“The body is a temple, but the temple is in ruins. The incarnation of Jesus affirms the body’s original goodness. The death of Jesus reminds us of its need for redemption. And the resurrection of Jesus gives us hope for its restoration” (p. 31).
This is the paradox of the body according to Matthew Anderson in his first book Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith. From the curse of the fall in Genesis 3 the human body has been in decay. We live in a body of death both spiritually and physically. Adam brought death to our bodies in a way that God never intended at creation. But Christ has brought redemption to our bodies which began with His resurrection and will be completed when He returns (1 Cor. 15).
You would think that for a religion whose redeemer lived in a body which many at His time deemed to be evil (1 John), Christianity would have a lot more to say, at least positively, about the human body. We exist on this earth in our bodies and thus every function we perform is shaped by our bodies. And yet, much of the evangelical conversation (the little there is) about the body either misses the point, its target or is not shaped by the bodily incarnation of Jesus Christ, the bodies only hope of redemption. Anderson writes, “Whatever attitude evangelicals currently have toward the body, historical evangelicals aren’t as negative toward the body as we’re often told. The evangelical legacy with respect to the body seems to be more on of inattention than outright rejection or even a conscious ambivalence….evangelical attempts at understanding the body’s role in our spiritual lives seem to have been dominantly reactive rather than proactive” (p. 41). His charge to evangelicals to get more serious about a biblical discussion of the body is pointed:
If conservatives evangelicals want to offer careful, gospel-centered responses to these various ‘isms,’ then we must overcome our inattention to the body and engage these communities on this ground in distinctly evangelical ways. It is not enough just to show that how they think about human bodies is wrong. We must also show them a more excellent way of thinking about – and of living in – these human bodies. (p. 45-46)
Earthen Vessels is a mature, informed and gospel saturated exercise in thinking about the human body and the redemption Christ has brought to it. Anderson has his finger on the pulse of culture and how it has shaped the evangelical identity.
Reading Earthen Vessels will make you think you are reading the works of C.S. Lewis or G.K. Chesterton (though Anderson would humbly deny this praise), who he quotes often. His maturity of though is beyond his age and one can only imagine how excellent of a writer he will be in the prime of his writing career.
Anderson is a writer, but as well, freely and vastly as he cites the works of theologians, sociologists, psychologists and the like, you would think he might have minored in each of these areas. The truth of the matter is, Anderson has done his homework and this book shows he has thought long and hard about the subject matter. There is no one or movement that is beyond is critique. He critiques various –ism movements as well as well-meaning evangelical leaders. His aim is not to destroy but to honestly evaluate what he believes to be misguided thinking on the part of popular leaders of our day. Of particular note is Anderson’s careful attention to the text of Scripture. For not being a theologian, his exegesis is on target and he delves deep into the historical background when necessary (see esp. chap. 6 on tattoos).
While there is much to commend to this book, what I find most impressive is how gospel saturated Anderson is in chapter after chapter. He states:
Evangelicals sometimes suffer from an anemic understanding of how the gospel shapes our lives. We alternate between playing the legalist card when people attempt to draw lines about how Christians should or should not act, and playing the libertine card when others sanction their immoral actions with the gospel. A Gospel-ethic, though, is a normative account of how our lives conform to the pattern of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that is discerned and freely enacted through the power of the Spirit’s indwelling presence. (p. 28-29)
Time and time again Anderson reaches back to Jesus and Scripture for the redemptive life they bring to our bodies. Earthen Vessels is not merely thoughts and observations on the body but it is an earnest call for Christians to view their bodies through the lens of Scripture and redemption in Christ and His resurrection rather than through the eyes of a dying world.
I highly recommend this book to anyone between the ages of 18-30 but everyone would do well to read it as an exercise in encouraging this generation of evangelical writers. This is the kind of book that you need to read, think about it and then go back and read it again. Earthen Vessels will make you think and will leave you amazed. I close with Anderson’s own words:
As long as we have bodies, we will remain in the world. But our calling is to discern the ways in which the structures and institutions that make our world are set up against the knowledge of God. The cross is the shape of a life that is in the world, but not of it. And when we know the power of the resurrection, we shall find ourselves wanting to participate in the sufferings of Christ, to manifest the same live that he poured out for us to a world that is desperate for hope and joy. (p. 230)