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.
This blossoming interest in the body's needs and expression takes many forms. Witness, for instance, the renewed evangelical emphasis on dieting, or the burgeoning awareness of ethical dilemmas in the production, distribution, and consumption of food. Our fondness of sports doubtlessly manifests the seriousness with which we enjoy the pleasures that come from embodied living. What's more, a younger generation's fascination with liturgical forms of worship—Robert Webber spotted this phenomenon nearly 20 years ago—has slowly infused many evangelical churches. Last March in St. Louis, BiFrost Arts—a new organization devoted to thinking through the ways that worship shapes the body—hosted a conference that aimed at liturgically minded Presbyterians, but also drew a number of curious mainstream evangelicals.
Perhaps the most significant indicator that evangelicals are warming to the body is the retrieval of the spiritual disciplines, helped along by writers like Dallas Willard and Donald Whitney. Willard in particular, in books like The Spirit of the Disciplines and Renovation of the Heart, has articulated a scripturally shaped spirituality that infiltrates every part of the human person. This movement has reached the point of gaining institutional support, both inside and outside the academy.
Renewed evangelical interest in the body has perhaps been most evident—and problematic—in our teaching about sex and sexuality. Starting in the 1970s, evangelicals experienced what some scholars have described as our own sexual revolution. After the publication of Marabel Morgan's The Total Woman, manuals designed to maximize marital pleasure flooded the evangelical book market. Seeking to justify physical pleasure amid stereotypes of prudishness and repression, evangelicals embraced literalist interpretations of the Song of Solomon, arguing not only that God made sex good, but that Christians should have more frequent and pleasurable sex than anyone else—a sort of sexual apologetic, if you will. At minimum, this is an expansive Christianity, a Christianity attempting to move outside the church walls into every part of our lives—especially the body.
The downside is that evangelicals have sometimes been clumsy in our efforts to see how the Word should shape the flesh. Our approaches to the body have often proceeded in rather piecemeal fashion. Whatever trend happens to be in vogue at a particular moment, Christians readily respond with a "Jesus approved" version. When dieting became the rage, Christian dieting shortly followed. As yoga gained popularity, Christian yoga started up. And as the sexual revolution unfurled its banners, Christians sought scriptural warrants for indulging the pleasures of the flesh.
While Christianity clearly impinges on every aspect of our bodily lives, the piecemeal approach to a theology of the body has significant drawbacks. Beyond the fragmented understanding of the body that comes from attending only to diverse activities and functions, the absence of an overarching theological backdrop risks reducing our ethical teachings and pastoral care to mere legalism. We lose the sense that Christianity proposes more a distinct way of life than a moralizing list of dos and don'ts.
What's more, dividing our theology of the body into separate examinations of sex, yoga, or other experiences runs two additional risks: focusing narrowly on Scripture, we affirm only what its text explicitly allows; or, focusing narrowly on physical enjoyment, we indulge a pleasure-seeking "spirituality" untethered from the biblical witness.
Evangelicals desperately need, then, an ordered account of how Scripture informs our understanding of the human body and its uses. But with few exceptions—like James K. A. Smith and Amos Yong—evangelical theology is still playing catch-up. As Westmont College theologian Telford Work recently pointed out in these pages, the theology of the body is one of evangelicalism's least developed doctrines.
Finding New Resources
The difficulty of moving from practice to theology has never been clearer than in our approach to sexuality. Culturally, sexual pleasure has become an inviolable good that trumps every other consideration when pursued by consenting adults. When Northwestern University sexuality professor J. Michael Bailey recently hosted a live sex act after class for students, he defended it on grounds that he would not "surrender to sex negativity and fear." A measure of negativity and fear has doubtlessly marred evangelical teaching about sexuality, but our unease also reflects a healthy appreciation for humanity's fallenness. We cannot ignore how thoroughly sin has corrupted all of creation, very much including our sexual appetites.
Further poisoning our culture's lust for pleasure is a frightfully egoistic mentality: Nothing, we say, should deter us from sexual fulfillment besides absence of consent or avoidance of bodily harm (and sometimes not even the latter). Unfortunately, many evangelicals have adopted, if sometimes uncomfortably, just such self-centered attitudes. Most prominently, Douglas Rosenau, author of the best-selling book A Celebration of Sex, endorses a "healthy sexual selfishness."
