Disability Theology and Flannery O'Connor

Ben Rhodes

Timothy J. Basselin. Flannery O'Connor: Writing a Theology of Disabled Humanity. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2013. xi +146 pp. $29.95/₤24.99

What does it mean to speak of disability? According to the World Health Organization, over 15% of the global population (more than a billion people) lives with some form of disability, though the difficulties of precisely defining disability are significant. Etymologically, the word simply signifies a lack of some ability. As such, it assumes some standard of ability as the norm, some set of capacities, competencies or characteristics. Various cultures have understood such norms in many different ways throughout history, very often in more or less unconscious ways. Interpretations of gender and race play an enormous role in such definitions, including what is perceived as beautiful.  At the beginning and end of our lives, to say nothing of states in between, humans tend towards the loss of many abilities, existing in such fluid states of dependency that some choose to speak of normal as "temporarily-able bodied."

While none of these complexities are new to human existence, critical consideration of such factors have more recently given rise to an interdisciplinary field known as disability studies.  Most narratives of the history of the field trace its emergence in the United States to the rights-based racial and gender advocacy movements of the 1960's, crystallizing in the 1980's. From a legal perspective, the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Acts in 1990 established equality by defining disability and impairment, prohibiting discrimination on such grounds, and providing recourse to the judicial system, which laid the groundwork for social change. The United Nations has since taken up and modified this legal language in its Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. However, life is more than the law, and disability studies is marked by its breadth of interests, frequently developing in critical reaction to prevailing understandings of disability as a health deficiency to be managed or cured by medical technology. This understanding is usually called the medical model of disability, and it underlies much of the professional fields of healthcare, human, and social services, as well as serving as a kind of default setting for many who are personally unfamiliar with people affected by disabilities.
A threefold distinction has often been made between impairment, functional limitation, and handicap. An impairment is some physiological (physical or mental) lack of "normal" ability, which may lead to functional limitation in certain circumstances. If barriers to inclusion are present, an individual experiences a handicap, or social disadvantage. A classical example is a paraplegic who uses a wheelchair. In this case, the impairment is being paralyzed from the waist down, which results in a functional limitation of not being able to walk. A handicap would arise when the wheelchair user attempted to enter a building accessible only by flights of stairs. In a society where the architectural norm is defined by those who do not use wheelchairs (who walk up stairs rather than roll up ramps), wheelchair users are often socially disadvantaged. However, many individuals can benefit from architecture that is not constructed with such an "able-bodied" user in mind: parents pushing babies in strollers, seniors who have less flexibility or energy, maintenance workers using wheeled carts--all might prefer ramps or elevators. Thus society as a whole benefits from universally accessible design, not just those with mobility impairments.
The principal conceptual alternative to the medical model is typically called the social model of disability, which criticizes the medical understanding of disability for defining disability as an individual problem that should be fixed by medical professionals. The social model comes in many varieties, but it emphasizes the social constructions that define the 'norm' and oppresses individuals who are different, excluding them from everyday life. In its most extreme versions, the social model describes disability as purely a product of environmental discrimination, either by society as a whole or by specific individuals. While the social model of disability is a significant improvement on a purely medical model where disability is simply a problem to be fixed, it can lend itself to near parody in the hands of its more extreme proponents. For example, impairments really do exist (the paraplegic is really unable to walk), and the emphasis on the social experience of disability can sometimes neglect to take that physiological reality into account. Not all experiences of disability are merely social.  

Perhaps less obviously, the social model of disability seems much better suited to describe "physical" disabilities than "mental" (intellectual or developmental) disabilities, where the impairment is more closely linked to social interactions--the neat threefold distinction between impairment, functional limitation, and handicap appears to blur when considering, say, the autism spectrum, or Down Syndrome. Most disability theorists are therefore more interested in speaking of the medical and social aspects of the experience of disability as interrelated, and in critically exploring those complicated points of intersection. One contemporary discipline which has more recently begun to explore these intersections is academic theology. 

By most accounts, the book that marked the emergence of academic disability theology in America was Nancy Eiesland's 1994 The Disabled God: Towards a Liberatory Theology of Disability, an edited version of her Emory University master's thesis. In the last twenty years, a number of graduate programs of study have arisen within the academy to provide more institutional structure. Disability theology is still very much an emerging field, but we might characterize it broadly as being shaped by the activist wing of disability studies, including larger liberation themes. Theologically, it typically emphasizes a particular strand of incarnational theology, and prioritizes relational vulnerability over autonomous individualism.  More popular writing on personal or familial experience with disability, particularly as disability intersects with faith or the Christian church, is of course more widely disseminated than the academic field of disability theology--think of the career of Joni Eareckson Tada.

