“Always buy the most hideous house in the neighborhood, so at least you won’t have to look at it.” – Unknown
It’s difficult to get a good look at something when you live inside it, and this happens to be especially true of our physical bodies. Matthew Lee Anderson, author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith, says that when he told people he was writing on the body, they often looked at him quizzically as if to say, “The body of what?”
Our bodies touch everything we touch, feel everything we feel, and do everything we do, and yet from our perspective as bodies it’s difficult to know how or why to think about them (or why we should read a book about them!). But whether we are worshipping at church, talking with friends, getting a tattoo, expressing sexuality, or pecking away at our iPhones, we are using our bodies. And yet, the language I just employed – “using our bodies” – seems on second thought to be profoundly wrong. Is the body just another thing we use or is there something more profoundly human about it?
In his book, Matt addresses all the touchy issues related to bodies – worship, tattoos, homosexuality, church online – but he is more fundamentally addressing the deep connection between our bodies and our faith which is often ignored today:
The gift of God in Jesus Christ is a gift for and to human bodies, and as evangelicals, we need to attend carefully to the ways in which the Holy Spirit shapes our flesh. In a world where the body’s status is in question, we have an opportunity to proclaim that the God who saved our souls will also remake our bodies; that the body is nothing less than the place where God dwells on earth. (50)
This is why I think this book is so important and it’s also why I’m happy to write a bit about the fifth chapter entitled, “The Body as Shaped by the World.”
Chapter 5 – The Body As Shaped by the World
In chapter 5 of Earthen Vessels, Matt introduces several physical and cultural forces that shape how we conceive of our bodies. He begins with the architecture of buildings noting the postures of worship, commerce, or activity we take depending on the structure and beauty of a building. As he writes, “We shape our worlds, and afterwards our worlds shape us” (86).
Increasingly, however, our conception of the body is shaped less by buildings than by the images of bodies we see on screen and in magazines. Even those of us who try to have a biblically healthy view of the body cannot help but be influenced by the 1000s of images of strikingly beautiful people we see everyday.
Our conception of our bodies is further shaped by modern communication technology which allows us to connect to people in a way that seems to indicate bodily presence is unnecessary or at least unimportant. He writes, “The advantages of the Internet, of course, are incalculable” and yet it is a strange place where, “We are not present online – we present ourselves.” (92-93, Matt also writes powerfully about technology in chapter 11).
The Internet allows us to do all kinds of things that used to require us to move our bodies. We can talk to friends on Skype, order milk and books on Amazon, and send flowers to our mothers all without moving our legs (and soon without moving our fingers!). As amazing as all of this is, over time the net effect is that it seems as if we can live in the world without a body.
And yet as Matt argues, the body is profoundly and deeply connected to being human. The shape our bodies take is the shape our souls will eventually take, and therefore we must be careful to intentionally shape our body in accordance with the gospel rather than passively letting it be shaped by the forces he introduced above.
Intentional Removing Bodies?
To help counteract the negative influences upon our bodies, Matt outlines three ways of life that are helpful in forming and shaping to a gospel-shaped body: freedom, gratitude, and care.
Each of these is worthy of a blog post, but I’d like to focus on one quote in particular that highlights how our attitudes about human bodies are embedded in our worship practices in surprising ways. Under the concept of freedom, Matt writes,
When cleanliness and bodily order become required for entrance into our communities—as they clearly are in most evangelical churches—then we have adopted a standard inhospitable to those whose bodies either might intrude at inopportune times (such as infants and the elderly) or who lack the grooming that an affluent society has transformed into a requirement. Babies crying are not a “distraction” from connecting with God— they are a tangible reminder of our embodied lives and that God himself once cried as a baby, too.
I’d love to share my opinions on this, but I’d be more interesting in hearing what you think? Does removing babies and the elder promote or deny (or both) freedom? Is such action in accordance with a Christian view of bodies and worship or is it tinged with consumerism and perfectionism? And remember, Matt isn’t asking about “babies in church” as if that’s a key issue. He’s using the question to chip away at our everyday practices in order uncover the deeper unquestioned assumptions that guide our lives, churches, and communities.
Note: This post is part of a chapter-by-chapter symposium on Matt’s book Earthen Vessels, hosted by his blog Mere Orthodoxy and covers chapter 5, “The Body As Shaped by the World.” Matt is also available to hold discussions for groups of 7 or more who want to talk with him about the book.