The challenge for an evangelical understanding of sexuality, then, is to articulate the nature of pleasure and its relationship to sexuality such that we become neither libertines nor prudes. We need to develop an account of the body that avoids treating it as an instrument of personal pleasure bound only by a commandment not to harm others. Otherwise, we end up allowing hedonistic, self-centered attitudes to infiltrate our teaching and ultimately undermine our witness.
To develop such a theology, evangelicals should look deep into our own tradition, using the resources we have at hand. But we should not be afraid to consult other sources of Christian teaching. Probably the work that stands readiest for evangelical dialogue is John Paul II's Theology of the Body, a compilation of weekly radio addresses the pope gave between 1979 and 1984. It has been influential within Roman Catholicism, but evangelicals have had virtually no engagement with it. Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family has been something of a prophet crying out in the wilderness. From what I can tell, his 2011 pamphlet from Ascension Press—A Christian Response to the Sexual Revolution: An Evangelical Discovers the Theology of the Body—constitutes nearly the whole of printed evangelical reflection about this unjustly neglected topic.
Learning from John Paul
The challenges of learning from the pope's work as evangelicals are many. Beyond substantive disagreements about the doctrines of justification, the authority of the church, and the contents of the canon—some of which are more applicable to Theology of the Body than others—many evangelicals will balk at affirming the sacramentality of marriage and the pope's teachings about contraception.
But there are benefits to us reading John Paul's work. Perhaps most importantly, it manages to merge theology, pastoral reflection, and practical teaching in a way that orients the reader toward genuine transformation. The pope confronts moral questions without lapsing into moralism, folding them into a broader account of the human body and human sexuality. And he does this precisely to accomplish something beyond a truthful articulation of a theology of the body. As John Paul puts it, "the Christian ethos is characterized by a transformation of the human person's consciousness and attitudes" toward the body and sex. Theology of the Body is a catechesis designed to encourage personal transformation; the text has a meditative quality best appreciated from within. Hence, those interested in coming to grips with the work would be best served by going ad fontes, direct to the source itself, rather than relying on its many expositors.
Theology of the Body provides a way of speaking about sexuality that avoids both profanity and prudish silence. When pastor John MacArthur wrote four blog posts critiquing Mark Driscoll in 2009 for his teaching about sexuality, he contended that Driscoll had turned the poetry of the Song of Solomon into "scurrilous soft-porn." Driscoll's approach, which Driscoll has described as "frank but not crass," reflects a pervasive desire among young evangelicals to have candid conversations about sexuality. But while instruction about the technical aspects of sexuality has its place, the church has its own way of speaking about sex—think Genesis 1, Ephesians 5, and the Song of Solomon—that preserves its mysterious dimensions. Theology of the Body provides some resources for navigating that dilemma.
Perhaps most importantly, John Paul II provides an account of sexual pleasure from which evangelicals can learn, even if they have difficulty swallowing other elements of his theology. There is no hesitation in proclaiming the goodness of sexual pleasure. But he affirms neither contemporary understandings of pleasure nor the deficient theories of human nature that stand beneath them. Instead, sexual pleasure is meant to accompany the more fundamental meaning of the human body, which is "a witness to creation as fundamental gift, and therefore a witness to Love as the source from which this same giving springs."
This love to which our bodies bear witness is one in which "the human person becomes a gift and—through this gift—fulfills the very meaning of his being and existence." This is a radically different way of framing sexuality than the sanctified egoism that limits our pursuit of pleasure only where it harms other people. And unlike the evangelical bestseller His Needs, Her Needs: Building an Affair-Proof Marriage, John Paul doesn't fall prey to describing sex as a need or an impulse within a relationship. Treating sex this way undermines the unique freedom we have through self-mastery and continence, which are essential qualities if we wish to give ourselves away in a relationship of love. By locating sexual pleasure in this context, John Paul defends its goodness without making it utterly necessary to human flourishing, much less the central pursuit of human life. There is a higher good than even pleasure, and that is the mutual relationship of love.
