Review: Pursuing an Earthy Spirituality

Pursuing an Earthy Spirituality

Pursuing an Earthy Spirituality, Gary S. Selby. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A survey of the works of C.S. Lewis through the lens of their incarnational spirituality, discussing how Lewis brings together spiritual formation and the embodied life.

One of the intriguing questions about the works of C. S. Lewis is how one accounts for their popularity and staying power. I believe one of the responses Gary S. Selby might give is the ability Lewis had to connect spiritual truth to our lived experiences as flesh and blood human beings. He writes:

“Red beef and strong beer.” Those were the words C. S. Lewis used to describe life under the rigorous tutelage of his beloved mentor, William T. Kirkpatrick, “The Great Knock”. . . .

Lewis’s choice of words to describe the crucible of Kirkpatrick’s instruction clearly shows his gift for using language to stir our imagination. It also underscores his appreciation for the earthy, embodied stuff of life. Lewis loved food, drink, laughter, and good conversation. He relished an amble in the English countryside, a joy made all the more delightful by his anticipation of the cozy fire and pint of ale that awaited him in a pub at day’s end. But I also believe that this phrase gives us a clue to what, for Lewis, it meant to be spiritual. It points to the possibility that savoring the sensations of taste and touch, sight and smell and hearing, these experiences that are often the richest of our earthly lives, represented a doorway into the presence of God and the first step of the spiritual journey (pp. 1-2).

In this book, Selby surveys the works of Lewis to develop the character of Lewis’s “earthy” spirituality, which he sees as the antidote to a kind of spirituality detached from our bodily existence. He begins by tracing what is perhaps the most well-known account of this in Surprised by Joy, recounting Lewis’s experiences of longing, punctuated by joy and sometimes sadness or wistfulness, as he read Norse poetry or glimpsed a beautiful scene in nature or even his brother’s imaginary world of Boxen. While we long for our Creator, we are often put off by perceptions of God as distant or severe, until we, like Lewis discover the God who is “not safe–but good.” He narrates the negative spirituality of Lewis’s early life, paralleled at many points by the counsel Screwtape receives, and the redemption of ordinary and everyday desire that points to the glory of God. He speaks of a new kind of consciousness, contrasted with the illusions that accompany the existence of the damned, that becomes honestly self aware of one’s sin, as well as the grace to choose the will of God. He goes on to treat the development of virtue in our lives.

“Retinas and Palates” resumes the discussion of physical pleasures in which these are taken up into praise that says “my God, how wonderful you are” and turns the delight in earthy things such as food or sex or beauty properly enjoyed into the praise of their Maker. Temptation to sin is to turn such pleasures away from God toward oneself in ways forbidden. Likewise, when we learn to delight in and learn from “the other,” those different from us, we are immeasurably enriched. He uses Lewis’s Space Trilogy to trace the development of Ransom as he encounters the various species of Malacandra and the unfallen Green Lady of Perelandra that fits him to lead the resistance to That Hideous Strength in his little religious community of St. Anne’s. I had never thought of how his experiences of the Other might have fitted him for this.

Selby concludes with Lewis’s portrayal of the Christian hope of resurrected embodied life, a life even more real, “harder” and “deeper” and more beautiful than all we have experienced. He ends where he began, with joy, and how often we disconnect joy from God, when in fact joy is at the heart of what it means to be the redeemed, embodied creatures of God.

So what is the value of one more book about C. S. Lewis and his works? In Lewis’s “Meditation in a Toolshed,” Lewis distinguishes between looking at a beam of light versus looking along that beam.  Selby’s work helps us look along a particular beam of the writing of Lewis, the light it sheds on Lewis richly textured embodied spirituality. We might notice hints of that as we look at his works, but Selby invites us to see along the beam of the earthy spirituality running through Lewis’s works, to see the source of pleasure and joy and how this might shape embodied lives of worship, virtue and hope. This book helped me not only see new things in Lewis but helped me recognize with greater clarity the connections between the experiences of everyday life in the body and the good God who so made us.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

 

Review: The Living Temple

the living temple

The Living Temple, Carl E. Braaten and LaVonne Braaten. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2016 (originally published in 1976).

