I’ve been lucky enough that my brain has allowed me to read more challenging academic books and articles this year. I’ve loved lecturing on disability theology and pastoral theology, so here’s a selection of my reading and recommendations. My favourites were Raging with Compassion, The Disabled God and The Book of Job.
Practical Theology and Disability Theology
1. Raging with Compassion – John Swinton
How do you cope and still trust God when you face suffering caused by evil? John Swinton offers an outstanding response to this question with crystal clear and engaging theology, thoroughly rooted in everyday experience.
In the first section he thoroughly annihilates the traditional arguments for theodicy (theological solutions for the puzzle of how a good God can allow good people to suffer). Traditional theodicy, he argues, ends up blaming victims for their suffering and is not only untrue but pastorally damaging, and causes people to abandon their faith.
Rather than asking the ‘why’ question of suffering, which he argues is ultimately unanswerable, Swinton favours the more practical question of ‘how’ – how to keep faith in the light of suffering caused by evil. His answers to that question are insightful and beautifully argued, looking in turn at the Christian values of silence, lament, thoughtfulness, forgiveness and hospitality. His chapter on silence is worth the entrance fee alone – it is outstanding.
John Swinton was formerly a mental health nurse and his empathy and shrewd psychological understanding of people is a real strength of this book. You won’t find easy answers here, yet he is definitely after answers rather than impenetrable mysticism, making it wonderfully practical. His logic is razor-sharp, his arguments dramatic and compelling, and it is peppered with relevant life stories to illustrate everything.
I had two quibbles: one was his definition of evil, which I found confusing, and I was disappointed that he was only covering suffering that was caused by human hands rather than natural disasters or illness too. The other was his chapter on forgiveness – he drew on Miraslav Volf’s classic Exclusion and Embrace quite a bit, but overemphasised our obligation to forgive at the expense of looking at the obligations of the offender to offer reparation, whereas Volf’s view was more balanced.
These quibbles are tiny, however, in comparison with the immense achievement of this work. It is a must-read for anyone in pastoral ministry, or anyone struggling with evil by others, and I will be referring to it in future pastoral theology lectures. This deserves to become a classic. Highly recommended.
2. The Disabled God – Nancy Eiesland
How do we interpret disability – as something from God’s good creation, or as a tragic aspect of the fall? Traditionally, Christianity has interpreted disability as the latter, and society has agreed. The ‘medical model’ of disability theory is that disability is something that needs to be fixed in a person, through the help of medicine, and Eiesland provides a thorough and damning overview of the damaging effects this approach has had in America. As she lists the ways that disabled people have been demonised or excluded, it is clear that the church is thoroughly mixed up in this, as in the US churches fought to be excluded from disability equality laws so they wouldn’t have to adapt their buildings.
The social model of disability theory, on the other hand, says that disability is neither necessarily good nor bad. Instead, it is society that disables people, not their bodies. For example, if every door handle and lightswitch was low and the world was paved with ramps, wheelchair users and little people would be advantaged, whereas average-height people would be disadvantaged. Eiesland integrates this theory with theology, exploring what it means for disabled people to be made in God’s image.
The result is a liberation theology of disability. She envisions God as mobilising in a sip-puff wheelchair, where the wheelchair is controlled with your mouth (if you don’t have use of your hands). She also explores Jesus’ resurrected body, suggesting that his scars show a disabled body, not only redeeming it but celebrating it. The book also has chapters on the implications for worship together and taking communion.
Someone recommended this book to me saying, ‘This one’s a game changer’ – and it really is. Whenever someone talks about disability theology, you can bet this book is at the top of their mind. Her analysis of the problems of traditional Christian and societal views of disability is brilliant, and although I think there are some flaws in her interpretation of Jesus’ post-resurrection body as disabled, the images themselves are enough to provoke an interesting discussion on how we see God and the disabled body. Highly recommended.
3. The Enabled Life: Christianity in a Disabling World – Roy McCloughry
This little book is a quick and helpful read for Christians to develop a new theology of disability. Rather than reject the medical model of disability, McCloughry (who is himself disabled with epilepsy) seeks to integrate both medical and social models with a Christian lens. For this, he covers four areas doctrine – creation, compromise, covenant and completion. The latter of these is particularly strong, arguing that in heaven all our bodies are transformed, not just disabled ones, and pointing out the subtly ableist ways the church associates power and purity with abled-bodies. He also has chapters on the difference between cure and healing, and the value of a church that belongs to all, not just one that ‘includes’ disabled people.
He points out that this isn’t academic theology, but it is theology, with few stories and illustrations and not much nitty-gritty practical application. The advantage of this is that the material is presented succinctly. What comes through is his pastoral and gentle tone, succinct nuggets of wisdom and an emphasis on relationship and friendship. It’s perfect as a quick and thought-provoking introduction to disability theology and the church.
4. Human Disability and the Service of God: Reassessing Religious Practice – ed. Nancy Eiesland and Don E. Saliers
Edited by respected disability theologian Nancy Eiesland, this pulls together a number of helpful academic contributions around the theme of how disability theology interacts with the church community, so it is both academic and practical.
Part One offers three valuable chapters on interpreting scripture and one on liturgy; Part Two is dedicated to Theological Reflections, including one by Moltmann, Part Three looks at how culture and society define disability (including a fascinating chapter by Adele M. McCollum on how folktales have portrayed disability – a side interest of mine), and Part Four has some empirical practical theology studies. I very much appreciated Sarah J Melcher’s contribution on Leviticus and disability exclusion, Colleen C Grant’s examination of the healing narratives and Simon Horne’s chapter on impairment and sensory deprivation in the New Testament.