This context is important for understanding the volume under review, an edited version of Timothy Basselin's 2010 Fuller Seminary doctoral dissertation published as Flannery O'Connor: Writing a Theology of Disabled Humanity. Basselin uses disability theology to give a new reading of Flannery O'Connor's writing that focuses on what Basselin (following O'Connor) calls the 'grotesque'. He introduces this reading by emphasizing a relatively unknown piece by O'Connor, an introduction to The Memoir of Mary Ann, a short biography written by a community of nuns in Atlanta who cared for Mary Ann for nine years until she died from the cancerous tumor which had radically disfigured her face from birth. In that introduction, O'Connor relates how the nuns helped her make the connection between Mary Ann and the depiction of grotesque characters in her own writing.  

Basselin summarizes O'Connor's comments--in keeping with how her work is usually interpreted--as a defense of her deployment of literary characters who are physically grotesque to serve as "metaphorical mirrors for the characters (and readers') moral grotesques" (pp.4-5). In other words, the fact that humanity is universally broken--that we are all affected by original sin--is the underlying truth that drives O'Connor's fiction. To put it in O'Connor's own famous words, when an author and her audience do not share the same beliefs, then "you have to make your vision apparent by shock: to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures" (from her "The Fiction Writer and His Country," most widely available in O'Connor's Mystery and Manners). 

O'Connor's use of the grotesque is a deliberate strategy, used in an attempt to wake up her audience to the reality of original sin, which is a fairly standard interpretation of O'Connor, at least within Christian circles. Basselin's unique contribution comes from his reading of the subsequent lines of O'Connor's introduction, which seem to have been much less often observed: O'Connor claims that the face of the good is also grotesque.  
The thesis that Basselin advances is that the heart of O'Connor's vision of reality is driven by an understanding that the whole of life, both good and bad, glorious and grotesque, is a good gift from God. Even--perhaps especially--the grotesque is mysteriously good. Though we may suffer from the grotesque, either as individuals afflicted by death, disease, or disability, or as a society which excludes those who so suffer, suffering is an undeniable part of life as we experience it, and it must be accepted. Such acceptance is ultimately only possible from a position of faith, because suffering does not make intellectual sense. The closest we come to understanding is by reinterpreting (though even this word may suggest an overly intellectual posture) our experience of suffering in light of Jesus Christ's redemptive suffering on the cross. This stance does not so much explain suffering as reframe it, fundamentally as a mystery at the heart of life. The theological root is found in O'Connor's Roman Catholic understanding of the significance of the incarnation, emphasizing redemptive suffering. In Basselin's words, readers are drawn back to O'Connor because she depicts this mystery, drawing "us to look into the face of the grotesque and recognize Christ on the cross as the ultimate good...O'Connor practiced living this mystery as she watched her father die and then dealt with the grotesqueries of the same disease [lupus] herself...The mystery is Christ's mystery. It is unwritable, yet its possibility can be felt in the afterglow of O'Connor's stories" (p.32).
Basselin argues that O'Connor's use of the grotesque is an important part of her strategy to write stories that challenge the fundamental presumptions of modernity, an Enlightenment inheritance that prizes autonomy, self-sufficiency, and technological mastery over the environment. His particular contribution to the secondary literature on O'Connor is to interpret the grotesque from a disability studies standpoint, sharpened by an account of disability theology that values vulnerability, relationality, and the acceptance of suffering as a part of life. The biographical key here is O'Connor's experience of lupus, read as the crux of her own developing theology of acceptance of human limitation, which motivated her literal return home to the deep South of her most well-known stories. In sum, to be human is to experience limitation--in sickness or in health--and to exist in multiple relations of dependency, all of which stands in stark contrast to modern faith in perfectibility.  

Chapters Two and Three ("The Grotesque Good in O'Connor's Fiction" and "Baptizing Modernity") survey O'Connor's works, focusing on the manifold demonstrations of O'Connor's use of literary grotesques as metaphorical depictions of the spiritual brokenness of all humanity.  Basselin spends some pages arguing for a reading of O'Connor's last novel--The Violent Bear it Away--that supports his thesis about O'Connor's developing depiction of the good as grotesque. I cannot summarize his reading without spoiling the novel, so I will simply echo Basselin's conclusion that O'Connor depicts love, understood from within an Enlightenment understanding of rationality, as a horrifyingly purposeless force. The vehicle of her depiction is a character with a developmental disability (described as an "idiot" in the story) who reveals God's mysterious love and the terrifying demands humans evoke from one another. Chapter 4 ("The Image of Christ and a Disability Perspective") presents a brief constructive survey of the areas of overlap between O'Connor's vision and the emphases of disability theology. This material is solid, but leaves the reader wishing for more, as is perhaps inevitable in a book of this length.   

