Below is the link to the first part of “Call of the Artist: a recovering of image in the Church,” a piece I wrote about 18 months ago exploring the connection between the human body and art in the Church. (I never posted it because it includes a story involving another Fuller student, who has since graduated and moved away.) You can find excerpts from the second part through the “theology pop culture and emerging church” category at the bottom of the page, or follow the links at the end of this post. I am posting this first part in its entirety (sans footnotes), so for the sake of space, you can access the majority of the piece through the link below.

Here’s the opening paragraph as a teaser:

My body betrays me. It attracts attention I don’t want. It fails to attract attention I do want. It crumples into a weepy heap when I get angry or frustrated or tired. It breaks down entirely on occasions when it has a responsibility to get me to work on time. It reminds me of my ability to procreate at the most inconvenient time of the month. It sweats and farts—so very unladylike. Most of all, it ties me—the real me, the me inside, that spiritual, ethereal self—to an existence that often wearies me beyond expression. It, this body I am reduced to, is not on my side.

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Part 1: Body Theology

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Thoughts on Body Theology

October 29, 2008

The term “body theology” is traditionally used to refer to body image and sexuality; however, I believe a true body theology is much more holistic, involving not only what we look like but who we are as human beings and what we do with our bodies. I believe body theology is based on the incarnation of Christ: God took on flesh, not merely the appearance of flesh; God lived and suffered and died—and rose again!—in the actual, fleshly sense. A systematic development of body theology should, thus, begin with John 1 in conjunction with Genesis 1-2 as a basis for identity–always with the underlying principle belief that our bodies were made good and, though corrupted by the fall, have been redeemed through Christ. Healthy body theology allows us to realize our true identity in Christ, against the lies that can be perpetuated through culture, and be empowered to enter into the redemption Christ offers both for our bodies and how we use them in the world (which will also empower us to redeem culture as we grow in knowledge and discernment).

As I was reading on Saturday for a class, I was suddenly struck by this question: is body theology foundational? Is this concept–the way I define and understand it–part of the rock bed of the Christian faith? If Christ is the cornerstone, is Christ set in body theology? It’s an interesting question, and a necessary one if I ever want to publish the concept for real. So I started thinking: just how much of the Christian faith is wrapped up in my definition of body theology? Sexuality, community, media literacy, service. What else? Should sexuality be its own category, or should it fall under something broader like “physicality?” We must understand ourselves as physical/sexual/worthy beings before we can engage in healthy community, media literacy, and service. Everything flows from the identity source. Sexuality simply must be dealt with first because it is the biggest and deepest lie; it is the lens that must change first or it will color all the other areas. It’s true that identity can only be discovered in community, but the wrong messages have already been internalized. Before we can change the community, we have to exchange God’s truth for these lies about our bodies in order to engage in community rightly, culture rightly, and service rightly.

It makes me think of The Fountainhead. Ayn Rand was right in a sense: altruism is born out of and perpetuated by personal lack of worth. Nevertheless, individualism without community is not the ultimate end of humanity; rather, individualism is tyranny of oneself over others. Do nothing out of vain conceit, Paul writes convictingly. I think my professor was right when he said last week that the marker of adulthood is the consistent choice to put community’s good above one’s own desires. So what Paul is saying to the church, then, is: grow up! Stop putting self above community. Now one can only do so in a healthy way when one’s self concept is already healthy (love others as you love yourself!), not instead of dealing with one’s own self. This is why a balanced, godly concept of (what Nelson calls) the “bodyself” is so important. Dying to self is a choice, not a coping mechanism; and the dying is for the purpose of Christ, not for other people. When one dies to self and lives again in Christ, then one’s self concept, body image, etc. are rightly oriented and centered out of a deep conviction of who one is in Christ.

