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Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Episode 165: Stephanie Tait – Disability Theology is for Everyone

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with Stephanie Tait about the application of disability theology as they explore the following questions:

  • What is disability theology? 
  • How does the cultural lens of ableism impact the way we read the healing stories of Jesus?
  • What is inadvertent ableism? 
  • How is ableism expressed in churches? 
  • Why do churches and parachurch organizations have ADA exemptions? 
  • What can the story of Jesus appearing to the disciples after his resurrection teach us about the assumption that everyone with a disability must want to be healed? 
  • Why is disability theology for everyone? 
  • How can decisions about inclusion made by churches or individuals scale up for greater good or greater harm?
  • What are the negative impacts of decentering disability theology? 
  • How can we learn to practice true solidarity? 
  • Why should we diversify the voices that we are listening to and taking in?
  • How can our view on disability theology have a ripple effect on our own theology? 

Tweetables

Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Stephanie Tait you can share.

  • “I’m disabled. Everything that I do is filtered through that lens and that includes theology, my relationship with God, the way I read scripture – all of that is going to have that core piece of me brought to the table. Like, I can’t really separate the two.” @StephTaitWrites
  • “When ‘this too does not pass’, you’re sort of left with your empty hands going, ‘so, is all of it crap?’ Is there a way to take pieces of this faith and hold onto it still?” @StephTaitWrites
  • “We all read our own cultural experiences and biases and experiences into the text when we read it. If you don’t think you’re applying a lens, if you think you’re the true neutral, you’re definitely not.” @StephTaitWrites
  • “Rampant ableism is contradictory to what I know of God and his character.” @StephTaitWrites
  • “It was such a turning point for me to know that I serve a wounded Savior. There’s nothing broken or incomplete or anything less than the fullness of the image of God in an unhealed body like mine because he came back with an unhealed body.” @StephTaitWrites
  • “If disability theology really was for everyone, if abled people really invested in listening to disabled voices, in being taught by disabled theologians – the changes that could be made would be structural and systemic.” @StephTaitWrites

Mentioned in This Episode

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Read the transcript

0:00

Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People – the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.

Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.

[Jaunty intro music]

Pete: Hello, everybody. Welcome to this episode of The Bible for Normal People. Our topic today is “Disability Theology is for Everyone,” and our guest is Stephanie Tait.

Jared: She is an author, a speaker, and an advocate for disability theology, and I think it’s a really important episode for everyone to listen to.

Pete: Yeah, and we say this a lot – we learn things from our guests. We learned things from this guest. So, just, we’ll just, let’s just go. Let’s get into this.

Jared: Absolutely.

[Music begins]

Stephanie: To be brutally honest, this is an area where the church has really dropped the ball. A lot of what’s happening is not just insufficient, it’s outright harmful. A lot of the healing stories get taught as there’s something broken about this person and Jesus came in and fixed it. That is not a healthy or appropriate way to teach that story whether you know you have disabled people in your pews or not, you do.

[Music ends]

Jared: Well, welcome Stephanie, to the podcast. It’s really great to have you.

Stephanie: Thanks for having me on!

Jared: You know, one of the things, well, the thing we really want to dive into is this idea of disability theology. You know, here on the podcast we’ve said before, all theology has an adjective. There’s a context for it. So, before we get to the meat of that, I think it would be helpful for you just to explain a little bit of your story. Why is this interesting to you? Why does it matter to you, you know, this context and history of disability and suffering in the midst of relationship with God?

Stephanie: So, for a lot of my life I was a relatively healthy little girl. Until I got to about 16 years old, in the middle of high school, I started having really strange, and at the time, completely unexplained health issues and they were very all over the map. One minute it was breathing related, the next it was like, joints, the fatigue became crushing. I started to have memory issues and processing issues. Like, none of these things seemed related at all and my parents, you know, were behind me in being very frustrated and wanting better for me and so they’d take me to doctor after doctor and say, “What is going on with her?” And pretty much every time we’d get something along the lines of, “well, she’s a 16-year-old girl. Of course, she doesn’t want to wake up and go to class,” or, “she’s 16, she’s probably just depressed.” Or in the worst cases, we’d get things like, “Well, she’s very dramatic. She does a lot of theatre and she’s very outgoing. You know, maybe she’s sort of exaggerating or playing it up for attention.” And so, we just didn’t get any useful answers. And this went on for years. And as it went on, symptoms kept popping up every few years to add to the list. In college, I started having seizures and at this point, it was like, doctors were throwing darts at a board, right? Like, okay, I guess you have epilepsy too. We’ll just tack that on the list.

Pete: Right.

Stephanie: As my joints started to actually break down and it looked degenerative, they were like, okay, you have rheumatoid arthritis. Just add it to the list! When I got older, and my husband and I got married, I started having repeated miscarriages again and again. And once again, darts on a board. It was like, okay, well, these things happen so that’s gotta be unrelated. We’ll just add it to the list. And this went on for over 15 years –

Pete: Wow.

Stephanie: Until I finally heard a similar story of similar health issues from somebody I knew through the grapevine whose issue had actually been Lyme Disease. And this is something I had never been tested for, so I figured what the heck, worth a try –

Pete: Yeah.

Stephanie: Fought tooth and nail to get the testing and sure enough, for 15 years, this bacteria had been allowed to run rampant through my system, destroying organs, causing all kinds of problems. And the thing is, if you let it go unchecked for that long, some of that damage is not reversible. You can kill that bacteria and get it out of your system, but I had permanent heart damage, I had permanent neurological damage, these things just don’t reverse. So, it was sort of that catch-22 where you think, if I can just get a diagnosis, that, you know, that’ll be the key! And then you get a diagnosis like that and you find out it’s not really the end all, be all. You’re gonna carry some of these symptoms for the rest of your life. And even then, I was still referring to myself with terms like chronically ill.

4:44

Disabled? It felt out of reach to me still. I spent a lot of time going, no, you know, I don’t use a wheelchair, or I have good days and I still do a lot of things. I’m not disabled. Took me a really long time to sort through how much of that was my own internalized ableism, how much of that was just a real misunderstanding of what disability means and what it is and isn’t, but it wasn’t really until adulthood that I recognized I’m disabled. I will always be disabled. That’s a part of my identity, it’s a part of who I am. And so, I can’t turn that off as I walk through the world. That’s, you know, it’s a permanent piece of me. And so, everything that I do is filtered through that lens and that includes theology. That includes my relationship with God, that includes the way I read scripture, all of that is going to have that core piece of me brought to the table. Like, I can’t really separate the two.

Jared: Well, with that, maybe, can you share through the lens of maybe the church and your relationship with God through 15 years of unanswered questions and medical hardships and those kinds of things – what was happening to your theology and view of God in that time?

Stephanie: Whew! That’s a loaded question. To be brutally honest, this is an area where the church has really dropped the ball and where a lot of what’s happening is not just insufficient, it’s outright harmful. So, I came up in a conservative section of the Baptist church. I was from the Conservative Baptists Association. We split off from the SBC because they weren’t conservative enough for us!

Pete: Gotcha, gotcha.

Stephanie: So, I didn’t come up in a church that would’ve ever used the words “prosperity gospel.” And in fact, if somebody had, I think we would’ve said, “oh, heck no, we don’t believe in that nonsense.” But if you really look at the core of the theology, it was all over the place. It was definitely this underlying belief that if you do what you’re supposed to do and if you follow God’s will, whatever that means, you may not, you know, it’s not God’s gonna make you rich or give you a private plane or something, but there was definitely a baseline minimum, right? You weren’t going to be homeless and living under a bridge somewhere. And so, initially I spent a lot of the process sort of swinging between two extremes. Either A, if I just have enough faith, look, God’s gonna show up and do something amazing. So I just have to be, you know, 24/7, positive, encouraging K-love all the time, like just tell everybody I know he’s going to do something amazing, just watch! And if I could keep that up for long enough, he’d have to deliver. He’d have to come through. And when that didn’t work out, I’d often swing to the other extreme, which was am I doing something wrong?

Pete: Mm hmm.

Stephanie: Is there some secret sin in my life that I’m being punished for? Is there some lesson he’s trying to teach me that if I could just learn it, then this would finally end? We could move onto the next thing. And ultimately, when you swing on that kind of a pendulum for 15 years, neither of those answers was really fulfilling and neither of those answers really holds out long term. When it keeps going and going and going, when “this too does not pass” –

Pete: Yeah.

Stephanie: You’re sort of left with your empty hands going, so, is all of it crap?

Pete: Yeah.

Stephanie: Or did I misunderstand somewhere? Is there a way to take pieces of this faith and hold onto it still or does this mean that all of it is nonsense and I have to go back to the drawing board?

Pete: So, was that process, I mean, not to overuse the term, but was it spiritually traumatic for 15 years to be sort of on the swings one way or the other and neither end of the spectrum really worked and, you know, because people sometimes don’t recover from that, that’s my experience. When you have such a negative view of God, really, and of yourself, like, this transactional thing –

Stephanie: Yeah.

Pete: You know, people walk away from faith pretty quickly after a period like that. I guess you had your own crisis, then.

Stephanie: I mean, you’re not wrong. It felt like I was consistently left with two choices, right? Either God’s a real jerk or I’m just a horrible person to deserve this much extra punishment in my life. Right? And neither of those were things that we’re psychologically built to carry long term. They’re both really unhealthy, and you’re right, they’re both spiritually traumatizing.