Summary: A theology focusing on our physical bodies as dwelling places for the Spirit of God and the implications for the food we eat, including the problems of processed, chemical-laden foods full of empty calories.

This is a book I wish I had read in 1976 when it was first published. It might have led to amendments in my own diet much sooner. More than this, it might have led to a more thoughtful perspective on one thing we all have in common, our bodies. What the Braatens offer in this brief work is a theology of the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit, countering the incipient Gnosticism and other worldly spirituality that the church has been dealing with throughout its history. It is not from Christianity which throughout its scriptures attests to a healthy body-theology, but from Greek Dionysian myths that the idea of body as evil comes to us. Sadly, over-spiritualized versions (and maybe over-intellectualized ones) deny our embodied existence, and lead us to a sad neglect of our bodies.

Much of the neglect that the Braatens focus on concerns the food we eat. While food cannot make us ritually and spiritually unclean, it certainly can pollute and deplete the temple of the Holy Spirit. They focus much of their attention on chemically treated and supplemented food and highly processed foods like white bread and white sugar. Presciently, they speak of a growing movement toward healthy, organically grown foods in which groceries would be forced to give over more space to organic foods.

They also see a connection between our care for our bodies and our care for the earth. They write:

“We are to our individual bodies what the whole body of mankind is to the earth. Our attitudes regarding our bodies reflect and express the way we look at the world around us. It is downright silly, for example, to fight for clean air in the city and then suck cigarette smoke into our lungs. We must learn that we are dovetailed into the world. We simply die without day-to-day communion with the vital systems of the good earth. Good body ecology is the key to the renewal of the earth on a global scale” (p. 67).

I do wish this work could have been revised rather than simply re-printed. It suffers in places from what is probably outdated nutritional advice. Yet some things, like the concern about nitrites, are right on target and only now being addressed. At times the authors make sweeping statements railing against big business without substantiation. Yet their fundamental case concerning the food processing industry, the values of organic foods and moving away from a meat-laden diet, path-breaking then, is increasingly common wisdom. In sum, they still get more right than wrong.

Christians are just discovering a theology of our embodied life and working out the implications of this in various areas of self-care. What makes this book so interesting is that it anticipates by forty years work only now being done and articulates both theological grounds and concrete action, and with remarkable brevity. Wipf & Stock is to be commended for bringing back into print this pioneering work.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Theology in the Flesh

Theology in the Flesh

Theology in the FleshJohn Sanders. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016.

Summary: A survey of how the field of cognitive linguistics lends insight into how we understand theological matters ranging from morals to the nature of God to understanding the Bible.

There are some who would deny that it is possible to speak of God, who is “wholly other.” Any speech about God, to them, would be to make God in our image. Some would allege that is all that we ever do. However, others, who believe we exist in the image of God, would say that we are both like and unlike God, and that some form of communication about God rooted in our “like-ness” may be possible.

John Sanders does not try to argue this matter, but rather helps us understand that any talk of God or other religious subjects such as truth, morality or the Bible, is deeply rooted in our embodied nature and even the kinds of bodies we have. As bipeds, we have a vertical orientation (up and down) and a front and a back associated with movement forward or in reverse. He contends that our embodied character, including our perceptual apparatus, are the tools we use to perceive and communicate anything. We don’t have a separate apparatus for religious perception and communication. He believes we do well to draw on the field of cognitive linguistics, which studies that interaction between language and our thought processes in how we make meaning of our world, shaped by our embodied nature and informed by our particular cultural setting. He would contend this is critically important to how we understand the nature of truth, morality, the Bible and God, and how we speak of these matters and the differences we have with each other.

The book consists of three parts. The first lays out basics of cognitive linguistics, with a particularly helpful chapter on metaphor, which helps one understand how large a role metaphor and other figurative language plays in our everyday communication and that often metaphor communicates both more fully and more accurately than a “literal” statement. In this section we are also introduced to image schemes, frames, and other conceptual tools used by cognitive linguists. The second is an exploration, using cognitive linguistics, of how, in general, our understanding of truth, how meaning is perceived differently in different communities and why differences in moral thinking arise.

