Book Review: Grünstäudl, Wolfgang & Schiefer–Ferrari, Markus 2012. Gestörte Lektüre – Disability als hermeneutische Leitkategorie biblischer Exegese Haupt-Reiter

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The ecumenical series Behinderung-Theologie-Kirche [Disability – Theology – Church], as edited by Protestant Professor Johannes Eurich (Diakoniewissenschaftliches Institut Heidelberg) and Roman Catholic Professor Andreas Lob-Hüdepohl (Katholische Hochschule für Sozialwesen Berlin) is at the moment the most comprehensive presentation on the topic of Disability Studies in the German-speaking world. In this fourth volume, 12 contributions from the fields of theology, (curative and special) education, philosophy, ethics, and diaconal work discuss the theological-church context for the inclusion of people with physical or mental disabilities. The Roman Catholic editors Grünstäudl and Schiefer Ferrari are, among others, active at the University of Koblenz-Landau in the field of biblical didactics and biblical studies.

Markus Schiefer Ferrari begins with ‘Conceptions of Difference’. Deviations from the norm, regarding disability and the interpretive strategies that accompany them (p. 18). He elaborates on the common patterns of language used in exegesis with regard to disabled people mentioned in the Bible (e.g., ‘annoying imposition” ‘scum of society’ with regard to the great banquet of Luke 14; p. 19). Likewise, he examines the common association of isolation and equation of disabled people with the ‘poor’ and ‘weak’, as well as the internal biblical refutation of this hypothesis. An, how this is evident when, after all, friends were concerned about a mobility-impaired person, as described in Mk 2:3 (p. 20). Schiefer Ferrari tries to show the widespread metaphorical or figurative interpretation of ‘disability’ by the ‘dropsy’ (Lk 14:13; p. 27). He explores the question complex of stigmatization on the basis of ‘aestheticization’ (pp. 30-31).

The issue of priestly eligibility from Lev 21:16-24 is taken up by Thomas Hieke. He notes that instructions concerning the high priesthood are missing, but he concludes from v. 23 that this is meant there. The ‘desacralization’ that occurred through a handicap is found in parallel also in the ideas of purity of the sacrificial animals, which should show no blemish (p. 59). Hieke speaks of ‘inferior material’, which was not worthy of sacrifice. He suspects an ‘inability’ of disabled people and God wants to spare them cultic ‘mishaps’ due to their physical limitations (p. 60). Lastly, Hieke strongly rejects the frequently assumed ‘proximity to the sphere of death’ due to physical deficits, since the designated may participate in the cult and eat anything holy.

Michael Tilly devotes himself to the Pauline treatment of disability. He summarizes the Pauline argumentation as a ‘biographically conditioned and at the same time apologetically motivated re-evaluation’ of one’s own weakness and illness into a charismatic qualification for the apostleship. Tilly provides an outlook in the context of the approach of the concept of ‘normality’ to a ‘successful’ life, which is not based on health and ability (pp. 79-80).

Markus Tiwald contributes to the understanding of illness and health (pp. 81-97).

Alois Stimpfle examines New Testament constructions of reality. He connects these with interesting, real biographical experiences of people with disabilities (pp. 105-107), namely Arnold Beisser (polio), Ilja Seifert (paraplegia) and Heike Beckedorf (thalidomide damage). Stimpfle sees an anthropological constant in the New Testament approach. She locates disability ‘outside the domain of the Spirit of God’. It is there, he says, that correction or healing also takes place (p. 115). He concludes that disability as a hermeneutical guiding category is suitable for working through the perception of the bodily senses, whether these are preserved in full or with limitations, in homiletics, exegesis and catechumenate in an Inclusion-oriented way.

Three contributions by Tobias Nicklas, Ilaria L. E. Ramelli and Wolfgang Grünstäudl deal with early Christian receptions. Tobias Nicklas presents about reference to God with regard to the corporeality of man (pp. 127-140). In antiquity, where physical or mental limitations threatened the existence much more than in modern times and led to distressful situations, the term ‘salvation’ and its semantic language environment ‘Heil-(ig)-ung’ (wordplay: healing – sanctification) had to be interpreted differently than today. The whole of man is central in early Christian literature. Likewise, the unexpected hermeneutical interpretation of a ‘weak’ sufferer on the cross in contrast to other religious ideas of the time. Ilaria L. E. Ramelli (pp. 141-159) elaborates literary-historically on the works of Bardaisan of Edessa (†222) and Origin of Alexandria (†255). He describes the Stoic ideas about adiaphora (indifferent thing) and apokatastis (recreation). The tripartite division into body, soul and spirit helped both ancient authors to refer from the common pattern of divine punishment or inherited sin to disability as an ‘indifferent thing’. Thereby, the actual severity of ‘true’ disability or illness is set in the soul and metaphorically interpreted to sin (pp. 158-159). Wolfgang Grünstäudl (pp. 160-179) talks about ‘Didymus of Alexandria’ also called ‘the blind’ (*313-†398) and the eye of the bride as an allusion to the Song of Songs or the ability to recognize Christ as the bridegroom. It is about ancient ideas on blindness and seeing. In particular, the phenomenon of an active, inclusive church father with a visual impairment from childhood is inspiring here (pp. 177-179).

The final unit of this ‘Disturbed Reading’ discusses special education irritations. Erik Weber, Lars Mohr, Anita Müller-Friese, and Matthias Bahr address the design of inclusive teaching in terms of planning, elaboration, and practice orientation. Erik Weber takes up the social model in disability studies (pp. 180-201). He uses the cultural model of Dederich. The latter argued body-phenomenologically and focused on the experience of being disabled (pp. 199-200). Lars Mohr (pp. 202-218) is dedicated to the mandate from Gen 1:26-28 to dominium terrae, as he calls it, i.e. the claim to world domination and this despite severe disability (p. 202). The creation of man ‘in the image of God’ is the basis of any kind of ‘ruling over the earth’ (p. 208). The worlds of experience of severely handicapped people have a lasting effect and a great impression, but they must be able to come into their own, which is the mission and goal of special education (p. 217). Anita Müller-Friese (pp. 219-235) and Matthias Bahr (pp. 236-253) round up this work with practical biblical didactic suggestions for the poetic and narrative texts of the Bible.

The target group of this collection are Bible teachers who are looking for Inclusion-oriented basics and aids for their work. In addition to a wide range of projects, the theological-hermeneutical treatment of inclusion as a guiding principle has been presented helpfully.