Actions speak louder than words.
In “Let’s Get Physical,” Olivia Newton-John sings when “there’s nothing left to talk about, let me hear your body talk.” That’s also what the Bible says, but it reverses the order. The Christian faith is first bodily, giving us something meaningful to talk about.
It’s a faith that begins with God, who is Spirit, or immaterial. He created our material, human body to help us “see” reality. Thus, it is in the human body that we see spiritual realities. Christianity is an embodied faith, as John writes: “In the beginning was the word, and the word became flesh” (Jn. 1:1). The Apostle Paul concurs: “[Jesus] was revealed in the flesh” (I Tim.3:16). This is the gospel, “hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested (or made bodily flesh) to his saints” (Col.1:26).
A bodily faith accounts for Jesus appealing to his wounds rather than worldviews after the resurrection. He told Thomas, “Take your finger and examine my hands. Take your hand and stick it in my side.” This is John’s defense of the gospel: “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands” (I Jn. 1:1). It’s Paul’s defense, appealing to the bodily death and resurrection of Jesus by citing Psalm 16:10: “God raised him from the dead so that he will never be subject to decay.” In that day, death wasn’t sequestered to sterile hospitals, so people understood that bodily decay began about 72 hours after death. Jesus rose from the dead on the third day—which is why followers of Christ were ecstatic about Easter. The bodily resurrection of Christ established the truth of what they were talking about.
A bodily faith also explains the emphasis in scripture on the human body being an ally or adversary for seeing spiritual realities. It is not neutral. “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness” (Rom.6:12-13). Paul urged believers to “glorify God in your body” (I Cor.6:20). This required practicing the bodily disciplines of abstinence—silence, solitude, fasting, frugality, chastity, secrecy, and sacrifice—as well as engagement—study, worship, celebration, service, fellowship, confession, and submission. It was understood that in the human body Christians flourish spiritually. It’s why Paul urged Timothy to “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness” (I Tim.4:7). The Greek word for discipline is gymnasium—exercising until your guts are pooped out. “It is for this we labor and strive,” Paul added (I Tim.4:10). Strive is agonize, an athletic term for working your muscles to exhaustion.
This explains the practice of Lent, which dates from the decrees of the Council of Nicaea in 325. Lent was a period of practicing the disciplines of abstinence to train and toughen Christians’ bodies and appetites for the task of enacting shalom. This would prove prescient, as Islamic forces would later obliterate Nicaea and claim vast areas of Europe and the Middle East.1 Christians came under unspeakable persecution—so much so that by the 900s the Western church had become “something of a large ghetto, dominated and largely surrounded by the superior culture and military power of Islam… and precluded from missionary advance,” writes Lesslie Newbigin.2 Christians were in a bodily struggle and Lent proved to be an indispensable aid for perseverance.
That was then, this is now. Lesslie Newbigin described the modern Western church as “among the main carriers of the ideas of the Enlightenment” that has “largely come to a kind of comfortable cohabitation” with it.3 The Enlightenment is a 17th century disembodied approach to knowledge—changing the world meant changing the mind, as Thomas Jefferson famously intoned: “Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppression of the body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.”4 This however is a fallacious idea. “The human body is our primary area of power, freedom, and—therefore—responsibility,” writes Dallas Willard.5 When faith amounts to mostly changing the mind but doesn’t include changing bodily habits, you don’t get godliness.
This reality might account for the languid state of faith in much of the Western faith tradition. In the West, “spiritual” growth mostly involves studying the Bible. As important as study is, the Western view doesn’t demand bodily disciplines. In Ezra 7:10, the Hebrew “study” is also rendered as “practice.” Learning is doing, and doing is learning. In the Bible, true knowledge is a bodily process, as in “Adam knew Eve.” In the Western tradition, on the other hand, you can be fat and still be considered faithful to Christ. You can hoard and still be considered holy.
The simplest way to see this shortcoming in the Western tradition is notice what is rarely practiced this time of year—Lent. Lent is mostly meaningless today. Denying dessert for 40 days is a crash course for losing winter weight, not an avenue for the human body to become an ally for seeing spiritual realities. Easter has become celebrating the return of warm weather rather than the bodily resurrection of Jesus. With the Western faith’s disengagement from bodily reality, people don’t hear the human body telling them much about spiritual realities.
In Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew Crawford writes about our “increasing manual disengagement” from the world.6 For example, many new Mercedes no longer feature a dipstick. The company assumes owners don’t care to be manually engaged in maintaining their automobiles. But as Martin Heidegger observed, the best way to know something “is not mere perceptual cognition, but, rather a handling, using, and taking care of things which has its own kind of ‘knowledge’.”7 He famously noted that the way we come to know a hammer is not by staring at it, but by grabbing it and using it. Jesus invited his followers to grab him. They handled the truth and got a good grasp on reality.
In the final analysis, a disembodied faith opens the door for discombobulated ideas about what it means to be human. When there’s nothing left to talk about, “Let’s Get Physical” urges us to “get animal, animal / Let’s get into animal.” That’s incorrect, as scripture differentiates between humans and animals. Human beings are image bearers of God. Animals are not. This confusion of categories is understandable, however, when songwriters hear bodies saying something but haven’t bumped into a bodily faith tradition. The result is predictable—they’ll reduce the physical frame to the merely animalistic. The bad news is that it leaves the disembodied Western church out of the conversation—it has one less thing to talk about.
1 Bat Ye’or, The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude (Madison, WI: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996), p. 48.
2 Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), p.4
3 Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: faith, doubt, and certainty in christian discipleship (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 33.
4 As cited in Alf J. Mapp, Jr., Thomas Jefferson: Passionate Pilgrim (Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 1991), p. 266.
5 Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1988) p. 53.
6 Matthew Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (New York, NY: Penguin, 2009), p. 4.
7 Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Joan Stanbaugh (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1996), I.iii.15, p. 63.