Review of Brian Brock’s Wondrously Wounded: Theology, Disability, and the Body of Christ

Churches in the modern world must increasingly realize that we have to reckon with difficult issues involving mental wellbeing, disability, and related concerns. As a pastor in London, one of the world’s largest urban centers where there were fewer ways even just to step outside, the COVID 19 pandemic lockdown seasons for us revealed the leading pastoral challenge was people’s mental health. Even wider issues including medically describable disabilities, diagnosable psychiatric disorders, and the fallout from western society’s rebellion against created givens—noting that this list is not meant to relate particularly the last item to the first two in kind—created an exponentially growing body of situations for which people need pastoral care. Gone are the days where we can assume the backdrop of the idyllic middle-class suburban life and its guarantee of freedom from significant disruption to a polished norm. Perhaps we should never have embraced this assumption in the first place, especially in Reformed churches that do not share the veneered outlook of the seeker-sensitive and church-growth movements.

In Wondrously Wounded, Brian Brock reflects upon his experiences raising a son with Down Syndrome and autism to help us think about the church as a community of God’s people regardless of how “abled” society might categorize someone. Although an academic book, the personal narrative helps this volume have an element of pathos that is fitting for an endeavor in Christian theology probing the nature of how God’s community should include the spectrum of those who have professed faith in Jesus. Sometimes personalized facets can bend an argument away from biblically driven, historically grounded objectivity toward a theology fueled by the subjectivity of avoiding discomfort, but that weakness is not a major feature of this book’s development. Rather, we get some helpful insights into how families in our churches have to process life and even church attendance in ways that should make us consider how we consciously work to comfort and include them.

Brock raises and argues two highly striking points that are worth noting for this review. The first is his fairly withering critique of the neonatal testing procedures in modern medical systems. I must admit that, with my first child being born in January, I was fairly oblivious to the implied values and assumptions behind many of the tests ran during my wife’s pregnancy. Namely, many tests presume that if they reveal the child has a disability of some sort, the parents will abort it. Brock highlights how this assumption is not simply a matter of supposed personal benefit for families and children but is more related to the wider medical infrastructures that would prefer people who could disproportionately tax medical resources to not exist. The premise is that the weaker among us should be reduced and, if possible, eliminated. The connections between this abortion-culture mindset and wicked regimes of the past are likely obvious and need not be detailed.

The payoff though is that Christians should be much more conscious of how we relate to various medical practices regarding our children. I was very proud to learn that my wife informed her physicians that as she underwent neonatal tests during her pregnancy, it was entirely to be informed and prepared about how to care for our son, not in any way about whether we would have him. I wish I had been as informed about the challenges we may have had to face in terms of pressing back against the medical system’s presumptions as I am now. Brock’s book will help Christians become more aware and thoughtful of these issues—with the caveat that some of the points may land more forcefully against medical infrastructures in Europe and Britain than in America.

The second point worth noting here is how Brock connects the discussion of disability to the Christian doctrine of sin. His argument is that Christians cannot too readily accept all the premises of the abled-disabled categories, especially as they relate to the “standardizing” of society through abortion or marginalization, because of our Augustinian understanding of original and actual sin. We are all, in some measure, disabled. I realize that the “medicalized” use of the term is intended to be far more specific, but when applied to church life and pastoral care, this connection is a profound point.

There is a real sense in which the church does need to reckon with a strident understanding of sin as a factor, since in that light none of us can truly achieve a normalized status. We all have aspects that render us weak and needy. For our transgressions and shortcomings, we need to be seriously repentant, which means overcoming the stoicism that pretends a stiff upper lip truly indicates the suppression of our old man and personal struggle. When we confess our sin in corporate worship and private prayer, it cannot be a sociological exercise but must be a true lamenting our failures before the Lord, knowing our need for forgiveness in Christ. This awareness increases the church’s ability to welcome and accommodate those with a wide array of needs, special or expected.

Brock’s work on disability and theology then provides a thought-provoking starting point for considering how the church should respond to those labelled as disabled. The discussion about whether certain conditions will be removed in Christ’s consummate kingdom stretches probably most people’s assumptions, but also challenges us to recognize that our sovereign God creates exactly the people he wants and was not hoping for some better version of a particular person. The conclusions may not be definitive but raise questions worth asking, especially as they can inform pastoral practice.

My reservation about this book is that the presentation of the accepting community might be a bit one directional. I understand and appreciate why this book’s emphasis is on the need to clarify how the church should support those who are disabled and their families. Yet, the community indeed must be supportive in every direction. Part of Brock’s argument is that those labelled as disabled make real contributions and have spiritual gifts—a fully valid and important point—but I am unsure whether some of his reflections are entirely consistent on this point.

