Disability Studies Quarterly Blog
Book and Media
Review by Helena L. Martin, Yale University, Email: email@example.com
Keywords: hell; afterlife; ethics; Christianity; gender
How do hell’s punishments reveal a culture’s beliefs about the body? In an ancient text called the Apocalypse of Paul, an angelic tour guide explains that the Christians hanging by their hair in the river of fire are adulterers. There is a connection between their crime and the method of torture, but it may be invisible at first to modern audiences. In Hell Hath No Fury: Gender, Disability, and the Invention of Damned Bodies in Early Christian Literature, Meghan Henning analyzes imagery of nonnormative bodies from early Christian apocalypse literature. A New Testament and early Christianity scholar, she reads these texts through a disability and gender critical lens in order to understand the writers’ conceptualizations of the body. She shows that the damned body “in early Christian visions of hell both reflects and constructs lived reality” (148, emphasis original).
Henning catalogs this dual effect of the bodies in these tours of hell. On the one hand, the “imagined” bodies of the damned in these primary texts reveal cultural assumptions of the time. Their punishments often reflect actual penalties from the Roman judicial system, as well as ethical norms about the self-mastery of an ideal body. Henning reads these texts as evidence of early Christian understandings of the body and its relationship to sin. The bodies of the damned are not being randomly tortured in these depictions of hell. They illustrate ideas about how bodies should and should not behave. By means of their punishments, they are disabled, feminized, and criminalized.
At the same time, the apocalyptic literature’s depictions of damned bodies intensified cultural norms to shape the “punitive imagination” of early Christians. Henning examines the way the texts impacted the bodies of actual disabled or feminine people living in antiquity. The texts criminalized the bodies of actual women and disabled people. Blindness, for example, was a common punishment in Christian apocalyptic literature. A sinner might be punished with blindness in the afterlife due to their ignorance. With that common trope in mind, how might the readers of these texts have interacted with an actual blind person in their midst? If hell’s punishment was to disable and feminize the sinner’s body, then having a disabled or female body must be sinful.
The work begins with an examination of gendered suffering in antiquity. After interpreting various apocalypses through the themes of gender and disability in chapters 2 and 3 to discuss the above, Henning then reads the traditions surrounding Mary’s tours of hell. Here, she argues that Mary “reenacts the ancient expectations of the female body” when she tours hell as the suffering Mother (119). But, Mary also subverts those expectations in her role as apostle and redeemer of the damned. It is precisely her femininity, and her position as Jesus’ mother, that disrupts the penal system, allowing her to appeal to him directly on behalf of the sinners.
Throughout the book, Henning reclaims early Christian apocalyptic literature as worthy of serious scholarship. She builds on her earlier work that showed the torture scenes to be teaching tools intended to encourage hearers to follow specific ethical guidelines. Many of these texts, such as the Apocalypse of Peter or the Book of Mary’s Repose, have been thought by other scholars to be undeserving of serious academic inquiry. Until recently, many New Testament and early Christianity scholars have largely ignored these texts in favor of texts assumed to be more theologically thorough, such as the New Testament letters of Paul. But, as Henning shows, these ancient apocalypses are sources of complex ethical reasoning that reveal much about early Christian attitudes about the body.
Of particular interest to disability scholars will be chapter 3: “Becoming Female and Deformed through Suffering in Hell.” Henning’s reading of the body relies on the cultural model of disability. In addition to cataloging tropes that will be familiar to modern disability scholars, such as the metaphorical link between blindness and ignorance, Henning harnesses ancient medical literature to show unexpected aspects of the apocalyptic texts. She explores weeping, chattering teeth, fire, and worms as some of the ways that damned bodies are pathologized or disabled in the tours of hell. She even categorizes blackened skin as something like disability in the apocalypses, and racialization becomes yet one more pathology of the damned bodies. The punished “Christian bodies evoked emotions of pain and regret by transforming male forms into bloody, leaky, weak, out-of-control, vulnerable womanly bodies” (115-116).
Hell Hath No Fury’s greatest strength is its careful use of “disability” as a category. When studying ancient texts, there is inherent tension between employing the modern category of disability as a helpful lens and imposing an anachronistic view of the body. (Henning usually uses “disability” to discuss physical impairment rather than intellectual or developmental disability.) An injudicious application of the “disability” category can cause readers to misunderstand the ancient texts, distracted by a 21st-century medical conception of the body. But Henning cautions against altogether discarding “disability” when approaching ancient texts. This, she says, allows us to bring our culture’s ableism to our interpretation. Disability theory helps make sense of “deviant” bodies, for example, because it intervenes in and complicates dichotomies such as normal-abnormal.
Throughout the monograph, Henning seeks this level of complexity in the theoretical models she uses, not only disability. While acknowledging the broad appeal of Thomas Laqueur’s “one-sex model,” she calls for a more complex theoretical model of ancient gender. Laqueur argued that in Greco-Roman antiquity, gender was not a binary but a spectrum of varying degrees of maleness, with feminine traits being undesirable. This model has had, as Henning explains, “enormous explanatory power for students of the New Testament and early Christianity in the last two decades” (17). But Laqueur’s model does not explain all types of gender discourse in antiquity. Even the Hippocratic Corpus, from which Laqueur deduces the one-sex model, displays a multiplicity of concepts of the body and gender. Henning therefore reads her early Christian sources with the one-sex model as only one explanation of gender among others.
Throughout the book, and particularly in the epilogue, Henning connects her scholarship on ancient texts to modern parallels. For example, she describes the Netflix original series Orange Is the New Black as a modern “tour of hell;” the characters’ female suffering female bodies are normalized as they are punished for their crimes. Henning goes on to examine the ways modern hospitals and prisons attempt to punish, confine, and reform the “leaky, weak, out-of-control female body” (154). And like the Christian “tours of hell” in antiquity, these institutions both reflect the cultural conceptions about the body and also help construct it. The book concludes with a short reflection on the visible ableist rhetoric surrounding people who have been most vulnerable in the COVID-19 pandemic. The epilogue, in short, throws into sharp relief the dangers of rhetoric assigning ethical value to bodies.
To be sure, Hell Hath No Fury belongs in classrooms and on bookshelves of those historians and biblical scholars who employ gender and disability critical theories. In addition, excerpts would be fruitful in undergraduate and graduate courses on Christian, Roman, or disability history, or on ethics. This book provides a thorough and refreshing application of disability and feminist theory to early Christian texts. Henning’s prose is clear and will be accessible to those with a cursory knowledge of Christian history. The damned portrayed in hell reflect cultural norms about bodies while also re-inscribing those same norms. By using normativity to police the behavior of Christians, these apocalypses served, in a way, to bring hell to earth.
This review was published as part of Disability Studies Quarterly, Spring/Summer 2022.
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