In 1999, George Wiegel described the Theology of the Body as a time-bomb. This could be the second time in history that this theology blows things up.
I’ve been highlighting stories from Tom Holland’s sweeping book, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World. This week’s story comes from his chapter on “Mission,” and what happened in the year A.D.64. That’s when Paul’s theology of the body went off like a time-bomb in a Roman society where sexual and gender confusion reigned.
It started with Rome’s ruler, Nero, the emperor. He was considered the son of a god and the ruler of the world, so hardly anyone objected when he murdered his mother, kicked his pregnant wife to death, and married—dressed as a woman—a man. The masses didn’t mind, as this gave them license to do what the son of a god did. And did they ever.
For a single night in the summer of A.D.64, a great street party was thrown in Rome to celebrate Nero’s new order. Women were forbidden to refuse anyone, male or female, rich or poor. Men “relieved” themselves as they would urinate on the side of a road (in Latin, the same word, meio, meant both to ejaculate and urinate). Sex was an exercise in power by Roman men, so the bodies of women—ranging from slaves, to the cheapest streetwalkers, to the most blue-blooded of aristocrats—was fair game. So were young boys.
It was into this hedonistic hellhole that a letter arrived from Corinth. The Apostle Paul had written it. He brought a radically different perspective, a theology of the body that was revolutionary. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?” But in this teaching, Holland notes, Paul was not “merely casting as sacrilege attitudes toward sex that most men in Corinth or Rome took for granted. He was also giving to those who serviced them, the bar girls and the painted boys in brothels, the slaves used without compunction by their masters, a glimpse of salvation.” That glimpse of the gospel is told in our bodies.
Paul’s theology of the body was like a time-bomb, setting off a revolution in the Roman Empire. It reframed marriage and sex as the permanent, monogamous, heterosexual union between a man and a woman. Over the next several centuries, this Christian Revolution (as Holland calls it) remade the Roman world—and eventually the civilized world.
Which brings us to our modern world. For all the good that our technologies have brought about us, they’ve also created a world where sexual and gender confusion reign, mostly courtesy of the internet. Increasing numbers of men and women view porn in order to “relieve” themselves. What once required visiting a brothel, or more recently, a video store, now requires only having a mobile device. What happened on single night on the streets of Rome in A.D.64 now happens in the privacy of your home 24/7/365.
Which means we’re waaaaay overdue for a second time-bomb.
We have one. In October of 1978, a little-known Polish bishop by the name of Karol Wojtyla was chosen the first non-Italian pope in 450 years, taking the name of Pope John Paul II. He had recently completed his Theology of the Body manuscript, but instead of publishing it decided to deliver small portions of the text over the course of 129 weekly addresses between September 1979 and November of 1984.
What John Paul II taught was so wondrously beautiful that it took listeners some time to begin to grasp the significance of it. One of the first was his biographer, George Wiegel. He described the Theology of the Body as “a kind of theological time-bomb set to go off with dramatic consequences… perhaps in the twenty-first century.” I hope he’s right.
It might take a while, but this “boom,” this Christian Revolution of our bodies telling God’s story—of marriage as a permanent, monogamous, heterosexual union—is catching on. The reason is simple. Many, including myself, have found it to be wondrously beautiful.
It’s been suggested by some very great Christians—Dostoyevsky, Solzhenitsyn, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and (in various ways) countless others—that “Beauty will save the world.” I can think of no more beautiful depiction of the gospel than John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. That’s because this theology starts with why: why do we exist?… why do we have a body?… why permanent, monogamous, heterosexual marriage? … why two genders?… why sex?
Inquiring minds want to know. If you’re one of those, read Christopher West’s Our Bodies Tell God’s Story, a book that makes John Paul II’s Theology of the Body accessible to all of us. Then join the next Christian Revolution, the second time-bomb that holds out the hope of recovering the wondrously beautiful gospel told in our bodies.
 Tom Holland: Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, (Basic Books, 2019), 98.