The Bible, Disability and the Church

A New Vision of the People of God

 

The Bible, Disability and the Church: A New Vision of the People of God. By Amos Yong. Eerdmans (2011).

Book cover of The Bible, Disabillity and the Church
 

Book review by Christine Guth

In The Bible, Disability, and The Church: A New Vision of the People of God, Amos Yong offers a biblical rationale for fully including and deeply valuing people with disabilities within faith communities. In a book he describes as intended for lay readers (6), Yong examines biblical support for his conviction that people with disabilities must be central in the life of the church. In the process, he considers able-bodied biases in biblical interpretation that he believes have reinforced discrimination against people with disabilities.

Bringing together the insights of biblical scholars who have written about disability, Yong adds fresh insights of his own about biblical passages one might not have thought about in a disability context. The outcome is a significant contribution to biblical interpretation  on disability, disappointing only because it does not live up to the author's intention to be accessible to the average layperson.  

Yong  begins by deliberately setting aside the interpretive framework that he calls the “normate” worldview, the pre-understandings readers in Western society have typically brought to reading the Bible through able-bodied privilege. He examines texts that have traditionally cast stigma on people with disabilities, arguing that the stigma comes not from the texts themselves but from able-bodied bias that misconstrues their meaning.  

Yong advocates a fundamental shift in point of view that shapes the book and stands on three explicit assumptions: that people with disabilities are created in God’s image, that they have lives of their own and must not be defined solely by their disabilities, and that “disabilities are not necessarily evil or blemishes to be eliminated” (13). Any interpretation of a biblical text that conflicts with these assumptions he rejects as coming from the normate worldview. He then reexamines the potentially stigmatizing text and offers an alternative, disability-affirming interpretation.

Following this pattern, he examines selected texts from the Hebrew Bible, Gospels, Pauline epistles, and eschatological writings through the disability lens. In considering the Hebrew Bible, Yong suggests  narratives about characters with disabling conditions as counterbalance to more troublesome passages that associate disability with sin. He goes on to examine the disability implications of  healing stories in Acts and the Gospels of Luke and John,  Paul’s theology of weakness, and eschatological images of disability throughout the New Testament.

Yong takes it for granted that our understandings of the Bible depend on the context from which we read, an approach some readers might find unsettling. Some might argue that he has skipped a necessary step of providing biblical justification for his foundational assumptions. He argues instead that the normate worldview has been such a powerful shaper of the context in which we read the Bible that a strong suspicion of traditional understandings is both necessary and reasonable.

Biblical understandings of disability that are congruent with the lived experience of people who live with disabilities are crucial if churches are to fully include and value people with disabilities. Yong makes a significant contribution to this effort, drawing together in one place the work of many scholars and augmenting it with insightful original interpretation.

In my view, the book does not achieve Yong’s stated aim of writing for a lay readership. His specialized vocabulary and dense prose would be daunting to many educated lay Bible study groups or Sunday school classes. This is disappointing, because, as Yong rightly suggests, a book on this theme that is understandable to the average layperson is sorely needed.

Still, the book deserves a place in academic curricula for persons preparing for church leadership, especially those who preach or provide pastoral care. In the hands of a skilled teacher who can translate the concepts into simpler language, it could provide an excellent foundation for a serious Bible study about disability. Thought provoking questions at the end of each chapter augment its usefulness for teaching.

It is time for churches to rethink what they have long assumed the Bible says about disability, interpretations that have inadvertently added to the burden of people with disabilities. The Bible, Disability, and the Church is a serious call to the church to give up biblical interpretations that soothe the theological sensibilities of the able-bodied at the expense of leaving people with disabilities stuck with images of God that do not serve them. I hope that church leaders and others will take up the challenge to render this book’s important message into language accessible for the average churchgoer, not just those with graduate degrees. 

This review first appeared in The Conrad Grebel Review , Winter 2013.

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