That brings us to Basselin's concluding Postscript on language, which is the place to raise a few broad questions about his project. Basselin notes that disability studies scholars will take issue with the equation of "grotesque" with "disability," and admits that O'Connor does (especially in her earlier work) use characters with physical impairments as caricatures to make the metaphorical point that we are all spiritually 'disabled' (my phrase) or affected by original sin. His defense seems to be that O'Connor's constructive project is not at odds with the basic goals of disability studies, broadly construed. In his words, the complexity of O'Connor's use of disability stems from "the tension between her regular use of disability as a negative metaphor and the fact that the larger concepts and intentions behind O'Connor's use of disability are often aligned with the values and aims of disability studies (p.110). Furthermore, Basselin thinks O'Connor actually has more significant things to say, since she eventually "comes to use the grotesque to challenge modern social perceptions of what is good and bad, to embody the necessity of accepting limitations, and to create an example of how what we consider grotesque can be a conduit for God's grace in the world" (p.110).  

While I love reading O'Connor, Basselin's defense seems inadequate for at least three reasons. First, disability studies scholars argue that the literary representation of people affected by disabilities reduces them to their impairment: characters become caricatures, often deployed to make a metaphorical point. O'Connor clearly does this. Second, this reduction contributes to real social exclusion of people with disabilities by reinforcing that caricature in the social imagination. While O'Connor worried about this personally, it is difficult to avoid critiquing her writing on this point. Third, Basselin fails to come to grips with the legitimate worry about equating disability with the grotesque. If the goal is to accept limitation, and to find beauty in disability, the word "grotesque" is not going to help--language is important, and while the intricacies of acceptable phrasing can be debated, calling a person with Down Syndrome 'grotesque' is in no way appropriate. I understand that adapting a dissertation for publication is complicated, and that may be why this material is relegated to the postscript, but the casual equivocation between disability and grotesque made it difficult for me to read through to the end.
Perhaps more troubling is the further equation of disability and disease, made most clearly in Basselin's description of O'Connor's struggles with lupus. A disease, especially a terminal one, may have progressively disabling effects--O'Connor was unable to participate in many social activities because of lupus. I have experienced some small equivalents as a result of having Type 1 diabetes--for example, my diet is different and requires more scheduling, coordinating food, exercise, and the regular injection of insulin, which makes travel and communal meals more complicated. However, a person with a disability is not sick, either in the sense of being infectious or in the sense that they will "get better." That is why an individual who uses a motorized wheelchair because they are paralyzed from the waist down is not ill. This distinction is part of the reason that, as Basselin notes, O'Connor so fiercely rejected the sentimental comments strangers made to her (pp. 20-23) and so powerfully repudiated the attempt to read her stories through the lens of "suffering" from lupus (p.13). I wonder what Basselin makes of this, since it would seem that his biographical reading of O'Connor's lupus is an interpretation rejected by O'Connor herself.  Would O'Connor have accepted the "disability" label?  If not, that seems to undermine at least some of the stronger claims Basselin makes for his thesis about the centrality of O'Connor's experience of lupus as fuel for her writing about the acceptance of limitation.
I have one last comment, which is less directly relevant to Basselin's thesis--since Flannery O'Connor was a devout Roman Catholic--but which seems appropriate given my audience. Much disability theology relies heavily on a particular kind of theological use of the Incarnation as a model for human activity, acceptance, and relationality, which is often secured by an appeal to a broadly social Trinitarian view of God, itself applied fairly directly to human community. This is a dense web of complex theological issues, and more needs to be said than can be covered in a review, including a deeper account of God's perfect Triune life, the distinction between Creator and creation, and the absolute uniqueness of Jesus Christ as both fully human and fully divine. Here, let me simply pose a few questions.

Following Scripture, it is clearly very important to make a place for redemptive suffering within Christology, and to describe how Christ's suffering applies to our human experience in a world marked by the cosmic effects of sin. But what else do we need to say about the utterly unique person and work of Jesus Christ, who accomplished salvation by means of radical sacrifice, completely counter to the expectations of the way of the world? What do we need to say about the activity of the Holy Spirit (and the doctrine of providence more generally) amidst this world crying out for relief from suffering? I am thinking especially of Romans 8 here. What should we say about the future, when death and tears will be no more? What place does disability have within the redemption of our world, and the new heavens and new earth of Revelation 20? Are we limited to making strong statements about the mystery of suffering and acceptance? Or should we have more to say about the crucified Jesus who is no longer dead, but living and active, the resurrected Lord, sitting at the right hand of the Father? I suspect that a more Reformed theology of disability might have valuable resources to bring to these questions, illuminating complex issues that are in need of deeper exploration.  

Disability theology needs contributions from all areas of the Christian theological tradition, including readings of important fiction writers like O'Connor as expounded by authors like Basselin. I look forward to reading Basselin's next book, in which I hope he expands on the constructive reflections on disability theology begun in Flannery O'Connor: Writing a Theology of Disabled Humanity.

Ben Rhodes is the Manager of Academic Studies at the Christian Institute on Disability at the Joni and Friends International Disability Center. Among other responsibilities, Dr. Rhodes helps oversee international education and training at Joni and Friends. He holds a PhD in systematic theology from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, and teaches at the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University

All opinions expressed in this essay are the authors, and are not intended to express the official position  of Joni and Friends.