Incarnate: The Body of Christ in an Age of Disengagement, Michael Frost. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.
Summary: Frost explores what it means to be incarnational people in an “excarnational” world, one marked by increasing focus on disembodied, virtual experience, and disconnection from physical community.
We are becoming a culture that increasingly disengages from embodied experience, that objectifies others and encounters the world via a computer or smartphone screen. This has significant implications for the church, which is also shaped by this “excarnate” culture. Michael Frost explores this “excarnate” world we are increasingly fashioning for ourselves, how excarnate life has unhelpfully shaped Christians and the Christian community, and what it we can learn from Jesus about becoming truly incarnational people.
He explores the fascination of this culture with zombies, and the morally ambiguous state of being the walking dead. All this stems from a mind-body dualism that detaches what we think and experience mentally from what we do through our bodies. It explains how people can embrace immoral behavior and not think it affects anything about their spirituality.
True Christian faith is different in that the central figure was an embodied Messiah who calls people to follow and for whom believing and behaving walk hand in hand. Because we are desiring creatures (drawing on the work of James K. A. Smith) the central matter in discipleship is not merely believing certain things but the ordering of desires and our behaviors along the lines of our beliefs. We become what we worship, for better or worse. Mission then, which is a big focus for Frost, becomes a move beyond click activism to embodied presence. The challenge is not growing bigger churches, but Christians living out faith in all the dimensions of “silos” of life–economics, agriculture, education, science and technology, communications, arts, politics, and family life. This is aided by living as “placed” people, who settle down in a physical community and become part of its life for a long time.
The concluding chapters focus on the missional, communal, and spiritual practices that nourish an incarnational life. At the same time, Frost includes some important warnings about the difference between healthy and unhealthy religion, using the Jim Jones cult as an object lesson, because in fact at the start they were pursuing an incarnational ministry, first in Indianapolis and then San Francisco. What is chilling is how often unhealthy ministries are organized around “taking a stand” rather than training people to think for themselves, inviting us to be humble about what we think we know, focuses on what we are for, and stays in tune with reality. The epilogue concludes with the rhythms of life of a community, the value of liturgies and embodied practices of life together.
Frost provides an insightful glimpse into contemporary culture and the ways it leads to disembodied, excarnate expression in the church. It even made me stop and muse about blogging on books rather than simply getting together with some friends over beverages and good food to talk about what we are discovering. Actually, I do that as well, and so don’t feel so bad about sharing the riches online. But I do find myself wondering about online community supplanting the particular place and space and people I live among. He also challenges the kind of click activism that makes you think you’ve done something simply because of what you’ve done online. And yet these tools have aided recent political revolutions that have resulted in embodied change. It seems the challenge is how to use these tools incarnationally rather than to eschew them altogether, and how to lay them aside when we need to do so.
Thanks, Michael Frost, for this reminder that we are incarnation people and the difference this can make in an excarnate world.