Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith
Matthew Lee Anderson
Bethany House Publishers, 2011
256 pp., 14.99
If you only glanced at the table of contents in Matthew Lee Anderson's Earthen Vessels you could be forgiven for asking "Is this book really necessary?" While Earthen Vessels presents itself as an evangelical theology of the body, Anderson's book is less that and more a topical exposition of a Christian view of the body regarding very specific questions such as tattooing, sexuality, and burial versus cremation. On these matters, evangelicals have spent no small amount of ink and pixels making their views known. Yet if prospective readers dismissed the book on grounds of redundancy, they'd rob themselves of a chance to see the discussion reframed in some very helpful and interesting ways.
For Anderson, the lead writer at Mere Orthodoxy, the underlying difficulty for evangelicals has been the failure to ground our views on issues involving the body in a well-developed, holistic view of the body. It's like knowing what a "sycamore" is but being incapable of defining "tree" or "forest." Therefore, the first quarter of the book is taken up with trying to give a big-picture understanding of the body, which we can then apply to specific questions.
First, Anderson seeks to develop a Christian view of the body, stressing its goodness as seen in the Creation and Incarnation. He then discusses the body's fallen state and how the Christian faith revitalizes and renews "our place of personal presence in the world." In many ways, Anderson's discussion is a restating of the views espoused previously by his two intellectual heroes, C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton. Lewis, borrowing from Francis of Assisi, referred to his body as "brother ass." Lewis explains: "Ass is exquisitely right because no one in his senses can either revere or hate a donkey. It is a useful, sturdy, lazy, obstinate, patient, lovable and infuriating beast; deserving now the stick and now a carrot; both pathetically and absurdly beautiful. So the body."
In contrast, Anderson argues, the contemporary West has adopted a "technocratic" understanding of the body in which the body is an instrument to be improved in whatever ways that body's "owner" desires, provided those modifications don't harm another human being. It's a machine that we design and create through various techniques. As an extreme example of this, he cites the case of Brisa Johnson, a woman who vowed on Twitter to undergo "head-to-toe" plastic surgery in order to look like Kim Kardashian to prevent her husband from leaving her. Anderson comments, "This is where self-expression, technological proficiency, and social fragmentation have led us. The iron law of our age is that our bodies are our own and we can choose to do with them as we please on the single condition that no one is harmed." He continues, "The end result is that the decisions we make about the body are almost always grounded in therapeutic reasons—what makes us feel fulfilled or complete or happy—rather than through determining whether there are any objective standards that should guide our decision-making."
With that foundation laid, Anderson examines specific issues in subsequent chapters. Among the issues discussed are tattoos, sexuality, homosexuality and the church, online church, spiritual disciplines, and death rituals. Of all the topical chapters, the most satisfying and interesting is his discussion of tattoos.
On this issue, Anderson deals with a subject where the church has traditionally held to a certain viewpoint but where younger evangelicals have tended to deviate from that view. Where the church traditionally has been leery of tattoos (and no one was more leery of them than earlier American evangelicals), today being tatted up is practically a prerequisite for anyone wanting to be a pastor in a young, trendy, urban church. It's so common that it's even reached the point of being parodied, as in North Point Media's "Sunday's Coming" video spoofing younger evangelical mega churches. Though he stops short of condemning tattooing outright, Anderson offers two points to push back against the growing ubiquity of tattoos.
In the first place, Anderson argues, tattooing often signifies a highly individualized approach to personal identity whereas Christianity, with its emphasis on the church, would seem to encourage a more communal approach to personal identity. Anderson: "The goal with tattoos is customization and uniqueness, something that expresses the core of the individual's values, personality, or identity. Even while Christians often use an iconography drawn straight from the Christian tradition, the expression is almost always tied to the individual's personal encounter and relationship with God. The cultural logic, then, of tattoos depends upon the body being a canvas for our self-expression, a lump of clay which we style in ways that express the hidden core of who we are." Here, he returns to his earlier discussion about the technocratic body, the body as something we make through the use of technique, saying: "Tattoos are an aesthetic technique … melded with a contrarian aesthetic and applied to our own bodies."
