In Earthen Vessels, Matthew Lee Anderson has written a thoughtful and thought-provoking book on the importance of our bodies as flesh and blood. Anderson, who works at The Journey, a church in St. Louis, Missouri, and blogs at Mere Orthodoxy and Evangel, questions the common knee-jerk assumption that evangelicals have a negative view of the body. But he does believe that too often we neglect it in our theological reflection.
Earthen Vessels argues for the goodness of the body in creation and its reaffirmation and transformation in redemption. In particular it calls us to pay attention to the way our lives and our faith are mediated through our bodies. The body, says Anderson, citing Gilbert Meilaender, is the "place of our personal presence" (p. 60). The body "does not only mediate information about me-it is my presence in the world" (p. 93).
Anderson highlights the various ways in modern culture that we try to manipulate our bodies rather than receiving them as a gift. The body has become a canvas on which we pursue self-identity. Yet in reality, "God transforms our bodies not through technique, the assertion of our own wills, but through giving us himself in the Holy Spirit" (p. 31).
Attending to our bodies means attending to our environment. One of Anderson's maxims is "we make the world and then the world makes us" (pp. 84-85, 210). In other words, we need to take seriously the way our physical environment shapes our lives, our church life, and our societies.
The book is theologically rigorous for non-academics, written in an engaging way and full of cultural reflection. I commend it. It will make you think.
And yet I was disappointed. I find myself hard-pressed to summarise the message of the book, beyond the fact that our bodies matter and that the gospel might have something to say about many body-related issues. We get thoughts on consumerism, individualism, freedom, dieting, community, technology, tattoos, sexuality, homosexuality, death, mourning, cremation, corporate worship, and the sacraments. But this material does not seem to be tied to a central argument other than that the body matters. What is said is good, but not distinctive. The focus on the body does not seem to bring anything new to each of these discussions. A number of times we are presented with a fascinating piece of cultural analysis, but just when we are looking forward to a Christian alternative, the focus shifts elsewhere.
There are many expressions of preference, but rather fewer assertions of a definitive nature. Anderson would prefer you not to get a tattoo, but will not say it is wrong. He would prefer you to be buried, but stops short of saying cremation is ungodly. Maybe this is the correct posture in each case. But the overall effect is like having a conversation with an interesting person who is full of interesting ideas, but once in a while one wishes it felt more like an essay or lecture-a sustained argument that led to a conclusion.