Monthly Archives: December 2011

Joy to the World

One of my favorite classes in seminary was Storytelling.  One particular assignment we had for that class was to make up a story based on the painting handed to us.  The painting I was given was a picture of the Nativity scene.  Here’s the story I told as inspired by that scene.

My best friend Mary got married two and a half years ago, and about five weeks ago, she had a baby.  Her husband left me a voicemail message in the middle of the night, and when I woke up in the morning and listened to the message, he just yelled, “It’s a girl! It’s a girl!”  Now, I was a little frustrated with her because she is supposed to be my best friend and didn’t even tell me she was pregnant.  We’ve fallen a little out of touch since I moved across the country, but I still expected to know about the milestones in her life.

I waited a few days to give them time to adjust to being new parents and then gave her a call back to get the whole scoop.  We’ve always told each other all the gory details about everything, so I asked her what it was like having a baby. “How did it happen?” I asked.  “Where were you when your water broke?  What hospital did you go to?  Tell me everything!”

I could hear the fatigue thick in her voice as she tried to answer my questions.  Finally, she said, “You know, I’m so tired right now I can’t think of anything to tell you.  I just remember this one moment.  I had been pushing and screaming and screaming and pushing, and when she came out, before they cleaned her off or cut the cord or anything, the doctors just propped her up on my chest.  In that moment, I could have done it again six times over.  I was just so overwhelmed with emotion for my little baby.”

By this time, I was going to be late for my next class, and I knew she needed to take a nap while the baby was sleeping. “Well, I’ll talk to you later,” I said. I was about to hang up when I remembered my the most important question.

“Oh by the way, what’s your baby’s name?” I asked.

And she said, “Joy.”

 The angel said to them, I bring you good news of great joy for all people.  Today a baby has been born to you, a Savior who is Christ the Lord.  (Luke 2)

The Word became flesh and lived among us. (John 1)

As we prepare for Christmas during this Advent season, let’s not lose sight of the very real physicality of the Emmanuel–God with us.  This is the very basis of body theology.

Jim Wallis on Christmas and the Incarnation

As we draw closer to the 25th, let’s wait with joyful expectation for the “celebration of the Incarnation.”

Regardless of your opinion of Fox News or what Wallis calls “civil religion,” I really like the way he describes the Incarnation as the real point of Christmas.  Here’s an excerpt:

What is Christmas? It is the celebration of the Incarnation, God’s becoming flesh — human — and entering into history in the form of a vulnerable baby born to a poor, teenage mother in a dirty animal stall. Simply amazing. That Mary was homeless at the time, a member of a people oppressed by the imperial power of an occupied country whose local political leader, Herod, was so threatened by the baby’s birth that he killed countless children in a vain attempt to destroy the Christ child, all adds compelling historical and political context to the Advent season.

The theological claim that sets Christianity apart from any other faith tradition is the Incarnation. God has come into the world to save us. God became like us to bring us back to God and show us what it means to be truly human.

That is the meaning of the Incarnation. That is the reason for the season.

In Jesus Christ, God hits the streets.

It is theologically and spiritually significant that the Incarnation came to our poorest streets. That Jesus was born poor, later announces his mission at Nazareth as “bringing good news to the poor,” and finally tells us that how we treat “the least of these” is his measure of how we treat him and how he will judge us as the Son of God, radically defines the social context and meaning of the Incarnation of God in Christ. And it clearly reveals the real meaning of Christmas.

The other explicit message of the Incarnation is that Jesus the Christ’s arrival will mean “peace on earth, good will toward men.” He is “the mighty God, the everlasting Father, and the Prince of Peace.” Jesus later calls on his disciples to turn the other cheek, practice humility, walk the extra mile, put away their swords, love their neighbors — and even their enemies — and says that in his kingdom, it is the peacemakers who will be called the children of God. Christ will end our warring ways, bringing reconciliation to God and to one another.

(Read the full article here.) Wallis has it right when he highlights Jesus’ emphasis on caring for the poor and being peacemakers.  This is why I believe body theology is about more than just the way we see our bodies or think about and experience our sexuality.  Jesus did not “become flesh” just to be human but to do–to redeem and bring to completion all that we as “bodyselves” were created to be and do.  Body theology is about who Jesus is, who we are as God’s family, and how we should respond because of who Jesus is and who we are.  Body theology is about both identity and activity.  Christmas is a time to remember Jesus’ identity as divine-becoming-human.  Hearing this good news, how will you respond?

Call of the Artist (concluded)

What follows is the conclusion of Part 2  that I posted an excerpt from in my previous post.

Art has a prophetic role in the Church today.[1]We must regain what we have lost—that understanding we used to have of the deep connection between artistic beauty and an experience of the holy.[2]What others can do with a paintbrush or a chisel, I can do with words.When I relate my own experiences, my own journey through uncovering lies to the healing truths that come with learning to relate to people in a way that does not exploit or ignore my “bodyself,”[3] I give voice to those around me who journey similarly—wading through lies, searching for truth.It feels very selfish to invite others to walk with me on a very personal journey that includes criticism of a tradition that I respect and love dearly, that has molded and shaped me into the kind of person I am, that has deeply embedded within me a profound sense of God’s goodness, grace, forgiveness, and mercy.But I believe that in my willingness to be thus publicly vulnerable, to open myself in that vulnerability to attack for my criticism, is a necessary part not only of the healing process but of the role of the artist—whether I am “really” an artist or not.

