Embracing the Body, Tara M. Owens. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015.
Summary: An invitation to move beyond guilt and shame around our embodied selves to discover the goodness of our bodies and how God made us, meets us, and works through our bodied lives.
Working in ministry in academia, I’ve joked that many academics seem to think bodies are just convenient (or sometimes inconvenient) means to transport their brains. But I’m not so different in vacillating between being out of touch with my body and its messages to me, and living with guilt and shame, or just frustration at the desires, impulses, and physical failings of my body.
What Tara Owens invites us into in this book is to discover how being spiritual involves embracing the physical being that is us, rather than denying our bodies. And, probably for all of us, that involves getting beyond the discomfort we often experience with our own bodies. She writes at the beginning of the book:
“If you asked me if I was always comfortable in my body (and required that I answer honestly), I would have to say, No . . . no, I’m not. I’m of the opinion that there isn’t anyone alive who is at home in his or her body 100 percent of the time, and I don’t believe that I formed this opinion just to justify my own neuroses.”
She begins by exploring why this is, why we are afraid, how in the history of the life of the church we lost our bodies in a kind of gnostic spirituality. Often, our broken alienation from our own bodies is paralleled by a church body extremely uncomfortable with anything to do with the body, particularly the sexual aspects of our embodied life. We deny that we are of the dust of the earth even though Jesus came and fully lived out an embodied life to death and bodily resurrection. We have trouble with Thomas even though Thomas of all of them knew that if resurrection didn’t mean embodied life, it didn’t mean anything.
She challenges us to face our fears as we face ourselves. We are neither angel nor animal but live in a space between. We quest for beauty and curse the ugly parts of us instead of seeing every part of us as blessed. We crave touch yet fear temptation and rob ourselves of the beauty of the touches that connect us to others. We fear that desire may destroy us not recognizing that Jesus repeatedly asks “what do you want” of people.
In the third part of the book, Owens invites us toward a wholeness in the embrace of the tension of longing for the holy while having two feet firmly on the ground as symbolized by God command to Moses to take his shoes off before the burning bush and the holy ground. She invites us into a life of being comfortable enough in our skin to pray with every part of our being. She calls us to attend to the creation with our senses. One of the most powerful chapters was on our sexuality as she recounted how her fiance invited her into the making of love long before they consummated that love in physical intimacy. She encourages us to own our sexual history, and that of our families, and offer all of this to the redemptive care of the Lover of our souls. And finally she speaks of the experience of how as bodies, in a body of believers, we take the body and blood of Christ, which she describes in these words, “Receive what you are, the body of Christ…. Receive what you are, the blood of Christ.”
Each chapter concludes with a Touch Point, an exercise to help us enter into the particular reality of embodied life we’ve been reading about in each chapter. There is also a group discussion guide at the end, with one or two questions for each chapter.
I am a singer and recently attended a workshop that taught us about singing with our whole bodies, and not just with our mouths. We sing from our feet, through our calves, our relaxed knees, our thighs and hips, pelvis and abdomen, torso and shoulders, neck and head. When it is good, all are aligned and working together. So much more than eyes, noses, ears, and voices. We feel rhythms in our bodies as well as read them off a score. In one exercise, we stood hand opposite hand without touching with a partner (another man in my case), moving our hands, following one another to a beautiful peace of music, shedding self-consciousness as we moved with each other and the music, ending in a sense that this was profoundly good and beautiful.
In some sense, Owens’ book seems to me to capture this same idea, helping us to sing and move and live the Lord’s song from head to foot and with every part between. She helps us face our fears with her own stories of fear and the vulnerability both of stepping beyond those fears and sharing them. She helps us recognize all the ways God comes to us in our bodies and woos us to Himself and his dreams for us. In all of this she helps us see that we can only express our true selves through our physical selves.