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The moment Michael J. Fox latched onto the back of a moving jeep and drifted his way on a skateboard to his band rehearsal my lifelong, man-crush began. He was the epitome of cool and every time I see his IMDB repertoire I sing to myself “That’s the Power of Love…”. Needless to say when NBC rolled out a new comedy centering on Fox I was thrilled. The show was a fresh take on the postmodern, family comedy because it incorporated a frank portrayal of adjusting to life with Parkinson’s. Watching the first episode I was mesmerized…in part by Fox and the sharp writing of the show, but also in part by the disorienting nature of watching a life-crippling disability honestly depicted on primetime T.V. As much as I love Fox and commend NBC for moving bravely in this direction, I was surprisingly uncomfortable the first time viewing it.
Why was I in such discomfort? Why are we as a culture so unsettled by disability? I recall the controversy surrounding Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial several years ago. FDR was paralyzed from the waist down, but we chose to hide/ignore his handicap while in office. When it came time to erect a statue of the President there was a strong push to model him standing up instead of sitting in a wheelchair (how he actually spent his Presidency). We find this uncomfortable because disability calls into question our self-sufficiency and insolation like nothing else. Pop media (as well as “church culture”) has cultivated and reinforced the idea that we are worth what we (independently) produce and contribute to said culture. However, we are told in Genesis 1:26-27 that all humans are made in the image of God, the Imago Dei – but so often we misunderstand what that means. This is apparent in my response to Fox and his disability and I think it is endemic of our cultural and theological malaise. If Fox and any other human living with physical handicap is made in God’s image what does that tell us about our own design and purpose, our culture – both pop and church, and about the nature of the Creator? A theological paradigm that takes seriously those disabled amongst us presents a series of polemics to expand our spiritual depth and capacity:
The Fox show seriously challenges our hyper-individualistic approach to spirituality by highlighting the dependence of the shows protagonist on his community and family. The basis for reorienting our understanding of the Imago comes through the very nature of who God is. Bishop John Zizioulas suggest the nature of the Trinity provides the key to a holistic paradigm to understanding the Image of God within all of us:
Throughout the entire history of Western thought the equation of person with the thinking, self conscious individual has led to a culture in which the thinking individual has become the highest concept in anthropology. This is not what emerges from the thought of the Cappadocian Fathers. True personhood arises not from one’s individualistic isolation from others but from love and relationship with others, from communion… This is true of God whose being is constituted and hypostasized through a free event of love caused by a free and loving person, the Father, and not by the necessity of divine nature.
Thus the paradigm of community is an integral piece to understanding the Image of God. The inverse could be stated that where we are driven into deeper isolation we are driven further from the Image and Presence of God. Disability becomes illustrative for understanding our design and purpose. Most physical and mental handicaps require a dependence on others…to be created “male and female” reflects the communal, Trinitarian nature of God. To live with disability is to live with others (family, doctors, care givers, support networks) in your life. The autonomy by which we typically define personhood is challenged when we are incapable of fully caring for ourselves. The communion and love of the Trinity then suggest three powerful ways to redress our thinking – they are represented by different members of the Trinity.
One of the greatest weaknesses in Western thinking is our idea of “blessing“. If we get a new car or a job we are #blessed and God’s providence reigns supreme. But when life is falling apart God is a distant watchmaker, we are surprised Deists. Historically many theologians embraced this convenient fatalism with a reductionist approach to the Imago Dei. Thomas Aquinas offered a definition of the Imago that only includes the mentally healthy –
it is clear, therefore, that intellectual creatures alone, properly speaking, are made to God’s image.
This echoes Augustine as well as many if the church fathers but of course (as Luther pointed out) this means Satan is more in the image of God than infants and those with sever mental impediments. Jesus challenged this inconsistent, perverse theology when addressing the man born blind from birth in John 9. Having a disability is not a sign of God’s disapproval, nor is physical health a sign of God’s divine blessing and direction. Fox challenges this fatalism by the fact that he is “good” at his job and “good” at his family. This perspective points to the absurdity of death and illness as it correlates to our spiritual prowess or theological alignment and it calls to a proper positioning between us and God the Father. Disability comes from dissonance with the Father, not as a direct or specific punishment or result of a failing.
