You Shall Not Curse a Deaf Man

By: Timothy Loh

November 20, 2014

I have never conducted research on religion before. Even though religion is a very important part of my life, I had always seen it as something personal and almost too sacred to explore from an academic point of view. That has changed since coming to Georgetown, where students are allowed and often encouraged to engage with both faith and academics: there is a two-course theology requirement for all students, a myriad of faith-based organizations and traditions on campus, and two on-campus centers that research intersections of faith and scholarship, namely, the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding and the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

My research experience over the past summer in Jordan as a Lisa J. Raines Fellow also changed my perspective on research on religion. I was conducting anthropological research on educational practices in a deaf school, and during my coursework, the theme of religion kept popping up, due in part to the fact that the school was a Christian institution in a Muslim country. I saw it when the students would ask me if I was a Muslim or a Christian, when the Pope came to visit Amman, and when Ramadan began in the middle of my time there. The relationship between Christianity and Islam in Jordan was complex and nuanced, and it could not be simply characterized as hostile or harmonious, although state and media discourse often tended towards either of those extremes. Incidentally, a good friend of mine, Jordan Denari, was also in the country as a Fulbright researcher looking at Muslim-Christian relations. Listening to her talk about her research also gave me an idea of the importance of research on religion and interfaith dialogue.

Now that I am back in the United States, I'm very excited to be part of the Doyle Undergraduate Research Fellowship. The research project I am hoping to conduct is entitled "'You Shall Not Curse a Deaf Man': Discourses of Deafness in Christianity," which will look at the intersection of Deaf culture and Christianity. I attend a church in DC with a Deaf ministry, and a few weeks ago, I was struck when my pastor mentioned the miraculous regeneration of a young man’s inner ear in a sermon. That made me wonder how a story like that would sound to a Deaf person and how broader narratives about disabilities in Christianity are perceived by the Deaf. Deaf Christians are in the unique position of belonging to both Deaf and Christian identity groups, whose beliefs may conflict with one another. The former group believes that Deafness is a cultural, even ethnic, identity centered around American Sign Language (hence the capitalized "d" in "Deaf" -- "deaf" refers merely to the physiological condition of hearing loss), and many, given the choice, would rather stay Deaf than become hearing. The latter group, on the other hand, views disability as one consequence of a fallen world that God will eventually restore. For example, Mark 7 recounts an incident where Jesus heals a deaf man, and the healing of disabilities was taken as a sign of Jesus' ministry on earth (Matthew 11:4-5).

Over the course of this and next semester, I plan to use interviews, surveys, and possibly focus groups with Deaf Christians in the DC area to understand how they reconcile competing narratives of deafness and disability in Christianity. I also intend to interview my church pastors on what they see as the mission of a Deaf ministry. I will be conducting participant observation by attending church services and Deaf fellowships, but I suspect that this topic would not often come up during these sessions. I will be blogging about my experience and hope to write up my final conclusions in a research paper at the end of the year. Based on a cursory review of the literature, very little research has been done on Deafness and religion, and I believe this project will give us insight into the intersection of culture and religion and what happens when the two come into conflict.

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You Shall Not Curse a Deaf Man