9:48

If I’m honest, there are times that I don’t fully understand how I’m still here, how I still am a Christian, how I still consider myself pretty in love with Jesus, like, that’s, I don’t know. And what I don’t ever want to come off sounding like is – I feel like I’ve seen this book 80 times – you know, Suzie blogger tells you every bad thing that ever happened to her in her life, but Jesus!! So, it was all okay, so what’s your problem? Because her stuff is definitely worse than yours, so buck up.

Pete: Yeah.

Stephanie: Like, that is not what this was. I definitely had some extremely rocky and extremely raw come to Jesus moments that involved many swear words and lots of things that I was raised to believe you should probably not say to God. This was not a sunshine and just hold onto Jesus and it’s all gonna be okay process.

Pte: Yeah.

Stephanie: If I’m honest, and this is gonna sound a little hokey, I think there were times where I completely let go and so something else must’ve been holding onto me.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Stephanie: Because if it had just been up to me to keep choosing to stay, I would’ve been out of here a long time ago.

Pete: I don’t think that’s hokey at all. I think that’s how it works.

Jared: So, then connecting these dots, how did that experience shape what you would identify as disability theology? Like, in a lot of ways it seems like you needed to craft your own understanding of God in a new light given your new experiences and so how did your experiences shape what became, for you, disability theology?

Stephanie: So, I think you guys come from a similar place, it sounds like, of believing that we all read our own cultural experiences and biases and experiences into the text when we read it, like, there’s no way around that. If you don’t think you’re applying a lens, if you think you’re the true neutral, you’re definitely not.

Pete: Well, that’s your lens.

Jared: [Laughter]

Stephanie: Yeah.

Pete: Right?

Stephanie: So, in a way, like, I don’t think there was ever a clear moment where I went, “I’m gonna set out to figure out what disability theology looks like!” It was sort of a recognition that I had, for a very long time, been reading the text as a disabled person whether I knew that yet or not. And the more I came to accept that that’s who I was in my identity, the more I was able to articulate more clearly and identify more clearly the ways that I approach certain stories differently or the ways that certain stories had been taught or applied that were extremely harmful to me. So, I don’t think there was like, a day that I set out that I was like, “what does disability theology look like?” I think it’s been a process of recognition that this was something I was already doing, I just hadn’t really given it a name or identified that I was doing it. Does that make sense?

Jared: Absolutely. Maybe you can share a few of those experiences of, you know, as you became aware of how you had been reading the Bible through your experiences or your theology, your views of God had been filtered through these experiences. What, you know, when you say this is what I was doing, what was it you were doing?

Stephanie: That’s a really great question. There are some glaring examples to me, like, the healing stories of Jesus, right? There are so many stories of Jesus coming across somebody who has some sort of ailment or illness or what we would call disability and healing them and taking that ailment away. And somewhere along the process of me finally identifying as disabled and getting uncomfortable with that identity and not being afraid of that word anymore or associating it with something negative, those stories started to really grate against me. I found myself being legitimately uncomfortable when one of them came up in a sermon because I knew that I was just gonna want to get up and walk out. And so, I had to circle back and really sit down with some of these texts and say I kind of feel like I have two choices here – either I have to just sort of cut holes, right, where these are and black them out and not do this anymore any say I just don’t like what I’m seeing here or I have to sit down and read it and say is there some other way to read this story that is not through the cultural lens of ableism that tells me something different about God, something that jives with not only my experience of God, but with what I see from him elsewhere in the text? Because, to me, rampant ableism, it doesn’t, it’s contradictory to what I know of God and his character.

14:54

So, I had to learn how to sit down with these stories and say in the same way that we read our own cultural lenses into this, is there something about the cultural lens of the day that might’ve been influencing the way that this story was written? Is there something about the cultural lens of today that’s influencing the way people are teaching this story to me? And both of those were a big fat yes for me on those. I think a lot of the healing stories get taught as there’s something broken about this person and Jesus came in and fixed it and that’s beyond harmful. Let me just say right up front – like, that is not a healthy or appropriate way to teach that story. Whether you know you have disabled people in your pews or not – you do – and they hear it and they internalize there is something wrong with you and there is something broken and you won’t be fully whole until someday in heaven when Jesus fixes you.

Pete: Well, what is another way of reading the healing stories?

Stephanie: I think it’s important to remember that none of these stories exist in a vacuum, right?

Pete: Yeah.

Stephanie: So, when Jesus comes and he meets people where they are, he meets them in the culture of the day. And the culture of the day was if you had some kind of a disability, it wasn’t just that people looked at you differently, it was that you couldn’t fully participate in the community.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Stephanie: And not only could you not participate in the community, you couldn’t participate in spiritual life. There were tons of rules about people that just weren’t even allowed to come to the temple, period, because there was something “wrong with them.” And I think that context matters because so much of what Jesus does is he’s trying to bring people in closer to himself and in better community with each other.

Pete: Yeah.

Stephanie: And so, to me, the healing stories are not about fixing the disability as if that’s something that’s broken. When you heal the blind man, it’s not it’s so much better to be sighted and you were broken when you were blind, it’s in the context of where we are in this society, right now, the only way that I can restore wholeness is to restore you to society and they won’t accept you any other way. So, given those limitations, I’m doing what I can do bring you back into belonging.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Jared: Right, yeah, there’s a social component to it so it’s not actually the physical disability. It’s given the constraints of this society, the only way to bring you back into the community, which is kind of incarnational in the sense of, we are invested in the way things are. We wish it were different, but we’re invested in this and Jesus brings us into it given the way things are.

Stephanie: Yes.

Pete: I also think unlocking a, both a profound point, but then when you sit with it for a while, a rather obvious point, and that is what did this mean to the people back then rather than importing our own experience into it? And that’s really the foundation of critical biblical reading and critical scholarship, not criticizing the text, but saying how would this have been heard, why say this?

Stephanie: Mmm.

Pete: Right? And so yeah, I just think that’s such an important point that you’re bringing up there and a great insight. And I wish more people could carry that for a lot of different reasons too, just to, yeah, for good or for bad, you know, whichever way scripture is misunderstood. For harm or for just, you know, manipulating it for our own well-being, to take, to pay attention to what are those words doing back then as best as we can tell? And that’s about uncovering a little bit of history and a little bit of context and that sometimes can correct a lot of ills. I have so many students, Jared, that they feel liberated when they finally understand something about the historical context of any one of a number of stories and realizing that it doesn’t have the negative affect that it had for them when they were younger.

Jared: Well, and if I can, before we go forward, because I think one of the filters we bring to it that the ancient world maybe didn’t, you keep using this word ableism. Can you define what that means and maybe as a construct or as a filter that we use?

Stephanie: Yeah, so, I think the biggest thing to understand about ableism is that it’s easy for people to hear that word and think we’re talking about, you know, openly hating disabled people for being disabled, right? Like, I just, I don’t like people in wheelchairs, or making fun of them for their disability. And while those are very obvious sort of forms of ableism, that’s not really all that ableism is. Ableism is structural, and that’s really important to kind of take a step back and understand in that the world that we live in is built to serve certain kinds of bodies and certain kinds of people.

19:48

And if you’re not one of those certain kinds of bodies or people, it’s more difficult for you to move through the world and much like we talked about in those healing stories, it’s difficult for you to have a full sense of belonging in the community.

Pete: Right, yeah.

Stephanie: And so, those barriers to full belonging and inclusion for disabled people, all of those represent ableism. When we put barriers on access, whether intentionally or unintentionally, that’s ableism. When we assume that the experience of disability is somehow less than and people would obviously prefer to not be disabled anymore, that’s a form of ableism. So, it’s sort of, it’s difficult sometimes, for me to put it into words in a way that it is clear and concise, but I think it’s just really important to understand that it’s not just an intentional “I hate disabled people thing,” it’s understanding that anything that puts up barriers to our full inclusion and belonging in the community –

Pete: It’s almost like systemic racism in a sense, right?

Stephanie: In a way.

Pete: It’s not the same thing, but it’s so deeply part of the structure that it doesn’t have to be overt to still be harmful to people.

Stephanie: Well, and the other similarity that kind of resonates with me is that just because I am disabled, doesn’t mean I’m free from ableism, right? There’s a lot of internalized ableism that we as disabled people still have to work through because it’s just in the air we breathe. It’s all around us in society. We’re raised in it. You don’t just magically flip a switch and turn that off when you decide you’re disabled.

Pete: Right.

Stephanie: That’s not how that works.

Jared: You talk about this inadvertent ableism, and I think as churches, you know, within accessibility and how we maybe are unaware of how ableism is expressed in churches. And I’m thinking of churches being exempt from the ADA and some of the things you’ve written about that.

Stephanie: Yup.

Jared: Can you maybe just speak to that a little bit? Because I found that really enlightening for myself.

