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Spring 2021 · Vol. 50 No. 1 · pp. 118–121 

Book Review

Wondrously Wounded: Theology, Disability, and the Body of Christ

Brian Brock. Studies in Religion, Theology, and Disability. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2019. 392 pages.

Reviewed by Daniel Rempel

Wondrously Wounded is written “for those who have for some reason found themselves forced genuinely to wrestle with disability” (xvii). Authored by Brian Brock, who holds a Personal Chair in Christian Ethics at the University of Aberdeen, the book weaves together historical theology, medical ethics, biblical study, and practical theology to create a rich tapestry of theological reflection. Holding this book together is the witness of Brock’s son Adam, a teenager who lives with Down Syndrome and Autism. Brock tells Adam’s story as “a witness to his witness,” seeking “to listen to and join in with his [i.e., Adam’s] song of praise” (xiv, italics original). It is from this place, as someone ready to be encountered by the witness of Adam, that one must approach this book. Wondrously Wounded represents a significant contribution to theological scholarship, both within the world of disability and beyond. (Disclosure: I study at the university that employs Brock, and both his scholarly work and his personal guidance have been critical in my own theological development.) {119}

Wondrously Wounded is divided into five parts, each part made up of two chapters. In part 1, “Disability in the Christian Tradition,” Brock presents a particular strand of early Christian theology that saw “anomalous births” not as disastrous but opportunities to wonder at the unique work of God. For Augustine, these anomalous births resulted in human beings being endowed with “strange vocations” in which “the work of God might be displayed” (29). However, thinkers like Aquinas refuted this notion, arguing that “believers in wonders reveal themselves ignorant of the natural causes of things,” which he saw as a lack of understanding of God’s working in creation (42). While Luther attempted an Augustinian retrieval that elaborated on this tradition of wonder by highlighting particular manifestations of divine mercy in the world, the majority of the Christian tradition have not followed such retrieval, and as a result live with an inability to deal with the question of anomalous births. Brock attempts to continue Luther’s plea to wrestle with these manifestations of divine mercy by engaging the witness of Adam.

Part 2, “Welcome and Screening: Doxology and Anti-Doxology,” tackles head-on the dangers in modern medicine’s practice of prenatal testing. Brock narrates what he and his wife Stephanie experienced in the lead-up to Adam’s birth, and medicine’s pressures and underlying assumptions about Down Syndrome. The medical system has no interest in Luther’s “particular manifestations of divine mercy”; rather, it seeks to generalize experience for the sake of pathology, resulting in the near extinction of babies with Down Syndrome. For Brock, this generalizing pathology is nothing short of “anti-doxology,” or the inability to praise God for the anomalous births of those with strange vocations.

In part 3, “Systems, Norms, and Modern Medicine: Attending to Creatures,” Brock moves his critique of prenatal genetic testing to a wholesale critique of modern medical ethics and the quality of life it presumes. It is Brock’s contention that “the dominant account of medical ethics intentionally closes the door on substantive theological thinking about disability” (102). Taking his family’s experience of prenatal genetic testing as normative, Brock asserts that medical ethics today dispossesses doctors of the power and autonomy needed to care appropriately for anomalous births, since they are directed towards the normative or the general.

In part 4, “The Everydayness of Mercy and Wonder,” Brock attempts to recreate a vision of Christian health that moves beyond the described critiques of the medical system. For Brock, if the telos of our humanity is communion with Christ, then we ought not to view health as a physical category but as a spiritual one. The eschatological implications of this statement are teased out, such that regardless of whether bodies or {120} intellects remain the same, a more appropriate Christian eschatological posture may be the hope that all bodies will be found in their rightful place “in the peaceable communion of the body of Christ” (186). To live in such a hope is to take each person’s standing before God as their primary identity, moving beyond whatever label they carry to an understanding of their person as someone created and loved by God.

Part 5, “Body-Life as the Communicative Life of the Worshipping Community,” concludes the book. Brock here offers an extended exposition of 1 Corinthians 12 in which he argues that through the work of the Holy Spirit each person, with or without disabilities, has their own unique spiritual gifting to bring to the church. Brock then turns our attention back to Adam, highlighting his “strange vocation” as one infused by the power of the Holy Spirit to live out his own spiritual gifts.

Wondrously Wounded offers a robust theological engagement that takes seriously the particular manifestations of the divine found in encounters with people with intellectual disabilities. By focusing on Adam’s strange vocation, Brock provides a clear, tangible example of why people should take theological reflection on disability seriously. Wondrously Wounded is remarkable in that while the book is highly practical it does not set out to be a “practical theology.” The book is surely a witness to Adam’s witness, but Brock is not interested in setting up an engagement with practical categories like inclusion, advocacy, friendship, or care that often populate the literature of disability theology. Said differently, Wondrously Wounded is not interested in providing theological solutions to the “problem” that someone like Adam Brock might appear to be. Rather, the witness that is Adam Brock is demonstrated by detailed theological analysis of longstanding issues in the theological tradition as well as the biblical text. Thus, Brock’s reflection on the life of his son is not a mere report on a few lessons he learned through parenting, but rather painstaking theological exploration of the complexities of life as manifested in the life of Adam.

If one takes Brock’s work at face value, one may wonder how exactly to identify the particular manifestations of the divine that drive Brock’s work. Are there quantifiable categories by which we can know that a particular action is the work of the Holy Spirit? Or are we left to our own lenses, drawing conclusions that may be disconnected from the one making such claims? Are Adam’s actions as narrated in Wondrously Wounded really God working through him, or do they simply issue from who he is, the way he has been trained. Could the apparent divine quality of his actions be mere coincidence? Would someone else narrate their experiences with Adam differently than his father does? The answer to the latter question must surely be yes, but to what degree that matters {121} remains up for debate. Brock’s identification of Adam’s witness with a divine vocation confronts the reader, calling for re-examination of our understandings of the way God chooses to work in the world and how we come to understand such divine activity.

Ultimately, Wondrously Wounded is more than simply a book on disability; it is a book that takes seriously the claim that sometimes the Spirit moves in the places we least expect it, such as the life of a teenager with Down Syndrome and Autism. Anyone who takes seriously the claim that God is at work in the world today will be gratified by their reading of the book and will likely discover that “perhaps it is Adam who is the provocateur revealing the resistance of the church and the world to lives like his” (240), that is, lives imbued with the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit.

Daniel Rempel, Winnipeg, is currently pursuing doctoral studies at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.

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