Tag Archives: embodiment

Reclaiming the physical in Christian worship


holy-wounds-devotionHere’s the last bit of the “affective devotion” chapter draft for Getting Medieval with C S Lewis:

Reclaiming the physical

Finally, among the varied aspects of our human nature, our emotions seem especially closely tied with our physical bodies. We use the same words, “feeling” or “being touched,” for the physical senses and for emotional experiences. But reading Margery Kempe’s Book makes me ask: Where has the sense of the spiritual importance of touch or physicality gone in today’s culture? Are these human senses now allowed to communicate anything true or spiritual to us? We have plenty of the visual in our TV- and movie-soaked culture, and even in our churches. But how often do we experience anything spiritually significant through touch? The most intense, ecstatic touch-experiences, those of our sexuality, have been devalued and dehumanized through obsessive attention and being made into the commodities of the impersonal marketplace. I think that like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, Margery’s life of devotion and the whole English mystical tradition can help to draw today’s Christians back to the sort of visible, physical devotion epitomized in the medieval pilgrimage.

In the mid-90s I was giving a lecture on Pentecostalism at an evangelical seminary in New England. I was describing the huge influxes of eager believers, every day, by the busload, to the Azusa Street Revival that launched Pentecostalism in 1906, and again to the modern Toronto Airport Vineyard revival and the Brownsville/Pensacola revivals One student put up his hand and asked, with skepticism in his voice: “Why do Pentecostals and charismatics feel that it’s so important to actually go to the place where a revival is supposedly happening, to ‘bring back’ that revival to their home churches?” Continue reading

Seeing His humanity and worshiping with all of ours – hearts and bodies included


Worshipping guyThe last post looked at the “heart of late medieval heart religion”: devotion to the Passion of Christ. This post asks: How would getting a stronger sense of the humanity of Christ, today, affect the way we worship? This is almost the end of the “affective devotion” chapter of Getting Medieval with C S Lewis:

The desire for a tangible experience of God’s love has not dissipated with the discovery of the atom or the invention of the automobile. Modern Protestantism has given relatively little attention to our imaginative and emotional lives, yet the century just passed saw a dramatic upsurge of charismatic spirituality.

With its devotion to the person of Jesus, its impassioned worship, and its physical experiences of God’s intimate presence (tongues and “slaying in the Spirit”), this movement first sprung at the turn of the 20th century in a poor, multiethnic Los Angeles neighborhood, from a root in Wesleyanism’s continuation of the longstanding Christian “heart religion” tradition. Then at mid-century it reemerged in mainstream Christianity—springing first from the Anglican and Roman Catholic confessions, with their sacramental and historical emphases.

But you don’t have to be a charismatic to awaken your imagination and your senses in devotion to Christ. Continue reading

C S Lewis on mercy and healing, and the paradox of Christian attitudes toward the body


Jesus and AslanNext bit of the “compassionate ministry” chapter of Getting Medieval with C. S. Lewis. Now we turn to Lewis:

How do the “spiritual” and the “physical” dimensions of the gospel – the good news of Jesus Christ – weigh against each other, and finally, paradoxically, cohere? Here’s C. S. Lewis, articulating the importance of physical ministry and mercy like this. His first word on this encourages those convinced of the importance of ministry to people’s bodily health: “God created the Natural – invented it out of His love and artistry – it demands our reverence.”

So far so good, but Lewis continues, “because it is only a creature and not He, it is, from another point of view, of little account. And still more, because Nature, and especially human nature, is fallen it must be corrected and the evil within it must be mortified.” Oh, dear.

There is a balancing act going on here. Our “essence,” like the essence of all created things (according to Genesis) is good. But there is some mortification, some ascetic discipline, required – for we will go running after “the things of the flesh,” no matter how much we understand that God is our ultimate love and ultimate goal. Our bodies, affected by the Fall, are not an unalloyed good.

Thus Christianity treads a middle way. “At first sight,” says Lewis, “nothing seems more obvious than that religious persons should care for the sick; no Christian building, except perhaps a church, is more self-explanatory than a Christian hospital.” Yet what the Christian hospital shows us is a sort of two-sidedness, a paradox, in Christianity.

Let’s say, Lewis suggests, that you had never heard of Christianity, and you set out to observe and decide what sort of religion this was. First, you would see a long history of quite earthy activities. Lewis knew, as Stark has had to re-teach us, that almost every aspect of the European civilization that grew out of the ashes of the Roman empire was built by the Christian church: “agriculture, architecture, laws . . . healing the sick and caring for the poor,” blessing marriage, the arts, philosophy—and he could have added, as we’ve seen, science.

“If our enquirer stopped at this point,” writes Lewis, “he would have no difficulty in classifying Christianity – giving it its place on a map of the ‘great religions.’ Obviously (he would say), this is one of the world-affirming religions like Confucianism or the agricultural religions of the great Mesopotamian city states.”[1] Continue reading

Have you ever thought of what a truck driver goes through to get your Amazon package (etc.) to you?