Stephanie: So, a lot of people don’t even know that churches are exempt from the ADA. But back when the ADA was being written and advocated for, the head of the Association of Christian Schools was a big figure in this, churches and Christian schools sort of formed a lobbying coalition behind him to press the ADA to write an exemption for churches and Christian schools. And so, it’s interesting how much this mirrors some of the debates that we’ve seen around issues around gay marriage and healthcare contraception today. Essentially, they kept putting up this argument that tried to frame it like the rights of disabled people were in direct contradiction to the freedom of religion. It’s eerie how much it mirrors the same arguments. And so, they were successful, and they got an entire exemption carved out for them that says that they’re not forced to comply. And again, it’s not just churches, it’s parachurch organizations and any extension of that church. So, if that church runs a daycare on its campus, it’s exempt.

Pete: Mmm.

Stephanie: If that church runs a Christian school, it’s exempt.

Pete: What drove that?

Stephanie: Well, a lot of it was the idea that it would be expensive to overhaul things to make them accessible.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: [Laughter]

Don’t let our need to love people well get in the way of, you know, protecting our finances.

Stephanie: But even grosser, there were some that had this idea that, think of like, cathedrals and traditional architecture and blah blah blah. Like, if you had to rip that out and put in ramps and space apart your pews and like, it would destroy this heritage. But what’s even grosser is if you look at the kind of arguments that this head of Association of Christian Schools made, it was pretty ugly. They were saying things like, you know, if the ADA applies to us in areas of like, hiring, what if people say that, you know, being a drug addict is them having a disability and we’re forced to hire them? What if we’re forced to hire people with AIDS and we’re not allowed to fire them for their gay lifestyle choices? Like, it was ugly. It was really ugly. Essentially, they made it very clear in black and white that they wanted a legal exemption to discriminate freely as much as they wanted.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: Well, I have to, I just have to express my frustration after reading that has just grown, because as you’re saying that perhaps the context for Jesus’s healing wasn’t just about, you know, Jesus will heal you of your physical disability, but it’s about belonging in the community of faith.

Stephanie: Mm hmm.

24:42

Jared: And that’s the trajectory of this. And now we’re using that same, those same passages to exclude people from belonging. It seems, it’s just so frustrating to me to see that the context might’ve been a context of how do we include people and instead of doing everything we can as a church to include as many people as we can to have full access and equality in our congregations and communities as outposts of the kingdom of God, we’re instead using these loopholes to exclude people. It’s just incredibly frustrating.  

Stephanie: It goes back to the idea that ableism doesn’t have to be obvious hatred and like, seeking to exclude. Sometimes it feels unintentional because if you ask most churches about this, if they aren’t ADA compliant, many of them will say, “oh, we’d love to, we would, but it’s just so cost prohibitive.” Or you know, “well, we’ve never had a student in a wheelchair, so we’ve never needed to invest the money into…” My younger son, actually, went to preschool at a little church preschool that was like, at the time, the only place that we could afford and we went with it and I could tell stories for days, But the worst of it was they did a huge church and campus remodel the last year that we were there, and they were a two story campus with no elevator.

Pete: And they added a third story just to make it difficult?

Stephanie: And so, I thought they would put in an elevator as part of that big remodel, but no, they put in a coffee shop area and big picture windows and all kinds of stuff. And when I asked about it, I was told straight up that a) they’ve never had any students in a wheelchair so it’s not really a concern, b) you know, there is a way that you can go outside the building because it was a split level, in the rain, in Oregon here. You know, go up the driveway and come back in on the other thing. So, it’s technically accessible if you think about it. But the big thing that stuck with me was they tried to make it an issue of good stewardship.

Pete: Yeah.

Stephanie: They said it would take so much of the budget to put in this one elevator that would only serve such a small population, is that really good stewardship of these funds that people have donated?

Jared: So, they hadn’t read the parable of the 99 and the 1?

Stephanie: That was exactly the argument I made! I was like, oh, okay, we’ll just ignore Jesus going after that one sheep because it’s too small of a population.

Pete: Yeah, yeah.

Jared: Well, even the bigger, the bigger thing, and not to harbor on this, but it is very frustrating to me. Like, we ask disabled people to trust God to heal them, but we’re unwilling to trust God for the finances to make the programs and buildings accessible to everyone.

Stephanie: Well, I think that’s part of the reason that it’s so dangerous to teach the healing stories through some sort of prescriptive lens, right? Like, God wants everybody to get physically healed, that’s what I get out of this story. That’s dangerous partially because it really deflates the tires on any sense of urgency to make things more accessible. Like, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen this, you can Google it sometime, but there are some atrocious pictures on the internet of churches that have handicap accessible parking signs that say things on them like “waiting to be healed.”

Pete: Oh, gosh.

[Laughter]

Jared: Ohhhh.

[Laughter]

Stephanie: And we laugh because it’s such an extreme example –

Jared: Gosh.

Stephanie: But really, there’s a lot of that underlying thinking going on in a lot of churches. They may not be so blatant to stick it up on the sign like that, which is gross, but they think it.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: Mm hmm.

Stephanie: There’s this idea of don’t settle, like, acceptance is just a big no-no. Like, you shouldn’t accept being disabled, you should be constantly wanting to be healed and showing that you have enough faith to believe that it’s going to happen, and if you haven’t been healed it’s because you haven’t been healed yet. It’s coming, like, just keep waiting.

Pete: Well, you know, my guess, and I’m just speaking as an outsider here, my guess is that from their point of view, and this is part of the problem, but from their point of view they’re trying to support disabled people.

Stephanie: Hmm.

Pete: Maybe I’m just getting really weird here, but I think in their mind they’re saying, “we just believe that God can heal you.” And from their point of view, they’re trying to do something beneficial and supportive, when in fact, you know, the opposite is happening. And that’s part of it, there’s sort of like a tone-deafness, right? It’s not, they may not be malignant, but it’s just a tone-deafness –

Jared: Well, it’s what happens when you center yourself. My makeup, all the adjectives I can add to myself – white, male, hetero, able-bodied – like, once I normatize. Norm, normatize?

Pete: [Laughter]

Jared: Once I sort of universalize that as though this is the standard that God wants for all of us, then everything else I do to make you like me –

Stephanie: Yes.

Pete: That’s it, that’s it. That’s the tone-deafness. Yeah.

29:52

Jared: Right. And so, there’s a dis-centeredness, and that’s why I like the idea of disability theology is for everyone is to decenter some of these things and to say, maybe that’s not the standard for “helping someone” is to make them like me.

Pete: Mm hmm, right.

Stephanie: That’s why, for me, the hands down, the most powerful story in scripture for me as a disabled woman and that I feel like, if people could really sit with it, it would turn this idea of, you know, assuming everyone wants to be faith healed and you know, not being accessible because you want them to get healed, all of this would get turned on its head if people really sat with the story of Jesus appearing to the disciples and then again to Thomas after his resurrection. Because the way we teach that story, and especially, like, all the artwork around it we grew up with, it very much suggested like, Jesus comes back and he shows them his little scars, right? Like, these tiny little flecks of discolored skin on his hands. He’s fine, but they’re there sort of just to prove that it really happened, right?

Pete: Mm hmm.

Stephanie: But when you read the text, it’s gruesomely clear that that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about, like, he literally says, like, take your thumb and just jam it into this gaping, open wound in my hand. Take your hand and literally just plunge it into my insides in this gaping hole in my side. We’re not talking about I’m all better and there’s these little freckles now, we’re talking about unhealed wounds.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Stephanie: And that, I have to tell you, the first time I sat with that, it felt borderline blasphemous to me because I had been steeped in so much ableism culturally that reading that text and saying Jesus conquered death, came back in glorious perfection, and was wounded felt gross. Like, I thought, I’m not allowed to say this or think this, right? Like this, no! Obviously, he would get healed because he’s perfect! He’s glorious! He’s in glory, he can’t be bleeding and gross and be glorious. And it was such a turning point for me to know that I serve a wounded savior that he can be fully glory and also not healed, that there’s nothing broken or incomplete or anything less than the fullness of the image of God in an unhealed body like mine because he came back with an unhealed body. It was huge. Absolutely huge for me.

Jared: Well, and that’s why disability theology is for everyone. Because even you saying that, my mind is kind of blown of how many times have I read that and not given any gravitas or any weight to what you just pointed out. And I think that’s that beauty of having these different perspectives from different people on all these different scales and spectrums is it’s so vital to understanding kind of the fullness of God.

Stephanie: Yeah.

Pete: So, disability theology, one of the reasons why it’s for everyone, this is what I’m picking up, is that people who are not disabled, it will help them, maybe, decenter themselves and their own experience and really understand the experience of others.

Stephanie: Hmm.

Pete: Do you agree with that? Is that, I mean, am I channeling correctly?

Stephanie: It comes down a lot to, so, when I go to speak at places or get invited to speak at places, a lot of the time if it’s some sort of conference and they want me to speak on disability, it’s like a side panel, right? Like, either it’s this little side breakout session on disability or it’ll be some sort of diversity panel and I’m the disability person. It’s seen as like, a side niche issue.

Pete: Right.

Stephanie: And what you just hit on is just like when we talked about Jesus and the healing stories, in our society, the people that have the power to change the issues around accessibility, lack of belonging for disabled people, lack of inclusion, are not really disabled people.

Pete: Yeah, yeah.

Stephanie: It’s majority culture who holds the power to do that. And so, if disability theology is always relegated to “isn’t it nice that we can make, you know, these disabled people feel better about themselves because they’ll see more of the image of God in themselves, how sweet!” Nothing’s really gonna change.

