The iPhone Shaped Body: Earthen Vessels

“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.

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John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

12 thoughts on “The iPhone Shaped Body: Earthen Vessels”

  1. This is an interesting and intriguing question. One that has caused me to stop and ask what my preconceived notions are for people coming to and engaging in worship in the community that I participate in.

    I don’t know about removing the elderly from our communities or worship services. I have not necessarily experienced this in the church I work at and attend. I can’t think of a time where we have explicitly excluded them. That being said, I can think of times where it happens by the nature of the event. Say our church puts on a very contemporary worship service, that can by it’s nature exclude elderly individuals that don’t enjoy the music or volume level. Is that the community excluding them, or are those individuals in need of finding a different community? That is a hard question that I don’t have the answer to and maybe don’t want to find the answer to.

    Do we exclude infants and their mothers from our Sunday morning worship communities? Is a crying baby a distraction? In general, American society views a crying or disobedient infant as a distraction and then frowns down on the parents for not controlling their child. So not only do we exclude the infant, but the parent as well. Many church’s I have worked for or attended do their best to make available a cry room where a community of parents with infants can spend time with each other.

    But does that then exclude them from the community at large? Does it remove freedom? Maybe. Or can we rather say that their are times and places for certain types of community? Is Sunday Morning worship where a pastor is preaching, or a Sunday school class the best place for a crying child, probably not. But are small group communities where several parents have a crying child a better place for that type of community to be exercised? I believe so. Some may see this as selective exclusion or a creative way of distracting people from the real problem. I can understand and respect that, but this would be my stance.

    My real concern comes into play when our cultural norms with regards to socioeconomic status come into play. I remember a church meeting where an individual stood up and stated that he attended that church specifically because it was a white collar community. I remember being appalled at this because this as it is in direct contradiction with scriptures ideals of embracing everyone where they are at. I do believe that we need to remove these cultural barriers and accept anyone into our communities, regardless of whether they fit into our socioeconomic norms.

    SK

  2. In addition to infants and the elderly, I’ll add the sick, disabled, or challenged to that list.

    In worldly terms, culture is moving towards a permanent solution for these people: abortion and euthanasia. Many societies/cultures see them as a burden and an inconvenience – mostly financial.

    So when I ask myself, does including these “undesirables” in a church service limit freedom? In a sense, yes. They require that I not just behave the way I want to – but I must accommodate someone else’s needs. Thus, my freedom is limited by others.

    That is, however, a worldly view.

    The Godly view, is much different. I’ll just bring up examples of Christ’s attitude towards including children, undesirables, and the sick:

    Mark 2:1-8 Jesus commends the faith of the friends who brought their disabled brother to him.
    Mark 9:35-37 Jesus commands us to be servants towards one another, and to welcome children.
    Mark 10:13-16 Jesus blesses children, and commands to not prevent children from coming to him
    Matthew 9:9-12 Jesus calls Matthew

    Here, you can see that Christ is being inclusive of those who would cause distractions, or require attention that would detract from the “service” going on at that moment.

    Therefore, I think the goal is to rise above worldly distractions and attitudes towards “proper” worship. To deny those who have “extra” needs from worship services not only deprives them of worship, but also their caregivers. I think of many mothers who (depending on the number of kids) can go for years without hearing a sermon because they’re excluded from the worship service by virtue of having a small infant. If there are needs to be met or moments where those people need to step out, then sure. Provide space for them. But don’t exclude them on principle.

    So no, making church “clean” and “free from distractions” is definitely resulting from a modern worldly concept of consumerism and perfectionism. The church should be surrounding and assisting those with special needs – even during a worship service.

    -Stephen Furlani

  3. This is a very tough question, and I’m torn. My church is situated between two rather poor communities and two affluent communities. In general, however, our congregation is overwhelmingly affluent. I know that we need to do more to break down cultural/consumerist barriers that prevent the “least of these” from feeling welcome in our midst. However, as a father of a talkative infant, I do have something to say about children in service.

    My daughter loves to talk, though we’re not sure what language she is speaking just yet. My wife and I felt that our desire to have our daughter with us in in service was selfish when compared to the desires of others to be able to hear the sermon. At the same time, another family behind us does not share our sentiment and keeps their toddler out of the nursery. His frequent outbursts are distracting and, frankly, annoying. Why? Not because he’s making noise. He’s a kid. That’s what they do. It’s because the adults do not seem to be at all bothered by the fact that those around them cannot hear the pastor.

    I have no problem with people whose hygiene or appearance don’t line up with what I consider ‘clean’ or ‘presentable’–I work with jr. high students! But I do have a problem with general rudeness and being disruptive to those around us. Church should be welcoming but not chaotic, done decently and in order without being sterile. It’s a fine line, so fine that without the Spirit’s leading, few ever manage to walk it.

  4. I don’t believe a whimpering or talkative child can be considered rude. I think we must first look at testimony of scripture. You never see the congregation either OT or NT segregated. I’d say there’s three reasons: first, worship is primarily to God so why would we exclude our most precious family members (children); second, the old are supposed to teach the younger how to live according to Scripture. How is this done in a segregated environment. Third, parents are command to teach and discipline. Patents miss out on an awesome opportunity to teach their children how to worship and respond to God, to model a seriousness about the things of God, and to demonstrate general good decorum.