Whereas The Bible and Disability (Melcher, Parsons and Yong) applies disability theology to readings of the Bible, Human Disability… focuses on liturgy and ritual. The writers tend to hail from a more liberal Christianity stable and this can therefore sometimes make for uncomfortable reading, as they often point out the problems without looking for solutions. Recommended for anyone interested specifically in the topic of disability theology and corporate worship.
5. The Bible and Disability: a Commentary – ed. Melcher, Parsons and Yong
Rather than a general disability theology, this useful academic book looks at various books and genres and attempts a disability theology reading of the Bible. There are excellent contributors well-known in the field of disability theology, e.g. Sarah Melcher covers Genesis and Exodus and wisdom literature, Jeremy Schipper takes Joshua-2 Kings, and Candida Moss covers Mark and Matthew.
Not only do they raise important questions about ableist interpretations of scripture, they also present a more positive reading of scripture from a disabled viewpoint. My only quibble is that it is too brief to be called a commentary proper, and I would love to see a book that’s even more in-depth than this selection. However, this is the only one of its kind and is a thoroughly helpful book that I would recommend to every preacher or aspiring Bible teacher.
6. A Place of Healing – Joni Eareckson Tada
Eareckson Tada begins this book with a moving account of her experience of pain. Although she famously has inspired many with her autobiography of coping emotionally and spiritually with quadriplegia after a diving accident, pain has not been a feature of her condition until recently. This book gives a personal theological response to pain and suffering.
Some of it felt a little too much to me like ‘God is giving me pain because I need to learn a lesson’ – and I’m not convinced by that theology. However, for people who are on the more conservative, neo-Calvinist end of the theological scale, there is plenty to learn here, and her honesty and insights continue to inspire.
Biblical Studies and Practical Theology
1. The Book of Job – Carol Newsom
How do we read the book of Job? Newsom suggests that it is best to see it as a conversation, not only between characters within the book but the various theologies they present of how God can be just when good people suffer. Rather than elevating one theological voice over another, Newsom suggests that the book of Job creates a dynamic argument without resolution, each voice in tension with the other and the reader.
There are two main strengths of this book. One strength is her interpretation of Job and his friends’ dialogue in chapters 3-27; rather than presenting a straw-man view of the three friends, she seeks to understand their theology and the possible compassion behind it, making for a subtle, rich understanding of the nuances of the arguments. Job’s experience is in opposition to the ‘iconic narratives’ that most believers shape their life and beliefs around, so it is threatening to them. Talking about how metanarratives shape our understanding of the world is one of my passions, and I loved this application to Jon.
The other strength of Newsom’s approach is her focus on metaphor and imagery in the book of Job, which brings the book of Job alive and is key for understanding it. Her chapter on the Lord’s monologue, looking in depth at the imagery of the animals, is an absolute delight.
This theology of Job is not for the faint-hearted: Newsom’s writing is so dense and contentful that it makes for slow, though satisfying reading. Her beginning section is very philosophical, based on Mikhail Bakhtin’s literary theory, who is hard to translate at the best of times, and even though I’m a literature graduate I had a little trouble seeing how his analysis of Dostoyevsky applied to Job. However, this overall approach is a fruitful one, and her analysis of the various iconic narratives in Job is revelatory. Highly recommended.
2. Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle – Tzvetan Todorov
After reading Newsom’s book on Job, I decided to read more on Bakhtin’s literary theory. This book is a good introduction to his work as it highlights key quotes and both translates and simplifies them. Bakhtin is still a little obscure, and I discovered from this book that most of his writings were unpublished, which is why they’re harder to interpret. However, his presentation of literature as a dynamic, ever-changing conversation between author, text, audience and reader is a helpful lens to have when reading literature. If you’re looking for a quick primer on Bakhtin, this will be of help to you – but otherwise, it’s unlikely you’ll want to read this.
3. Introducing Practical Theology – Pete Ward
What exactly is practical theology? If you ask a practical theologian this, you’ll get a variety of answers – somewhere between sociology of religion and the theology of the practice of the church, or the theology arising from the practice of the church. This accessible book seeks to answer that question and as Pete Ward is a Professor of Practical Theology at Durham University, he’s perfectly suited to give a good introduction to Practical Theology. Best suited for reflective practitioners in the church or theologians who want to root their thinking in the living breathing church community.
I’ve recently started learning Hebrew!
Although I loved learning Greek at theological college, I was terrified of Hebrew – all the squiggles looked unintelligible. But now I am Older, I tell myself I can do things because I am good at learning, and I’m a third of the way through a course at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies. I wouldn’t wholeheartedly recommend it as it costs a lot and the accompanying textbook is an additional £80, and the pace a little slow for me. However, it does offer distance learning with some good exercises and tuition. If you’re looking for a cheaper option, I recommend these two books below.
(For Greek, I loved Elements of New Testament Greek by J. W Wenham, and Jon swears by The Elements of New Testament Greek by Jeremy Duff.)
1. The Routledge Introductory Course in Hebrew – Lily Kahn
This is the textbook that University College London uses for learning Hebrew and the author lectures there. The strength of this book is that it teaches distinct grammar lessons in an integrated way through fictional short stories, which gets you reading Hebrew from the get-go. It is thorough and covers the syllabus for the first year of learning Hebrew at a well-respected university.
2. A Practical Grammar for Classical Hebrew – J. Weingreen
There are plenty of books on the market that offer a better and more interactive learning experience for Hebrew than this classic text. But I have found myself returning to it again and again for its clear explanations of grammar concepts and thorough (though now a little old-fashioned) guide to pronunciation. This form of pronunciation gives a greater variety of vowel sounds and consonants than modern Hebrew, which has a lot of overlap in phonetics between the letters. Modern Hebrew pronunciation makes it easier to speak, but harder to memorise the different vowel markings in words that have the same consonants. A great reference book to fall back on.
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