DRIVER_IN_THE_CAB_OF_A_LARGE_CATTLE_TRUCK_IN_COTTONWOOD_FALLS,_KANSAS,_NEAR_EMPORIA._SUCH_VEHICLES_AND_HORSES_ARE_THE..._-_NARA_-_557044.tifI’d like to share part of a fascinating article (thanks to Drew Cleveland of the Kern Family Foundation for bringing this to my attention) on the special “body knowledge” and skills required of the long-haul truck driver. It’s called “Dignity and the Professionalized Body: Truck Driving in the Age of Instant Gratification” and is by Benjamin H. Snyder. I find it eye-opening, compelling, even moving. It is an excellent specimen of the journalistic species of the “creative nonfiction” genus.

The article sure made me stop and think of the ease with which I hit that “order” button in Amazon.com. I sure don’t think about what the truck driver will quite possibly go through to get that package to me, or indeed the indignities he will suffer as he does so. Here’s a taste of the article, which is from UVA‘s Hedgehog Review. For the whole thing, go here.

3:32 a.m. Over the last hour and a half, we have stopped at three more truck stops and one rest area. They have all been completely full. We pull into another truck stop—a fifth attempt at parking tonight. Yet again, it is full. Alvaro tries to remain optimistic. He turns to me with a wry smile and says, “looks like we’re going to Little Rock, man!” Continue reading

C. S. Lewis and medieval Christians knew our bodies (and sex!) matter theologically – how ’bout us?


Christ ennobled and raised up all of humanity by becoming one of us. The truest things about ourselves are all areas where we reflect the image of our Creator.

Our embodiedness is important to our life with God both here on earth and at the resurrection (of the body): we receive all we know about God through our bodies, our senses, our experiences. Analogy is more than analogy: it is sacrament; to use a word Lewis used to title a key essay, it is “Transposition.”

To try to abstract mind from body, spirit from matter is to commit the gnostic error and destroy (be false to) what we truly are as human beings.

To speak in quasi-scientific sociological generalities and remove traditional understandings of what human beings are (including our embodied experience), and thereby to destroy traditional morality, is to, in fact, “abolish humanity”–to unmake us as creatures of God, and thus prevent us from reaching God as well (Abolition of Man). Continue reading

Good grief: On attending to the body and not just the soul in death


[Viewing Casket, Museum of Funeral Customs, Springfield, Illinois, 2006]

Many thanks to Rob Moll for pointing me to the following wonderful article on death and funerals by Thomas Lynch. The article is years old now, but Lynch, who is a funeral director, has a message that we still need to hear. And because I know from looking at the statistics on this site that many readers don’t click through the links to articles that I provide, contenting themselves to read just the excerpt in the blog page, I want to excerpt here the part of the article that I found most powerful–its ending. 

But let me say: the whole thing is well worth reading (despite the frequent typos owing to poor scanning and editing). In the first half of the article, Lynch challenges eloquently and effectively the super-spiritualizing presumption that my body, your body, in death even as in life, is “just a shell.” The argument is particularly poignant for me, as I have just in recent weeks attended my grandmother’s memorial service–that convenient gathering at which the body (“shell”) is notably absent, except in this case by the representative urn of ashes. Here is the conclusion to which that argument leads:

Among the several blessings of my work as a funeral director is that I have seen the power of such faith in the face of death. I remember the churchman at the deathbed of a neighbor — it was four in the morning in the middle of winter — who gathered the family around to pray, then helped me guide the stretcher through the snow out to where our hearse was parked. Three days later, after the services at church, he rode with me in the hearse to the grave, committed the body with a handful of earth and then stood with the family and friends as the grave was filled, reading from the psalms — the calm in his voice and the assurance of the words making the sad and honorable duties bearable.

I remember the priest I called to bury one of our town’s indigents — a man without family or friends or finances. He, the gravediggers and I carried the casket to the grave. The priest incensed the body blessed it with holy water and read from the liturgy for 20 minutes, then sang In Paradisum — that gorgeous Latin for “May the angels lead you into Paradise” — as we lowered the poor mans body into the ground. When I asked him why he’d gone to such trouble he said these are the most important funerals — even if only God is watching — because it affirms the agreement between “all God’s children” that we will witness and remember and take care of each other. Continue reading

Embodiment, emotion, death, asceticism . . . an attempt to describe the legacy of medieval faith


The Book of Kells is one of the most famous ar...

A page from the Book of Kells

The book Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants, or as I think of it these days, Getting Medieval: A faithful tour of the Middle Ages with a little help from C S Lewis, is trying to be born, and I’m trying not to get in the way. I’m struggling to express an argument which will set up the medieval centrality of the Incarnation and Creation as that period’s most important legacy to us today.

What follows is just rough-draft wording of a short passage for the book’s introduction. Arguments and details still seem to pull in opposite directions, but I’m convinced of the truth, at least in outline, of what I’m struggling to express here.

Readers, I’d value your thoughts on this brief, rough, passage. Where can I go from here? How can I refine and add power to this argument? What am I missing? Where am I too negative about the modern church? Too positive about the medieval? Does this argument resonate at all with your experience or does it just seem to you to miss the mark?  Continue reading