Disabling Mission, Enabling Witness: Exploring Missiology Through the Lens of Disability Studies
Benjamin T. Conner. Disabling Mission, Enabling Witness: Exploring Missiology Through the Lens of Disability Studies. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018, 160 pp. $24.
Reviewed by Wayne Hancock
Benjamin T. Conner, Professor of Practical Theology at Western Theological Seminary, does not have a disability himself (5). Nevertheless, Conner is well equipped by his previous works (Amplifying Our Witness, 2012; Practicing Witness, 2011) to offer this intriguing title intended to “stimulate a conversation between disability studies and missiology around a vision of the entire body of Christ sharing in the witness of the church” (26).
The book consists of two parts. Part one serves as an accessible introduction to disability studies and missiology with an eye toward how they might inform each other. Chapter 1 offers an overview of disability studies in order to “complexify the notions of disability and personhood” (26). Chapter 1 also seeks to demonstrate why missiology must engage disability studies. Conner reveals how issues such as employment, incarceration, abuse, poverty, and homelessness are amplified by disability.
Chapter 2, likewise, serves to introduce missiology. Conner points to three concepts from contemporary missiology that he believes “can support disability advocates with the task of developing a contextualized disability theology and for reimagining the church’s witness” (39). Those concepts are: 1) Missio Dei; 2) Indigenous appropriation and contextualization; and 3) Christian witness.
Part two seeks to “[dis]able our mission history, theology of witness, and theological education by considering gifts and possibilities people with disabilities bring to our practice of witness, evangelism, and congregational life” (61). Conner briefly introduces Robert Schreiter’s categories of the “dynamics of interaction between power and difference across cultures” (61). Conner uses these dynamics (homogenizing, colonizing, demonizing, romanticizing, and pluralizing) to show how Christians have engaged disability in “a kind of crosscultural interaction where power dynamics are at play to the disadvantage of people with disabilities” (62). The following chapters use the missiological concepts introduced in part one to propose another way forward.
Chapter 3 looks at deafness and Deaf culture. Conner shows how the Deaf community complexifies notions of disability since “many Deaf persons don’t understand themselves to be disabled” (67). Instead of looking at deafness as a loss, Conner offers suggestions of “Deaf gains” that are brought to light through the missiological concepts. A particular highlight is how the translation of the Bible into native African languages, allowing for the creation of an “African Christian Theology,” parallels with sign language performing the same function for Deaf persons (100).
Chapter 4 focuses on intellectual disabilities (ID). Conner approaches ID from the perspective of theological anthropology and seeks to [dis]able theological anthropology. After using stories and perspectives of people with disabilities to complexify concepts of the image of God, Conner concludes, “Divine agency not human agency is at the center of our capacity to participate in the image of God to bear witness” (122). Having clarified his understanding of the image of God as witnessing, Conner turns to suggest ways in which people with ID can participate in witness. He approaches this through the lens of Orthodox iconography and terms the idea “iconic witness” (122).
Finally, chapter 5 considers how we might [dis]able theological education. Conner argues that seminaries have perpetuated an ableist paradigm and “normate bias” (145). Conner suggests that we might “enable” a fuller witness by including those with disabilities in theological education, through presence, intention, and dimension.
Before giving my evaluation of the book, I should state that I myself am disabled, which has undoubtedly influenced my reading of the book. As for the book’s strengths, part one serves as a good introduction to the two fields of missiology and disability studies, and Conner does an excellent job of demonstrating how these two fields could benefit each other. Conner’s singling out of the three missiological concepts is especially interesting (36–53). As for Conner’s proposals, the best part of the book is the use of the missiological concepts to bring to light “Deaf gains” in chapter 3 (93–101). This section captures most fully what the title of the book claims to do.
However, Conner’s “tentative” suggestion in chapter 4 seems less developed (123). I am not sure Conner fully clarifies how his “iconic witness” is different from Lesslie Newbigin’s approach to people with disabilities, which he critiqued and is seeking to improve upon (55–60). “Iconic witness” as a way of saying that people with ID participate in evocative witness that “reminds” congregations of something does not seem to differ from Newbigin (e.g., 141). While Conner wants to claim that “people with disabilities have more to add to the conversation . . . than what they evoke in others” (121), he does not list these “other gifts” (141). Thus, more development on how “iconic witness” differs from Newbigin’s approach, besides different understandings of disability, is needed.
Another major problem is prominent in chapter 5. Namely, Conner seems to prize non-rational ways of connecting with God to the detriment of the rational. Conner critiques seminaries for primarily viewing disabilities in terms of accommodations (148), and he argues for a stronger presence of people with disabilities in theological education, and for disability concerns in the curriculum. Yet, while everyone can undoubtedly learn from those with disabilities, is it right to disrupt a space for those with intellectual gifts on the basis of a call for diversity? To fully understand Conner’s suggestions, a discussion of the telos of theological education must be had first.
Finally, I am skeptical of Conner’s wish to recast disability “in terms of diversity and multicultural expression,” and to “normalize” disability (164). While disability might be a “frequent” human experience, this should not lead us to think that it is normal. If we know of a fuller way of life, does not God wish that life for all God’s children?
Apart from the insights in chapter 3, Conner’s suggestions in chapters 4–5 are lackluster and underdeveloped. Yet, overall the book accomplishes its goal of “stimulating a conversation” between disability studies and missiology and offers some pertinent insights that should springboard many interdisciplinary discussions.
Wayne Hancock, MDiv Student, Princeton Theological Seminary