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the Empathy List #63: Naked & Ashamed
What the Evangelical Church Never Taught Me, Part 3
Hey friend, Liz here.
What does God think of your body?
In my youth group days, I would’ve told you that God probably liked me best when I was wearing a turtleneck. And God liked me even more when I donned my ski gear. (Bring on the puffy jackets, sang the heavenly hosts!)
If God really was a spirit—an invisible personality, outside of time, not burdened by sleep or hunger—then surely my fleshy self was an affront to God.Or, more accurately, my body must certainly be an embarrassment to everyone else, which is why I often endeavored to hide any hint of a bra strap by ritualistically safety pinning them to my t-shirts. (Never mind those impossible-to-hide hills in the center of my chest…)
My belief that my body was bad dominated my theology. It wasn’t only a side effect of the problematic purity culture to which I signed away my sex and dating life.
My spirituality reached into gnostic asceticism, an ancient distortion of Jesus’s teachings, which asserts that the body cannot be trusted.
Its every instinct is wrong. The flesh must be dominated, controlled, and overpowered with efficiency and utility.
(And if this language sounds oddly violent and sexual, it’s because no one can escape the reality of our bodies, not even when we’re trying to destroy or deny their very existence.)
Self-flaggelation was practiced across centuries by Christians. My ancestors called it the “mortification of the flesh,” using the apostle Paul’s words as its basis (as in 1 Corinthians 9:27: “I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”)
Martin Luther took this literally: he whipped himself (following in St. Francis’ example), slept without a blanket on freezing German nights, and deprived himself of sleep. The desert fathers practiced austerity as a discipline, maintaining silence among communities, living in desert caves, eating bland foods and embracing chastity, sitting on poles and wearing hair shirts. All these torturous practices were meant as a form of penance for sins.
I do not disagree that comfort can be a distraction to the spiritual life. (Just look closely at all of us rich folk in the West.)
Yet us humans have a tendency to take things to the extreme, as the ancient Gnostics surely did when they denied Christ’s humanity, despite the sensuous witness of the early followers (as in 1 John 1:1,3: “That which… we have heard, we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard…”).
Evangelicals are no different. We would of course, never condone such faulty theology.
Yet for any believer, a vast distance often yawns between our head knowledge—what we think, our orthodoxy—and our enacted beliefs—what we live out, our orthopraxy.
The “suffering savior” of Isaiah 55 endured muscle aches and chronic pain, like any human body, and the scriptures describe his resurrected body as marked by scars. Whenever his agrarian society experienced seasons of drought, he went hungry, too. He felt despair, loneliness, anger and fear. Jesus lived in a time in history when Rome had captured his homeland and enslaved its people, himself included. Christ was homeless and a former immigrant to boot.
It’s natural to want to live above our circumstances, our minds in the sky. But it’s false to presume that’s how Christ lived. In fact, his historicity can be offensive to us.
We find comfort in an imagine of Christ as a blonde haired Swede, removed from the politics of his day or of ours, a figure generalized and inoffensive by his irrelevance. (This is hot guru Jesus. ;-))
Instead, Jesus was brown, unattractive, and deeply entrenched in his culture and time, more likely resembling this forensic recreation. (…Um, this guy would never have been given a job at Hillsong NYC, amiright?)
I personally live with a chronic illness which has left me disabled, and the work of disability theologians has been comforting to me as I consider my own body.
Take Nancy Eisland’s book, The Disabled God: she paints a picture of the scars on Christ’s resurrected body as a disabled body. And she asserts that the body of Christ, in its pain and disability, images God.
The radical nature of the embodied, human Christ is not his perfection but his imperfection.
So the disabled, like Christ, are image bearers—not in their perfection, but in the fact that they simply inhabit a body. That idea reverses the assumption that a “perfect” body (read: a thin body, a white body, an able body, a male body) is the only adequate image of the divine. What this means is that any body is worthy because it has been made by God, and also because God itself inhabited a body as we do.
This is a reversal of power structures. The weak are exalted and the strong are brought low.
(I do not mean to assert the idea of Jesus as imperfect, as I believe that he was sinless during his lifetime. But certainly, we can agree that scars mar a body and that our idea of the perfect body does not align with the model Christ presents to us.)
I wonder, how does the reality of Christ’s body change our engagement with our flesh and bones?
How are we compelled to live out faith within our bodies, as Christ himself did?
What shifts in us when we consider our imperfect bodies to be beloved image bearers of God?
I do not have easy answers to these questions, but I am wrestling with God, as Jacob once did beneath a starscape, when he walked away renamed, both limping and blessed.
NOTE: this email is the second in a series in which I plan to explore the skillsets the Evangelical church never taught me.
Even so, there are MAJOR THINGS for HEALTHY ADULT LIVING that I never learned to do until I walked through the door of a therapist and began shelling out thousands to get well.
So I’m speaking to my people—us Evangelicals. We need to change, starting yesterday. We can do it, together, with humility and tenderness. I want to push you forward on that journey, my friend.
As always, thanks for reading along.
Warmly, Liz Charlotte Grant
And if someone you know might be encouraged by my words, would you share this email with them?
Medical care is not distributed equally.
Surprise! White patients receive privileged treatment, according to extensive data. (Womp womp.)
This is the story of one black woman winding her way through the world of “Karen” medicine as she sought treatment for an unknown disease.
Catapult | Read more…
Why do house cats squeeze themselves into small spaces? We have no idea. But us humans are obsessed anyway.
“Cats are, above all else, inscrutable creatures. …One of [cat behavior expert Mike] Delgado’s own pet felines once plopped his tush into a pan of lasagna. (Warm? Check. Secure? No. Stealthy? Depends on where he was headed next.)”
The Atlantic | Read more…
Facebook vs. Apple
The two tech giants have been feuding for years behind closed doors. And recently, things took a turn for the worst.
the New York Times | Read more…
Dominion Dating is the hot new Christian dating site for men who think a woman’s place is at home. And don’t even think about signing up if you have ever had a lustful thought… ‘cause it’s against the member agreement.
“The member agreement … requires anyone on Dominion Dating to be a member ‘in good standing’ of an evangelical church for at least three months before signing up. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that there are strict rules about no sex before marriage and pornography watching, but don’t miss the rules about ‘dressing sensually or immodestly’ and ‘entertaining lustful thoughts.’ Not sure how those things are going to be policed, but best of luck in the attempt.”
(I just threw up in my mouth a little…)
Relevant Magazine | Read more...
Has COVID been tough on your marriage? You’re not the only one.
Bill and Melinda Gates are splitting up. So are Rachel and Dave Hollis, despite making the success of their own marriage the center of their business plan. (YIKES! AGAIN!)
“…the Hollises presented themselves as a modern power couple: flawed in adorable ways, out to make money and love as an unstoppable team. And they wanted to teach you how to do the same, sometimes for a fee.”
Here’s the marriage advice they were selling. (And why it turned out to not work for them.)
Slate | Read more…
Just for Fun
This is the sassy tax return we all wish we could have submitted to the IRS this year.
(from The New Yorker)