Pete: As long as we’re still in control of that conversation and that process.

34:42

Stephanie: Correct.

Pete: Yeah, right.

Stephanie: And so, if it’s not for everybody, if it’s just a side issue, it’s just gonna continue the cycle of harming whole new waves of disabled people again and again and again. And I don’t subscribe to that sort of theology, right? Like, I don’t, I don’t like the, well, man, I grew up in the kind of church that was really big on we don’t want to have a government program that can actually fix poverty or housing and equality or accessibility or anything because then people wouldn’t get to see the church come in and like, give donations and stuff. And I think that’s so backwards, right? The idea that we need to keep people marginalized so that we can show off God to them. Like, that’s, this is one of those areas where if disability theology really was for everyone, if abled people really invested in listening to disabled voices, in being taught by disabled theologians, the changes that could be made would be structural and systemic.

Pete: Yeah.

Stephanie: So, that the stories like mine of going 15 years without help or thinking that, you know, God hated me and was punishing me, these stories would stop happening and we would truly find belonging in the pews.

Jared: Well, it also seems like there’s a crossroads, almost, economically. Because we dance around this a little bit, but when a church is wondering whether it’s economically feasible to make things accessible for everyone, they’re weighing this cost/benefit analysis, right? So, there’s 90% of the people that we interact with, who, they don’t need a ramp or a this or a that, and there’s 10% who do. And I think that is a decision point of does our theology, does what we, are we walking the talk? Are we saying that the one does matter? Are we saying that we have a minority position on this thing where we’re going to center the minority and not just go with the majority? That has political and economic impact into the decisions we make.

Stephanie: I think right now is an excellent example of how decisions like that are not as isolated as we’d like to think, that when you make a decision like that, you’ve made a decision about what your personal belief system is, what’s important to you, and what your theology is, and if you don’t think that scales up, you just look at the pandemic.

Jared: Mm hmm.

Stephanie: Because the same people that used to tell me “we honestly don’t want to exclude disabled people, if we had the money we would love to make these changes, but it’s just not feasible, you need to be reasonable and not ask so much of us” are the same people that a year ago were saying, “well, the good news is COVID only kills high risk people, so we should all be able to go back to work and get this economy rolling again.”

Jared: Right, right.

Stephanie: And if you don’t think those are connected, they’re absolutely connected because every one of these seemingly little decisions that you make, you’ve chosen what your theology is and what you value and it will scale up and it will generalize and it will translate to bigger issues down the line.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: Right. Right, that’s, even in our conversation, that’s becoming clearer and clearer these connections, you know, economically, politically, around some of these challenges.

Pete: Yeah, and I think, what I’m sort of, the way I’m putting some pieces together here is, I mean, disability theology is theology.

Stephanie: Mm hmm.

Pete: Right?

Jared: Right.

Pete: You know, and all theology has an adjective, you know, that we say around here. All those theologies are doing theology and when we exclude, when we decenter disability theology, right, if we keep that on the margins and you know, side talks at conferences and “there, there, we’ll give you a voice but no decision power” and things like that, that’s something other than doing theology. That’s more control and manipulation and yeah, because, you know, there’s no theology that doesn’t have an adjective. You know, just the “normal, white people theology.”

Jared: [Laughter]

Right.

Pete: That you know, people like me, right? And like Jared. That’s not the case and, yeah, it’s just, it’s really powerful to be reminded of how everybody has a voice and a theological process and the theological discussion. Everyone does.

Jared: Yeah, and can maybe, just as we’re wrapping up our conversation here, I think there’s a lot of people who maybe sympathize/empathize with the conversation we’re having. What are some practical steps for someone, maybe, who is able-bodied, who is maybe guilty of ableism on a subconscious level, what steps can they take so that it’s not just this feeling of guilt, but there’s some practical things for being able to make a difference in their communities and congregations and their life. What are some ways that people can make steps?

Stephanie: So, the first thing is learning how to practice true solidarity, right? And so that means I as a disabled person should not be solely responsible for having to call around to churches or conferences or events and say, “hey, what’s the accessibility situation here?” There’s no reason why able-bodied allies are not capable of asking those same questions. So, that means like somebody like Pete, if you get hired to speak at an event, it takes, you know, one extra line in your rider or one extra sentence in the phone call to arrange that to say, hey, is this event accessible and how?

Pete: Yeah, yeah.

Stephanie: To make sure that they know that’s important to you, and not just to people like me.

Pete: Right.

Stephanie: Another thing that’s really simply and that anybody can do is simply diversifying the voices that you’re listening to and taking in. There are some really amazing disabled advocates who are giving this information away for free on places like Twitter, on places like Facebook, on places like TikTok, which I know nothing about and I’m not on because I’m not hip enough for that. But so I’ve been told that they’re on there making videos or whatever they’re called!

Pete: They’re called TikToks.

[Laughter]

Stephanie: There are books, you know, that you can buy that are written by disabled theologians. There are conference talks that you can Google and download and TikToks and there are ways to diversify the voices that you’re listening to and whether or not they’re specifically talking about theology, they’re still bringing a lived experience to the table that is different from yours and so it’s really worth trying to diversify that stuff.

Pete: Right.

Jared: Well, I just would kind of offer a challenge and I saw Pete writing this down, so I think I can speak for him, but you know, making this commitment where for us who are able-bodied, where it might cost us something. Like, well, like it just connects with the, you know, with the churches conversation we were having earlier. Like, “we can’t do that because it would cost us too much.” Well, maybe we put kind of our money where our mouth is and say, yeah, we need to, as The Bible for Normal People, put accessibility in our speaking riders. Like, we speak at places that have ADA, you know, compatibility and we don’t speak at places that don’t. And you know, and in some ways, it’s like oh, that’s scary because that costs us, but that’s kind of, I think, the point is that, for me, solidarity, and you can correct me, but solidarity is where, yeah, like, it may cost us as well.

Stephanie: That’s exactly the difference.

Jared: Mm hmm, right.

Stephanie: Like, it’s so nice when people empathize and say that’s gotta be really hard, but that doesn’t actually help my situation at all because, you know, it’s a choice for you guys whether or not to do those things, but the reality is I’m in the body that I’m in, so it’s not a choice for me.

Pete: Right.

Stephanie: And if an event doesn’t care about its accessibility, I just can’t go. That’s it! Like, it’s just the end for me. So, I can’t take speaking gigs at places that are wholly inaccessible because I physically can’t do it. Like, that’s it! The decision is made for me. And so, you’re right. Solidarity is saying, okay, it’s not enough to just say, oh, you know, conferences should diversity more and look for disabled speakers. And okay, but if you’re not willing to back that up and be fully accessible, it’s not really a surprise that you can’t find any disabled speakers. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Pete: Yeah, yeah.

Stephanie: The other thing is that you can actually, if you’re a church or a conference or a place like that, you can hire people, I actually offer this service regularly, what’s called a disability consultant. And that’s a person who can actually walk you through sort of a list of recommendations and offer feedback on areas that you just may not know you’re not accessible and might have blind spots. Churches, especially, like, it’s interesting to see how many churches are like, we did it! We have, you know, sensory needs met, we have large print bulletins, and we have ramps and we’re so proud! And it’s not until somebody like me comes in that they ever register that the church itself is accessible, but the platform or the pulpit is not.

Pete: Yeah.

Stephanie: Right? What does that say to somebody like me? I can tell you that I absolutely notice it in every single church or conference that I’m in. If you made the building accessible but not the stage, you’ve communicated something very clearly to me. That you think I’m only capable of receiving and definitely not of leading or teaching you anything because it never even dawned on you that I might need to get up there.

Pete: Right, right.

Jared: Well, so good. Stephanie, thank you so much for taking some time and I mean, honestly just educating me. I’ll just speak for myself, on a lot of things about disability theology. I absolutely endorse this idea that it’s for everyone. I think it’s something that we need to take to heart and think about because it’s not like you said, it has these repercussions. It has a ripple effect on our theology and what we think about God and Jesus and these stories that we hear about and are we gonna take them seriously, so I appreciate you bringing that to us.

Pete: Yeah, I think it was sort of like a prophetic word to make people think.

Stephanie: Well, I just appreciate you making space and doing exactly what you’re preaching, right? Decentering yourselves and saying how can we learn from a perspective that’s different than ours. We don’t get that a lot, so I’m always appreciative when we do.

Pete: Yes. Well, thank you.

Jared: Absolutely.

Pete: Thank you again, Stephanie, for being with us this past hour.

Jared: Thank you so much.

[Music begins]

Megan: Alright everyone, that’s it for this episode. Thank you so much for listening and supporting our show. A big shout out to our Producer’s Group who support us over on Patreon. They’re the reason we’re able to keep bringing podcasts and other content to you. If you would like to help support the podcast, head over to https://www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople, where for as little as $3 a month, you can receive bonus material, be part of an online community, get course discounts, and much more. We couldn’t do what we do without your support.

Dave: Thanks, as always, to our team: Executive Producer, Megan Cammack; Audio Engineer, Dave Gerhart; Creative Director, Tessa Stultz; Marketing Wizard, Reed Lively; transcriber and Community Champion, Stephanie Speight; and Web Developer, Nick Striegel. From Pete, Jared, and the entire Bible for Normal People team, thanks for listening.

