Teachers of the Soul: The Heart of God Revealed through People with Disabilities, by David J. Gullman (WestBow Press, 2015)
Reviewer Christine Guth is Program Director for Anabaptist Disabilities Network.
In Teachers of the Soul: The Heart of God revealed through People with Disabilities, Gullman builds a narrative about his own journey from fear of disability to appreciation of the people who live with it, while interspersing vignettes about unique people with developmental disabilities he has come to know. He gives us glimpses of his own transformation and invites readers on the journey with him. This book does not bind us with burdens too heavy to bear, but surprises us with the joy of learning from friends who are “some of the most delightful people on the planet.”
In a recent conversation, I was searching for words to describe why we do what we do at Anabaptist Disabilities Network. Later, as I read Teachers of the Soul, the book gave me the concept I was looking for—that we engage with people with disabilities not just as objects of our ministry, but as sisters and brothers, members of the body whose gifts we need. Gullman makes a strong point about the gifts that people with disabilities have given to him, revealing to him more of the presence of God, and taking him on a journey toward healing and wholeness. This is surely part of our organization’s mission, to help us see disability with different eyes, not as something to be feared, but as a natural part of life that enables us to experience aspects of God we had not known, allowing us to face with courage and hope our own and our loved ones’ inevitable accumulation of disabilities.
As a testimony to the gifts I receive from friends with disabilities, let me share about my experience with macular degeneration. I learned a few years ago that I am in the early stages of this degenerative condition. I certainly do not look forward to losing my eyesight, and I am following my doctor’s recommendations for slowing the deterioration of my eyes. However, as I face the future, my relationships with people who are blind or have other disabilities more severe than my current ones give me hope that whatever comes, I will find a way through, that God will be present, that disability is not something to fear. This peace is a deep gift that has begun to resolve my long-held and deep underlying fear of disability.
The author makes clear through repetition that although he emphasizes the gifts he receives from people with disabilities, he does not want to gloss over the very real difficulties of living with disability. He might have been stronger in naming and cautioning against the temptation of the temporarily able-bodied to objectify people with disabilities (or their families) as a source of inspiration, rather than appreciating them as multi-dimensional human beings. Some writers have called this “inspiration porn.”
Teachers of the Soul does not present unique theological positions but benefits from ideas that disability theologians have expressed in earlier works. What Gullman commendably accomplishes is speaking these truths in everyday, accessible language and framing them with engaging stories that make you grateful you picked up the book.
Those who have loved ones with disabilities will appreciate the words this book gives us to name and appreciate the gifts we receive from their presence in our lives. Those advocating for greater inclusion of people with disabilities in congregations will appreciate the book as an articulate and inviting voice to support their ministry. Church leaders and members will find in the book an engaging invitation to discover God’s gifts anew in people we may have overlooked. I recommend it as a book for study by adult Sunday school classes or Bible study groups.
In the book’s introduction (p. ix-x), Gullman offers a succinct preview of the theme of the book. I close with these words, in both invitation and promise: “Disability is one of those unexpected events which catches us unaware and unprepared. God extends to us an invitation as we encounter undesired, unplanned-for events in life. That invitation can help us discover inside ourselves the gifts that liberate us to become more fully human.”
This, in a nutshell, is the great gift Gullman offers in Teachers of the Soul.
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