Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith
Matthew Lee Anderson
For Christians, who, like author Matthew Anderson are attempting to move beyond the shallowness of their early faith in order to handle the challenges of a complex world, Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith is an interesting read.
Describing himself as one who “derided evangelicalism’s hollowness, mocked its kitschiness, and scoffed at its endless attempts at reform,” Anderson, a graduate of Biola’s Torrey Honors Program, (with an additional year at Oxford University), aims to “explore, to raise questions and provoke the reader” as he “proposes a path for living in the body in our late-modern world.” His own “path out of the shallows went straight through the body – through wrestling with the fact that our Savior lived in the flesh, died on a cross, and rose again from the grave.”
While acknowledging the ambiguity surrounding the word “evangelical,” Anderson, who currently works in research and social media at a non-denominational church in Missouri, hopes to engage others in a thoughtful consideration of the body from an evangelical perspective (see his blog www.mereorthodoxy.com). He proposes that attitudes toward the body among evangelicals are more complex than the perceived notion that certain strands of evangelicalism are quasi-gnostic. He suggests that evangelicals, rather than disdaining the body, have been inattentive to the body, not honouring it as the place of God’s presence until “the brokenness of the body pushes it into our consciousness in unavoidable ways.”
Anderson explores how being physical creatures in a physical world affects everything from our use of technology to our sexuality and our worship. He addresses topics such as tattoos, mortality, and cremation, and he discusses spiritual practices like solitude, silence, and gratitude. He maintains that we are not transformed through techniques, but that God’s power “sanctifies the body through reforming its habits and dispositions.”
Though Anderson himself does not claim to be a sacramentalist, he points to the movement of many young evangelicals into the liturgical traditions of Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism as evidence of the need for a more sacramental theology. His emphasis on the value of the body’s “presence” and his disapproval of videotaped sermons in church reveal an incarnational theological bent.
Quoting the Heidelberg Catechism, Anderson reminds the reader that consolation in Christ has always included the body, not just the soul. The human body has worth not only because God created it, but also because God became human in Jesus Christ. The catechism’s first question and answer read: “What is thy only comfort in life and death? Answer: That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour, Jesus Christ….” Reading these words, I’m reminded of Julian of Norwich’s firm belief in God’s careful tending of created matter: “God made it, God loves it, God keeps it…”
Though Anderson’s respect for the human body is evident, I could not help but note that the perspective of half the embodied human species had been neglected on the book’s promotion pages. Not one of the seven commendations is written by a woman. I did find a review online, however, by a woman as baffled as I by the book’s almost complete silence on the issue of gender. She was puzzled that the author could, on one hand, acknowledge the significance of his life experience and cultural context in understanding theology, while on the other hand, ignore how influential an evangelical woman’s experience in the church might be to her understanding of the body!
Although Anderson is keen on bodily exercise, his treatment of exercise as a spiritual discipline does not adequately address the body’s role in integrating heart and mind. As a retired massage therapist, I understand how relaxed stretching exercises can facilitate a physical release of muscle tension that helps to slow down the heart rate, enhance blood flow, and bring the muscles to what is called, “resting length.” This physiological change can also facilitate a relaxed state of mind, which can contribute to becoming receptive to God’s loving presence.
Despite his regard for Chesterton and C.S. Lewis’s Trinitarian theology, Anderson seems to lack an appreciation for the role of the imagination. For example, while he enjoys the feeling of the wind blowing through his hair as he walks, he is quick to say that this does not mean he is experiencing the Holy Spirit. My contention is, if, while enjoying the breeze in his hair, he were to imagine the Holy Spirit whispering to him, or if he were to recall the Holy Spirit coming as wind at Pentecost, he might be more open, more receptive, to the presence of the Spirit at any time. To quote James K.A. Smith (Desiring the Kingdom), an author to whom Anderson refers more than once: “it is our imaginations, not our intellects, that carry our worldview.”
Anderson might have done well to begin the book where he ended it. In the final chapter and two-page epilogue, Anderson sums up the import of the book in a less heady, more integrated tone. Turning to the body as the place where we respond to the presence of God, he makes this reassuring statement: “the body is not a task to be completed, but a gift that we receive from God himself.” Although I would have liked to see a more explicit endorsement of the body’s value apart from the capacity (for most) to measure up to idealized standards of beauty, weight, and health, his perspective of the body as gift is heartening. Anderson’s intent, after all, is to open up conversation on the topic of body theology, not conclude it.