God Has a Wonderful Plan for Your Body
In September 2010, Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, ignited a blogging and media firestorm by arguing that yoga and Christianity are incompatible. "The embrace of yoga," he wrote, "is a symptom of our postmodern spiritual confusion, and, to our shame, this confusion reaches into the church." Mohler's critique went over as well as one might have expected among those who practice yoga either for health or spiritual growth. He reportedly received hundreds of responses, most of them negative.
The controversy regarding yoga wasn't new. In some ways, it rehashed an earlier kerfuffle surrounding emerging church leader Doug Pagitt, who was invited to debate John MacArthur on CNN in 2007. Once again, the battle lines were clear: MacArthur dismissed yoga as a degraded form of spirituality incompatible with the Christian life, while Pagitt embraced it as a way of integrating the body into a relationship with God.
Whatever we make of yoga's relationship to Christianity, it functions as a cultural bellwether within evangelicalism and its offspring. Pagitt and those who affirm yoga do so out of a genuine attempt to cultivate a holistic faith, one that resists a dualistic division of body and spirit. This movement might be understood as an extension of Eric Liddell's famous suggestion in Chariots of Fire: "I believe that God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure." If running, why not yoga? While nearly all evangelicals want to affirm Liddell's sentiment, there is obvious disagreement over precisely which activities are commensurate with it and which are not.
Evangelicals clearly need some boundaries. Yoga (if only for health benefits) has been normalized for most mainstream Christians in the West. But what about the next fitness craze? In late March, ABC News reported that a small but earnest group of women had taken to "Christian pole dancing" classes. "God gives us these bodies, and they are supposed to be our temples and we are supposed to take care of them," instructor Crystal Dean said, "and that's what we are doing." Apparently, Dean didn't see any incongruity in gyrating suggestively to Matt Redman's worship music.
Discovering the Body
The benefit of such controversies is that they force evangelicals to seriously evaluate and articulate the proper place of the physical body within both our spiritual practices and our theology. Dissatisfaction increasingly ripples forth from within the evangelical movement, suggesting that this discussion is long overdue. As theologian Michael Horton has written, "It would seem that the critics of modern American religion are basically on target in describing the entire religious landscape, from New Age or liberal, to evangelical and Pentecostal, as essentially Gnostic." Against those who traffic in "quasi-Gnostic" notions of "salvation of the soul," Horton suggests that genuine Christianity is a "crude, earthy religion."
Such critiques, while powerful, sometimes downplay the unique dynamics of evangelical spirituality and practice. In some ways, evangelicals are more interested in bodies than ever before. Attention to physical healing and physical manifestations of the Holy Spirit's presence has long prevailed within the charismatic wing of evangelicalism. But nowadays, we see a revived concern for corporeal existence sweeping through the broader movement: Consider our heightened sensitivity to the physical needs of the poor and our growing appreciation for beauty and the arts.