Where Theology’s “Cutting Edge” Can Be Found: Disability

For someone who has written a book about “neoliberalism”, it might seem fanciful to claim that I try to avoid theological fads. I arrived at neoliberalism because I was taking up a conversation that has been running in the church for at least 1800 years. It’s not that I am opposed to innovation in theology, but I suspect that the cutting edge might as often be found on the margins, or in the forgotten past as in the hip and well-funded, widely-publicised projects of the elite universities.

To whatever extend theology can have a “cutting edge”, I want to propose it is found among the conversations around disability. Over the last generation, a body of writing has built up which is deeply informed by the biblical tradition and profoundly subversive to the trajectories of our societies. I personally have found a tremendous spiritual vitality in considering the Gospel from the perspective of disability. It felt like blinders were removed from my eyes when I heard John Swinton muse that Jesus could be on the autistic spectrum. My reading of Vanier showed me how this deeply pastoral theology was also profoundly political. Preaching and teaching from this perspective has, in my brief experience, been earth-shattering for those listening.

With that in mind, I take this blog out of its perpetual hibernation to alert you to two significant works of disability theology just published. Grant Macaskill (who I think has published three books this year!!!) has published a major piece on autism and Brian Brock’s long awaited Wonderously Wounded is now available. I could quote extensively, but I realise that in this age of Twitter, no one reads full blogs anymore. But a representative sample must be shared which demonstrates how fertile and thought provoking are these conversations.

Anyone who knows me probably knows that the early church had a lot of time for people who were poor and the dude who was most eloquent about this was “Golden Tongue” John Chrysostom. Brock takes up Chrysostom’s extolling of the virtues of people who are poor and extends them:

Chrysostom’s fatal error is his equation of gift and social role. … The problem is that Chrysostom get there by apparently ruling Christian beggars out as conduits of the much more diverse gifts Paul has enumerated. By reducing the spiritual gifts of the poor to their ragged clothes, the gesture of the outstretched hand and their social location outside the church doors, Chrysostom reifies the poverty of the poor as their spiritual gift. He has locked them into the roles thrust upon them by the gaze of the ‘normal’ masses. Their social disablement has been operationalised for theological ends.

Brian Brock, The Peculiar Togetherness of the Body of Christ, Wonderously Wounded (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2019), 219.

Disability theology, my friends. It is what you need to be reading. It will crack open your heart to the ways in which you have been blinded by the violent assumptions of our age and it will relocate your political attention to questions that more fully resonate with the Kingdom of God.

Recognising that this conversation is too rich to leave in the academy, Brian and his friend, Paul Shrier (of Azusa Pacific University ) have established a YouTube channel which seeks to introduce the questions they research into the conversation that the church should be having.

I cannot tell you how unlikely it is that Brian would create a YouTube channel. The man still operates (unironically) a flip phone that he probably inherited from his grandfather. He vaguely knows what social media is, because I send him clips when politicians from his hometown do stupid things in public (which happens on the regular). He writes his books longhand, in hard-backed copies, in the one corner of the one library in Aberdeen University that doesn’t have wifi or data coverage. It’s worth watching these videos if only to see what it would be like if someone from 1919 was asked to make video tutorials! More seriously, it is worth watching these videos because these are two men whose lives have been transformed by the love of those labelled as disabled.

It is a conversation that demands everyone’s attention.

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