Marriage, Human Sexuality, and the Body: The Body in Art and Media (Part XIII)

This is the 13th part in this series on the Theology of the Body. If you want to listen to the messages, they are found by clicking “listen” on the home page of my website.

In this article I want to address the two primary ways these images influence men and women. For men, I want to develop the theme of lust, and for women, the theme of self-loathing. Let’s begin with lust, which can take root in men or women, but men are particularly susceptible to it. Lust is a form of idolatry – the veneration of a false image. To view a pornographic website is to engage in idolatry. This is not a benign force. It will destroy your inner self – forces a separation of your love of Jesus Christ with your sinful desires, it will destroy your marriage and it will destroy your ministry. If a man forcibly seizes a woman and sexually forces himself upon her, this is called rape and it is a capital crime. It is a crime because it is an assault on the dignity and sanctity of a person. If someone assaults a woman in this way we call it rape; when this is done on a large billboard where we rip someone away from the wholeness of their body we call it advertisement. We have different temperatures we use to describe people: cold, cool, warm and hot, all with different implications. It is perfectly fine to refer to someone as warm because it means they have a warm personality. But for a man to refer to a woman as “hot” is an assault on the holy dignity of a woman and no one in this community should ever use such an expression.

This lust oriented idolatry can take root in men or women, but, for women, idolatry is more likely to be manifested as self-hatred, or hating one’s own body.

For women this starts very early through the images which are portrayed. Women are also being barraged with bodily images. A survey was recently conducted with a number of young teenage women. They were asked if they could change one thing about themselves, what would it be. I don’t know if anyone said, like Solomon, make me wiser. But the survey did reveal that the number one answer was to lose weight. In fact, another survey found that 42% of girls between the ages of 6-10 said that they wished they were thinner, and four out of five were afraid of becoming fat. By high school a full 10% of women have eating disorders.

This includes a range of conditions like anorexia, bulimia nervosa, binge eating, etc. To put this in context, some 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s whereas 30 million have eating disorders.

The average American woman is 5’ 4” and weighs between 124-138. The average model is 5’ 10” and weighs 110 pounds. These so called idealized images have had a huge impact on our culture. Even the so-called models who are portrayed in the media have been photo shopped to send the message even to them that their bodies are not good enough. As the people of God we must recognize the anti-catechesis which happens when you put a Barbie Doll in to the hands of a young girl.

One of the early Barbie Doll accessory kits comes with a scale permanently set at 110 and comes with a little book on dieting which, if you open it, only has one admonition inside: Don’t Eat! All of this results in self-hatred. When a young girl is standing in line at the grocery store and sees the front cover of Cosmopolitan or Glamour magazine the message is sent, I should look like that. As they get older they think, “If I looked like that, I would be desirable, or I’m too fat, or my face is not shaped right,” or whatever.

This is the disincarnation of women because it is separating themselves from the true spiritual and sacramental nature of the body, what John Paul 2 calls the “ethos of the body.” The opposite of the body as sacrament is the body as self-loathed. If you are a parent or will be one someday, this calls for very intentional catechesis to counteract the onslaught of images which engulf our society. We must talk about it. One of our doctoral students, Shivraj Mahendra, published a book about pornography in India. This was the first time this theme had been discussed in Christian circles and it has helped many people. It is always good to speak openly and frankly about these challenges.

If we judge someone by the color of their skin, we rightly call such separation of a person from their body racism; but if we judge someone by the shape of their body, we call it glamour.

This is why the Wesleyan vision is so important, because it calls for nothing less than the re-orientation of your heart and living under the gravity of holy love, rather than the gravity of sin. Discipleship today has become reduced to sin management. We get caught into endless cycles of guilt and shame and we ask for forgiveness and we move on and then get caught again. This cycle goes on and on. This is why we must be filled with the Holy Spirit. The incarnation is God’s great testament to the holiness of the body. We are all designed to be icons of the incarnation. Twice in the 7 ecumenical councils, the church affirmed the use of icons. The reason is that an icon is designed to be a window into heaven.

So, if you walk into an orthodox church and you see icons of Jesus or other saints, it is meant to portray them in all their fullness, because an icon is designed not as a work of art in itself, but as a window into a heavenly reality. In the deepest Christian tradition, every human person is meant to be a walking, breathing, icon of the incarnation, a window into heaven. Pornography, or as John Paul 2 calls it, “pornovision” is the greatest example of the disincarnation of the human, by turning the body into an icon of lust rather than of Christ, that is idolatry, rather than image bearing. Such images are sinful not because the body is dirty. Paul says we cover those distinctive markers of our gender to honor them. It is pornography and related sexual images which actually veils the full sacramental, spiritual identity of a person. To put it bluntly, the problem with pornography is not that it reveals too much, but that it reveals too little.

I want to end with the positive vision. View this famous icon of Jesus from Turkey – Christ Pantocrator – Christ the Almighty – Ruler of All. This the oldest icon of Christ Pantocrator in St. Catherine’s monastery in Sinai.

Notice his eyes. The right side shows Jesus as the judge of the world, the one who comes to set things right. The left side reveals his compassion and love for the world. In this case, art is being used not to conceal the inner life, as in the degrading pictures we see on newsstands, but to reveal the inner life of the incarnate one. Probably the most famous full image of Jesus is found overlooking Rio de Janerio.

Notice the statue is an extension of an image of Jesus, but it is being used to reveal Christ’s call to the world; his love for the world, with hands outstretched.

The answer to all is not to retreat from these arenas. God into all the world is not just a geographic statement, but going into everyone’s world… the world of law, the world of media, the world of education, the world of film, the world of art… Our goal is to re-incarnate human existence, demonstrating to the world that we are all image bearers in the world. As it is written in I Cor. 10:31: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

Marriage, Human Sexuality, and the Body: The Body in Media (Part XII)

This is the twelfth part in this series on the theology of the body. If you want to listen to the messages, they are found by clicking “listen” on the home page of my website.

One of the dominant themes of this blog series is that the body is not merely a biological, functional entity, but a deeper spiritual and theological one. This is precisely the point of dispute in I Cor. 6:12-20. The Corinthians had been unduly influenced by gnostic ideas about the body. They assumed that because the Christians declared all foods clean, it was because the body was not of importance to Christians. They extended this to the idea that engaging in sexual immorality is a matter of indifference to the Christian. Paul reminds us that our bodies are united to Christ. Our body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, and so forth. This has important implications for how the body is portrayed and the many ways the body is extended into the world. We are created as subjects before God, i.e. to say each of us has a dignity before God and an inherent beauty because we are sacramental image bearers in the world. To meet someone or to see someone is what John Paul 2 calls a “reciprocal gift.” In the Christian vision, we present ourselves to one another as whole persons. Self-donation is at the heart of the Christian vision, not just in marriage, but in the whole of human relationships. But, self-donation must be rooted in the soil of a mutual, reciprocal gift. