Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith by Matthew Lee Anderson. Bethany House, 2011. 224pp.
“Does the water baptism of an avatar in Second Life count for eternity?”
This was a serious question from a student at an evangelical seminary. Second Life is an immersive, user-created online world launched by Linden Labs in 2003. The level of disembodied abstraction and blurring of reality assumed by the seminarian’s question is indicative of a profound lack in American evangelicalism, which may be incarnational in theology, but far less so in practice. And this fact has profound implications.
These implications are explored in Matthew Lee Anderson’s new book, Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith. He writes, “I want to examine the role the physical body plays in our spiritual, social, and ecclesiastical lives by exploring the shape our bodies should take in response to the love that God demonstrates to us through the person of Jesus Christ.” Anderson is a leader among young evangelicals who are assessing their orthodox convictions in the light of prevailing contemporary realities (see his blog, Mere Orthodoxy). Here he aims to help the American evangelical church recover its orthodox perspective on embodied existence in all of its forms.
While acknowledging that “traditional evangelicalism has deeply Gnostic tendencies,” and providing a detailed examination of its destructive tendencies, Anderson points toward (but never fleshes out) an adequate solution to the problem. He favourably quotes thinkers such as Dallas Willard, Pope John Paul II, and James K.A. Smith who have also wrestled with these issues. The book might best be seen as a bridge to Willard on spiritual disciplines and John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, the latter of which is the most thorough discussion of sexuality and embodiment in recent memory and needs to find its way into wider Protestant discussions.
There are theological and epistemological reasons evangelicals have such a stunted view of creation and embodiment, and this book showcases the implications of this weakness. The church’s response to identity, ecology, sexuality, and culture all pivot on its theology of creation and embodiment.
On this topic, I have my own biases. I’m a Kuyperian Anglo-Catholic. Shaped early in my career by the work of Francis Schaeffer, I resonated with Schaeffer’s insistence that “Christianity as a system does not begin with Christ as Savior, but with the infinite-personal God who created the world in the beginning and who made man significant in the flow of history.” The gospel begins with creation, not the cross. The typically truncated “two-chapter” gospel of American evangelicalism (Fall / Redemption) is a far cry from a full-orbed “four-chapter” gospel (Creation / Fall / Redemption / Restoration).
Furthermore, discussions of sexuality slip into moralistic finger-wagging if disconnected from the reality of created design. Cultural renewal loses its rationale, if the goal of the gospel is soul-saving for a world that is beyond. The current anemic state of American evangelicalism has many sources, from Gnosticism (see Philip Lee’s Against the Protestant Gnostics), to the Second Great Awakening (see Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity), to the Enlightenment (see James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom). In addition, historic dispensationalism has done American evangelicalism no favours.
Many whose calling compels them to engage with the institutional structures of culture have chaffed under these Gnostic, world-denying attitudes. For many, a sacramentalist orientation—whether through Anglican C.S. Lewis’s affirmation that “matter matters” (see Leanne Payne’s Real Presence: The Christian Worldview of C.S. Lewis as Incarnational Reality) or Orthodox Alexander Schmemann’s “man is what he eats” (see Schmemann’s For The Life of the World)—has become a welcome relief.
However, one need not become a Roman Catholic to affirm a creation-affirming, non-dualistic worldview—along with sacramentalist Catholic and Orthodox adherents one finds Reformed Kuyperians and kingdom-oriented Charismatics. Such is David Naugle’s conclusion in Worldview: The History of a Concept. He writes, “Both aspects—the biblical/cultural and the sacramental/liturgical—are unsurprisingly compatible and equally needed, along with salient offerings from other traditions, if the church is to enjoy ‘a comprehensive, universal Christian worldview’ that deepens and enriches the faith of all believers.”
Yet most evangelicals remain in the grip of a truncated, creation-denying gospel. Its consequences are far reaching, and it is this loss that Anderson describes. He discusses body image, tattoos, sexuality, homosexuality, death, spiritual formation, church worship, and yoga. He sufficiently convinces the reader that the problem is widespread, touching many aspects of evangelical experience.
While Anderson’s scholarship is deep and his analysis thorough, I found myself growing in my disaffection with evangelicalism the further I read. The book points to the shallowness of evangelical thinking on embodied existence, but it has far more to say about the problem than the solution, in spite of pointing to others who take the argument further. Like placing a Band-Aid on a boil, Anderson does not excise the festering sources of the infection. Yet no book can be expected to do everything, and as a conversation starter on the importance of embodiment, few books describe the problem more fully or with greater breadth.
Historically, truth has been equated with reality. One can attack either the truth side or the reality side. And so, evangelicals’ failure to seriously consider the truth of embodiment and the incarnation has made them open to practices that weaken the reality of embodiment—from online seminary courses, to video sermons, to virtual church services. We have favoured message over presence, and thus lost the importance of touch and physicality. This book is an important corrective to these tendencies.
More than ever, the evangelical church needs to return to a bawdy, earthy, dirt-under-the-fingernails form of the gospel, one that engages life as it is lived, one that is as incarnational in practice as it is in theory. Celtic spirituality has this character as seen in “Patrick’s Breastplate.” My own wrestling with these themes has driven me toward a form of sacramentalism, a move that many evangelicals resist at all costs. Such resistance has a price in practice, as Anderson’s book highlights.
Babies die for lack of touch. It is time to make real presence real. “Avatar” is Sanskrit for “godly incarnation,” but we’d best take our cues from Jesus, who was born in an animal barn and placed in a manger filled with straw, who died on a wooden cross with nails through his hands and feet. We’d do well not to lose the smell of the barn or the splinters of the cross. To do so is to lose the reality and scope of Christ’s work.