[Music ends]

[Outtakes]

[Beep]

Pete: Were we gonna start with a story?

Jared: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Sorry, sorry, sorry.

Pete: I have a better idea, Stephanie. Here, how about this?  

Stephanie: [Laughter]

He just threw you right under the bus.

Pete: You know what? This is how we roll. We just do this and half the time it’s going the other way.

[Beep]

Pete: Okay, yeah.

Jared: So, we get there –

Pete: Fine, Jared. Fine, fine, fine. If that’s how you want –

Stephanie: [Laughter]

If you guys can just keep kneecapping each other so you sound like crap and I sound amazing and I just win by default, that would be great. Thank you.

Pete: This isn’t a conversation.

[End of recorded material]

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The Bible and Intersex Believers with Megan DeFranza

Interview with Megan DeFranza: The Bible and Intersex Believers

September 11, 2017

On this episode of the Bible For Normal People, Pete and Jared talk with theologian Megan DeFranza (actually, Megan educates Pete and Jared) on a topic that affects deeply the lives of many, but that few Christians even know is a topic. And Megan might surprise you about what the Bible and church history have to say about it.

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Read the transcript

00:00

Pete:  You’re listening to the Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet.  Serious talk about the sacred book.  I’m Pete Enns.

Jared:  And I’m Jared Byas. 

[Jaunty Intro Music]

Pete:  Hello everybody!  Welcome to the Bible for Normal People podcast.  Our topic today is the Bible and Intersex Believers and our guest is Megan DeFranza.  She is a theologian and she’s currently serving as a visiting researcher at Boston University School of Theology.  That’s pretty impressive, folks.  Don’t know if I have to tell you that, but it is.

She’s written a wonderful book to sex difference in Christian theology.  This topic, the Bible and Intersex Believers, what does that even mean?  Megan’s gonna help us understand that.  I know I can speak for myself and for Jared a little bit.  I’m 56 years old.  When I was in high school, this wasn’t even on the radar.

Last year, this wasn’t on my radar screen.  It wasn’t until Megan came to speak at Eastern University where I teach, where she’s talking and I was like, “Oh.  I didn’t know any of this.  It’s really interesting.  It affects people’s lives in ways that I can’t even imagine.”

Jared:  After she spoke at Eastern, Pete was telling me about it over dinner and I had to talk with her.  I got on the phone right after that and said, “What is this that you’re doing [laughter]?  I don’t understand.”  It is just very fascinating, so I was just really excited to have her on the podcast and just explain it, even for me to better understand.

Pete:  Right.  It’s one of these issues that is all around us in the sense that it can be somewhat unsettling and uncomfortable and even divisive among people because you have to engage the Bible at some point.  That’s exactly what Megan does.  All she does is engage the Bible and the history of the interpretation of the Bible and theology and all those—

Jared:  The ancient church.

Pete: —the ancient church and ancient readings of biblical text to show a rather surprising story that intersex is not a new issue.  People have been thinking about that and commenting on it for a long time. 

For us, today, people like me and Jared, for who it’s new, where we’ve been, we were never taught this in seminary.  I never really thought through it and never had to, because it wasn’t brought to my attention. 

This is an issue, like other issues (for example, gender equality or same-sex marriage), it’s so potentially volatile, it actually forces you to go back and re-examine your own thinking, your own theology and the biblical text.  You actually can’t get around that once you start listening to people who actually know the topic, how much there is in the Bible that can help us think through some of these kinds of issues that sometimes lay buried or sidelined, because it’s not where we are.

We come at the Bible with our questions already premade.  What these issues do is they force us to ask different kinds of questions we would never have thought up on our own.

Jared:  And unearths our assumptions.  I appreciate how when you look at the Bible through a particular lens, it helps you understand that you’ve been making assumptions all along that you didn’t even know.

Pete:  Right.  Right.

Jared:  Good.  Let’s have this conversation with Megan.

[Jaunty Music]

Megan:  We’ve done our theological reflection.  We’ve done our biblical study, only thinking about these idealized versions of male and female.  That’s not good enough.  We have to do our biblical study and our thinking theologically about what it means to be human and what it means to be a faithful Christian in a way that includes everyone in the community.

We haven’t done that yet.  Let’s start a new conversation.

Jared:  Welcome to the podcast, Megan.  It’s very nice to have you.

Megan:  Thanks so much for having me.

Jared:  The topic today is the Bible and the Intersex Believer.  This term, neither Pete nor I had ever really come into contact with that term before we met you, Megan, last year or a few years ago.

Bring us up to speed on what it is we’re talking about—

Pete:  If we don’t know what it is, nobody knows about this—

Jared:  Clearly.  Clearly—

Pete:  That’s the way I look at it.  Enlighten us all—

Megan:  That’s really common.  The reason it’s new is because it’s a fairly new term for a very old phenomenon.  Intersex is just a broad umbrella term that talk about bodies that don’t fit the medical definitions of male and female.  There’s a mix of male and female characteristics in the same body and that can happen in a lot of different ways.

Jared:  What would be some common things, just concrete examples of—

Megan:  Sure.

Jared:  —where this term might be appropriate for people?

05:00

Megan:  Yeah.  One of the most common kinds of intersex is something called androgen insensitivity.  You have a baby that’s born with XY chromosomes, which is your typical male pattern and they make the gonads, which are neutral in the first few weeks of gestation, go and become testes and starts secreting the typical level of male hormones.

But, at the cellular level, the cells can’t process those male hormones.  The body defaults to female.  On the inside, it looks like male anatomy and on the outside, it looks like female anatomy.  That’s a fairly common kind of intersex.

You can also have the opposite with XX chromosomes and ovaries, with extra production, or higher-than-typical production of androgens that can make a female body look more masculine or anywhere in-between.  Something called congenital adrenal hyperplasia.  All these fancy medical terms, which is why we use the generic “intersex” most of the time.

Pete:  Thank you.  [laughter] Yeah.

That’s very helpful to distinguish intersex from other terms that float around like—

Megan:  Yup.

Pete:  —the alphabet soup.  Right?

Megan:  Mm-hmm.

Pete:  This is something that is a new term that people are maybe beginning to see and maybe come to terms with, for the sake of a population that probably feels, I would imagine, rather isolated and misunderstood.

Megan:  An older term would be hermaphrodite or androgyne.  But those are mythological creatures that have full sets of male and female anatomy, which is humanly impossible, which is one of the reasons we’ve moved away from that language towards stuff that’s more precise, to the particular variations of individual people.

Pete:  You’ve written a wonderful and tremendously scholarly and well-researched book, Sex Difference in Christian Theology, and you have a website that is just very informative.  It’s a wonderful thing to visit if people—if you want to know anything, folks, that’s where you go.

To me, it raises a question of curiosity.  What is it in your life that is driving you to be passionate and supportive of the intersex community?

Megan:  I started this work because I grew up in a very conservative church, where being a woman with a mind was a problem.  I started studying gender and sex difference and biblical scholarship and history and all of that, to try and figure out how I could serve God and not sin, because I happened to have a female body.

That led me to research, to talk about, that there are not just male and female in the world, that there are all these intersex variations as well. 

It was hearing those stories, the stories of individuals, particularly recent medical history, where with our advanced technology, we here in the United States and Europe and elsewhere, have tried to fix intersex.  Doctors come in to a baby that is born with ambiguous genitalia.  They’ll say, “We can figure this out.”  They’ll do plastic surgery on the genitals of a child to make them look more typically male and female.

These surgeries have lasting harm, pain for life, for many many people.  Hearing their stories of physical pain, of feeling unsafe to share their stories in their own faith communities, pastors saying, “Thanks for telling me, but please don’t tell anybody else,” really drove me to realize that my questions about gender and my frustrations as a woman in the church were small in comparison with my intersex siblings in Christ, who had all of these added complications.

It was really hearing their stories that led me to say, “We’ve got to do something about this.”

Jared:  As we get into the topic, it’s just interesting to me the contrast that some of our listeners will have where you’re using lots of medical terms and you’re talking about the technology and the science of a lot of things here. 

How does that connect with the Bible for Normal People?  Say more about how your story coincides as you became aware of all of this within the church community.  When did you start thinking about how the Bible fits into all this?

09:49

Megan:  For me, the Bible was the place I started.  Reading scriptures about women’s place in the church led me to go back and look at history and realize that in Christian history, we’ve thought about gender differences very differently over the last 2,000 years, since the birth of Christ. 

Getting into that history, the history of biblical interpretation, really was the thing that moved me to say, “Wait a minute.  If we’ve thought about this differently in the past, that gives us opportunity to think differently and maybe in fresh ways in the present about differences that, actually, the ancient church was quite familiar with, but we’ve lost that language and knowledge, even though our science is more sophisticated.”

Pete:  Can you give an example or two?  I can imagine people listening, saying, “What are you talking about [laughter]—

Megan:  Sure.

Pete:  —we’re just having this conversation about gender and we thought what we think today is what people have always thought,” which is a typical response, “what I think is what the church has always thought.”

You’re saying it’s more diverse and very early on—

Megan:  St. Augustine, in the City of God, talks about hermaphrodites.  He says, “As for hermaphrodites, also called androgynes, they’re certain very rare, but every culture has people that they don’t know how to classify as male or female.  In our culture, we call them by the better sex.  We call them men.”