Beneath this understanding of sexuality is John Paul's account of what it means that humans are made in the image of God. Rather than appealing to an individualist notion of the imago Dei, like rationality or even creativity, John Paul moves in a more social direction (as many evangelical theologians have done in recent years). We become the image of God, according to John Paul, "not so much in the moment of solitude as in the moment of communion." The same self-giving love that constitutes the inner life of the triune God is on display in the original created order and through the redemption of the body brought about in Christ's death and resurrection.
In other words, John Paul's understanding of the "image of God" imparts to marriage (and, albeit in a different way, the vocation to celibacy) its sacramental character. The body, in this view, is "a visible sign of the economy of Truth and Love." As the pope puts it, we are a "body among bodies." We belong to the material world. But our awareness of being embodied, and our ability to give ourselves freely in love, differentiates us from all other embodied creatures. Not until the end of Theology of the Body, it's important to note, does John Paul speak of marriage as a "sacrament" in the sense that Catholic theologians use the term today. Much of the early part of his account is given over to highlighting the sacramentality of the body—the way in which, through our self-giving, it makes visible the image of God.
At a minimum, this account of the sexual dimensions of the body has a depth that our sex manuals and pastoral teachings have sometimes lost. But it does so only because it points to the more basic relationship of mutual self-giving at the heart of creation: that between Christ and the church. When Paul expounds the profound mystery between husbands and wives in Ephesians 5, he reminds us that its primary referent is Jesus and his people. Christ has given himself for us, and when moved by the grace of God, we respond with grateful self-giving, to him and to others. While the idea of a "Jesus-shaped" sexuality might sound scandalous, it points the way toward a gospel ideal: men and women, possessed of a servant mentality, freely subordinating their pursuit of physical pleasure to the good of another.
This account of the body also provides important resources for the single and young, who suffer most when sexuality is reduced to an animal impulse or an essential element of human flourishing. Exhorted to remain chaste within a culture that ridicules chastity as socially and biologically self-defeating, it's no wonder young evangelicals struggle to live sexually upright lives. A theology of the body patterned on the self-giving of the Cross, though, can begin to reframe the conversation surrounding sexuality and human flourishing, suggesting patterns of embodied life in which the single and married can equally partake.
An evangelical theology of the body would also help counteract the sloppy spirituality whose increasing popularity undermines the distinctness of our witness. The way to minimize yoga's appeal as a spiritual practice is to recover an understanding of the body that makes the practices we see in Scripture more compelling. Such a theology could also take on a more evangelistic tone: If ever the dignity and status of the body were in question, it is now, and evangelicals have an opportunity to welcome bodies of all sorts, giving them an intrinsic dignity and worth they may not have elsewhere.
When Paul exhorts the church at Rome to "offer [their] bodies as living sacrifices," he is commending to them a spiritual act of worship. Our bodies, and what we do with them, matter to God. They've been given as a gift—a gift meant to be returned to his service. As evangelicals, the pattern for our sacrifice must be the pattern of the Cross, and the power for our giving must be the power of the Resurrection. Otherwise, our ethics will be moralism and our spirituality will be disconnected from the unique revelation of God to man in the incarnate person of Jesus Christ.
Matthew Lee Anderson is author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith (Bethany House). A graduate of Biola University's Torrey Honors Institute, he blogs at MereOrthodoxy.com.
Copyright © 2011 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
A Bible study based on this article, "God has a Wonderful Plan for Your Body," is available at ChristianBibleStudies.com.
Pope John Paul's Theology of the Body is available at TheologyoftheBody.net.
Matthew Lee Anderson's book Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith is available from ChristianBook.com and other book retailers. Anderson also blogs at MereOrthodoxy.com.
Previous Christianity Today articles on theology, health, and body image include:
Taming the Image | People engage electronic media an average of 8 hours a day. Do they really need more at church? (June 20, 2011)
Christians and Cosmetic Surgery? | Five women discuss the nature of true beauty and "improving" on God's creation. (November 28, 2007)
Yes to Yoga | Can a Christian breathe air that has been offered to idols? (May 19, 2005)
Sex in the Body of Christ | Chastity is a spiritual discipline for the whole church. (May 13, 2005)
The Weigh and the Truth | Christian dieting programs—like Gwen Shamblin's Weigh Down Diet—help believers pray off the pounds. But what deeper messages are they sending about faith and fitness? (August 25, 2000)
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