The third section, then focuses in on Christian reasoning about doctrines, the Bible and the nature of God may be understood through a cognitive linguistic lens. For example, the section on Christian doctrine looks at the different metaphors for sin, salvation, and divine judgment. The chapter on the Bible explores how our cultural frames shape our reading of the Bible, using the example of how different cultures read passages on anger and distress. The chapter on God observes how “anthropogenic” if not anthropomorphic our language about God is.

Sanders does not advance particular theological positions. Nor does he make a case for cultural relativism. Indeed, Sanders observes both universal or nearly universal ways we frame certain things such as God and heaven being “up,” as well as how our cultural frames, uses of metaphors, and so forth, lead to different perceptions of the same phrase in scripture, for example. It is here, Sanders argues, that a grasp of cognitive linguistics, and using this as a tool in cross-cultural (or cross-era) conversations may be important to better understanding of each other or even shared understandings.

Certainly not all theological or interpretive or ethical discussions may be resolved on these terms. But the reminder that how we make meaning of language is inextricably connected to our embodied nature and our cultural frameworks should contribute to a kind of epistemic humility in conversations that foster at least greater understanding, if not always agreement. That, it seems to me, would be an advance in theological as well as in other forms of conversation.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via a pre-publication e-galley through Edelweiss. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: Embracing the Body

Embracing the Body

Embracing the BodyTara 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.

Review: What Your Body Knows About God

what your Body Knows

What Your Body Knows About GodRob Moll. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: Explores how our neurophysiology enables us to connect to God and others and how spiritual practices, liturgies, and opportunities to serve enable us to physically as well as spiritually thrive.

Believing people have long contended that to be human is to be made for God–to commune with God, to live in the world for God. Rob Moll, in this fascinating book, shows how the latest neuroscience and physiological research show how indeed our bodies seem disposed to spiritual seeking and living that spiritual life in the physical world.

For example: contemplative prayer practiced over eight weeks results in people who are more compassionate and observable changes occur in the brain. We are born connectors with an inborn capacity for relationship. Children who experience deeply love and mentoring in multi-generational Christian communities most often go on in adulthood to mature faith (my own story). Mirror neurons enable us to sense the mental states of others. The social nature of our brains suggests that our believing and belonging are connected. The powerful neurotransmitters secreted in our experiences of intimate love, whether mother and child, loves, or more darkly with various forms of pornography re-wire our brains for deep intimacy or auto-erotic isolation. It is often in our deepest weakness and physical suffering that we experience the most profound spiritual transformation.

Spiritual disciplines work by physical practice that shape our desires and emotions. The combination of social and multi-sensory experience (bodily movement, sound, smells, visuals, taste, and more) all combine to shape our knowledge of God. Serving others is indeed deeply satisfying and more so than self-indulgence. Moll summarizes his findings in this way:

     “Our physical bodies, down to the wiring in our brains and the genes in our cells and the chemicals filling the synapse between neurons, need this kind of faith. We have been designed for it. We are made to perceive and connect to God in a way that changes our very nature. And these changes are made most manifest in the tangible ways that we care for one another. As we connect with God and invite others to join this life of prayer, worship, community and service, we align our biological and spiritual selves with the Creator of the universe and the most fundamental guide for life–loving God and loving others” (p. 201).

It strikes me that there are two ways to respond to the knowledge Moll describes. One is the direction Moll goes which is to recognize the deep wisdom in the scriptures and centuries-long traditions of the church. The other could be scary, a form of psycho-social engineering of experience to manipulate spiritual experience. One treats people as free agents made for God and seeks their flourishing by inviting them into the wisdom of the Way which is also a wisdom of the body. The other manipulates people, using knowledge of neurophysiology to control responses and devotion. It is the method of cults and fanatical movements.

Moll doesn’t discuss the latter, but understanding the true has not only its own benefits, but also helps us recognize the counterfeits and the power of the spurious. Perhaps this is also knowledge the body needs.