Pete:  Hmm.

Megan:  Here’s Augustine saying, “Oh yeah.  Everybody knows about hermaphrodites.  We assign them on the masculine side.”  In the ancient world in Rome and Greece, there were laws for men and laws for women and laws for hermaphrodites and laws for other categories of people that we’ll talk about as we continue here.

Pete:  With Augustine, for example, he lived around when?

Megan:  He lives in the third, fourth century in the Christian Era.

Pete:  That’s a long time ago, right—

Megan:  It is.

Pete:  Was there a tone of judgment in reading Augustine about what we call intersex or was he just matter-of-fact about it?

Megan:  In that passage, he’s very matter-of-fact, actually—

Pete:  Okay.

Megan:  —just stating a fact that everyone’s aware of.

Pete:  Not freaked about it.

Megan:  Not freaked out.  He’s much more concerned about castrated eunuchs and their place and pagan religious cults.  He speaks very harshly of them.  But he’s very matter-of-fact and fairly neutral when it comes to hermaphrodites—

Jared:  You say “neutral.”  It’s interesting to me—what I heard you say and maybe I misheard—“we have this category of people and we as a community assign them to the male side of things.”  Actually, it seems like there’s some social consequences to that.  It would be a more of a place of privilege at that point.

Megan:  Right. For hermaphrodites, Augustine is giving them the male privilege, whereas, it’s interesting—castrated men, men who had their testes or crushed or cut off or birth and who developed differently or who maybe did that later on in life, he says of them, that they are “no longer men,” even though they were born whole.

Pete:  That’s confusing.

Megan:  Yeah.  Sure is.  [laughter]

Pete:  Just to fill things out for the benefit of people listening, can you point to something else that might be instructive for us, another example or two from this ancient church period or from other cultures, perhaps?

Megan:  Certainly, in the Jewish culture, there was a recognition of more than male or female.  The ancient rabbis came up with four additional categories between male and female.

One was a naturally-born eunuch, which they classified more on the masculine side, but not all the way over to the male.

They have another term, called the ilonite (SP?), which was toward the feminine side, but not always to the edge.

They also used the term androgenos for someone whose right in the middle.  They didn’t know how to classify them one way or the other.

They had a fourth term, which was really something they said, “We’re not sure what we’re dealing with now, but we’re pretty sure their sex will become clear over time.”

They developed laws and rituals, religious laws to govern these various persons and would debate those throughout the centuries.

Jared:  Tying it to the Bible itself; we have the ancient church and we have this Jewish tradition, where Augustine and the rabbis recognized different categories, often the argument or the conversation when it comes to the Bible goes back to Genesis.

Megan:  Right.

14:59

Jared:  It is “God created them male and female.” 

Megan:  Right.

Jared:  How does that square with this conversation?

Megan:  That’s where we all start, right?  This is where it’s important to recognize that the Bible’s a big book and that Genesis is not the whole of the story. 

Certainly, we have the beginning.  God creates them male and female in God’s image and blesses them that way.  But does that mean that’s all God created or all God intended?

Now that we have this other language that I just mentioned from the ancient rabbis, we can look for other language in Scripture and that’s what I was so delighted to find in my research is actually none other than Jesus speaks about intersex people with one of these categories that the rabbis mention in Matthew Chapter 19, verse 12, where he’s being asked about whether or not, you can divorce your wife if she burns the toast. 

He’s being asked to weigh in on this ancient debate about how bad does the infraction have to be for you to divorce your wife.

Jesus quotes Genesis 1.  He says, “Don’t you remember God made them male and female.”  He quotes Genesis 2, “For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and cling to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”

Then his disciples say, “Well, if we can’t get out of marriage, maybe we shouldn’t get into it, since our parents are typically choosing a spouse for us.”

Jesus says, “No.  No.  No.  You’re not understanding what I’m saying.  There are those who’ve been eunuchs from birth.  There are those who’ve been made eunuchs by others.  There are those who make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.  Let anyone accept this who can.”

I like to say, “Let anyone accept this who has any idea what Jesus is talking about.”  [laughter]

The church has debated, “What does this mean?  What did it mean to make oneself a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom?”

We know a lot about the second category.  That’s the castrated men that I just mentioned, very common slaves and very expensive slaves, luxury items, status symbols and sometimes even sex slaves in the ancient world.  Castrati were very very common.  We know a lot about that.

This first category, the eunuch from birth, Jesus’ is drawing on this ancient rabbinic of the eunuch, of the sun as it is in Hebrew, from the day the sun first shone upon the child, we knew this one is different.

Here’s Jesus, in the context of talking about divorce and certainly affirming Genesis, he throws in these other categories and he doesn’t do it with any criticism and he doesn’t say, “But God didn’t mean for it to be this way.”  He just lays it out there.

That pushed me to think, “How do we take Genesis and give it its place in the cannon at the beginning, but also recognize that we have to find a way to read Genesis in a way that fits with these words of Jesus?”  So how do we do that?

That’s what I was—

Pete:  This is beyond, then, that all parts of the Bible are equally ultimate and we read verses and they tell you what to think.  You’re actually describing a dynamism in the Bible that we have to take all this into account somehow and make, not to put words in your mouth, but to make theological decisions on the basis of this grand conversation that’s happening in the Bible.  Is that a fair way of putting it?

Megan:  The theological decisions are how to interpret the description that God made male and female.  It doesn’t say, “God made male and female and anything else is a result of the fall.”  Yet, that’s a very quick theological move that many Christians make.  “If there’s not male and female, then anything else must be a result of sin.” 

Jesus doesn’t do that in Matthew Chapter 19.  The text doesn’t tell us that.  That’s a theological reading we’re bringing to the passage.  Does it say that?

I asked, “Are there ways that we can read Genesis that make it fit with the words of Jesus and with the larger canon all together?”  I think that there are ways that we can.  We could read Adam and Eve as the parents at the beginning of the story, rather than the pattern for all people.

We could read them as the statistical majority.  Most people are clearly male or clearly female.  But just because they are the statistical majority doesn’t mean they are the exclusive model or the only way that God allows humans to be born.

20:13

When we look at other parts of Genesis 1, we recognize that there are all sorts of things that aren’t named in the creation account.  There are three different types of animals.  There are the “fish of the sea, the birds of the air and the creatures that crawl upon the earth.”

These are the three categories of animals that God creates.  But we all know that there are creatures that don’t fit into those categories.  Penguins are birds that don’t fly.  There are other things in the sea other than fish.  There are things that crawl, but they live in the water.  There are amphibians that are both water and land animals.

But I’ve never heard an Old Testament scholar like yourself, Pete, say, “Hey look.  Frogs.  They’re proof of the fall,”  [laughter] because they don’t fit into the three categories of creatures—

Pete:  Hey.  That’s my next blog post.  That’s my next blog post.  [unintelligible]—

Megan:  You’re welcome.

Pete:  What you’re saying is exactly right.  I think the response would be, “In the Old Testament, in the Pentateuch, when you have clean and unclean animals, some of these in-between things, “You don’t eat lobster.”  They’re sea animals, but they also have legs.  They don’t fit.  They’re unclean.  You don’t eat them.

This is something I can imagine people, as sort of a counterpoint to what you’re saying, to draw on that.  How might you navigate that particular issue?

Megan:  The canon gives us the way to do that too.  Even if we see them as outsiders.  Lobsters are outsiders.  Bees are outsiders.  Frogs are outsiders.  Maybe this other category of people who don’t fit into male and female.  Certainly, in the Old Testament, we have, laws for men and laws for women and it doesn’t leave a lot of place for anyone who doesn’t fit those categories.

But fast-forward up to the prophet Isaiah in Chapter 56, he talks about two categories of outsiders, one being the eunuch and the other being foreigners, Gentiles.  They’re complaining, “Hey God, it’s not all that easy to be a eunuch or a Gentile and live in ancient Israel.  The system isn’t set up for us.” 

God says, through the prophet Isaiah to them, in Isaiah 56, “Don’t let the eunuchs complain that I’m only a dry tree.  For to the eunuchs who keep my Sabbath and obey me,” and there’s a long list of things, “I will give to them within my house a name, an everlasting name that’s better than sons and daughters, a name that will not be cutoff.” 

Then he speaks to the foreigners and says that they’re offerings will be accepted on his altar for “my house will be a house of prayer for all the peoples, “ (Isaiah 56:8), which we’re much more familiar with.  That’s in the context of God folding in outsiders, who didn’t fit in earlier chapters of the story.

But God is saying, “Don’t worry.  I’m going to give you a place.”  He doesn’t say to the eunuch, “I’m going to heal you and make you into the categories I intended, either male and female.”  He says, “I’m going to give you something better than sons and daughters.  I’m going to bless you in a way that a Jewish man or a Jewish woman could ever imagine being blessed.  I’m going to give you an everlasting name.”

Pete:  No talk about eunuchs being a product of the fall any more than foreigners would be—

Megan:  Right.

Pete:  —a product of the fall.  There’s nothing in Isaiah—I’m just curious now because I haven’t studied this as closely as you have—but there’s no indication there of how they came to be eunuchs.

Megan:  Nope.

Pete:  Okay.

