The Beautiful Body

Have you ever noticed how once you begin to reflect on a particular topic, perhaps in response to something you’ve read or experienced, suddenly that theme pops up everywhere you turn? The lovely convergence of many disparate threads becomes an emerging tapestry of thought, meditation, and prayer. Sometimes the finished product fairly jumps off the loom; other times, the process is slow and hesitant, with stops to untangle unruly threads or to see what the still inchoate pattern is becoming. 

The multi-thread motif that has been surfacing everywhere for me recently is the body, particularly the role of the body in Christian faith and practice. Various strands of experience and reading have kept “bodies and embodiment” at the forefront of my thinking in recent weeks. The first thread was the long-awaited arrival of summer. Summer! When the temperatures rise and wardrobe changes follow, there’s just no hiding from bodies—more of them are visible! For those of us “of a certain age,” that means having to confront some of the irreversible signs of “maturity” that are much easier to cloak under long sleeves, scarves, chunky sweaters, and jeans. Those physical signals of the march of time provoke reflections not only about the brevity of life but also about what it means to live faithfully and fully in this “second half” season and in this fragile body, especially in a culture that assigns incredibly high value to youth and the illusion of youth. As I was in the midst of untangling these thought threads, a great article from Michelle Van Loon threw some new colors onto the loom. (You can read Michelle’s article here: God Loves Your Perimenopausal Body. Don’t be put off by the title, men—the depth of her reflections are pertinent to both genders!)

A second thread in the emerging tapestry is the vigorous debates happening in many spaces over the nature of Christian worship. Even as churches continue to return to a full range of face-to-face worship opportunities, we are keenly aware that many of the virtual worship and study options that emerged or were beefed up during the pandemic are not going away. This brings a need for deep theological reflection about the embodied nature of Christian faith and worship, and the implications for online services as habitual choice instead of temporary necessity. At the heart of many of the conversations on this topic is the question of the Eucharist. There’s no getting around the fact that the central sacrament of the church involves the presence of bodies—not just the mystical presence of Christ’s own body, but the human bodies that offer and receive and ingest the elements and then go out to be the body of Christ for the world. In the midst of my pondering on these questions, Firebrand Magazine published an edition that offered thoughtful perspectives on “online communion,” one essay from an advocate for the practice, another from a pastor-scholar who opposes it. More food for thought! (You can read the two essays here: “Incarnate Savior, Embodied Sacrament: Or What I Affirm When Rejecting Online Communion” and The Case for Virtual Communion.)

An experience that provided a third thread in this season of reflection on bodies and embodiment was a stunning and unsettling discussion forum in one of the classes I taught during spring semester. I’ve already written in detail about this elsewhere (see The Extirpation of Non-Biblical Thinking in the People Called Methodists), but suffice it to say here that it has attuned my antennae to the disturbing presence of Gnostic-like thinking in the Western church. This thread would probably be a dark red in my thought tapestry, because of the multiplicity of damaging and dangerous implications for theology and discipleship—especially since, as in the case of my students, the assumptions are often embedded so deeply that folks are not even aware of how far their perspectives on the body have slipped from the biblical witness. As I continue to ponder that witness and the church’s urgent need to grapple with it, a great conversation partner has been Dr. Timothy Tennent’s recent book, For the Body: Recovering a Theology of Gender, Sexuality, and the Human Body (the book is available here: Seedbed).

Finally, at least at this point in the tapestry’s production, there is the thread of Sarah, the matriarch of Israel. A recent week spent in sustained engagement with her story in Genesis 12–23 as part of another writing project left me forcibly impressed with the fact that the embodied nature of redemption did not begin with the Incarnation.  In fact, the story of Abraham and Sarah is all about how God deliberately chose bodies—human bodies, old, dried up human bodies!—as the vehicle through which he would launch the rescue and redemption of humanity.

H’mm. This particular tapestry is turning out to be a slow weave, with a complex pattern. The beautiful body and its role in Christian faith and worship is a topic that will undoubtedly engage my thinking and reflection for a long time to come—and it is a topic that merits robust teaching in the church. Dr. Tennent explains the urgency of correct biblical thinking about the body: “We must listen carefully to what Scripture tells us about the body if we are to counter the confused, idolatrous narratives of our day. Having a theology of the body rooted in the image of God provides a positive vision to counter the destructive idolatry of contemporary culture’s distorted view of the body.” He goes on to articulate the impact of having a biblical understanding of the body: “To put it simply, a theology of the body means that we understand the body as not merely a biological category but supremely as a theological category, designed for God’s revelatory and saving purposes. In short, the body makes the invisible mysteries of God’s nature and redemption manifest and visible as a tangible marker in the world.”[1]

I am looking forward to the additional threads that Spirit and Scripture will add to the loom as this tapestry of “the beautiful body” continues to emerge and take shape. If you’ve been reading and studying in this area, I would love to hear your thoughts and recommended reading lists!

[1] For the Body, 14.

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