Every Sunday at Intown a bunch of bodies show up. Tall bodies, short bodies. Thin one, beefy ones, and sorta roundish ones. Old bodies and young bodies. Pregnant ones, sick ones, healthy, disabled ones.
This happens every single week, and yet we don’t talk about our bodies very much. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a church that did talk much about bodies or human embodiment - certainly not in a positive way.
This is curious because so much preaching in the American church is crafted in response to some supposedly dangerous cultural trend or vice that the preacher wants to keep at bay. Yet, while billions and billions of dollars are being spent each year to get us to change or even hate our bodies, the Christian church hasn’t offered a compelling alternative message.
The primary way that I’ve seen churches address these coercive messages is by adding to them, making people in the pews feel even WORSE about their bodies than they already do - especially women and young girls.
So, even those of us who gather our bodies for worship on Sunday are just as captive to the torturous ideals of the fashion and fitness industry as everyone else who lives on planet earth and has a TV or smartphone.
While it’s true that men can be far more obsessed about their bodies and appearance than common stereotypes would suggest - impossibly muscled, hairless titans now being the norm not only for superheroes but sitcom dads - this burden of being astonishingly beautiful has historically fallen hardest on women.
So, each Sunday we drag our body-dysphoria along with us into the pew and there we encounter either a disembodied spirituality that tells us our bodies don’t really matter to God, or we receive oblique and sometimes direct messaging that our bodies - here females are by far the more frequent target - should be covered and hidden lest someone catch a glimpse of our more shameful and sexual parts.
The first of these stems largely from the astounding endurance of the ghoulish heresy of Gnosticism with which Christianity has been fornicating with since the 2nd Century. This dualistic theology, which divides and makes competitors of our bodies and souls is not necessarily taught in any systematic way, but is mostly inferred from years of hearing preaching and teaching that gives prominence to “spiritual formation” and the “spiritual disciplines” and focuses relentlessly on what we are to believe instead of what we are to do and be.
The second problem, though not as widespread, is far more sinister. There are very large pockets of the western church, particularly American Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism where the body - especially those of women and girls - is actively shamed as it is described in lurid ways as a, if not the cause of the corruption of men and boys. Girls hear, or simply absorb often-conflicting exhortations such as: “cover your bodies carefully and extensively”, “keep up your appearance for the sake of finding and then pleasing a spouse”, “avoid looking too sexy - especially at church - because boys are visually stimulated”, “you are less of a person if you lose your virginity”, “don’t be too assertive around men.”
Hopefully there’s a good portion of our church for whom this sort of “biblical” teaching is completely foreign - GOOD. But, Intown serves as a sort of refugee facility for those of us who have been harmed, or at least exhausted by churches who teach this sort of thing and continue to promote instead of undermine the scapegoating of women that has been commonplace since that whole episode with the fruit:
“And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.”
So, how should we navigate between the impossible-body fetishism of Hollywood and Madison Avenue on one hand, and the purity culture with its mixed messaging and cartoonishly-overprescribed gender roles on the other?
Well, I want to refrain from suggesting here that we can conquer this multi-layered issue by simply replacing bad thinking with better think. This dualistic approach which privileges cognition and belief over embodiment is itself part of the problem.
Yet, we can at least begin by stating that God loves our bodies. He crafted us, and there is something about relationship with him that required a physical, embodied existence. After all, we just celebrated Advent where we proclaim that God became incarnate - he occupied and thus blessed and made holy our physicality. And, soon at Easter we will celebrate his bodily death and resurrection.
We are more than spirits inhabiting meatspace.*
God gave us bodies to make us, well - US, and we wouldn’t be us if our brains could be kept alive in a laboratory. In fact, though it’s nearly impossible, I’ve been trying in this post to avoid talking about our bodies with externalizing language like “they” or “them” as our bodies exist to simply carry “us”, i.e. our brains and souls around from place to place.
Our concept of self must include our body as an irreducible aspect of what makes us Us, and what makes us human. And, to go one step further, any concept of genuine life-affirming spirituality must not only exist in our heads but take up residence in our gut, and in our hands, in our feet, in our diets, in our sleeping, etc. We must in other words go beyond simply believing the statement that “God loves our bodies” and begin to LIVE as integrated creatures this new year, pursuing a spirituality that is radically-embedded in the physical world and that cannot be practiced in any other way than in our bodies.
That’s what I’d like to explore in our upcoming sermon serious “Being Well.”
We’re going to start this this Sunday so I hope you can be with us. And, keep checking back on this blog because there’s a lot to talk about - and practice, that won’t make it into 20-minute sermons.
*see Neal Stephenson.