is engaged from an eschatological perspective and allowed to reshape our current ways of thinking, being and practicing” (6).
The book is diverse, simply because of the viewpoints that are offered. The contributors are people whose vocation is to work in seminaries and universities, they are scholars – both with and without disabilities – who engage with many areas of theological studies. They are people who live with a disability and speak out of their experience in order to help the church; they are people who have children with disabilities and write from this place of coming to understand what it means to be human; or, in the case of Ian Waddington, to understand in a profound way the Father-heart of God because his youngest son has autism and the challenges that he sees James contend with and overcome (Chapter Three). Similarly, Charles Hewlett, who was the Principal at Carey Baptist College at the time of the conference wrote his chapter as a conversation with his son, James. His chapter is written as a conversation with James, and although James cannot verbally answer his Dad, Charles notices James’ non-verbal communication as a way to explore the five things he has learned about leadership (Chapter Six). Another example is Sue Patterson who reflects upon her daughter’s accident that caused her to become a “ventilated incomplete tetraplegic” who grew to live an independent life. This frames her essay on personhood, which she develops theologically as a “4-D Personhood” (15-20).
Carol Frearon uses her life with her daughter, who has an intellectual disability, to frame her research in her chapter “Welcoming and Including People with Disability: A Report on a Study of Five Churches.” Here she states: “The church, with its message of God’s unconditional love and grace towards humanity, would be expected to lead the way including people who are on the margins of society” (152). However, the research that she cites reveals sadly a different story. Her focus, though is not to reprimand the church, but rather to encourage and provide a positive way forward by finding the churches that have done well and sharing their stories.
There are some good books that have been published which engages with Theology and Disability, but there are very few which offers a New Zealand and Australian perspective, and for that this book holds an important voice for those from “down under.” This is not the only point of uniqueness though. It is made up of essays from those who have disabilities and provide a key voice in the area of experience. Immanuel Koks, who is graduate of, and teaches at Laidlaw College, is a theologian who has a disability, engages thoughtfully into the area of systematic theology in particular. His chapter “Hope in the ‘Mountain Manifesto’: The Beatitudes’ Alternative to the Social Model’s Hope” embarks on engaging with how Jürgen Moltmann understands hope and how this sheds new light on Jesus’ “ministry-defining statement” specifically on the renewed promise of the new creation (235).
Similarly, Evan Clulee, a graduate of Carey Baptist College, writes from his perspective as a person who lives with spina bifida, but has also worked in the area of disability for most of his professional life. In his chapter “Beyond Charity: How can Society have a High Value of Disabled People,” he sets himself the task to attend to the fact that in order for progress to be made in being truly inclusive there needs to be a continuing shift of the place that people with disabilities have in society. His chapter is helpful in understanding the different models of disabilities, such as the medical model – how can people be fixed?; the social model how can society change so that people with disabilities fully participate, and the charity model – how can we do things for people with disabilities because they need help? Clulee concludes his chapter by rightfully stating “in this day and age we do not need physical healing to make the same positive changes towards a disabled person. It is about accepting a person as they are now, shifting power towards a disabled individual in such a way that their life choices are enhanced. It is about ensuring our places of worship are welcoming and fully inclusive places of belonging” (210).
Manuele Teofilo is also a graduate of Carey Baptist College. His chapter is autobiographical entitled “He’s My Mate: Cerebral Palsy, Church and the Gift of Friendship.” He proposes ways that the church can learn from people with disabilities through his experience of church in order that they become places of belonging. He challenges the church to stop trying to be intent on fixing people, but simply be friends with those who are there (Chapter Seven).
Christine Welton is a graduate of Laidlaw and speaks about her life which was once profoundly challenged by a mental health illness. Her appraisal of how society views mental health challenges are honest. Most importantly, she is honest about how the church has often not reacted well in supporting or embracing those with mental health challenges, and invites people to see those with mental health illnesses as people to be embraced, to learn from in order to learn how we should perhaps wholeheartedly receive people as a gift in order to realize God’s extravagant love that is revealed in Jesus Christ (94).
My focus on this review has been primarily on highlighting the chapters written by those with lived experience with disabilities because they are the ones who can speak more fully in this area because this is the world in which they live. They have also been focused on the graduates or staff members of the two Colleges. Without their chapters, this book would simply be another book written by people with an interest in disability, which is what this book certainly is not. There are included too the voices of those that stand in solidarity with our friends with disabilities, who might not ever fully understand what it means to live with a disability, but engage thoughtfully with Scripture and Theology – both in the areas of systematic and practical – in order to speak into the church community well, and indeed all of society in order to bring people into common conversation, and to bring the church into a place of belonging.
Although there is not space in this review to discuss all of the chapters of the book, it would be remiss to not discuss the chapters written by the two “Northerners,” who happen to be the keynote speakers at the conference. John Swinton’s chapter “From Inclusion to Belonging: Why ‘Disabled’ Bodies are Necessary for the Faithfulness of the Church” is closely linked to the focus of Carol Fearon’s, with regards to welcome and inclusion as he shifts from inclusion to belonging. The difference is that to be included at church on Sunday, or to be present in the room, sitting amongst others, but to truly belong “requires another dimension of community” (172). The concept of belonging is one of hospitality – both given and received “To belong one needs to be both a guest and a host” (179).
Amos Yong’s chapter “Disability and the Renewal of Theological Education: Beyond Ableism” explores how theological institutions and places of learning need to think about how their curriculum is taught and if an understanding of disability is brought into all areas of study then the assumption where the non-disabled experience is normative for all human beings can be challenged, or even revealed as many do not know. Yong explores four areas where disability perspectives can add richness to theological education such as Biblical Studies, Christian History, a disability theological method which aligns itself to the Social Model of disability but taken further with a theological engagement, and finally, what Practical Theology would look like.
It would be wonderful for this book to be readily available around the world. It is a shame that it is so expensive. The cost to purchase Theology and the Experience of Disability would suggest that the voices that make up this book will remain marginalized, and that is a pity.
Fiona Sherwin is part of the Stimulus team at Laidlaw College. Alongside Stimulus, she is part of the student support team, specifically supporting Henderson students and students with disabilities across all campuses.