Summary: “…The world is divided into two groups after all….the line is drawn between those that are aware of their disabilities and those that are blind to them.”
Disability and the Gospel, fortunately, is not another attempt at defining the gospel as an adjective like so many books lately. It is a real, and somewhat dense, look at how Christianity understands both the people that are commonly labeled as disabled and how we as humans are labeled disabled by the gospel. (The gospel here is used as a general summary of Grace, Salvation and the Power of God. And not my preferred definition which is simply ‘Jesus is Lord, Savior and Messiah. See my review of the King Jesus Gospel for a longer discussion of this.)
The clearest summary of this book is about 3/4 of the way through the book where the author says, “…The world is divided into two groups after all. Not however, the normal and the abnormal, or the able and the disabled. Rather the line is drawn between those that are aware of their disabilities and those that are blind to them.”
So throughout the book, the author is using these two lenses to think about disability. On the one hand the traditionally understood disabled (blind, paraplegic, Down’s Syndrome, etc.) On the other hand, all of us as humans are disabled by sin and need to realize that we need God and that God works in us best though our weakness. Relatively early in the book the authors says that the body’s purpose is to show weakness and point toward a future in Heaven. Overall, I like the split focus, but I found the discussion on traditionally disabled far more challenging and helpful.
As example of the spiritual side of the discussion Beates recounts a story from Joni Eareckson Tada about the fact that because she cannot erase her paintings because she is a quadriplegic. She has to plan more and her paintings are better because she has learned to live within her limits. “My limits had a purpose.” My problem with this story is that instead of speaking of God helping us learn to live within our limits, it is speaking of God as the author of our limitations. We all have limits. And to some extent God is the author of our limits. God did not created me to get only 4 hours of sleep a night. But that is different form suggesting that disability or the results of tragedy were specifically intended by God to teach us something.
Earlier in the book Beates cites John 9 where the disciples ask who sinned for the man to be born blind. Beates says that the disciples were looking for one of two answers, either the man (preemptive punishment for a sin he would commit or protection from a sin that he would commit if not blind) or his parents sinned. Jesus says neither, “this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him”. Because Beates (and Tada) are Reformed they have to deal with a sovereign God being behind the disability. Other streams of Christianity would attribute the man in John 9’s blindness to the fall, but that is not as easy in the Reformed tradition.
The middle section of this book charts different ways of speaking about disability in the Old Testament (he uses weakness as a proxy for disability) and then the New Testament, then in Church Fathers (and it isn’t all that pretty) and then modern secular thought. I wish that he had avoided discussion of Nazi Germany and stuck to other voices. There are many other alternatives and I just find it better to avoid Germany because it is such a conversation stopper.
All of this historical charting does add something to the book. But it also makes the middle of the book drag. I wish he had found a different way to chart the discussion, especially since I am not sure that he chose the right things to cite. There is a difference between talking about how Christians of history have spoken about disability and discussing how Christians ideally think about disability. This is not unlike having a conversation about holiness and suggesting that because people are not actually holy, that Christians do not value the concept of holiness.
Also I think that his discussion of the Terri Schiavo case in this section was less than useful. He attributed behavior to Micheal Schaivo that is conjecture (he did not want to jeopardize his income, he refused to marry the woman he was living with to ensure that he had control of the money, etc). I understand that Beates is arguing against euthanasia. But this is an extreme case and it has been so politically used and abused by all sides that I think it bring more confusion than clarity.
Again later I think Beates continues to attribute motives to a whole range of people that are less than charitable. I know that some people probably think of euthanasia as a form of eugenics. But I think most people that talk about euthanasia are far more nuanced. Beates dismisses health care costs. But it is precisely modern health care that requires we have a discussion about euthanasia. Not because modern health care is inherently immoral, but because the result of modern health care is a huge number of people that can live solely as a result of that health care. He may find it abhorrent to discuss cost of caring for severely deformed infants or severely sick elderly. The United States system of for-profit health care requires we have that conversation. I think we as Christians have a lot to say about medical ethics and I think that Beates is right about a lot of it. But attributing motives to those that disagree with us, instead of trying to understand why they advocate for their positions does not lead to solving problems. It ends up demonizing the other.
The final section was a discussion of what the local church should do to reach out to the disabled. This is a useful discussion and very charitable. It is clear that he is sharing from both his experience as the parent of a severely disabled child and as a board member of one of the largest ministries to disabled in the world.
There is also a useful discussion on the sovereignty of God in the appendix. If you have not explored the reformed view of God’s sovereignty, then it is a good presentation of it, maintaining both God authority and God goodness.
Overall this is a very useful book that I think many should read. The middle section is pretty slow going, but both the front and end sections are very challenging.
An audiobook was provided by christianaudio.com for purposes of review