Also by this author: Disability: Living Into the Diversity of Christ's Body
Series: Studies in Religion, Theology, and Disability
Published by Baylor University Press on August 1, 2020
Genres: Disability Theology, Academic, Non-Fiction
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The church welcomes all--or it should.
The church has long proven itself a safe refuge despite the sad reality that it can be, and has been, unwelcoming toward those perceived as different. This is especially true of the contemporary church's response to those with disabilities--a response often at surprising variance with its historic practices of care. The church once helped shape western morality to cherish these individuals with love and acceptance. It is thus ironic when today's church neglects this care, or practices care with no awareness of the rich theological history out of which such moral sensibilities originally emerged. In Wondrously Wounded, Brian Brock reclaims the church's historic theology of disability and extends it to demonstrate that people with disabilities, like all created in God's image, are servants of God's redemptive work.
Brock divides his volume into five parts. Part one chronicles how early Christianity valued and cared for those with disabilities, putting into practice Jesus' teachings about divine mercy in decidedly countercultural ways. Part two details how a rise in the fear of disability tempted the church away from these merciful practices as well as its confession of the infinite worth of all God has created. Part three traces how the fear of difference continues to negatively shape contemporary practices in today's schools, churches, and politics. Part four lays the foundations of a vision of Christian life that is resistant to this pervasive fear. Finally, Part five shows how the recognition of all people as part of the body of Christ not only demonstrates the love of Christ but displaces the fear of disability in a manner that invites the church beyond even the most ambitious contemporary hopes for full inclusion.
Brock interweaves his historical and theological analysis with the narrative of his own disabled son, Adam. These stories vividly bring into view the vulnerability, as well as the power, of the disabled in contemporary society. Ultimately, Brock argues, those with disabilities are conduits of spiritual gifts that the church desperately needs. Wondrously Wounded is an appeal to the church to find itself broken and remade by the presence of Christ on offer in the lives of those society has labeled disabled.
Since its release in 2020, Wondrously Wounded: Theology, Disability, and the Body of Christ has become the textbook for disability theology. Let’s begin with Dr. Brock’s credentials for this book. Brian Brock is the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Disability and Religion. He has written and spoken extensively within the realm of disability theology, including Disability: Living into the Diversity of Christ’s Body, which is a more pastoral perspective on the topic, along with dozens of journal articles and lecture symposiums. Simply put, Dr. Brock is the top academic expert in the field. But this emphasis is just intellectual and theoretical interest for Brock. Instead, it plays out very personally and practically in the life of his son, Adam. Indeed, the opening words of the preface of Wondrously Wounded is “Most people would consider my son Adam profoundly intellectually disabled.” The result is a powerful blend of intellect and emotions as Brock infuses academia with humanity—something often lacking in academic works regardless of topic. Brock doesn’t just write as an academic, as an ethicist, or as a pastor—he writes as a father wanting to create a better world for his son.
That sentiment is partially what has driven me to an interest in disability theology. My theoretical, pastoral concerns for those with disabilities became closer and more personal when it became evident that my son was Autistic. How might the church—meaning my church—have to adapt to meet his needs? How might I have to adapt to meet his needs? And once you begin to consider how the church might aid in the flourishing of those outside so-called “normal” society, you begin to see how much of disability is socially constructed. And you begin to see how Christians are often consciously or unconsciously complicit in ostracizing and estranging those with disabilities from the community of the church.
Wondrously Wounded is divided into five parts. The first traces disability thinking within the Christian tradition, showing that early Christian teaching actually countered secular and pagan thought by considering the disabled as God’s special creation. Taking Augustine in particular, Brock builds the case that, from the very beginning, Christian teaching led believers to have a more positive view of disability as diversity than the rest of the ancient world.