I think, to answer my question, that Christ of necessity must be set in body theology precisely because God entered the world in human form–as a body! Christ cannot be set in any theoretical or spiritual foundation because that negates the very meaning and purpose of the incarnation: God incarnate; God dwelling among us in the flesh! That is the foundation of body theology. Our bodies matter because God used BODY to create us, to relate to us, and to redeem us. Thus, of course Christ is set in body theology, and of course body theology is foundational. It is our human response to the incarnation of Christ to accept ourselves as the holistic bodyselves we were created to be–with a right theology of bodily sexuality, bodily community, bodily cultural discernment, and bodily service. Because God is relational and we are the image of God, our ability to physically procreate is the most foundational part of our humanity because procreation is what God is all about: God created humanity in order to extend relationship beyond the Godhead. And since we need both male and female together to be the image of God, what more perfect expression of humanity and imago Dei is there than the creation of new life? Thus, because we image God by being procreative, our sexuality is foundational to body theology.

These titles are so repetitive. Anyway, I was telling a friend the other day how reading Bonhoeffer changed my life.  I was so upset at not getting into the class I wanted that I couldn’t care less about the class I was forced to take in its place, Ethics of Bonhoeffer (with Stassen, if you get a chance to take it, DO!).  I didn’t even know who Bonhoeffer was.  But I’d been struggling with what it means to be in community, what is community for, what is the church, how do we do church, is church community, is community church, etc.  And the first book we read was his famous Life Together.  Couldn’t have been more perfect.  Community is absolutely essential to the Christian life.  We are relational creatures! (Told you I’d say it again!)  We need each other; we long for intimate connection with someone with skin on.  It’s how we’re made.  I love the stories in this chapter and in Claiborne’s book.  So many ways to do community!  What a joy!

In this chapter, Sine drives home the crux of his current argument about the good life and better future. In his concluding lines, he writes, “It is only in Jesus’ paradoxical teachings of forgetting about ourselves and caring for others that we will ever discover the good life that God has for us” (126). This is the part the church gets confused about: how do we live out that paradox in our current culture with our theological principles? It’s easy to take a back seat and make it all a mind-soul kind of deal, but Sine (and Claiborne, and others) pushes for the addition of the bodily aspect. When Jesus says, “do to the least of these,” he actually means DO, physically. I’ll be the first to say I’m way more comfortable with the mind-soul part. Throwing the body in there makes the Christian life suddenly…a little more radical?

First page, and Sine is already going there: 1 Corinthians 15–bodily resurrection (110). Here he’s building off the previous chapter, taking things more biblical. Out of Isaiah 2:1-4, he notes, “We are witnessing God’s intention to bring God’s faithful people from all over the world safely home, not as disembodied souls but as a great bodily resurrected, multicultural community” (113). How can you not get behind a vision like that? Sine really hits home in this chapter: God is about people, not ideas or programs or buildings. Jesus came for people, and he’s coming back for people–body, mind, and soul. That’s what the new kingdom–that already/not yet, boundary-less, quasi-physical entity we used to think was the church–that’s what it’s all about: one body made up of a bunch of embodied-minds-and-souls working together to realize the better future right now.

I appreciate Sine’s call to recognize what God is already doing in the world and join in. That’s the lesson I got from Blackaby way back when. It’s also important to recognize the detriment of dualism lurking in our eschatology these days: that ethereal cloud-like heaven full of floating souls and harps and while gowns. How did we miss the part about Jesus returning and raising DEAD BODIES OUT OF THE GROUND! Talk about body theology! And if God cares that much about our bodies coming with us to heaven (oh, we’ll get new bodies, but they’re still BODIES), then we better take care of bodies like we take care of souls…and that means “we all need to join at the margins and seek to reimagine what God is on about–that connects to the hurting world in which we live” (101). Yeah.

I like Claiborne’s emphasis on imagination. Creativity, innovation, new-ness. That’s what the church is becoming about, that’s part of this new thing God is doing. Claiborne writes, “Jesus’ theological stunts and prophetic imagination surprise and disarm” (282). I know Claiborne’s talking about violence and war, but I think imagination is so much more useful than just for that. Jesus brings healing in imaginative ways, too. And he has imaginative theological and apologetic discussions. The way Jesus engages the world is imaginative, and even the way he engages his tormentors. The way God chose to come to us, the way God chose to redeem us, and the way God chose to leave himself with us until he returns–it’s all imaginative, it’s all surprising and radical and new.

