Lives Made Whole (Book Review)

David Paterson reviews Deconstructing Miracles, by W. Graham Monteith. Published by Convenanters Press (Glasgow). 2005. £14.95. 236 pages. ISBN: 1905022212. Graham is the organiser of the Sea of Faith local group in Scotland.

Type ‘Deconstructing Miracles’ into Google and you get ‘10 references out of 63,500’, and 6 of these 10 are references to Graham Monteith’s book. A brilliant title then! Graham aims to ‘deconstruct’ not only the biblical miracle stories, but also religious and secular ‘healings’ of today, and the subtitle ‘From thoughtless indifference to honouring disabled people’ is a better guide to the main thrust of the book. The guests at the wedding banquet in Luke 14 are ‘the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame’, yet – Graham writes – ‘disabled people are manifestly absent from the Church’s feasts’.

It is a fact of our time that those born lacking limbs, or efficient nervous systems, or sight, or hearing, and those who have had these impaired by illness or accident, need no longer be trapped in subhuman lives, or denied access to a full place in society. The development of medical, surgical and psychological understanding and skills enable us to override all these handicaps. We have an obligation to do so, yet social attitudes too often still stand in the way. Campaigns for disabled rights are often driven by anger, while society is driven by fear and the church remains indifferent. Disability must come to be seen as a ‘normal’ part of human life in all its diversity.

The problems are not simple. Graham keeps stressing the difference between a ‘medical model’ which sees disability as something to be cured – surgery, or techniques and counselling to enable a person to fit in to society – and a ‘social model’ which does not lay on the disabled person the sole obligation to adjust, leaving society with no obligation to change. Graham is critical of each approach if it ignores the other.

So how are we to understand Jesus’ miracles in this context? Are they ‘violations of natural law’ as David Hume defined them, and therefore rejected them? Or are they perhaps ‘social events which took place in the compassionate human life of a historical healer’? (p 20). Graham is clear:
The truth and beauty of the revelation of God we find in Jesus must lie in the human complexity of all whom he met and whose lives he enriched and somehow made whole’. (p 24

I confess that I found this book extremely difficult to read – and I was ashamed of myself. Was it perhaps because I share in the fascination and fear which characterises society’s response to severe disability? Maybe. But I think there was another, rational factor. Graham is determined to treat the subject holistically, and spends several pages discussing the concept of holism. He quotes from a colossal number of authors, each so briefly that the reader is caught between wondering what the quoted author’s context was and precisely how the ideas quoted support or run counter to this book’s argument. I often felt quite dizzy. Graham’s reading list is long and varied, and I wonder whether some sympathetic and ruthless editor might have helped produce a more accessible book.

Graham’s stated aim is ‘to produce a non-disablist hermeneutic rather than a new theology of miracles’, and, true to his admirable holistic ideals, he explores this in a host of different ways. I found his commentary on Isaiah 35: 1 – 6 particularly memorable. There is no limit to God’s restoring power. The whole cosmos, the desert, the feeble hearts, all are brought to new life in Isaiah’s vision of a renewed world; and the blind, the deaf and the lame are brought back to the centre (see pp 195, 196). Any theology of nature must respect contingency while recognising the interdependency of all aspects of the cosmos (p 85).

‘The uniqueness of the Christian community lies…in its inclusiveness and lack of discrimination’ (p 109) – a high ideal, too often marred by prejudices based on fear of what it would be like to be disabled (p 113). The use of healing miracles in hymns, prayers and preaching often ignores the individuality of the person healed. This can be very offensive to disabled churchgoers.

Graham acknowledges that a new mindset has been brought to disability by modern circumstances. ‘Disability is a modern social construct which has very little relevance to biblical times.’ (p 133). But social exclusion was at the heart of human suffering then as now. Graham tells how he found in the Iona Community a shining example of social, political concern and activism wedded with personal compassion. He clearly wishes to find this in the Jesus of the gospels, though perhaps it is even more important that the 21st century Body of Christ should lead in this social revolution and not lag behind.