An extended review of a 2021 book by Cynthia Tam
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Book by Cynthia Tam. Pickwick, 2021. 202 pages. $31 (e-book $10)
“Dylan.” “Ellen.” Everybody is unique, and every person with a disability or who is autistic has their own life story, personality, likes and dislikes, family, and possibly a church community. That’s why Cynthia Tam’s Kinship stands out from so many other theological works. While “Dylan” and “Ellen” may be pseudonyms, their experiences are real, instructive, and often challenging to current church practices. Tam merges qualitative research with Canadian, Christian families with an insightful grasp of not only disability theology but Christian theology more generally. Those who might drift off when they hear the word “theology” will find themselves caught up in the fascinating stories of Dylan, Ellen, their families and their churches. Theologians reading Tam’s book will need to grapple with the way what we think about God tangibly impacts so many lives in the church and in our communities. Kinship really is “practical theology,” and that’s a good thing.
Tam proclaims that “Christ’s redemptive work should impact how we live as the body of Christ today” (94). This means that followers of Christ cannot afford to carry on as a disjointed and dysfunctional family. Instead, we must step into the Kingdom life of kinship to which God calls us. As Tam’s first-hand research and grasp of disability theology demonstrates, too many people with what she calls “profound autism” remain on the sidelines, excluded from Canadian churches. Drawing on popular theologians (Bonhoeffer, Brueggemann), disability theologians (Swinton, Reinders, Reynolds), and biblical sources such as the Apostle Paul, Tam weaves a compelling case for churches to celebrate and promote the gifts and involvement of people with autism and their families. As we are each created uniquely in God’s image, we must not only commit to serve one another in covenant love but must learn to rely on the gifts of all God’s children as disciples of Christ. “The church should be a nurturing body that, by faith, carries each person seeking to belong to Christ. The community of believers is on a journey of discipleship together” (157).
It should be noted that, problematically, Tam draws regularly from the work of Jean Vanier without reference to the recent revelations of his serial sexual abuse of women. Certainly, Vanier’s insights transformed and popularized disability theology. Yet, when Tam writes of becoming a community as “the way of the heart” in Vanier’s terms, we must also admit that the heart is “deceitful above all things” (Jer. 17:19, NIV). Good and evil come from the heart (Luke 6:45) so we must be careful not to romanticize vulnerable community without thorough accountability.
Terms like “profound” or “severe” autism can elicit diverse and sometimes critical responses within the autism community. While Tam navigates most of these tricky linguistic waters well, I am sure some will take issue with some of her word choices or approaches to neurodiversity and disability.
Tam ultimately captures the uniqueness and unity of the Body of Christ: “As a community defined by Christ, our identity is no longer defined by socially defined features such as ethnicity, social status, gender, and for that matter, ability (Gal 3:28).” While disability and neurodiversity can be important identity markers and represent the intricate tapestry of God’s creation, we ultimately find our centre in Christ. Experiences of families with autistic members may, at times, seem foreign to those without such experience. Tam quotes Bernice Olivas on her sons’ autistic interactions that, “sometimes hello can only be said with a gentle headbutt” (23). Similarly, the lives and worlds of people without autism may seem strange and alien to those who are neurodivergent. Tam’s Kinship, however, celebrates that we are “no longer strangers and aliens, but ….are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph 2:19, ESV). United with God through Christ, we are called into the beautifully diverse family of God – “not only a community of character but also a community of characters,” as Stanley Hauerwas observes (177). Tam’s book paints a compelling vision of a kingdom of committed kinship, where Dylan, Ellen, and so many others are not only included in the body of Christ but have unique and transformative gifts to share with the church and the world.
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