I mainly have in mind here the criticisms he levels against how others in society are not welcoming to his son. He gives the example of people’s facial expressions when his disabled son slaps passing strangers. I recognize that his assessment may be right in the typical sense that most who respond negatively to being slapped by an unknown child are probably bothered at the breaking of social rules simply because they are not welcoming of a disabled child’s participation in society. At the same time, one of Brock’s major points is that more room needs to be made for those who do not fit a normalized view of what society should be. Whereas some may be bothered by being slapped because of the reasons Brock described, there is also the possibility that an agoraphobic person has ventured out for the first time only to be slapped; a germaphobic person might be wrestling to enjoy being out at all only to be touched by a stranger; a hemophiliac might be concerned about the ramifications of how hard they may have been slapped. Setting aside the context of the general sphere to focus on life in the church, the point is that there are many things that weigh upon people, all which require one another’s help. We all have our weak points in life and need the sympathy and accommodation of our fellow believers to deal well with progressing through our struggles. Brock himself points out that the doctrine of sin means none of us are fully “abled.” A consistent application of his arguments means that we cannot dismiss the full range of issues requiring understanding and support just because someone might have special sympathy or personal experience with one.

Brock’s closing story well illustrates this point. He recounts visiting a university’s swimming pool with his son, who ended up throwing a student’s cell phone into the pool. Brock described the turmoil he felt in having to pay to replace the phone because individual property rights had become more important than making room for disabled children to be fully involved in the space. I sympathize with some of his points, recognizing that the situation seemed to become more dramatic than it should have been and perhaps the student too quickly and unreasonably demanded recompense—assuming the phone did keep working as Brock suggested.

There is a tension though. Throughout the book, Brock highlights the theme of “gazes and gestures” noting how the disabled receive too many disapproving gazes. Yet, in this instance, he faulted the student whose phone was thrown into the pool for not noticing how his son was playing by pushing other children into the pool, which I suppose the student should have realized indicated his disability. So, in this instance, the lack of gaze is criticized. I am sure that Brock has countless difficulties that have added pressure to his life and need to be vented, which is valid. An academic argument, however, needs instances that hold the balance of the claim. In this case, I fear that Brock may recount a story where he now wants a gaze—as long as it is the gaze of which he approves—without taking much account of what might be weighing on the student. Instead, he assumes that she was privileged and “normal”—the very categories Brock wants us to dilute.

There is a point to my criticism. Brock’s story ends with him never returning to that pool and going instead to a nearby stream. The conditions there were better for at least one reason: “At least there are no academics there” (p. 231). The irony is that there was in fact at least one academic: Brock himself, assessing everyone there as to whether they measured up to his expectations about how they treated his son. Brock could never enjoy another swimming venue because it created a socially threatening environment where his son was not able to be himself without consequences—although the student’s issue did seem to be more with Brock’s lack of supervision that his son’s disability, this in no way undermines the personal stress Brock would have felt and the fallout from it. Now, however, he has entered another venue and projects the same assessing and possibly negative gazes he wants his son to be free from onto others as he evaluates their performance according to his expectations, potentially creating a similar “socially threatening” environment for those of lower socioeconomic class than him who wanted to be fully outside the gaze of any academic.

The solution, of course, is not that Brock should refrain from going to the stream with his son. The solution is that accommodation to others’ weaknesses must be multi-directional, owning Brock’s own point that sin means we all struggle with an ability issue. Each of us needs to be more aware that, as Christians, we are working toward moving through the world, bearing up under the weight of sin and its wider consequences, and need to be mutually supportive. There is much in Brock’s work to prompt hard and searching thought about pastoral care for the disabled, making this book well worth reading. Further, I hope that Reformed Christians will start writing and working on more concrete applications of pastoral care for a growing number of related issues that require our thoughtful attention.

© Harrison Perkins. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. Excellent! Another book you want to look at, which we are using in our congregation concerning neuro-atypical persons, is “Autism an the Church” Grant Macaskill. Thank you.

      • Thank you for the pointer to the review. Well done review.

        Also, the concerns in Ch.6 (regarding homosexuality and sexual orientation) were “red lights” for us … this was the weakest portion of the book. But if one “beefs up” that part of Ch. 6 with a good and solid Biblical view of sexuality and sexual sin …. then the book becomes better resource for use in the church. Thank you for offering and continuing to highlight resources which seek to present various views concerning “disabilities.”

        As a note our congregation has been gifted a wonderful opportunity to show forth Christ’s love to many of our families and their children .. we have almost 50% of our children who are “neuro atypical” … we are learning how to be a better show of Christ’s love for these families.

  2. Thank you for reviewing this book.

    It brings to light the many burdens related to the reality of being a parent of an individual with disabilities, living in the world but not of it. Christians, blessed with children who carry the burden of a disability, are dependent on mercy – that is God’s Mercy.

    It seems a Pastor’s mercy in this matter would involve communicating a good understanding of the distinction between sin and disability. A disability displays an ‘unusual’ orientation requiring patient training, prayer, and discernment. Though disabilities are not normal or typical, the need to relate appropriately remains and is expected. The parent’s role is not typical – because there is no endpoint of care.

    Our role, as His ordinary people, who may be able to relate thoughtfully to an individual with a disability as His child, helps establish relative normalcy. Also, taking time and giving attention to a child with a disability to recognize gifts, is a blessing. It seems that showing others, especially parents of children with disabilities, the mercy and compassion of Christ, is one of our first steps to displaying His New Creation in the world that is groaning.

    Thank you.

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