To those Christians who say, "But I want a physical sign of my faith on my body. That's why I tattoo," Anderson points out that we already have a physical sign of our faith put on our bodies: baptism. He writes: "Raise the question of tattoos among a group of lifetime Evangelicals, and eventually someone will point out that their ink has been a 'conversation starter' with a non-believer. Where baptism is a confirmation of our entry into the community of Christians, tattoos inaugurate a kingdom of searching." While that final phrase—"a kingdom of searching"—is overstated, Anderson does young evangelicals a great service by reminding them of the physicality of the sacraments and emphasizing their centrality to our identity.
To be clear, Anderson stops short of saying that all tattooing is wrong. Rather, he simply points out that the issue of tattooing can be a useful litmus test for how we think about the body. The acceptance of tattoos by younger evangelicals, according to Anderson, does suggest a certain lack of theological reflection on the meaning of tattoos as well as a limited embrace of the technocratic view previously described.
Pushing back against those trends, Anderson reminds readers that all our thought about the body must be reconciled with what we believe Christianity tells us about the world: Our bodies are not our own to modify or "enhance" in any way we see fit. Rather, we present our bodies to Christ as part of our salvation. This doesn't necessarily preclude all forms of tattooing, but it does mean that some other logic is necessary for their justification beyond that of the aesthetic technician. The tattoo chapter shows Anderson at his best: the conservative provocateur—in the best possible sense of the term—with a talent for asking the right questions in order to reset a bogged-down debate. But Earthen Vessels is not without its flaws.
Most notably, there are times when Earthen Vessels feels like two different books or perhaps a collection of blog posts. The opening discussion of the body as brother ass versus the body as technocratic device doesn't always seem tied to the topical essays that follow. The result is that the book feels split between an interesting but incomplete theological reflection on the body and a miscellaneous collection of essays on specific questions. This is largely because it's not always clear what Anderson is trying to accomplish in the topical essays. Given the opening discussion, it seems that the best route is the one adopted in his discussion of tattoos: Apply the categories of "body as brother ass" and "body as technocratic device" to each issue. That would give the book a more unified structure, making it easier for readers to follow his arguments.
But that structure is seldom explicit in the topical chapters. As a result, the topical essays wander at times and Anderson sometimes loses the plot. The content is solid, but it feels more sermonic than the beginning of the book and lacks the sophistication of the opening chapters. Anyone can write an essay stating an opinion regarding sexuality, video preaching, or the spiritual disciplines. What Anderson offers on a regular basis at Mere Orthodoxy is more than that. While his opinions are seldom in doubt, one can disagree with the opinion and still come away from an essay of his feeling instructed and helped. But in some of the topical chapters here, that spark is missing, and it's replaced by a sermonic tone that favors clever turns of phrase over more precise argumentation (as in the "kingdom of searching" quotation cited above).
The strengths of Earthen Vessels outweigh its shortcomings. Anderson is a generalist, so those looking for an evangelical equivalent to Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body will not find it here. But if they are looking for an evangelical Christopher West—the gifted popularizer of John Paul's views—they will not be disappointed. What West has done for John Paul II, Anderson seems primed to do for Lutheran theologian Gilbert Meilaender and Anglican ethicist Oliver O'Donovan. It's in these aspects—a generalist approach, accessibility, clarity of thought, and popular appeal—that Anderson's book will be most helpful.
Jake Meador is a writer and editor living in Lincoln, Nebraska. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in History from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with an emphasis in African history. He blogs about African politics, history, religion, and other topics at Notes from a Small Place.
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What sets Jake's review apart from others is that he pays close attention to "how" Earthen Vessels is written, which matters as much as "what" is written: the generalist approach ("less [an evangelical theology of the body] and more a topical exposition"), the organization ("feels like two different books or perhaps a collection of blog posts"; "the topical essays wander at times and Anderson sometimes loses the plot"), and the style ("a sermonic tone that favors clever turns of phrase over more precise argumentation"). Having read a sizable portion of the book, I share Jake's observations/criticisms. Compared to the technocratic uses of the body in our society and churches, we can thankful that Matt pushes us to be more thoughtful and deliberate, even if we disagree about whether the general, big-picture perspective of Scripture yields specific instructions on some of the questions, such as "to be tattooed or not?" "to cremate or bury?"