Matthew Lee Anderson is the author of the recently released Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter To Our Faith (you can read my review here). He's also a Biola grad (not Wheaton! Biola!), a reader of old books (50 years old is probably too recent for his tastes), a lover of musicals (even Rogers and Hammerstein) and, sad to say, a compulsive double spacer (even after colons).
More importantly, he's a thoughtful writer with a real passion for gospel-saturated lives and God-shaped theology. You can read more of his work at the group blog he runs, Mere Orthodoxy. He's generously given us a slice of his time to discuss some of the important points raised by the book. We hope you enjoy this second part of our interview—look for the conclusion later this week! And don't forget to pick up a copy of the book!
Looks, Working Out, and the Cult of the Female Body
One point I had hoped you'd have opportunity to elaborate on, but didn't, was the notion that "when our original parents sinned, they did not simply destroy our relationship with God, with each other, and with the creation around us. They also destroyed our integrity as human persons so that our internal and external dimensions no longer work in harmony. How do our external and internal dimensions suffer this discord?
This is a great question, and it deserves a much longer and more nuanced answer than I can give it here. But I'll say this: the body seems to have engrained habits and tendencies that go against what we internally might desire or want. There's trickiness that we can get into here about second order desires, first order desires, etc., and how those different desires relate to us wanting to do something but not being able to do it. But I think what I could say now is that the body doesn't always do what we want it to, when we want it to, and how we want it to.
The evangelical community has quite the fixation on appearance. Whether it's the requirement for a suit and tie in some circles, or the emphasis on black-rimmed glasses and turtlenecks and ripped jeans in others, we seem to have let the way someone looks become incredibly important. You wrote,
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.
How does this impact the church's witness to the world?
I think it presents a false understanding of the immense diversity of the body of Christ and undermines our stated values of inclusion. And it communicates something other than the Gospel, which has set us free from the need to conform to external standards of appearance. That's no grounds for license or for Christian anarchy--form matters. But what kind of form is the whole question, and I don't think we've got that right.
In terms of solutions, you wrote,
[Our] fitness and our fashion needs to take its cues from the cross and the resurrection... We are to dress ourselves with a holy indifference to the broken standards of beauty and with the confidence that our identity lies not in our conformity to this world but in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
What would cross-shaped fitness and fashion look like? How do you apply that idea in your own life?
Well, it has actually started to mean dressing up just a bit more than I've gotten used to--but only for certain occasions. I don't particularly care these days about my clothing, but when I go out on a date I've started to take that more seriously as an act of sacrifice and giving to my wife. She hasn't asked me to, and I don't think she really cares all that much. But its a trivial way that I've found to think more about her (not sure she's noticed yet, though!).
As for fitness, this is a tough issue that I'm less consistent on than I should be (like, well, all the issues I write about in EV). I do think a cross-shaped fitness regime would pay careful attention to health, but with an openness to being distracted and derailed by other people in the gym. This is an area where I struggle, because it's one of the only times that I get to consume fiction (through audiobooks), so I tend to ignore everyone else. But like the Good Samaritan, I think I really need to be more open to being derailed from my audiobooks and present toward others who are near me in my working out.
Can I have the easy questions now, please?
In Jim Hamilton's God's Glory in Salvation Through Judgment, he writes,
Perhaps if Isaiah were prophesying today, he would indict the cult of the female body, worshiped by men gawking at pornography and by women giving themselves to eating disorders in attempts to attain the perceived ideal.
When I read that, I realized both that the worship of the female body is indeed one of the great idolatries of our age, and that it is certainly the one most like the pagan worship of old, where sexuality and divinity were related. Why do you think that impulse has such power in our culture, and what can Christians do to counteract it?
Well, as you point out, the female form doesn't just have power in our culture, which makes this an enduring issue. Helen of Troy had, after all, a face that launched a thousand ships. I do think, though, that female beauty has been degraded in our own culture to a sort of sexualized prettiness that is a cheap imitation, and that Christians would do well to learn to see the difference. Women are more than hair, makeup, and clothes, but most men can't see anything beyond that.
At the same time, we have to recognize that the cult of the female body, as you put it, isn't. It's a cult of the "fantasized female form that has been photoshopped into oblivion." The problem with all idolatry is that it corrupts the creation as much as the worshipper, because it is fundamentally a rejection of reality. And so a pornofied culture cannot bear to see real women for very long because they do not fit the falsified image. As Christians, we have to learn to see through those appearances to the hideous, false deceptions beneath.
We hope you have enjoyed the second part of our interview with Matthew Lee Anderson—look for the conclusion soon! Leave a comment sharing your thoughts—and go buy the book!