- Paperback: 255pgs
- Publisher: Bethany House (June 11, 2011)
- Bible school/Seminary level
- Prophetic explorations and priestly applications of a much neglected facet of evangelical theology
[You’re reading this review of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith because I requested a copy from Bethany House and they said yes!]
Matthew Anderson is a researcher and curriculum developer at The Journey church in St. Louis. He blogs regularly at MereOrthodoxy and is a graduate of Biola’s Torrey Honors Institute. Elements of this book are in an article posted at Christianity Today here.
Earthen Vessels begins to fill a much ignored gap in evangelical theology today. I say begin, because as I think Anderson would agree, this is far from the last word or a definitive treatment of the theology of the body. It is however a great step in the right direction. Anderson has a clear and engaging writing style and he covers numerous hot button topics after laying a Scriptural foundation from which to think.
In chapter one, Anderson grounds his thinking about the body in the Incarnation, as well as the original goodness of God’s created order. Here is where he starts seeking to articulate a how the gospel shapes our embodied lives. In chapter two, Anderson shifts his focus to how evangelicals have failed to attentively cultivate a theology of the body and in that vacuum other philosophies have filled its place. As postmodernism, feminism, and philosophical naturalism develop thoughts on the body, if evangelicals will not speak clearly on the how the gospel shapes our embodied lives, these others will.
Having defined the problem, in chapter three, Anderson sets out to clarify the biblical view of the body. Before getting there he quickly surveys other approaches such as Plato’s prison of the soul, and Descartes machine for the mind. The biblical view of the body affirms its intrinsic goodness as well as fleshing out the effects our habits, which are inherently bodily, have on our inner lives. Because we are embodied, we have limits; we are always bound to a specific time and a specific place as well as being constrained in that time and place by the shape of our particular bodies.
In chapter four, Anderson turns to examining how our bodies shape our social lives. Among other things, it is here that Anderson notes how the resurrection of our bodies in intrinsically linked to the restoration of the cosmos itself. From there, chapter five digs into how our world in turn shapes our embodies lives. Conceptions of beauty and the latest fads in dieting and exercise exert pressure on us that literally change our bodies in some cases, or at least influences the way we think about our own bodies. Without the ever present magazine covers, how would our conceptions of beauty be different? Even further, Anderson looks into how the iPhone, and by extension all the time spent interacting through screens, affects how we conduct our bodies in other social settings (like in his example, walking into Starbucks, where I am now seated).
Chapters six, seven, and eight examine three specific concerns that Christians might have related to their bodies: tattoos, sex, and homosexuality. In light of all he has discussed previously, Anderson thoughtfully navigates the three hot-button issues that ignite evangelical Christians concerning their bodies. In the chapter on tattoos, Anderson provides a very good background study of the Biblical data, but does not offer a specific “thou shalt” or “thou shalt not” concerning whether you should get tatted up or not. He does however re-frame the way many people will think of the subject, and I hope his thoughts here generate future discussions.
The same could be said of his thoughts on sex in chapter seven and homosexuality in chapter eight. I found specifically his thoughts on homosexuality and the Christian body to be especially helpful. An entire book could be (and perhaps is, or is forthcoming) about relating the Christian view of the body to all of the issues related to homosexual behavior, same sex attraction, gender identity disorder, transexualism, and other related concerns. Anderson touches on all of these to some extent and his thoughts are gracious and carefully nuanced. Evangelicalism would be better off if more authors wrote on this subject with clarity and care.
Chapter nine examines a Christian view of the death of the body. Christians are the ones who have hope that our bodies will one day be resurrected and restored. That hope shapes the way we approach death in the present, and Anderson unpacks the implications of this for our thinking about the body. One specific issue he discuss is cremation vs. burial noting that while there may not be a specific argument that the latter is wrong, is does seem to be at odds with a fully Christian view of the body. Anderson leaves the door open for certain instances of cremation, but does not see it as becoming the commonplace option among Christians.
The focus shifts to spiritual disciplines in chapter ten and how, for the most part, they involve discipline of the body. Before getting there, Anderson offers some comments on yoga and essentially concurs with Al Mohler’s thoughts on it that made national news last Fall. In the case of yoga, it is not so much the practices themselves, but it is the end toward which one is aiming those practices. Yoga poses aren’t inherently wrong positions to practice putting one’s body into, but if they are practiced towards the Hindu end their founders had in mind, that is a problem. As Anderson says, “Our pursuit of physical fitness needs to be kept in the context of the rest of our Christian life,” and with specific reference to yoga, “it is not simply the form of the practice that shapes Christian character – it is the understanding of it and the manner in which the form is practiced” (p. 189, 190). With this in mind, Anderson then surveys the practices of consuming Scripture (which while not normally consider a “bodily” activity nonetheless involves training the eyes to stay focused), fasting, prayer, silence, and solitude. In all this Anderson pushes the reader to see how we might better glorify God with our bodies.
The book winds to a close with a chapter on the body and the church. Specifically Anderson discusses corporate worship and issues related to multi-site churches watching the sermon on a screen and the rise of online churches. He frames his thoughts carefully and offers some corrective ideas to those who may think that “church is church and it doesn’t matter whether I’m sitting in a pew or in my boxer shorts staring at the computer.” When a carefully articulated theology of the body is brought into the picture, one immediately sees that there is a huge difference between passive sitting at home watching church on TV and being actively involved and engaging our bodies alongside other bodies in a physical location gathered together to worship. This, like most of the other chapters in the book, could be its own book, but Anderson does a good job of providing condensed clarity on the issue.
All in all, I thought this was a great book. I will probably go back and give it a more thorough reading in the future. Anderson writes well and his presentation is concise and well-ordered. In the future, I would imagine this book to be a conversation starter on building an evangelical theology of the body. As I said, each of the chapters could probably be expanded into its own book, and maybe in the future the church would be served well for other authors to expand the conversation. In the meantime, if the topics touched on here spark your interest, then you should pick up a copy of Anderson’s book and read it for yourself.