Challenging Dominant Christian Thought
John Wilks and Jo Pestell, eds
Category: Christian Life & Discipleship
It is rare to come across a ground-breaking publication like this that heralds a dynamic new co-operative movement. LST and CDL UK worked together to put on a conference in November 2003, the first ever of its kind, and have now published the papers presented. It is a bold and timely contribution in an area that has great potential for benefiting both Deaf and hearing people alike. This book will be a valuable tool and a 'launch pad' for future work in the Deaf community to raise the debate about Deaf Issues and the Deaf church to the highest academic levels.
One would not normally expect the papers presented at a conference held at a leading theological college to be so exciting and stimulating. It is perhaps the timeliness and choice of subject that generated the sense of excitement and expectation felt by many on the day. In this book the editors have successfully captured this atmosphere. Amongst the 140 or more people who were present about half were Deaf. It is as if the 'Deaf world' represented by those present is at last challenging the hearing world and saying listen to what Deaf people have to say about Deaf church! We have a voice and something you must hear!
If you have any interest at all in Deaf people and how Christians can reach them with the message of Jesus then you must get hold of a copy of this excellent book. The editors have skilfully combined the papers presented at the conference with thought provoking responses and very carefully thought out 'questions for further study' which encourage the reader to think more deeply about the issues raised by the contributors.
The papers are designed to challenge both hearing and Deaf people in the church to think more clearly how Deaf people may really experience being one in Christ. They work around the theme of Paul's letter to the Galatians where he says (as the editors paraphrase Paul on page 4) 'that there is no longer Deaf or hearing ... for all of you are one in Christ Jesus'. The reality experienced by many Deaf people is far from Paul's ideal and, say the editors (p.5), this arises because the 'dominant Christian thought [of hearing people is] maintained not out of arrogance or indifference, but primarily out of ignorance' about deafness and the needs of Deaf people. 'The speakers will make criticisms of standard Church practise and belief and there will be clear calls for things to change. The dominant response has been inadequate and insufficient. ... For the moment, it is the part of the hearing to be silent; the time for interaction will come later'. Strong words indeed but, in my view, rightly said.
If Christians, Deaf or hearing, are really serious about engaging and working with Deaf people and providing the sort of church that Jesus might say 'Yes, that's the way it should be!' then good theological thinking and right actions have got to go hand in hand. Good, sound, well thought out theology and practice must address the very serious failings that have in the past spoiled the church's Christian witness to Deaf people and therefore the wider society. Hannah Lewis summarises well the position of Deaf people today when she says (p.30) 'In the past Deaf people were seen as second class hearing citizens and now Deaf people have been recognised as equal but different people, who use a different language and come from a different historical and cultural background. So the context of understanding the Bible has changed and therefore the theology needs to change too'. If we are to take seriously Jesus words recorded in Matthew 25 'As much as you do to the least of these so you have done unto me' then those who are called according to his purpose must engage at the highest levels of academic theology as well as providing adequately at the practical local church level.
I believe with all my heart that we must make opportunities for the most able minds in the country to work on the theological underpinning of the future Deaf church to support those who are called to engage in practical action for Deaf people. This book shows that this process has at last started. Building on these foundations the Deaf church can be strong and enduring and enable both hearing and Deaf people to avoid the errors that led so often in the past to the abuse and oppression of Deaf people.
There is a useful 'Contributors' page at the front of the book giving brief biographies of the five authors of the conference papers and a colour photo of each person. This is followed by a concise and incisive two page 'Introduction' by Dr John Wilks, Director of Open Learning at LST and Jo Pestell, UK Development Co-ordinator at CDL UK which provides background information for those less familiar with the subject area and an explanation of the intention of the conference. It makes the important point that the 'speakers and respondents speak from their experience of deafness. Most of them are totally deaf, all of those who are not deaf live and work with Deaf people'. If you are a hearing person with only a little knowledge of Deaf people but an interest in finding out more then the richness of content of this book will open your eyes to new things, sometimes (as it is the 'Deaf Way') through the humorous stories included in it!
The book contains five papers, four of which were presented at the conference, the fifth being a 'bonus' paper (prepared for the conference but not delivered on the day because the author could not be present). Three of the papers are followed by a 'Response' and all are followed by 'Questions for Further Study'. The papers are all by the leading figures in their respective fields. The first two papers by Wayne Morris and David Flynn who offer 'Biblical Perspectives'. The following three papers by Hannah Lewis, Gill Behenna and Bob Shrine give 'Theological Perspectives'. Laurence Banks (Chair of CDL UK) responds to David's paper, Miriam Hodkinson (a partially deaf social worker) to Gill's paper and David Buxton (A Trustee of CDL UK and Editor of their magazine 'DeafLink') to Bob's paper.
As David Flynn (David and his wife Denise pioneered and lecture on the Deaf Discipleship course at LST) rightly says (p.15) '... the vast majority of Christian individuals and churches have failed to truly express the Gospel to Deaf people. The challenge before us therefore is to awaken the conscience of the Christian churches to grasp this reality and to bring in corrective measures ...' (my italics). Deaf people he says (p.21/22) ' ... must not be patronised but welcomed for the different perspective they bring to the church'. David writes with passionate conviction and carefully argued points but he does not 'pull his punches' saying, for example, (p.18) 'It is not enough to have [Deaf] people in our congregations like dogs on a lead'. These are hard hitting words indeed! There is an abundance and depth of material and multitude of important ideas covered in this paper alone (space prohibits me from even mentioning them all here). Laurence Banks in his Response covers just some of them including 'cultural and linguistic difficulties' and the 'attitude of superiority' [shown by hearing people].
You won't necessarily agree with all that is said in this challenging and thought provoking book but you will be surprised, moved and challenged by the top quality contributions from the best minds in the country working in this area of biblical studies and theology today. Praise God that at last the debate has begun in earnest!
Also available from Forest Books
Roger Hitching, April 2005
Dr Roger Hitching is the author of The Church and Deaf People: A Study of Identity, Communication and Relationships with Special Reference to the Ecclesiology of Jurgen Moltmann, ISBN 1842272225 (Paternoster Press, 2004).
Review Previously Published by Evangelical Quarterly. Reused here by kind permission.London School of Theology
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