Louise Lawrence in her OUP book Sense and Stigma in the Gospels: Depictions of Sensory-Disabled Characters seeks to reconceive the ‘sensory-disabled’ characters and avoid the binary and strict divisions of ‘ability’ and ‘disability’ in the contemporary world.
In short, she aims to get rid of the stigma and allow these characters to take center stage rather than being a ‘condition’ that needs to be healed. As she aptly states in the introduction:
In the pages of the gospels, characters with sensory ‘disabilities’ are curiously ‘everywhere’ and ‘nowhere.’ ‘Everywhere’ in the sense that those who are deaf, blind, and untouchable…form numerous stock props in tales of messianic healings; but ‘nowhere’ in that no meaningful identity, agency, or complexity is attributed to them beyond formulaic and flat character traits. (1)
Biblical commentators have utilized either a Western medical model or they have objectified the beneficiaries of divine healing. In both cases, the characters are not important in themselves, but only in the the larger theological schema.
Lawrence employs embodiment and performance, disability studies, and sensory anthropology in order to refigure these various characters.
She examines a number of Gospel narratives including the following: blindness, deaf-mute, the stigma of untouchability, and the epileptic boy.
In chapter 2 she looks at ‘blindness’ as a metaphor both in the biblical text and outside the biblical text arguing it is a tool of social rejection, inner darkness, and transgression. But interpreters themselves have ‘blind spots’ where sight-centric norms have lead to damaging misunderstandings and prejudices concerning sightlessness. She argues that when the biblical texts define individuals solely by a dominant trait such as blindness, it is like defining individuals exclusively on the basis of skin colour, sexuality, or gender.
But using ‘transgressive re-appropriation’ attends to the subversive potential or hyperbolic meanings invested in disabled figures. In this sense disability is conceived as a confrontational challenge to ‘ableist’ ideologies. The biblical text also uses ‘touch’ as a central to a number of the ‘blindness’ stories in the gospels, possibly trying to break out ‘ableist’ blind spots.
In chapter 3 she examines Mark 7:31-37 and the deaf-mute. In this narrative audio-centric channels of communication were reordered and vision, touch, space, vibration, and inaudibility of speech is adopted by Jesus. The performance underscored the point that ‘sense’ does not equate exclusively with hearing and spoken words.
In chapter 4 she takes the leper, legion, and the leaky woman as her subjects. All of these had been marked as untouchable. While most commentators focus on what Jesus did to them, Lawrence looks at what they characters do. “The leper jarringly reversed ‘untouchability’ to reveal how much it made the religious elite, imaged here in Jesus, themselves untouchable. Jesus when prompted however opts to share the polluted space of the leper.” Jesus’ exorcism of Legion normalizes this character and renders him politically ineffective because before he was protesting against the imperial powers. The leaky woman herself approached Jesus, which leads to Jesus’ involuntary bodily seepage displaying the false binary between ‘disability’ and ‘ability.’
In chapter 5 she re-conceives the story of the boy with seizures. Both the western medical and spirit possession models elude the story of the person as the centre of them. This ‘chaos narrative’ is turned into a ‘quest narrative’ by Jesus. Quest narratives do not evoke a cure but rather propose alternative meanings for conditions. Lawrence argues that seizure signifiers were leaked onto other characters (Jesus and the crowd) to challenge the notion that only ‘disabled’ epileptics are exclusive receptacles of such phenomena.
What We Can Learn
Lawrence helpfully pushed me through a few categories that plague modern readers concerning healing stories.
First, she is right to note that many times these characters are objectified and they need refiguration. These characters are not just ‘disabilities’ or ‘conditions’ in need of healing, but themselves characters in the story. Jesus is not the only character in these passages, and interpreters would do well to consider the role these characters have in the narrative.
Second, she had some perceptive comments on the biblical text concerning Jesus’ method of healing. I especially enjoyed chapter 3 where she notes the non audio-centric healing of the deaf and mute person. I think she may be onto something here with the mode of healing by Jesus in this passage. She also had some interesting insights concerning seizure signifiers being leaked onto other characters.
Third, she is right to break us out of the ‘tyranny of normality’ which prejudices ‘able-bodied’ in cultural discourses. Isn’t this just a way to love our neighbor as ourselves and treat the ‘disabled’ as we would want to be treated?
There are a number of things about Lawrence’s book that made me uncomfortable as well. (I have done very little work with disability studies, and therefore these thoughts may be fine tuned as I discuss these issues with those who have thought longer and harder about this issue.)
First, she so raised the level of importance and meaning of the sensory disabled characters in the book that many times they overtook the clear main character in the stories, Jesus himself. I am all for examining these characters, but if you focus on them and make Jesus a pawn in the scheme of the story then the story becomes inverted. These are healing stories! For example in chapter 4 on the untouchables, she says:
I will argue that Jesus’ actions are not an abrogation of purity laws, for even when touch ‘utouchables’, his purity status could be reinstated through appropriate means. Rather it is the untouchables themselves who constructively manipulate conventions surrounding their ‘polluted’ conditions and make political points through their bodily performances. It is worth noting that Jesus does not directly approach the leper, Legion, or the leaky woman, but rather the initiative for each contact is audaciously taken by the characters themselves…All three characters are ironically empowered by their ‘pollution.’ (78 and 97)
Although there are some perceptive comments in the paragraph above, Lawrence has the general tendency in her book to downplay Jesus’ healing in these episodes. This is probably because of goal of the book. However her argument would have been more convincing if she had not over-stated her case.
Second, she tried so hard to emphasize the ‘normalcy’ of these disabilities and not assign anything negative to them that at times she insinuated that the characters were not healed at all, or that they should not have been healed. In the story of Legion, she thinks Jesus takes away the power of this character who was protesting the imperial power by his embodied performance (93). But these type of readings turn the Scripture on its head. Shouldn’t we carefully emphasize that these healings are transformances where the persons identity is constituted anew. It is not that they had no identity before, but that Jesus comes and brings them back into social life in a new way. Of course, Lawrence would argue this is not what they need, but I find it hard to escape the desire to be ‘healed’ by these subjects, no matter how politically incorrect that sounds.
Third, and related to the last point, she pushes too hard against any sort of labels. One is left with very few terms to describe what a person is going through. Every term is suddenly loaded with politically incorrect meanings and language is emptied of its power. Many times in her narrative, Lawrence either implicitly or explicitly critiqued the biblical narrative or Jesus for their categorization of these characters. But Matthew and Jesus are simply utilizing the categories that are employed in their culture. If we follow the narrative, Jesus is full of compassion, no matter what labels he uses, so we should not expect them to use language that modern ears will necessarily be tickled by.
Overall, despite its weaknesses, this book provides a new angle into some of the gospel narratives which helps readers not view the ‘disabled’ as simply conditions to be healed. Although Lawrence over-argued her case, and sometimes turned the narrative on its head, I was appreciative of the insights she brought to the text. I will now be asking new questions of the text in my personal reading for which I am thankful.