Earthen Vessels by Matthew Lee Anderson – 2011 Books of the Year

Over the next 10 days Bookwi.se will be re-posting my books of the year. They are in alphabetical order by author. Matthew Lee Anderson has given the evangelical church a real gift with this book.  And like many gifts that are actually good for us, this book has not had the attention that it deserves.  The physical body should be important to us because it is important to God.  And ignoring the theology of the body is ignoring why God created us as physical human beings and came to earth himself as a physical human and was resurrected again with a physical body.  I hope this is the start of a new focus on the theology of the body in the Evangelical world.
Earthen VesselsTakeaway: This is one of the more important contributions to Evangelical Theology I have read in recent years. I very much look forward to expanded editions or new books by Anderson to supplement what he has here.

I finished this book up the first night of my vacation at the beach.  I am vacationing with my wife’s family, including my two nieces that I nanny.  The three year old came into the living room buck naked and asked where her pull-ups were.  She unashamedly turned around and stuck out her bottom to show us that she did not have a pull-up on and told us that she still wears pull-ups to bed because she is not big yet.

If you are not around children much, you might be surprised by this behavior, but any parent knows that children under 5 are rarely ashamed of their body.  And they are often quite aware of their limitations.

Matthew Lee Anderson has given us a delight of a book, one that shows us exactly how important that the physical body is to our Christian faith.

Early in the book Anderson says, “The paradox of contemporary culture is that while many of us are obsessive about how our bodies look, we are not conscious of the habits of the body we’ve picked up through our practices of life.”  Bodies are both more important and less thought about than through most of history.  Part of this is the modern way we use the body.  When I go backpacking, I am aware of water all the time.  Every drop I use, I (or one of the people with me) have to pump, store and carry.  We plan for how long to hike and where to camp based on where the water is.  When I am at home, I rarely think about water.  I pay a water bill and I try to conserve it out of thrift and environmental concern, but I do not make plans based on water’s availability.  In a similar way, when our livelihood is based on our bodies we are much more aware of our use of the body than when we primarily make a living based on our minds.

My niece is aware that at 3 she is not ready to sleep through the night without a pull-up.  “Part of our development as adults is discerning which limits we should push through, and which we should respect.  But there is no escaping the fact that if we are going to live in the body we have to embrace some of the limits that it entails.”  When we have a ‘holy attentiveness’ to the physical needs of those around us, we know when they are present, we are concerned about their well-being.  But in our modern self-centered world, that attentiveness needs to be cultivated (we have always been self-centered throughout history, but the modern world allows us to live a self-centered life as no other generation previous to us has.)  Anderson points us to a spiritual dependence on God that is rooted in a physical dependence both on God and on those around us.  So living the Sabbath is not only about rest, or worship of God, but acknowledgement of real dependence upon God.  Prayer is rooted, not only on relationship with God, but real physical need (both our own and those around us.)  The sacraments are not only about spiritual reality, but about the physical activities that point us toward God.

While I am a fan of the book (I have already given it to two people), there are some weaknesses.  Anderson acknowledges that he is not writing about Race or Gender.  I feel both absences and I hope that in future editions or future books he can expand on these.  I also wish there was more direct interaction with the Sacraments, but in this case I think the problem is with Evangelical Theology of the Sacraments as a whole, more than a weakness of the book.

I also have some frustrations with some of the results of the discussion.  The marriage chapter in particular, as married couple that has consciously chosen to not have children as of this time, has a very similar weakness to Catholic conceptions of marriage that make reproduction a center point in the definition of marriage.  This is in part a reaction to the rise of homosexuality, but it is a historic understanding that pre-dates that theological issue.  Maybe I am just wrong on this point.  But I have a problem with an understanding of marriage that requires the potential (but not the reality of children).

Another area is Anderson’s concern with cremation in his chapter on death.  It is very similar to the concerns brought up at the end of Christianity: The First 3000 Years, but I just do not get it.  Our concern for the body after death is a result of our respect for the body before death.  I understand that historically Christians were concerned about burial because of their focus on the resurrection. But we know that bodies decompose and decomposition is not a barrier to the resurrection (or the power of God.)  And his concern that cremation shows a lack of respect for the body seems to be disproved by many ,both in the modern West and in history.

One of the real strengths of this book is his extensive research and endnotes.  A full 20 percent of the book is notes, averaging about 2 per page.  There is much fodder for future research.  Anderson draws upon extensive theology outside the Evangelical world, especially Catholic theology.  However, unlike some other writers, he is not just playing cafeteria theology, but making it a real Evangelical theology of the body.

Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition

2 Comments

Adam:

You write: “I also wish there was more direct interaction with the Sacraments, but in this case I think the problem is with Evangelical Theology of the Sacraments as a whole, more than a weakness of the book.”

Not having read Matt’s book, I’m unable to comment on this evaluation. But if you want a robust treatment of the Sacraments and their relationship to our bodies, there is not a finer book than Rodney Clapp’s TORTURED WONDERS: CHRISTIAN SPIRITUALITY FOR PEOPLE, NOT ANGELS (Brazos). Matt acknowledges this book among the ones that he enjoyed and benefitted from reading. He writes:

“Clapp’s book is almost the book I wanted to write. It asks all the right questions, and answers them in a thoughtful, meditative, and richly textured way that make for an enjoyable and stimulating encounter. Some folks I know have complained that it meanders too much, a complaint I can understand, but as a lay-level Protestant examination of the body, it’s the standard bearer.”

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