Georgene Rice interviews Matthew Lee Anderson, author of “Earthen Vessels, why our bodies matter to our faith”. This is not a book just about body image. It is a deep theological study of the implications of disregarding out bodies, as have some ancient heresies in the past. He explores topics that include technology, sex, tattoos, creation, yoga, and much more.
Georgene: I know we’ll be somewhat generalizing, but how do evangelical Christians tend to view their bodies?
Matthew: I think when asked, in general they’d say since we are created by God our bodies are good. I don’t think, however, that we’ve worked out the implications of that very well—integrating it into our practices. We need to give much more conscience thought of how we should integrate our bodies into everything we do.
Georgene: Some would think we need to be thin or need to exercise. What are the implications of the theology of the body that you are referring to.
Matthew: In our culture, we think that our bodies must fit into a certain mold or they aren’t acceptable, such as being thin or fit. This brings us stress and causes us to be overly focused on physicality. Christians need to take our health seriously, not out of a desire to conform to images in society, but to respond to God out of gratitude for his sacrifice for us. That means finding practices that we saw in the life of Jesus. Things like fasting, giving to the poor and caring for the sick bodies that are around us.
Georgene: You call the body the “place of our personal presence in the world”. Explain what you mean by that.
Matthew: There are a lot of different ways to think about the body. A doctor will say it’s a collection of cells. But, the body is more than just a collection of cells. It seems to be the place where our identity is tied to—our sense of self, our consciousness—that a strictly scientific account of the body can’t explain. So, when we think of our bodies we have to think of it as something more. We need to think of it as the place where we interact with the world around us and as a result it shapes us in ways that we may not realize.
Georgene: When we comprehend that, how should it impact the choices that we make or the perspective on how we engage others?
Matthew: One of the things we have to realize is that in the world around us, the images we see of other human bodies is often presented in a sexual dimension. While that is certainly a part of who we are, it is not the full part of who we are. When we realize that the body is the place of our personal presence we start to look at people in a much more holistic understanding of what makes them who they are—to look at their bodies as a sign of who they are in the world.
Georgene: I thought your discussion of the generational differences was interesting.
Matthew: I think the clearest instance of this is the question of tattoos. About 40% of people ages 18 to 29 now have at least one tattoo which is a remarkable increase from a generation ago. It is almost unprecedented. I think this reflects a sense of longing that young people have for permanence and stability. A lot of us have came out of broken homes and have had very transient lives. We take the significant moments of our lives and want to make them permanent and the most permanent thing about us that we have is the physical body. That is a very different way of expressing our desire for permanence than previous generations.
Georgene: I’ve talked with some of my younger friends who are believers and have been amazed at how much thought has went into the tattoos they’ve chosen. There is significance to their tatoos. You also cover Yoga, not as merely physical exercise, but a means of connecting with God using the body.
Matthew: That is often one of the most controversial aspects with evangelicals right now, and whether Christians should do Yoga. What we have to realize is that the popularity of Yoga as a way of meeting with the Divine or having spiritual experience is partly a sign of a failure to provide a robust alternative to embody spirituality. I think as soon as we provide an alternative the energy of the controversy will be drained away.
Georgene: What does God want from us with respect to human sexuality and our bodies?
Matthew: Our culture claims to value the body, but we now have this “hook up” culture where people will engage in sexual acts with other people and claim that it doesn’t matter. What we do with our bodies and sexual relations absolutely matters. When we unite our personal presence with another sexually, things go on that we don’t necessarily have conscious control over. Scripture takes that dynamic very, very seriously.
Georgene: How does the media affect our image of our physical self?
Matthew: The more saturated we are with media images, the less satisfied with our own image. Studies have also found that men who look at lots of images of beautiful women grow dissatisfied with their own spouses. They don’t necessarily think their spouse is less attractive, but that they could have found a more attractive spouse. Because of the abundance of the images we see in the media we think there is an abundance of attractive people out there.
Georgene: There is so much more in your book. It is a very serious look at why our bodies matter to our faith. You let us consider the importance of fully expressing our faith by looking at every aspect of what God has given us. Earthen Vessels is very well done.
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