From here, Brock moves to a discussion of contemporary practices of genetic screening and testing, which Brock sees as a Babylonish method of playing God by attempting to determine, change, or prevent certain outcomes. Brock isn’t condemnatory of technology, but rather cautions readers of the moral challenges that increased technology causes us to face. Centuries ago, we had no ability to determine if a child would be born with a chromosomal abnormality that results in what is called Down’s Syndrome. Today, 90% of fetuses with a Down’s Syndrome diagnosis will be aborted. Brock looks at this with moral alarm, writing that “The problem of not being able to receive every human being with open arms turns out not to be an insufficiently inclusive anthropology but an atrophied pneumatology.” This section becomes very personal as he talks about tests and procedures surrounding his own son—who has Down’s syndrome and is Autistic. In a coda at the end of this chapter, Brock writes an incredibly heartfelt section that is such a blessing to parents of children with disabilities and a bold challenge to the church to stand against the elimination of disabled bodies.
Part three focuses on contemporary medical ethics and the notion of “quality of life.” In many ways, this follows up the discussion of the previous part by moving the setting from the womb to the world. Brock chronicles the disregard that modern medical ethics often has for disabled lives, particularly those termed profoundly intellectually disabled. Inherent in this conversation is the difference seen between disability caused by injury and disability inherent at birth, as well as the contrast between physical and intellectual disabilities. Modern science’s Enlightenment-era exaltation of the mind makes intellectual disability seem much more severe than physical disability. Society is much more likely to make concessions for physical disabilities—particularly disabilities that were the result of injury or trauma—over intellectual disabilities. When “quality of life” is defined as an ideal set by able-bodied, neurotypical individuals, it sets up a structure that can lead to those with physical or intellectual disabilities being seen as less than human, or at very least, more expendable. While Wondrously Wounded confines itself to the boundaries of disability, this reasoning also comes into practice in other areas such as poverty and homelessness—areas that often overlap significantly with disability.
The fourth part moves from an indictment of the problem to the imagining of a solution. The key chapter that drew me to Wondrously Wounded—“Autism and Christian Hope”—is in this section and I hope that someday Brock expands this chapter into its own book. He begins, “Somehow a way much be found to wrench the idea of disability out of its etymological linkage with lack and brokenness.” Instead of brokenness, Brock defines autism as an invitation to rework the social order in such a way that it leads to greater inclusivity and flourishing. As the parent of an Autistic child, he speaks to parents of Autistic children in a real and authentic, neither sugarcoating the experience or pathologizing it, but recognizing it in its (wondrously wounded) complexity and nuance. Regarding his son, he writes: “As Adam remakes me he invites me to become a different sort of academic. To the extent that I am remade I cannot but challenge the academy’s presumptions about the value of intelligence…Adam is educating me in what intelligence is, and how different forms of intelligence found different sorts of community.” This leads to a discussion of eschatological expectation. Will autism (and other disabilities) be “cured” in the eternal state? Brock says that an image of heaven where everyone is “normal” only serves to marginalize and entrench stereotypes of disability as related to sin or detect. Rather, he says, that we should widen our view of perfection to see that the perfected, Resurrection body is one that is simply in its rightful place of peaceable communion within the body and person of Christ.
All of this culminates in Wondrously Wounded’s fifth and final section that draws the political implications of this theological hermeneutic of disability—implications that challenge the church and modern (secular, capitalistic) society, while envisioning an eschatological remaking of the world into an inclusive community for all. These aspects have floated around the first four parts of the book, but tie together nicely here, serving as a powerful conclusion and call to action.
While at times, Wondrously Wounded can get lost in its own academia—or rather, even this academic found himself swallowed up in it, sometimes missing the forest for the trees—the comprehensive and multi-disciplinary nature of this volume builds it into a robust, thoroughly considered, paradigm-shattering view of disability. A magnum opus in its own right, each part could be easily and rightfully expanded into its own publication. It’s a weighty work—Brock’s own ”overview” of the book is a lecture that lasts over an hour (but is still worth the watch). For those wanting a more succinct introduction to disability theology and Brock’s work, I would recommend, Disability: Living into the Diversity of Christ’s Body, but for those wanting a comprehensive understanding, Wondrously Wounded is the academic and personal foundation for all of Dr. Brock’s life and work. It’s theology, it’s ethics, it’s ethnography—there’s not a page in Wondrously Wounded that fails to challenge, provoke, or inform.