Reviewed by Amy Julia Becker
Eyes to See
In college, I took a class with Toni Morrison based upon a collection of her essays called Playing in the Dark. The premise of the essays, and of the class itself, was that American literature has been shaped from the beginning by the unsettling presence of "American Africanism." There is no need to get into the nuances of her argument here. I mention it only because after I took Morrison's class, I read books differently. I was attuned to marginal figures. I noticed how black people were portrayed, or how their presence was avoided. I noticed motifs of darkness and light. I watched movies differently too, attending to the way certain racial groups were used as props instead of being presented as real characters. That class taught me to see differently.
Having a child with Down syndrome is also teaching me to see differently.
I think, for example, of the time when I attended a conference at a monastery in South Carolina. Our first night at the conference, we gathered for a short Bible reading and blessing before supper. An elderly man, one of the brothers in the monastery, held the responsibility of reading and praying for us. He walked unevenly to the podium, with his head tilted to the side. He stood behind the Bible, flipping through the pages, back and forth, with a puzzled expression. Finally, he looked to another brother and said, "I can't find Genesis 1." The other brother gently turned to the beginning of the Bible, and the first brother began to read. His speech was imperfect. He stumbled through the words and they came out somewhat garbled.
A few years earlier, before our daughter Penny was born, I would have been filled with impatience and cynicism. I would have been thinking, why can't they find someone who can read, who at least knows where the first book in the Bible is located? But that night, I stood with rapt attention, grateful that I could receive the Word of God from this man. I was able to see him as a fellow Christian, offering a blessing on my behalf. I was able to see him as a messenger of hope, a vision of a community in Christ that might one day include my daughter, and even include her as one who could read God's Word publicly, who could offer a collective prayer.
Mikeal Parsons' Body and Character in Luke and Acts: The Subversion of Physiognomy in Early Christianity invites readers to see differently. As he explains early on, "throughout history it has been commonplace to associate outer physical characteristics with inner qualities; it was assumed that you can, as it were, judge a book by its cover. The study of the relationship between the physical and the moral was known as 'physiognomy.' " Parsons offers sundry examples from the Greco-Roman, Jewish, and early Christian worlds to demonstrate the prevalence of what he calls a "physiognomic consciousness," the assumption that physical appearance indicated moral stature. Being short, for instance, was understood to reflect "smallness in spirit"; weakness of the ankles could be correlated with "weakness of soul." Noses, foreheads, backs—every body part could be seen through an interpretive lens that corresponded with positive or negative character judgments.
At the midpoint of his book, Parsons moves from historical analysis to exegesis of four texts from Luke/Acts: Jesus' healing of the bent woman, Jesus' interaction with Zacchaeus, Peter's healing of the lame man outside the temple, and Philip's encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch. The strength of Parsons' analysis lies in his ability to use these stories to demonstrate Luke's knowledge of physiognomic assumptions—and Luke's desire to subvert those same assumptions. For instance, upon first reading the story of the woman with the bent back, it would seem that Luke accepts the cultural norm, that this woman's physical condition is merely a reflection of her spirit. Parsons explains, "To the physical description of the woman as bent over and unable to stand up straight, Luke appends the observation that she had 'a spirit that crippled her' (lit. 'spirit of weakness,' Luke 13:11), thereby connecting the physical and spiritual in physiognomic terms." But Parsons also points out that in the same passage, Jesus calls her a "daughter of Abraham" and uses a present participle (being a daughter of Abraham) in order to demonstrate that she has been a member of God's family all along. Jesus' declaration indicates that it was not his healing of this woman that caused her to become a "daughter of Abraham," but rather, that her status as a precious child of God had been wrongly denied by her community. Now they can see her for who she is.
Parsons also reads the Zacchaeus story as a story of healing, although he notes that this is one of the few "healing" stories in the Bible that does not involve physical transformation. He writes, "the Lukan Jesus challenges the predominant prejudice of his day that predetermines one's place in the body politic by the shape of one's body. Jesus saw in Zacchaeus what others could not see: here was a son of Abraham." Although a physiognomic consciousness would view Zacchaeus' short stature as a sign of moral deficiency, Jesus does not "correct" this deficiency by miraculously causing Zacchaeus to grow. Here, the healing (sozo, which in Greek can be translated as healing or salvation) is a healing of the spirit. By associating himself with Zacchaeus and emphasizing Zacchaeus' inclusion in God's household, Jesus contradicts any assumption that Zacchaeus' height implies his permanent status as immoral and small in spirit.
Through his exegetical work, Parsons aptly demonstrates Luke's subversive message, that "those who are physically 'defective' by the prevailing cultural standards are in no way excluded from the body of the new Abrahamic community." Parsons' analysis of these particular pericopes, bolstered by his historical research, provides helpful tools for students of the ancient world in general and of Luke's writings in particular. Nevertheless, the book has limitations from both an exegetical and theological point of view.
Parsons suggests that more of Luke/Acts can be read with physiognomy in mind. He states, "For the Lukan Jesus, one's moral character is not determined by the color, shape, size, or limitations of one's body. This fact explains why Luke does not give physical descriptions of other characters in his works (Jesus, the disciples, John the Baptist, the Pharisees, etc.), since to do so would reinforce the same connection between outer appearance and inner character that he elsewhere struggles to break." And yet, without any rationale given as to why he selected these four stories and no others, the reader is left to wonder whether these are the only stories that fit Parsons' model, or whether they actually highlight a much broader trend throughout Luke's writings. What about the other healing stories in Luke? Are these four the only examples of subversion of the physiognomic consciousness? What is the significance of these four stories in the larger context of early Christianity? Did these subversive episodes change any cultural norms?
Parsons seems to sense the limitations of his study, and in the epilogue he comments, "I hope the preceding chapters have laid a foundation that invites such illuminating reflection and exposition beyond what I have done, whether in relation to disability studies, theological reflection, or homiletical exposition." Parsons' study demonstrates one way in which Jesus' message invited his community to see differently, but it is up to the reader to make the leap from Jesus' time to our own.
As an educated, upper-middle-class, white American woman, I have not always had the eyes to see those who are different from me, be that a difference of race or class or educational opportunity. In the years since our daughter was born, I have started to notice language, and assumptions, and the way people generalize about Down syndrome. I have started to recognize my own blindness, and the blindness that extends throughout the educated elite, throughout the church. We don't call it physiognomy anymore, but we still need the help of the Spirit to see past physical appearance and the judgments that come with it. By God's grace, I hope I will learn to see all people as the brothers in that monastery in South Carolina seemed to do, as Jesus did—as precious human beings, with great value, and much to teach me.
Amy Julia Becker is a student at Princeton Theological Seminary.
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