Megan:  That’s the challenge is that intersex is this broad umbrella term for many different bodily variations. This term eunuch was an umbrella term for many different things.  Sometimes, it’s hard to tell.  Does this mean a castrated eunuch?  Does this mean a natural eunuch?  Is this a position in the court?  We have to do careful scholarship to see what they’re talking about.  It’s not particularly clear in Isaiah and yet, [MUSIC STARTS] there is this idea that however these people came to be eunuchs, God’s blessing them as they are, not requiring them to become something they’re not and healing them into some creational category that we find in Genesis Chapter One and Two.

Jared:  That’s a really good point.  One thing I’m thinking as you guys are talking about the categories and we keep coming back to the words and how that there’s different variations—I want to make sure that we’re being clear—how is intersex different than say transgender which is becoming more and more a conversation, politically and otherwise?  What’s the difference and where does that fit in this conversation?

Megan:  Sure.  Right now, the only difference between intersex and transgender people is that transgender people cannot point to a medical diagnosis.  I know trans people who have said, “I wish I were intersex, because then people wouldn’t think I’m crazy.”  They would be able to say, “Oh no.  Some of their cells are XY.  Some of their cells have just one X.  No wonder they’re body is developing differently or their gender identity is developing differently.”  They don’t have that luxury.

There are some intersex people whose experience is like that of a trans person.  I work with LeeAnn Simon, who’s a wonderful Christian woman and author and she has what I just described.  Some of her cells are XY.  Some have just one X.  Her gonads are part ovarian tissue, part testicular tissue.

At puberty, she didn’t develop one way or the other and chose to, though she was identified as a boy at birth, it wasn’t a fit for her, as an adult, chose to identify as female and to live, to transition.  Her experience is intersex, but it also could be understood as transgender.  That’s not the majority of intersex experiences. 

Sometimes, these terms overlap and sometimes, they don’t.  We have to be [unintelligible]—

Jared:  Where they don’t, what I hear you saying is there’s not a chromosomal or biological thing that you can pinpoint.

Megan:  At this point, where our science is.  It may be that as neuroscience advances, we will be able to pinpoint other things, but we can’t at this point.

Jared:  Good.  I think that’s an important piece of the conversation, that we don’t—

Megan:  Sure.

Jared:  [unintelligible] It’s kind of a Venn Diagram overlap.

Megan:  Yup.

Pete:  Megan, you’ve thought so much about this.  We’ve talked about Augustine a little bit and rabbis and Jesus’ own words.  And Genesis and how that all fits into this.  And Isaiah.   People still come back to Genesis.  Because it’s first, it’s therefore determinative of everything else.

Megan:  Sure.

Pete:  You don’t think that.  Help people walk through why it’s okay not to think that.  It’s at the beginning of the Bible.


Megan:  Sure.

Pete:  You get this wrong, you get everything else wrong.  Plus, it’s all good.

Megan:  Right.  Exactly.  It is important and it does set the stage for the beginning of God’s great redemptive story.  But it’s not the whole of the story.  I see its pride of place is as the opening chapters.  But, at the end of the story, we find a vision of heaven in the book of Revelation where people are included in the worshipping community who don’t fit in the garden.

Here I’m thinking of Revelation Chapter 7, where there’s a great multitude worshipping before the Lamb from every tribe, and nation and language, people group.  If we think about Genesis, we don’t have multiple tribes.  We don’t have racial difference in the Garden of Eden.  We don’t have different languages represented at the beginning.  There are many ways in which this story that starts with these two ends up in full, moving through Adam and Noah and Abraham and all the way through and then folding in the Gentiles and folding in others.

It’s a story that gets bigger and wider and God’s redemptive love goes out.  He blesses the Israelites so that they could be a blessing to all the nations.  It’s this narrow story through these few for the benefit of all, which is why I think we see many things in the book of Revelation that echo things in the Garden. 

There are trees in the beginning and at the end.  But they are not the same trees.  It’s important that we don’t think that we’re trying to get back to the Garden of Eden.  Yes.  It has pride of place at the beginning of God’s story.  But it seems like God’s story gets bigger and more complicated, but also more beautiful and more welcoming than what it is in the first chapters.

Pete:  It’s like the Garden reimagined at the end of the Bible—

Megan:  Yeah.  It is.

Pete:  You’re not actually returning to the Garden.  It’s metaphorical language anyway.

Megan:  Right.

30:04

Pete:  It’s something that is meant to evoke those memories, but then also to go beyond that to something that—

Megan:  It’s called new, right?  It’s called new creation—

Pete:   It’s new.  Right.  Right.

Megan:  It’s not paradise lost and regained, like we’re trying to get back.  It’s a new—God is doing something new at the end of this grand story that is going to have some continuity with what came before and some differences.

Jared:  I appreciate, Megan, what you said about the—you talk about Isaiah and as the story unfolds, it’s interesting that we may start with a garden, but this narrative of inclusivity, of folding more and more people in, really starts just a few chapters later with the start of Israel, with Abraham’s story.

Megan:  Right.

Jared:  Then, from there, we just start including more.  I just appreciated the point about how Israel was then adopted to be a blessing.  Through that, the blessing is this inclusivity.  It’s interesting, in this conversation, that early on in the prophetic literature of Isaiah, that the eunuchs are included pretty early in on that conversation before even—

Megan:  You know what’s even more radical than that?  If we look at Acts Chapter 8, at the first foreigner whose baptized?

Pete:  You took the words right out of my mouth.  Go ahead.  [laughter] Let’s talk about the Ethiopian eunuch—

Megan:  Yeah.  Exactly.  This is the Ethiopian who is a eunuch, who is the very fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah, that as the gospel is going out from Judea, through Samaria to the utter ends of the earth, as Jesus said to His disciples at the end of the book of Matthew, and we see these significant baptisms in the book of Acts.  The first foreigner whose baptized is an Ethiopian eunuch, whose made this many-hundred-mile trek to Jerusalem to worship.  Even though he’s an outsider on many levels, he knows there’s only so close he can get to God. 

There’s the Holy of Holies.  There’s the Court of Men.  Outside of that is the Court of Women.  Outside of that, is the Court of Gentiles.  There’s only so close you can get to God as a Gentile and as a eunuch.  He knows that, but he goes anyway.

As he’s reading the prophet, Isaiah, God sends Phillip to him to interpret the Scriptures, to open them and to share with them the good news of Jesus.  This Ethiopian eunuch says to Phillip, “Look, here’s water.  Is there anything preventing me from being baptized?”

I have read that passage my whole life, but until I studied the place of eunuchs in the ancient world, I never understood the significance of that question.

Pete:  Right.  Right.

Megan:  Here he’s asking, “What’s my place gonna be if I follow this rabbi Jesus?

Pete:  Right.

Megan:  Am I gonna be a second-class citizen like I am as a non-Jewish believer?

Pete:  Mm-hmm.

Megan:  Is there a place for me in this new community?  I’m just so frustrated that we don’t have the answer given to Acts.  [laughter] We don’t know what Phillip said.  But we know that one of them commanded the chariot to stop.  They both got out of the chariot and Phillip baptized him.

Pete:  I’ve always read that instinctively, “Is anything preventing me from getting baptized?” as “We’ve got some time on our hands.  Let’s just do this now.”  Not like they’re actually socio-cultural-religious—there’s a matrix there of this. 

Maybe the Bible’s surprisingly not uptight.  [laughter] Go figure.

Megan:  God does tend to surprise us at every turn.

Jared:  I’m wondering—I was just thinking about this connection, this phrase of “foreigners and eunuchs” and how that goes throughout the Bible.  In some ways, do you feel like “foreigners” is clearly throughout the Bible representative of the marginalized throughout, as we get to the Gentiles and others.  Is “eunuchs” also—I’m channeling my upbringing where I want to take that literally, “I’m willing to—you raise some good points, Megan—I’m gonna allow for eunuchs as part of this, but now, I’m going to still exclude others, because it doesn’t say it literally and specifically.

Is there a case to be made in terms of reading and how we read the Bible for taking foreigners and eunuchs as almost representative of this is a narrative of inclusion.  You can’t really accept the eunuchs and exclude transgender people.  You can’t really take this group and exclude that group, because it’s really representative of this radical inclusion. 

What would you say?

35:16

Megan:  First, I would say that in some ways, Gentle or foreigner is not category of the marginalized, if you think just statistically. 

Jared:  Right.  Right.

Megan:  Everyone who’s not a Jew is a foreigner.

Jared:  They’re usually the majority. 

Megan:  Right.  Throughout Israel’s history, they were oppressed by these majority—

Jared:  Yeah.

Megan: —communities, so they were the minority.  You could really read that two different ways.  But definitely, with the eunuchs, we’re talking about people who have been oppressed in many different ways and excluded in many different ways.

Even though the rabbis made space for naturally-born eunuchs, castrated eunuchs couldn’t go to worship in ancient Israel.  Naturally-born eunuchs could.  But they, in some ways, had a double religious duty, because the rabbis are pulling from the laws for men and the laws for women and wanting to make sure all of their bases are covered.

They are this minority group has more to do and it’s harder for them.  I do think that category is one that certainly stands for the outside and the marginalized and those have been excluded, whose voices haven’t been heard, who’ve been considered unclean and not welcome in the worshipping community.

