Theology and the Experience of Disability (a review)

As a field of Christian thought, disability theology has never been more fertile and exciting. Disability theology, as John Swinton defines it in the Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology, is the “attempt by disabled and non-disabled Christians to understand and interpret the Gospel of Jesus Christ, God, and humanity against the backdrop of the historical and contemporary experience of people with disabilities” (140). It’s worth noting that disability theology is different than a theology of disability. The latter attempts to apply the resources of Christian thought and practice to the experience of disability, whereas disability theology works from the experience of disability toward Christian thought and practice.

Even now, four new books sit next to me as I type (and the stack would be a least two feet high if I was keeping up with the literature). At the moment I’m reading the one on top of that stack, Jill Harshaw’s God Beyond Words (2016). It’s a theological exploration of divine revelation related to those with profound mental disabilities. I often interact with the parents of young adults with developmental disabilities. More than once I’ve been asked, “Can I hope that my child can perceive God? Can they be saved?” It is a phenomenally important pastoral question, and Harshaw addresses it with grace and impressive theological wisdom.

I mention Harshaw’s book and Swinton’s definition, because both are helpful for Theology and the Experience of Disabilityunderstanding the significance of the book I’m reviewing here: Theology and the Experience of Disability: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from Voices Down Under (many thanks to Routledge for the review copy). Disability theology is (as far as I can tell) nearly exclusively written by those without profound developmental disabilities. Harshaw, for instance, acknowledges that she writes as a theologian whose daughter has profound intellectual disabilities, but Dr. Harshaw herself does not (Amos Yong, Thomas Reynolds, and Frances Young are similar examples). Harshaw’s study is not unusual: scholarship is most often given from those who are many times in fellowship with people having disabilities, but much less often from those living with disabilities themselves and thus through their perspective.

In this volume, however, contributions are gathered from those with and without disabilities, and that makes it a wonderfully timely addition to the field. The collection originated as a conference in 2013, Theology, Disability, and the People of God, co-sponsored by Carey Baptist College and Laidlaw College in Auckland, New Zealand. Continue reading

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“The beginning of the journey”: Barth’s Ephesians Lectures

A collection of lectures from 1921-1922, including two essays by prominent contemporary theologians, Karl Barth’s The Epistle to the Ephesians (kindly sent for review by Baker Academic) is an excellent addition to any pastor’s library for three reasons. I will get to those three reasons in just a moment. First, I want to offer a quote from the final paragraph of the book in order to frame the three reasons.

The conclusion of the letter, 6:10-24, makes us acutely aware that, humanly speaking, Christians are called to prepare, to contend, and to struggle each new moment as earnestly as if it were the first, the beginning of the journey. True theology is and will always be theology viatorum. But if all we can be is pilgrims, then pilgrims we should be (p. 146).

This selection is not unlike one of the methodological considerations with which Barth opens the Church Dogmatics. In the first volume, published ten years after the Ephesians lectures, Barth writes that dogmatics is in need of “criticism, correction, of critical amendment, and repetition…a laborious movement from one human insight to another” (I.1 / §1.2). Such is the nature of dogmatic theology, Barth says, because dogmatics is always “human appropriation” of “divine ascription.” As Barth resolves, “the theologian is what he is by the grace of God” (I.1 / §1.3).

I offer these parallel statements as a frame for this review because I am learning that one of the key tasks of pastoral ministry is to help Christians learn, against all odds in our Google-happy culture, that Christianity’s simple truth — Christ is Lord — leads to a lifetime of lived interpretation and reinterpretation. This collection of essays and lectures provides examples of how we might do just that. Here are three examples. Continue reading

So What? Practices of Love: Spiritual Disciplines for the Life of the World [Review]

As October sneaks in the back door, I’m finding myself already in the third month of pastoral ministry. I’m preparing my eighth consecutive sermon; I’ve done several visits to homes and hospitals. The sum of people I’ve prayed with, laughed with, hugged or shaken hands with is well into the hundreds. What’s more, being in a small town means Jessie and I have even had dinner with the mayor!

One thing I’ve learned, quickly and sharply, is that things that impressed me in seminary don’t have the same dramatic effect on my congregants. People aren’t impressed when I offer some variation of a Stanley Hauerwas quip, such as: “the first work of the church is not to make the world more just but to make the world more the world.” It’s not gone over any more impressively when I attempt to do some Childs-ean canonical hermeneutical maneuver. No one has complimented my sermon’s works cited page.

