Just finished your Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith.
I absolutely loved it.
The first night I stayed up until 2AM reading it, and last night until 3:30. (And then I had to put the book down and go to bed because I read p. 170 where you wrote, “We deny our mortality and creaturely status when we refuse to sleep.” Oops.)
The margins are thick with ink from my cheap hotel pen. “Why our bodies matter to our faith” is a vast scope to undertake, and yet your treatment is delightfully thorough. This is no mere pupu platter. As we say to our host simply but with deep heart in Korea after an excellent meal: I ate well.
The parts I grew from the most were ones I originally thought I might breeze through because, while obviously important, they were tangential to the reason I picked up your book in the first place (more on that in a second):
- Homosexuality: “The language of ‘sexual identity’…glorifies sexual expression by establishing it as necessary to our humanity… [I]t is the heterosexuals who first took this step and made sexual expression a ‘need’ on which human flourishing depends” (p. 146).
- Suicide: (From Chesterton) “The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world” (p. 162).
- Vampires: “Driven by a nearly unrestrainable desire that denies human limitations, we pour our resources into cultivating the beauty and immortality that mimics the resurrection from the dead…. We want, in other words, all the benefits of the resurrection without acknowledging our dependence upon God as mortal creatures” (pp. 168-169)
- Sabbath: “In Exodus, the Sabbath regulations are repeated twice, and the episode in between is the construction of the golden calf” (p. 169).
- Sin: “Sin treats the precious as though it is worthless, disregarding the intrinsic value of the things around us in favor of our own projected fantasies and dreams” (p. 229).
Matt, I cite the above not as “zingers” that made me whistle with appreciation as I read. I cite them as real treasures I will reflect on and continue to grow from personally in the days to come. Your book changed me, by the grace of God.
Moreover, your tone throughout Earthen Vessels was charitable, even and perhaps especially to those with whom you disagree. Would that more writers (including me!) do the same. Your humility continued right through to the concluding page, where rather than ending with a QED and a fist pump, you invited us as readers to pick up from where you left off. So in the spirit of that invitation to join the conversation, I wanted to let you know where your book has led me, and what I plan to do next, as a result.
Throughout the book you (rightly, in my view) raised concern over the sad state of Christian “practices” related to theology and the body, and for what passes for orthopraxy these days. Hands down, my favorite paragraph in your book was this one, on p. 191:
A holy attentiveness wherein we present the body as a ‘living sacrifice’ and the members as ‘instruments of righteousness’ has a defined shape—namely, a cross, wherein we give ourselves to others. In that sense, when determining the shape of our spiritual practices—those done to become attentive to the presence of God—we should be wary of engaging in practices that we do not see in Scripture….
A mundane spirituality is not oriented around the feelings of bodily health that we gain—though those are good—but around a life of self-giving to others, a life wherein our bodies become signs of the love of God in the world.
As you note throughout your book, this needs to be something other than Christianized yoga and more than creative prayer postures. Here I think Jesus’ own words in Matthew 7:24 are instructive: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” Jesus calls us not just to practices in general but to doing the word in specific—the only acceptable standard for orthopraxy. Thus, this cannot be a call to Christian yoga but a call to do what the church over the centuries (and across the denominations and theological divides) has affirmed as the works of mercy commended by Christ—doing good to our enemies, sharing our bread, opening our homes, visiting the sick and widows and orphans, and healing and comforting, among others. That’s the real body theology, I reckon.
Much theological hand wringing has been done out of the concern that Christians may think they are earning their way to heaven in doing these things. But if we are grounded in the spiritual disciplines (what the church has also called the works of piety over the ages—Scripture reading, prayer, worship, self-denial, and so forth) we learn very quickly that we should not simply “do these things” (or any good things, for that matter.) Instead, we are called to do the word that we have heard—passing on in bodily form the mercy we have received from Christ and only what we have received from Christ, and doing so in such a way that, as you note above, “our bodies become signs of the love of God in the world.”
So that is where you have led me, Matthew—thanks for that. You have strengthened my interest in digging ever deeper into the bodily doing of the word that is something more than and completely other than simply doing good or doing yoga or doing ten different prayer positions in worship. Through Earthen Vessels you’ve reminded me that doing the word in our bodies must ever be rooted deeply in and circumscribed completely by a proper, comprehensive, thorough, and ongoing hearing of the word in our souls.
I offer a salutary fist pump in your direction for a job well done.