A Cultural Theory of Disability: Rethinking the Rethinking of Disabilities in Biblical Studies

The experience of disability, while immensely confronting and even personal, has also shown itself capable of generating deep theological reflection on several levels. There is the level of reflection from people affected by the disabilities themselves (e.g., Nancy Eiesland, The Disabled God). There is the theological reflection by people who intimately know people with disabilities, such as relatives or care givers (e.g., Frances Young, Face to Face). Then there is the reflection from those who are not personally affected by disability, but are nonetheless so deeply impacted by the experiences of the previous two groups that they are spurred on to theological reflection themselves (e.g., David Ford, Christian Wisdom). In biblical scholarship, the injection of critical disability theory into biblical criticism has greatly contributed to the level of reflexivity in the study of disability in the Bible, moving studies away from simply diagnostic analyses of disability that used to characterize earlier studies. The editors of This Abled Body (2007) discern three approaches among the new disability studies of the Bible: the redemptionist (seeking to save the biblical text), rejectionist (critical of the Bible’s negative portrayal of disability), and historicist (descriptive but with a view to map out the ideological landscape encoded in disability). All three approaches are heavily informed by ideology criticism and confine themselves to the portrayals of disability in the Bible. My paper will explore a fourth approach: a cultural theory of disability borrowed from anthropology that offers the heuristic potential to examine biblical texts not normally associated with disability. I proceed through the designations of ‘stigma’, ‘liminal’, ‘interstitial’ to indicate the perceptual shift required by such a theory. I then examine, as test-case, Paul’s presentation of his sufferings in 2 Corinthians in light of the theory and investigate what new theological reflections it gives rise to.