But, my oh my, do they get riled up by a good answer to the question “So what?” It’s not at all the case that my beloved congregation doesn’t care about reading Scripture faithfully or theological interpreting culture. If I’ve made sense of the comments I’ve received, the reason they love a good answer to “so what?” is because, oftentimes, the line from sermon to discipleship is not always clear. Preaching on God’s “absolute difference” (to borrow a phrase from Rev. Warren Smith) does not directly translate into any meaningful action, whether an action of heart or soul or mind or body. They want to draw nearer to Jesus somehow and delight when the way is made known to them. Continue reading

Incarnational Ministry: A Review

In the seasonally-awkward month of September, it is difficult to know what to wear on any given morning. Fellow midwesterners know the trouble. Will what you’ve put on keep you sufficiently warm for the morning commute? Will it become excessive insulation by midafternoon? The question lingers: has the time come to swap out summer for fall? Seasonal transitions can be full of uncertainty.

It so happens that Samuel Wells’ new book Incarnational Ministry (kindly sent for review by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) arrived in my hands during a season-of-life transition. With a month of pastoral care to challenge everything I thought I knew, this lyrically-written book provided a theological reflection on ministry that, like choosing just the right sweater on a fall day, helped me to feel a little more comfortable in the life of ministry.  Continue reading

King James is Alive and Well

This morning Christian Century published my review of The Bible in American Life (ed. Goff, Farnsley, and Thuesen), an impressive historical, sociological, and analytical review of the Bible in America. Here’s the introduction to the review:

King James is alive and well. The King James Version of the Bible, that is. In fact, it’s the most widely read translation in America. Although Zon­der­van’s NIV far surpassed the KJV in sales some time ago, 55 percent of people who’ve read the Bible outside of a worship service in the past year still prefer to read from the KJV, according to the studies analyzed in the introduction to a new book coedited by Philip Goff, Arthur E. Farnsley II, and Peter J. Thuesen.

In this impressive collection, 30 scholars contribute to an immense sociological review of who reads the Bible, how they read it, and how their reading has shaped American culture. The book begins with a summary of two national surveys (the 2012 General Social Survey and the National Congregation Study III), a thread that is referred to throughout the subsequent essays. The second section, “Past,” consists of 15 essays that explore the Bible’s use throughout American history, from the first Bible published in America (“the Indian Bible of 1663”) to the Bible’s influence on soul and pop music to the “commercial concerns” of the Bible industry. The reflections in these essays on how Americans have used the Bible serve as a stepping- stone to understanding why Americans use the Bible the way they do today…


Read more at the Christian Century website or, if you’re a subscriber, in the September 13 print edition!

The Lord’s Prayer: A Review

When I think of the phrase “pastor theologian,” I think of Warren Smith. You could chalk it up to his habit of wearing a clerical collar while teaching in the classroom. But it is more than just his collar. He is a pastor theologian because he delivers lectures and writes books like sermons. And this is true of the book reviewed here.

In The Lord’s Prayer (Wipf & Stock, 2015: kindly provided by Wipf & Stock for review), Smith reflects upon the unique prayer Jesus taught his disciples. Smith begins with two brief chapters that situate the prayer in its narrative context. These introductory chapters are followed by ten magnificent chapters that address either the particular phrases of the prayer or elements directly related to the prayer. He concludes with an epilogue in which he calls the reader to a life of doxology. “However ecstatic our love for God may be in times of worship,” Smith writes, “the doxology at the end of the Lord’s Prayer is never so otherworldly as to be separate from our life in the here and now” (p. 130).

The sentence I’ve just quoted is indicative of the book as a whole, throughout which Smith masterfully weaves interpretation and exhortation into delightful prose. There is no clear separation between Smith’s explanation of a word or phrase apart from how it meets the church community. Interpretation and exhortation hang together, as they should. My assumption is that Smith learned this from his long and abiding friendship with the church mothers and fathers. Though quoted conservatively, the medieval theologians’ influence on Smith is pervasive. Continue reading

Don’t Say Nothing: Preaching and Racism

In the summer of 2015, I was a chaplain at a camp in North Carolina. I preached to hundreds of campers and mentored approximately fifty counselors. In the summer of 2015, about four and a half hours from my camp, Dylann Roof walked into a church and murdered nine black people who were praying. In my preaching and teaching at camp, I said nothing. I knew what happened and I chose to say nothing. Honestly, I cannot say whether I stayed silent out of fear or out of foolishness or, perhaps, because of my own inherent racism. None of those reasons are acceptable. Lord, forgive me for the things I’ve said and the things I’ve left unsaid.

In the summer of 2017, I’ve been gifted with another opportunity to preach. This time, the community is a wild group of all kinds of people called Anchor Community Church. And though Anchor is more diverse than many churches in Fort Wayne, racism is still alive in our neighborhood. Confederate flags fly from two different houses near to the church building. As I walk to my church’s building, those flags remind me that we need to keep preaching to confront racism. The question is how do we preach to confront racism?

Continue reading