How’s this for another stab at body theology: “All the time we look at people…but over time we can develop new eyes and look into people. Rather than looking at people as sex objects or work tools, we can see them as sacred. We can enter the Holiest of Holies through their eyes [because, remember, the curtain is torn and the sacred is free]” (265). Our culture teaches us to look at people, and it teaches us what we should look for and how we should judge what we see. We label and categorize based on what we see, and that is more of the identity-shaping that culture is oh-so-good about providing. But God gives us new eyes (so much new-ness going on) to look deeper, to see people the way he sees them (and, I hope, to see ourselves). Good body theology is learning to change the lens we look through to see the world, to see people, and to see ourselves.

Claiborne writes, “Jesus did not set up a program but modeled a way of living that incarnated the reign of God, a community in which people are reconciled and our debts are forgiven just as we forgive our debtors” (159). We (at least, Presbyterians) are so program-oriented. I’ve been trying for two years to erase more than twenty years of program-mindedness. It’s about living, not structuring a program. Living, and living in community, is what draws people in…but that’s only because we’ve already gone OUT to live and move among the people we want to draw. I constantly wonder how to challenge my home church to reach out to the community in a visible way. We like to write checks, being a rich church, and we like to think we’re open to anyone who comes through the doors (yes, even the homeless!). But we don’t actually go volunteer as members of the church at the Rescue Mission down the street. We write checks to them, but we’ve never been inside. The idea of simplicity is simply outside the realm of experience of the majority of my fellow church members, some of whom actually define themselves by their zip code! What would it look like if we, as a community (albeit a large, rich one) were to attempt the practice of redistribution in our context?

My aunt LeeAnna is famous (in our family, anyway) for lamenting when she was little and needed comfort that while she knew that God loved her and held the whole world in his hands, “sometimes you just want someone with skin on.” I about fell off my chair when I read that exact phrase in Claiborne’s book (127). He stole that from my aunt! But that should tell you how serious the need for proper, holistic body theology is in our churches today. We know a lot about God, and we may have wonderful experiences of God, moments of revelation, etc. But God did not call his church to wall up into little anchorite cells. He called us to live, to live abundantly, to live in community, to go out and make disciples, to do unto the least of these. I suspect our non-participatory church services contribute to non-participatory Christian lifestyles that look more nominal than anything else, regardless of what is going on in the mind and spirit of a person. The body is also part of spiritual life; what are we doing? I mean, what are we doing?

The challenge of radical Christianity is putting your faith into visible, active practices that affect change in the world, even if it’s just the world for your next-door neighbor: “They cared for people and put stagnant nominal Christianity to shame. They took tremendous risks to invite people to experience love, grace, and community” (100). Do people say that about us here at Fuller? Do people say that about people in our home churches? Maybe nominal Christianity isn’t just in the South.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Bonhoeffer since reading Claiborne’s book. He talks about the cost of discipleship in pretty challenging terms, and then he goes out and gets executed for living it out. Claiborne writes, “The temptation we face is to compromise the cost of discipleship, and in the process, the Christian identity can get lost” (105). We just looked together at all those articles in Fandom that kept reminding us how malleable our identities are, how susceptible we are to being defined in terms of our culture and media experiences. How quickly we fall into cheap grace.

And here’s a side note: I finish my degree in the fall, and I don’t know what’s next. Claiborne told people he was “more interested in who I am becoming” than in what he would do/be. He quotes Mother Theresa: “Do not worry about your career. Concern yourself with your vocation, and that is to be lovers of Jesus” (108). But I wonder if I’m brave enough for that.

“Some time back, we had stopped living Christianity and just started studying it” (71). Isn’t this a familiar critique of theologians (and for that matter, seminarians)? How often do we give up our devotional time in order to finish a paper or make it to class on time?

On another note, I told you I’d be back to the subject of body theology soon enough: “Our bodies are the temples of God…We are the body of Christ, not in some figurative sense, but we are the flesh and blood of Jesus alive in the world through the Holy Spirit–God’s hands, feet, ears” (79). This is what I mean by more than body image. It’s not just understanding our own physicalness but the physicality of the communal body of Christians who ARE the incarnation of Christ in the world because of the empowerment of the Spirit. How about that for a headrush?

And I also like the next section when the curtain in the temple rips: “Not only was God redeeming that which was profane but God was setting all that was sacred free” (80). Now God is in the world, not contained in a holiest place that no one can inhabit. Now the sacred is everywhere, and it’s in the body.