Book Review: Disability in the Christian Tradition

This review first appeared in the Journal Churchman, (2014, 128/2, p. 177-8) which predated its original publication on my own blog.

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Disability in the Christian Tradition: A Reader, Eds., Brian Brock and John Swinton

The emerging and exciting discipline of Disability Theology is one that covers a vast swath of material, perspectives, and texts. Brock and Swinton have done interested parties a genuine service in the production of this ‘reader’, which represents engagement with the Christian tradition through the lens of Disability-focused theological reflection. The contributors comprise of a healthy spread of academics, with a few ministers and practitioners to round out the group.

The reader begins, appropriately, with Brock’s vital introduction, ‘Disability and the Quest for the Human’. Reflecting on contemporary and historical views, as the whole book demonstrates, Brock grounds the discussion of Disability in terms of what it means to be human. For those concerned with a faithful and lived reading of scripture, then, disability theology must be understood and engaged with, even whilst thinking critically.

At its heart, however, this volume represents a bringing together of some key writings and concepts from throughout the Christian tradition that bear well on disability and theology. These are carefully introduced – with all contributors noting that in many cases the concept of disability was foreign to the individual authors, and as such we should be careful in our reading of the sources – and follow a chronological arrangement. The reader moves through the Patristic Era, Augustine, Aquinas, Julian of Norwich, Luther, Calvin, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Van den Bergh, Bonhoeffer and Barth.

The three closing sections deal with ‘Women, Disabled’, a provocative essay, a reflection from Hans Reinders titled ‘Being with the Disabled: Jean Vanier’s Theological Realism’, and closes with Swinton’s powerful concluding thoughts on Hauerwas and disability.

For this reviewers ongoing work, the chapter on ‘John Calvin and Disability’, by Deborah Beth Creamer, was particularly fascinating. Creamer rightly notes, in contrast to many ongoing contemporary and historical caricatures, that “Calvin’s own writings are complex, creative, and full of possibilities for contemporary reflection, even as they force us to wrestle“, and it was a thought-provoking excercise to consider what Calvin might offer to a discussion of Disability. Bernd Wannenwetsch’s chapter on Bonhoeffer is powerful too, beginning with Bonhoeffer’s ‘unambiguous judgement’, regarding the ultimate and universal value of human life before God.

The quality of the contributions is excellent throughout, with much scope for reflection and utility beyond disability theology as a unique discipline. The Editors are to be commended for gathering a diverse selection of texts, and letting them both speak for themselves, and enable the contributors to comment carefully. Given the (in terms of the Christian tradition, at least!) relatively young nature of the discipline of Disability theology, this is an invaluable resource for those thinking about how to engage the area, and to give some depth for pastoral and personal reflection on the topic.

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