The word “image” in the Imago Dei means “idol” – (צֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים, tzelem elohim). This implies that first and foremost we are the shadowy representation of God on earth…if someone wants to encounter God they can do so through God’s image – men and women. As such, we share in a responsibility to rule and shepherd with God through our inherent gifts. But what does it mean when our ability to “rule”, or subdue, or multiply, or create is diminished or removed? Fox’s story on the show is in part about him returning to try his task as a top billed news anchor. He quickly realizes that while he can still perform his job, it will not be the same as it was prior to disability. One of the major hurdles Fox faces is the challenge of identity. Without being able to rely on his own abilities and skills the security of self-created identity, of writing his own story, disappears. That journey is so representative of our plight as humans. Don’t we equate “identity” with “duty”? We need to shift our perception of envisioning the image of God in light of disability by realizing we are more than our tasks, professions, spiritual gifts or ability to produce! The Imago Dei comes from all seven days of creation, not just the productive ones. We are called to abide and be present without producing. Jesus emphasizes this over and over again in the Gospel of John. Perhaps the cringe of living with the handicap begins by confronting our incessant need to link our value to our productivity.
Mental disability asks us to be present without always being conversant. Whether it is autism or trauma and attachment disorder, those with disabilities are not always able to communicate or socially relate to God and the Church in conventional ways. Does this mean they are not full members of the Body of Christ or fully able to encounter God? In prayer we are often presented with the challenge of conversation without response, listening without answers. In a church body, if we can’t contribute and function in the typical ways of leadership and volunteerism are we weaker members? Scripture answers a resounding NO! A theology of personhood in light of disability and the incarnation moves us away from the “vending machine” model of prayer…”I say these prayers; you give me this” (which is a form and practice of idolatry) and towards a model of spirituality that is more relational and incarnational. Jesus displayed the glory of God in a moment of absolute disability – God on the Cross is God with us…a model for our being.
The very notion of an “image” implies embodiment – the personal nature of dealing with the embodiment is highlighted in the way we are invited to relate to God. Moses is told God’s name, Yahweh, when he is called to relate to him. I think one of the greatest let downs of the journey of Israel is that they replace the personal name of God with the impersonal “LORD”. Too often we keep God and others at arms distance, moving from the personal to the impersonal. In Western Christianity there is a propensity to abstract Jesus and wax esoterically and intellectually instead of worship personally. I’ve stopped asking people if they are “Christians” – I find the term ethereal and unhelpful. Instead I talk in language of “following Jesus” – it is a subtle shift, but one that changes the rules of the game. One cannot theoretically follow Jesus, you can only actually follow or not follow Jesus. To quote Scott McKnight:
Those who aren’t following Jesus aren’t his followers. It’s that simple. Followers follow, and those who don’t follow aren’t followers. To follow Jesus means to follow Jesus into a society where justice rules, where love shapes everything. To follow Jesus means to take up his dream and work for it. ― One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow.
When we encounter the disabled we are forced to move from an abstraction to a personal encounter. On the Fox show, all pomp and formality is challenged when Fox reenters the workplace. It is hard to take policies and procedures too seriously when people with physical and mental disabilities come into the picture. Fox challenges the Hollywood image of perfection and photoshop – demanding we look at him as a person, not as a personality.
Similarly we often engage matters of disability as abstract problems to “fix” – hence FDR and the Wheelchair. A half-century after his death we are still trying to “fix” the cripple. This can happen theologically as well…I’ve sadly heard Christians remark after a miscarriage or a small baby dies that we will meet them in heaven…AS A FULLY GROWN HUMAN! This get’s extend to those with mental disabilities…”they won’t have Asperger’s in heaven”. The problem is we have an underdeveloped understanding of the Imago Dei and the telos of the Kingdom. How do you magically replace someone’s personality in the afterlife? The telos we are moving towards sees all wrongs righted, but does it erase the wounds of our earthly reality? That would diminish the power of redemption – the scars in Jesus hands would suggest that is not the future reality.
Jesus brought in healing and wholeness to the lives of those who approached him, but healing only happens in and through personal encounter (i.e. Jesus and the quadriplegic, Peter and John outside the temple). To locate the Imago solely in the spirit without including the body both denies our physical reality any true importance and promotes an abstraction that says “the Image is so distorted in the severely disabled that we need not take them seriously now” (but one day it will be restored). I suggest it is fully present in even those with the most severe of disabilities. The Holy Spirit beckons the church to engage one another personally and relationally and embrace, rather than deny the personhood in our disabled brothers and sisters. Living with a disability is a formative thing…while the physical may be healed, the marks or memories of it will be with that person…because they embody it. One thing I love about the Fox show is that there isn’t a strong focus on “fixing” him, nor do they reduce his role to that of someone living with Parkinson’s. I don’t think our heavenly father treats us that way, nor does he want us to treat his body (the one that was broken and crippled) with pandering abstraction. What does it say that pop culture seems to be more progressive and inclusive than many churches in America today? Conversely is it not telling that the show is now being cancelled. It is not for lack of talent, writing, production or advertising…could it be for lack of comfort? Is it hard for us to tune in on Thursday nights and face our own mortality and weakness?