Art for art’s sake has its place.But there is need for artists to restore in the Church a sense of God’s holiness as expressed through beauty,[4] and beauty in the human form.[5]This is not to say that the artist has free reign to sensationalize, shock, or otherwise offend the Christian community carelessly in the name of the prophetic voice.[6]But gently, with kindness and genuine understanding, the more subtle artist is uniquely positioned to affect real change in the orientation of the spiritual life to the body, welcoming that necessary and undeniable part of ourselves into the conversation, into the experience of relating to one another and relating to God[7], and God incarnate[8]—as images of the beauty of God’s holiness.

[1] Indeed, “works of art can awaken faith, or at least the longing for faith” (Harries 132).

[2] “If a religious perspective on life is to carry conviction it has to account of the powerful spiritual impact which the arts, in all forms, have on people.Christianity needs to have a proper place both for the arts and for beauty” (Harries 2).

[3] Nelson uses this term frequently.

[4] Martin explains that if God is primary beauty and the created order is secondary beauty, then according to Jonathan Edwards’s theology of the body, it is “the work of grace that facilitates perception of that primary beauty that places the secondary beautyof the world in authentic perspective” (31).

[5] “Beauty defined in imagination,” notes Barger, is “truly transcendent of shifting cultural trends” (42).

[6] “True beauty,” Harries writes, “is inseparable from the quest for truth and those moral qualities which make for a true quest.In the world of art this means integrity” (62).

[7] Harries asserts, “The yearning aroused by experiences of beauty is a longing for God himself, for communion with his beauty” (94).Again, “we are invited to take the divine beauty into our very being through Eucharist” (98).Barger also notes this correlation, advocating that “ritual connects the body with spirituality” (183).

[8] Nelson writes, “In a culture that does not really honor matter but cheapens it, in a culture that does not love the body but uses it, belief in God’s incarnation is countercultural stuff” (195).

Call of the Artist

What follows is an excerpt from Part 2 of a paper I wrote in graduate school relating body theology to art and the Church. (Part 1 was an exploration of my personal journey in developing a body theology.)

There is profound beauty in the Incarnation of God in human form, a good human form that was just like every other image of God.[1]We have lost, I think, the ancients’ sense of beauty as that which is supremely Good,[2] as that which possesses a unique expression of truth in a way that draws us to look through it to that ultimate Beauty—the beauty of God.The Hebrew Bible draws a nuanced connection between beauty and holiness, preferring God’s glory as an expression of the beauty of holiness[3] rather than beauty for its own sake; yet its language and imagery is masterfully, powerfully creative—worthy of being deemed both good and beautiful for its ability to point beyond itself to the Goodness and Beauty of God.

Even our Newer Testament scriptures contain creativity in narrative and imagery, especially in the gospels and the Revelation of John.But as evangelicals we tend to narrow our focus to Paul’s letters which, though worthy of literary merit, were not designed or intended as artistic expressions of God’s truth.We focus on the divine and humiliated Jesus of the Philippians 2 hymn, on creedal statements, and on Paul’s contextual lists of do’s and don’ts for his churches.We have lost our emphasis on aesthetics for proper worship, as though God is better glorified by whining in a white-and-brown room than with the Sistine Chapel and Handel’s Messiah.We forget that our God is creative[4] and that God pronounced God’s creation good not because it is capable of standing alone but because it contains that element of truth[5] that points beyond itself to the goodness, beauty, truth, glory, holiness of our creative God.We forget, in our fear and shame, what we have been created for.

What I have discovered in particular, in my delving into the lies the Church perpetuated in my life concerning my own body and how to relate to other bodies is the connection, or perhaps more aptly the disconnection, between beauty expressed in art and the holiness of God expressed through Christian piety.We the-evangelical-community don’t know how to deal with our bodies.We don’t know what they’re for.We don’t understand physical beauty or its relation to any other kind of beauty.[6]We don’t know how to deal with our physicality, so we just label it sin to be safe.And anything in art that reminds us of our humanity or—dare I say it—Jesus’ humanity, is labeled just as sinful.[7]Consider the controversy in the Church when Caravaggio began depicting Jesus as ordinary and fleshly and real.We prefer the Gnostic or even Docetic Jesus,[8] the one who doesn’t disrupt our body-soul division or challenge us to live bodily into our role as the imago Dei

(to be continued in the next post)

[1] Richard Harries argues that “spiritual beauty can also shine in a special way through human beauty and artistic creation.In the traditional Christmas story spiritual beauty and artistic beauty coalesce” (13). Likewise, “the glory of God shines out in the Cross and Resurrection” (55). Similarly, Lillian Barger notes that “the cross with its debasement and bloodiness is an unlikely location to find beauty”(172), yet it is the cross that “restores our imagination, destroyed by culture’s images” (173). Even James Alfred Martin agrees, for “the highest beauty is the unmerited redemptive work of God in history…beauty is something that happened” (10).

[2] Martin explains the Platonic belief that one ascends to the Good through an experience of Beauty” (15).

[3] “Biblical Israel,” Martin writes, “celebrated holiness over beauty—but not religion over aesthetics” (11).

[4] “Human beings” says Harries, “made in the image of God, share in divine creativity” (102).

[5] “Beauty,” Harries writes, “is the persuasive power of God’s truth and goodness” (11).

[6] But Harries argues that “the physical world, including our bodies, is created fundamentally good and beautiful” (37).

[7] Yet, as Barger argues, it is “the incarnation of God in Jesus [that] gives us a basis for including our bodies in the spiritual search” (161).

[8] James Nelson discusses the reentrance of Docetism in the contemporary church (51).

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