Pete:  Let me ask you a question here, Megan.  I want to try to articulate this clearly.  Following on what Jared just said about eunuchs and the poor and the oppressed, marginalized peoples, you see in Isaiah and then in the New Testament in Matthew 19 and Acts 8, you see a hint, a trajectory of—

Megan:  Yeah.

Pete:  I want to ask you if you agree with this.  If yes, great.  If not, fine.  Tell me why.  It seems like the New Testament itself is not the end of the story.  It’s trajectories.  That’s an important thing to talk about for people who take the Bible seriously.

Megan:  Yeah.

Pete:  The Bible, even the New Testament, does not settle all these questions for us, but is itself part of a moment—

Megan:  Yeah.

Pete:  —that is also moving, right?  And so—

Megan:  Yeah.

Pete:  I gather you’re agreeing with that, so regalias on your opinion [laughter].

Megan:  It’s not—I was helped in this regard.  I remember in seminary reading N.T. Wright’s book, The New Testament and the People of God, where he likens the Bible to five acts in a Shakespearean play, where the fifth act is unfinished.  He sees creation as Act One; the fall as Act Two; Israel, Act Three; Jesus is Act Four; and the Act Five is the Church.

We have only the first few pages of the script in the New Testament, but we are not—we are called to finish the story.  We’re called to live our parts.  We’re not called to be First Century Christians in Rome or in Corinth or in Ephesus.  We’re called to be 21st Century Christians living where we live.

We’re not trying to get back to Ancient Israel.  He keeps saying, “If we’re going to put on this play,” back to the analogy with Shakespeare, “we’re not just going to repeat lines from an earlier part of the story.  We’re going to study the whole story.  We’re going to see the direction it’s going.  We’re going to pick up on those hints that you just mentioned.  If we’re going to put on this play, we’re going to have to improv.”  He uses this term, “faithful improvisation,” where we’re trying to see where the story is going and how do we live in—

Pete:  Right.

Megan:  —our part faithfully, yet without a script.

Pete:  I would add to that Fifth Act, analogously, is that you see that in the Bible anyway because people are winging it.  [laughter]

That’s not a bad way of putting it.  In the Old Testament, you have shifts and changes and new perspectives on things.  It seems inescapable.  To help people to say, “It’s okay to think responsibly and theologically and biblically today about an issue that maybe we have to address in different ways than previous generations.”

39:57

Megan:  We’re so afraid of doing something wrong that oftentimes, we do nothing.  We give the apostles permission to think creatively.  We give Calvin and Luther permission to think creatively, to do something different.  But we rarely give ourselves permission—

Pete:  Why is that?  What are we afraid of—

Megan:  —to do what they did.

Pete:  We should get a therapist [laughter].  What do you think?  You’ve experienced these things.  What—

Jared:  [unintelligible]

Pete:  —are people afraid of?

Jared:  In the congregations that you’re teaching and educating people—

Pete:  Yeah.

Jared:  —what are fears that you find?

Megan:  There’s so much censure in our communities, right?  If you put a toe out of line, there’s shame that’s brought on by the community.  There’s exclusion.  All of these things.  We don’t want that.  We don’t want to put on the outside.  We don’t want to be cast out like these outsiders.  We better keep in line.  We better follow the script.  We better recite the confession in whatever version it’s in and dare not think differently lest we become an outsider.  I think we’re afraid of becoming outsiders ourselves to our very community—

Pete:  Yeah.  Maybe you’re putting the nail on the head there.  The head on the nail rather.  [laughter] Who wants to be an outsider?

Megan:  It’s hard.

Pete:  Yeah—

Jared:  I was going to say—and not to be too theological, but it seems like that’s exactly what solidarity is about, right, is taking that step in saying, “I’m willing to risk becoming an outsider in order to be in community with the outsiders.”

Megan:  Yeah.  It’s hard.  You don’t get to have it both ways.  You don’t get to have solidarity with the marginalized and popularity with the powerful.  It doesn’t work like that.

Jared:  That’s a good phrase—

Pete:  Which brings me to the entire New Testament—

Megan:  [laughter] That’s a good place to go.

Pete:  —which has a thing or two to say and we could throw the prophets in there as well.  It strikes me, Megan, that this issue is one of several issues that the Church is either dealing with or going to have to deal with that really raises to the forefront—I don’t want to put it negatively, but the complexity even in the ambiguity sometimes of theological decisions.

Megan:  Yeah.

Pete:  It’s not easy—

Megan:  It’s not.

Pete:  Living life is hard enough.  [laughter] To think you have to have all the right answers all the time makes it that much harder, but the life of faith may be not as clear as we think and we’re doing the best that we can, and for some people, and you’re one of them, and I think Jared and I are the same, if we’re going to err, we’re going to err on the side of people and lives and their experiences and not a system that we think is immovable and unchanging, because oddly enough, the system, which comes from the Bible, is itself a changing, moving thing—

Megan:  Yeah.

Pete:  —which is a good model for us.  It’s not going to give us the answers to any particular question, but it is going to drive us to think about—you don’t get off the hook by quoting Bible passages.  Life ain’t like that—

Megan:  But you do have to study them and see where they’re pointing—

Pete:  Yup.  Right.  Exactly right—

Jared:  Which is that faithful improvisation, which is a nice connecting.  The faithful is that rootedness—

Megan:  Yeah.

Jared:  —within the text, which your articulation today—I appreciate this conversation of rooting it in these texts and then still saying—but there is still some creativity that has to happen, some improvisation.  That fifth act is up to us on how we’re going to be faithful to that.

Megan:  I don’t have it all figured out, but what I’m trying to do in my book and in my work is to say, “Okay.  We’ve done our theological reflection.  We’ve done our biblical study only thinking about these idealized versions of male and female.  That’s not good enough.  We have to do our biblical study and our thinking theologically about what it means to be human and what it means to be a faithful Christian in a way that includes everyone in the community.”  We haven’t done that yet.  Let’s start a new conversation where we let more voices come and be at the table and it means voices that have been at the table need to be quiet for a while and listen and see if there’s something new to be learned, new perspectives to be had.

Pete:  Right.  Being quiet.  That’s hard.

Megan:  It is hard. 

Pete:  [laughter] Megan, I appreciate the way you put that.  That’s very well put.  Unfortunately, we could talk for hours about all this.  [laughter] So much stuff.  We’re just handling the Bible.  That always comes up in these kinds of conversations.  We’re coming to the end of our time.

In closing, tell us where people can people find you on the worldwide interwebs.  What projects are you involved in, if you are writing another book?  Make sure you tell us about the book that you have written and make sure people know what that is.

45:21

Megan:  Thanks.  You can find me at www.megandefranza.com, pretty easy to find.  You can see the books that I’ve written there, chapters, and other books.  The main one we’ve been talking about today is Sex Difference in Christian Theology.  The subtitle is Male, Female and Intersex in the Image of God, where we spend lot more time talking about all these things. 

You can find me there.  One of the things I’m most passionate about is that I just started a non-profit with my colleague, Leann Simon, who I mentioned earlier and we have a website, www.intersexandfaith.org, where we’re working to educate faith communities about intersex, provide support for intersex people of faith and advocate for the inclusion of all God’s people.

One of the things we’re doing, what I’m really excited about, is we’re in the process of making a documentary film, which right now is entitled Stories of Intersex and Faith, where people of faith—right now, we have Christians and Jews sharing their stories about being intersex and being people of faith and the good parts of that, the helpful parts of that and the difficult parts of being intersex and in a faith community. 

We’re hoping to create that as a full-length documentary.  But I’d also like to use that footage to create a series for churches that will be an educational curriculum, that’s video interviews and others, so that we can have better conversations in our communities.  Because as you said, if we’re not already having these conversations in our churches, you will be next year, or the year after that.

Pete:  Or your kids will force them.

Megan:  Right.

Pete:  Right.

Megan:  I want to help provide some resources for churches having these conversations. 

Pete:  Some video clips are on your website, already, of—

Megan:  Yeah.

Pete:  —you hope to have the longer documentary eventually.

Megan:  Yeah.

Pete:  Okay.  That’s good.

Megan:  Thanks.

Pete:  Listen, Megan, thank you so much.  We had a great time talking to you.  Very informative.  Let’s do this again sometime.

Megan:  Thanks for doing what you do.  Appreciate you inviting me.

Jared:  Absolutely.  Bye.

Megan:  Take care.

[Jaunty Exit Music]

Jared:  You’ve spent another chunk of time with us here on the Bible for Normal People and we’re grateful for that.  Again, if this conversation with Megan DeFranza was meaningful for you, please Google her, look at her website, the subtitle for which is “theology, identity and faithfulness in a changing world.”  That’s at www.megandefranza.com

She’s doing work as a researcher with Boston University School of Theology.

Just look at all the things that she’s doing and support her in the work that she’s doing if this is a topic that connects with you.

We also want to thank everyone who has supported us on Patreon and highlight that there is a growing community there:  www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople where we have the ability to connect on Slack which is an app, really kind of a chatboard.

One of the subtopics connecting here with Megan is sexuality.  There’s also “talking to your kids about the Bible.”  There’s “science and faith.”  There are all kinds of people there talking about these topics.

We really want to create a safe place where you can explore your questions, your doubts, topics, get advice, get recommendations, share your stories.   You can check that out and more at www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople.

Thanks again for everyone who has supported us so far.