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: Love Thy Body

love thy body

Love Thy Body, Nancy R. Pearcey. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018.

Summary: Traces how a two story view of reality has led to a dualistic way of viewing human beings, splitting body and person, and traces the working out of this around our understanding of human life, sexuality, orientation, gender, and marriage.

Often Christianity has been accused of prudish attitudes with regard to the body and its functions in contrast with the wider culture’s celebration of the body. What if the truth were just the opposite and Christians, in fact, had a truly high view of our embodied life, and the secular world in fact denigrated and reinforced a fallen alienation from our bodies? This is part of what Nancy R. Pearcey means in the title to her new book, Love Thy Body.

Pearcey, who was strongly influenced by the work of Francis Schaeffer, believes one of his most valid insights was the two storied view of truth and reality that prevails in the modern world which might be portrayed as follows:

THEOLOGY, MORALITY, VALUES

Private, Subjective, Relativistic

————————————————————–

SCIENCE, FACTS

Public, Objective, Valid for Everyone

Pearcey contends that this bifurcated view of reality has extended to our concept of the body, where instead of a Christian view of embodied persons, we separate the idea of the person and the body, whereby our understanding of what it means to be human is separated from our biological existence. For example, life is defined not when an ovum is fertilized by sperm but by when the fetus becomes a person. The trouble with this is it is not clear when this happens, either before or after birth, or what level of genetic fitness qualifies one to be a person and thus worthy of life. The issue arises at the other end of life as well, where personhood, rather than embodied life define when life should be ended.

Then in successive chapters Pearcey shows how this divided view of reality works out in our understanding of sexuality, orientation, and gender. A hookup culture divorces physical pleasure from mental and emotional bonding (often resulting in great pain when we cannot carry this off). Strangely, at the same time, sex becomes divorced from the body in its obviously procreative function. Sexual orientation becomes an instance where a psychological, autonomous self imposes its own interpretation upon the body, denying the telos of one’s biology. Likewise gender is a fluid product of social forces rather than the physical constitution of the body. Furthermore, marriage is reduced to a contract rather than a covenantal relationship where the union of our bodies expresses the union of our lives and the formation of new families.

In the course of her discussion, Pearcey chronicles leading thinkers from Freud to Foucault, and various educational and governmental policies that have supported the divorce of persons and bodies. At the same time, she writes as a professor who has counselled students and her own children as they wrestle with these realities. So she writes with both conviction and compassion. In her chapter on transgenderism, she writes of Brandon, who still considers himself a girl on the inside, and yet recognizes that surgery will not change who he is, and that much of the problem has to do with how gender is defined.

The breadth spanned by this book to underscore its central thesis means that there is much left to be worked out, and many particular situations that only are cursorily addressed. Yet the common origin of all these issues in a bifurcated view of truth is worth noting for understanding where the real difference lies.

Pearcey’s argument for the unity of the human being and the value of the body will not satisfy those for whom the social construction of personhood, gender, and orientation are defining. What Pearcey does is articulate a theology of the body as good and that our biology must not be denied in our understanding of the person, but truly celebrated. She articulates compassion and conviction held in tension, something rare in today’s discussions. She also suggests a vision of truth as a seamless garment and a life where what we do as embodied beings shapes the persons we are becoming. In a climate where Christians often are accused of hatefulness, she poses a most challenging question in asking, “who really loves the body?”

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Spirit of the Disciplines

Spirit of the DisciplinesThe Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988.

Summary: Dallas Willard’s classic work explaining why and how spiritual disciplines are vital for transformation into the character of Christ as his disciples.

This book, along with Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, were instrumental in introducing spiritual disciplines and spiritual formation into the parlance and practice of both mainline and evangelical Protestant Christianity. This work has been in print for 27 years and it may be time to take a fresh look at what has become a classic reference work on spiritual disciplines.

Willard contends that one of the major challenges facing the church is the transformation of character in the lives of Christians. He contends that spiritual disciplines, which may be observed in the life of Jesus, are in fact the “easy yoke” of Jesus. He likens transformation to the athletic feats of sports figures, that only are possible through years of practicing certain disciplines. His thesis is that:

“The disciplines for the spiritual life are available, concrete activities designed to render bodily beings such as we ever more sensitive and receptive to the Kingdom of Heaven brought to us in Christ, even while living in a world set against God” (p. 252).

A critical aspect of Willard’s thinking is his understanding of what it means to be humans who are meant to image God in their embodied existence. What has been overlooked in much of the church is that the “spiritual life” which is a vital part of being human is one lived out through our physical bodies. Salvation is not a moment but a life of transformation worked out in our bodies. He spends several chapters laying out this theology of the body, culminating in a look at the life of Paul and how his own understanding of spiritual life exemplifies this embodied understanding.

Willard then in two chapters outlines the history of the disciplines and enumerates some of the most important. Critical in his survey of history was a monastic asceticism focused on forgiveness of sin. Willard contends that Protestantism either continued or reacted to this mistaken focus. He argues instead for a kind of asceticism focused on the discipline of the body through which spiritual transformation occurs as it positions us to interact with God. He then describes key disciplines in two groups, those of abstinence (including solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, secrecy, and sacrifice) and those of engagement (including study, worship, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, confession, and submission).

The final two chapters take up the issues of poverty and power. First, on poverty, Willard argues that the idea that it is more spiritual to be poor. While we are not to show preference for the rich and should care for and even patronize the businesses of the poor and live among them, the issue is using resources under the grace of God for the good of people and the glory of God. He also has an interesting take on power–we idolize power when the radical character transformation of disciples leads to a situation akin to life under the judges in Israel. In the church Willard argues that:

“The leader’s task is to equip saints until they are like Christ (Eph. 4:12),  and history and the God of history waits for him to do this job. It is so easy for the leader today to get caught up in illusory goals, pursuing the marks of success which come from our training as Christians or which are simply imposed by the world. It is big, Big, BIG, and BIGGER STILL! That is the contemporary imperative. Thus we fail to take seriously the nurture and training of those, however few, who stand constantly by us” (p. 246).

The book concludes with an epilogue which is a personal appeal to apply the truth of the book. There are two appendices, the first of which is an excerpt from Jeremy Taylor “on the Application of Rules for Holy Living.” The second is an article on Discipleship that first appeared in Christianity Today in 1980. Don’t skip over this–it is a bracing challenge for church leaders to devote themselves to the work of making disciples.

I was struck afresh with how important this book for any of us who teach the spiritual disciplines and are committed to their practice in our lives. The disciplines are so much richer when we understand how God works through the disciplines for our growth in Christ. The central section, which can be a bit heavy going, is vital in a church that still often is “gnostic” in its view of the body. Most of all, it is a critically important book for any who are tired of nostrums and empty ritual and long for the experience of transformation.