It has become something of a truism in recent years that any discussion about the state of American Christianity will inevitably include a reference to Greek philosophy and latent gnosticism. It is a bit fitting, then, that Matthew Lee Anderson opens Earthen Vessels, his new book on theology of the body, by asking whether American Christians have the dualistic, negative view of the body so frequently attributed to them.
His answer? Actually, evangelicals have usually expressed their theology pretty well in this area—when they have expressed anything at all. Evangelicalism’s theology of the body has been characterized not so much by gnostic hatred as by general neglect punctuated by occasional reactions against culture. We need a fuller conversation about an area largely unaddressed, and Earthen Vessels is intended as a conversation-starter, not the final word on theology of the body.
The story matters
Unlike many of his conversation-starting emergent peers, though, Anderson doesn’t think the conversation is one without parameters. In his introduction, he writes, “Grace has a shape, and that shape is Jesus. My question is how that grace shapes our arms and legs, our skin, and other organs.“1 Throughout the book, Anderson is at pains to ground the discussion of our treatment of the human body in a coherent theology of God and his work in this world.
That’s a necessary corrective for two reasons. First, it stands in opposition to the secular anthropology that characterizes most people’s thinking about the human body, including many people inside the church. Second, it is impossible to build a theology of the body without reference to its creator, whose image it is made to reflect. It is true that “while the knowledge of God precedes the knowledge of ourselves, we cannot know who God is without reinterpreting what it means to be his creatures in light of that knowledge.“2
So what should we think of the body? The entire Christian narrative affirms that the human body matters to God. At the moment of creation, God shaped men from the physical elements of this world. Anderson comments, “If ever there was a question about the goodness of the physical body, the incarnation of Jesus Christ definitively answered it.“3 The resurrection of Christ puts an exclamation mark on that answer, and it emphasizes that our physical bodies are not prisons from which we will someday escape, but glorious temples to the God of all.
Good theology. Now what?
All well and good, but why does this matter? Anderson answers in his introduction:
If we do not cultivate a strong and thoughtful evangelical understanding of the body and enact practices that integrate this understanding into every part of our lives, then we will end up incorporating ideas and beliefs into our systems that are contrary to what we would consciously affirm.4
We need this theology of the body, and we need to apply it carefully to the questions our culture poses. Earthen Vessels tackles the controversial topics with a remarkable amount of both forthrightness and thoughtfulness.
In his chapter-long discussion of tattoos, Anderson drills down to the real core of the modern movement as one of self-expression and identification, arguing that “Tattoos and body piercings may appear on the body’s surface, but they contain a depth of meaning that is worth exploring.“5 Further, “Our bodies exist in communities, and we cannot fail to acknowledge this if we wish to live in them well. What we do to our skin matters as much as what we do within the skin.“6
His insight suggests to me Anderson isn’t particularly happy with the uncritical acceptance of tattooing, piercing and bodily alteration—but, interestingly, he never comes right out and condemns the practices, either. He addresses the relevant Scriptures and finds the arguments typically made from them wanting (as do I). It seems he is more interested in sparking a deeper, more thoughtful conversation than he is in making pronouncements at this point. Frankly, given the relative paucity of good discussion on this topic, that’s an approach I can get behind.
A home run
Anderson’s discussion of sexuality is equally nuanced and helpful. If I had to pick only one chapter of Earthen Vessels for everyone to read, this would be it. Unlike most evangelical discussions of sex, Anderson gets beyond the simple affirmation that marital sex is good and looks to the point of our sexuality—and, just as importantly, to the glorious purpose of single celibacy. Paraphrasing Oliver Donovan, Anderson writes, “Marriage points to Genesis, singleness to Revelation.“7 Continuing, he makes a point which deserves to be reproduced in full:
The teaching that our wholeness depends upon sexual fulfillment lies behind many of the problems in evangelical teaching about sex. We implicitly convey to young people that sex is a need by marginalizing those who are single or cordoning them off in singles groups so that they hopefully will get married. Then we expect them to live some of the most sexually charged years of their lives without yielding to temptation. No wonder young people struggle to stay sexually pure: either sex is essential to their flourishing as humans or it isn’t. And if everyone who is married thinks it is, then young people will too—regardless of whatever else we tell them.
I realize there are deep difficulties here, not the least of which are discerning the call of singleness and establishing structures and systems of support within the church for those called to it. But the absence of visible, lifetime singleness within our communities suggests that our affirmation of marriage and the goodness of sexual pleasure have overstepped their boundaries. We cannot affirm the goodness of the created order as Christians without also seeing how it has been caught up and renewed in Christ—which those who are called to celibacy bear witness to by their lives and their love. A church without singles has lost one of its main ways of warning against a sexual idolatry that has driven the whole world mad.8
I cannot emphasize enough how essential this point is to the recovery of a healthy view of sexuality among evangelical circles. Sex has become a god—perhaps even the chief god of our culture. We cannot take sex lightly, but we must stop honoring it with highest place. Sex, too, will pass—heaven promises delights far greater and deeper and richer and fuller. Only when we reorient our perspective will we be able to rightly respond to the questions posed by singleness, marriage, and yes, homosexuality.
The only points I found to quibble with in Earthen Vessels were in Anderson’s discussion of spiritual disciplines. Unsurprisingly, he takes a number of cues from Dallas Willard and Richard Foster, whose books have informed a generation on the spiritual disciplines. In many ways, that’s a good thing; both Foster and Willard take the body seriously, and they take the church’s legacy of spiritual disciplines seriously. However, both tend to overstate the case for some of the disciplines9—and here, Anderson follows their lead.
In his discussion of silence and solitude, Anderson seemed to suggest that these are necessities for every Christian. Unfortunately, that’s not an assertion I can find grounds for in Scripture. That’s not to say they aren’t valuable; to the contrary, both silence and solitude can be immensely helpful for believers—perhaps especially in this media-saturated age. Thus, Anderson is right to point us to these time-honored disciplines; I just wish he’d been a little more nuanced in his advocacy—especially because the points he makes about these disciplines are really good ones.
Earthen Vessels is an important book for the evangelical community. The human body matters, and God has said a great deal about it. We would do well to pay attention. Matthew Anderson has done the evangelical community a service in writing a book that is thorough, well-written, and solidly grounded in the gospel and a health focus on God himself. Good as the book is, it isn’t comprehensive—it couldn’t be, and was never meant to be. It’s a conversation starter. I, for one, hope the conversation is a lively one.
9 I have a few other concerns with the approach to spirituality advocated by Willard and Foster, in particular its tendency to overemphasize experience in our walk with God. While experience is a critical aspect of knowing God, it is not and cannot be foundational, because human experience is so limited and fallible. Gladly, however, Anderson does not seem to share this particular tendency.
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