Any book on evangelical theology that begins with the sentence “I once spent a week of my life being entranced by noses” is bound to be pretty interesting, but Earthen Vessels, by Matthew Lee Anderson, was much more than an entertaining read. Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith was the kind of evangelical book I like to see: engaging, in-depth, and focused on an issue that evangelicals tend to ignore to their detriment. In fact, it was one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. In it, the author attempts to correct the evangelical misunderstanding of the purpose and importance of the body.
Although I really enjoyed reading this book, I did disagree with some of the conclusions, particularly on the issue of cremation as generally incompatible with a high regard for the body. However, I am most concerned about the lack of attention in Earthen Vessels to the role of gender in forming an evangelical understanding of the body.
At the beginning of the book, Matthew Lee Anderson (can I call him Matt? It’s so much shorter) mentions that “as a white college-educated evangelical from a middle-income home, my focus tends to be on those in the same demographic” (16). While I’m glad that he acknowledges the significance of his life experience and cultural context in understanding theology, he does end up ignoring how influential an evangelical woman’s experience in the church might be to her understanding of the body. Experience, while it shouldn’t necessarily override Scripture, is essential to developing a theology of the body that acknowledges difference in the body of Christ.
As a woman who grew up in the evangelical world, the pressures and expectations I face from religious leaders and church people have been very different from the ones my brother has faced. I’ve been told that I cannot be ordained or pursue ministry, because only men can preach the word of God. If I want to be active in the church, I can work in women’s or children’s ministry, because my sphere of influence is properly among women and children. It’s been emphasized to me, repeatedly, that my hormones and emotions make me unfit to be an equal partner in marriage, because Eve came from Adam’s rib, and Adam came directly from dirt, which is apparently better. If I wanted to never have children, I’d be ridiculed. If I never got married, I’d just be thought of as a crazy cat lady. A theology of the body that neglects the different pressures and struggles evangelical women face will necessarily be incomplete.
Aside from the almost complete silence on the issue of gender, I found Earthen Vessels to be a wise, thorough, and necessary work. Because Jesus became a person, occupied a body in all of its tragedy and mess and pain, we can have hope. The Sacraments and spiritual disciplines, such as prayer, are intimately connected to our physicality, so that when we kneel before God something different happens than when we stand before Him. The redemption of the body means that what we do in it matters, that ordering our lives within a community matters. “The inner nature of the Christian life is made visible in and through the practices of the church” (209). If we emphasize, intentionally or not, that this physical world is not as important as the spiritual one, that how we live in this life is not fundamentally important, then we run the risk of treating people and this planet without the proper gentleness and respect.
The point about pastors sending video feeds of their sermons to satellite campuses and over the internet was particularly important, and Matthew Lee Anderson displayed an admirable willingness to take pastors and churches to task for assuming that we don’t lose anything essential to Christianity when we watch our pastor on a screen. Do we lose anything when church becomes a disembodied message that you can watch by yourself, when the priesthood of all believers is reduced to everyone becoming their own priest? Evangelicalism has long borne the burden of being too individualistic. Once everyone can read their own Bible, perhaps we lose the ability to listen when more learned people try to tell us what the Bible actually says. With few institutions, in a world where people change churches based on differences over worship styles, losing the importance of the local church has been terrible for evangelical Christianity. We are made for each other, to be together in community. Church should be a place where we are forced to spend time with people we differ from, to encounter people who make us uncomfortable.
Earthen Vessels made me very uncomfortable at times, and that’s a good thing. May this book further discussion on the importance of the body in our understanding of God and his church.
I got this book for free from Bethany House Publishers. I did not have to post a positive review.