    I grant the question is can these things be done in a segregated service? Possibly. The preschool work will not give account for my family though I will. Also, a parent who does a poor job and let’s his children be a distraction should not be the rule in how we establish our services. Finally,when Jesus was teaching the disciples tried to keep the children away and Jesus rebuked them and welcomed children distractions and all.

    1. I’m not talking about segregating the service. I’m talking about being considerate of others. I don’t think you can make your argument about the “older teaching the younger” in a corporate service. In a house church/small group that applies. But in a corporate service? Everyone is listening to one person. It’s different.

  5. Some episodic thoughts:

    1) I think it’s interesting that, whenever we speak about babies in public (not just in church, but in any public space), we talk about them crying. Most babies actually spend more time sleeping than crying. Why do we talk about them crying?

    My conjecture is that it’s partly just that crying is audible and sleeping isn’t, so we notice babies more when they cry– when they present themselves to our awareness. Also, though, it’s partly because a baby’s cries have meaning: “I’m sleepy and need help getting to sleep!” or “I’m hungry!” or “My diaper is dirty!” or “I want to be in physical contact with someone who loves me!”

    In short, babies cry to communicate some kind of need– a need, moreover, that they cannot fulfill themselves and therefore must appeal to their parents and (their parents’ community) for help.

    This neediness is profoundly offensive in the context of a culture where selfishness is the order of the day, where we have come to believe we are entitled to a public life entirely cleansed of children, and that we are entitled to live lives focused entirely on self-gratification. A baby is a stark, intrusive, immediate reminder that we do not get to put ourselves first all the time.

    Just like our bodies, babies remind us that we have limits.

    Evangelical Christians are not exempt from this sense of entitlement. Which leads to my next thought:

    2) I think it’s interesting that when we speak of (crying) babies being a “distraction” in church, we talk about not being able to hear the preacher.

    I don’t think it’s accidental that the same evangelicals who unwittingly buy into a creeping crypto-Gnosticism also make the least embodied piece of a church service the most exalted.

    A good homily is wonderful, but of secondary, possibly even tertiary importance in a worship service. The parts that involve our bodies more directly are much more critical: Eucharist and worship. I can listen to a sermon over the internet. It’s much harder to worship (at least communally) over my iPhone, and impossible to take communion outside the embodied community of believers. And in the context of those last two, a baby’s noises are not going to keep anyone from doing what they are supposed to do.

    So yeah, removing babies is generally not a good idea.

    I could go on about our fear of Teh Boobies and the exclusion of breastfed infants and their mothers as another symptom of our alienation from our bodies, but I’ll stop here. ;)

    1. Love these thoughts, Sherri. I agree with them all! (Including the one you could have gone on about and stopped short of!)

  6. I tend to think that the reason most Evangelicals frown on crying, pooping babies in the worship service is traceable to their view of the sacraments.

    In a tradition where newborns are baptized and very publicly welcomed into the family of God, receiving them in the worship service is the most natural thing in the world. I have to point out that, among all the comments here about whether or not it is “ok” to bring your baby to church, no one has wondered if it might be *good for the baby* to be present in the service, with the people of God worshiping together. That is a very natural question for a paedobaptist to ask (and answer affirmatively), but I just do not think it is how credo-baptists think.

    Similarly, one who looks to the Lord’s Supper for the grace of God, objectively imparted by the real presence of Christ, is inclined to be less disturbed than a memorialist would be by a baby crying in his ear while he’s preparing to receive.

    Let me share a picture of what this might look like. In my Anglican parish babies are welcome in the church service. There is children’s church for older children, but it ends halfway through the service so that all children are present for the last half of the service. Larger families and those with younger children tend to sit at the back of the church, and if a baby is really crying then a parent will usually take him out while he calms down – although once while the bishop was preaching a woman started to leave with a crying baby and he bellowed (he’s a large man) “Don’t leave, I can preach over your baby” (!!). There is a ministry of people who volunteer to hold babies to give their moms a break. Someone who is really bothered by the noise can either sit near the front or go to the 8:00 service which has much fewer children.

    I hope that none of that came across as crabby or condescending. I do think that evangelicalism can make a lot of progress toward a higher regard of the body. But I also believe that some of the problems are simply the outgrowths of theological commitments.

    1. Excellent! We are Anglicans, too, and infants receive an active welcome in our services. It’s one of my favorite things about our parish.

  7. Well said Gabe.

    Ours is similar. Most Catholic churches have a glassed in “cry room” with sound plumbed in so that moms and dads can participate at mass to the extent possible. If Baby is doing OK, parents can easily slip out to join everyone else; and when not, slip back. It’s our culture so we just roll with it either way.

    A good friend and I joke that we had our best days in the cry room: we were among our people (babies). We could be more ourselves too. :)

    In terms of the elderly and disabled, St Joe’s has a widened pew up front where they can be seen and receive Eucharist first.

    Lastly, context: mass on retreat with teenagers is different from children’s mass is different from mass at L’Arche Community is different from Latin/Extraordinary Form mass.

    We don’t think of ourselves as “bodies” (or just, or only, as individual selves) at mass; we think of ourselves as a family, and families have to manage all these issues too. Different comportment for different settings…but at our best, no one is excluded, and the family is considered in its totality, as a unified whole.

    It gets uncomfortable at times, and we kind’a like it that way.

    1. I think that this is a great idea. Personally, I prefer the idea of a parent taking the child out if they get upset as opposed to have a standing nursery staff, but it’s what our church does.

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