Jesus is asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” about the blind man (John 9:1-12). We take comfort in Jesus’ response that neither sinned, but neglect the narrative that Jesus offers in its place: “he was born blind so that God’s work might be revealed in him.” The story of the man’s broken body is not about sin (though this story is the narrative of many other healing miracles), but rather about God’s purpose that the man’s body may show forth God’s glory once it is healed. We are to understand that the man was blind, simply so that he may be healed. Jennifer Glancy’s recent book, Corporal Knowledge: Early Christian Bodies, (Oxford, 2010), reflects on the narratives into which bodies are cast.
The pre-existence adds another wrinkle into how we understand the stories bodies tell. Origen, one of the first early Christians to really propose the pre-existence asks rhetorically that if there were no pre-existence, “why do we find newborn babies to be blind, when they have committed no sin, while others are born with no defect at all?” (First Principles, 1.18.1). The argument is that the best explanation for why babies are punished with disability is because of sins their pre-existent souls must have committed.
This narrative of pre-existent sin, and its punishment in the body, is familiar to Latter-day Saint history on the issue of race. (See this series for some further reflections on this theme in LDS discourse) Though largely repudiated, this narrative of bodies telling stories about their souls remains in force in LDS discourse. Rather that thinking about sin as the cause of physical disability, LDS discourse often holds that excessive righteousness is the cause of mental (and sometimes physical) disability. I find it interesting that reward, and not punishment, is seen as the basis for physical and mental disability. Larger themes of theodicy in Mormonism follow a similar pattern, where trials are meant to be understood as opportunities for growth, rather than divine retribution.
In spite of this reversed narrative of reward instead of punishment, the idea that “blessings” are the reward for “righteousness” is a persist discursive trope, from the health benefits of the Word of Wisdom, to the protection from wearing garments, righteous living is meant to produce certain kinds of bodies. LDS bodies are also supposed to communicate certain values, which helps explain the sometimes obsessive concern over dress and grooming standards. Bodies decorated and shaped in certain ways, including how they dress, are designed to tell a story of where these bodies fit socially in broader American culture. These “standards” do not represent a neutral norm, but rather subscribe to larger cultural norms around identifying something about the person by the way they present their body.
The idea that the body houses a certain meaning, or communicates meaning is foundational to culture. Whether we distinguish the bodies of children from adults, men from women, slave from free, (and, if those who seek a biological basis for sexual preference succeed culturally, gay from straight) the body socially locates the individual.
These divisions, for all of their problematic entailments, are too often given the status of divine revelation and order, rather than social effect. The idea that God is the creator, and the belief in a certain original and continuing divine intentionality in the ordering of the world plays an important role in solidifying these social effects as divine will.
I see plenty of problems with these stories. Whether it is the idea that bodily disease and figure tell something about sin, righteousness, or divine benevolence, or the idea that our bodily presentation locates us socially in more and less moral ways, the stories our bodies often tell are wrong. But must we give up on the idea that bodies tell stories, or should tell stories, or can we just tell different stories about them?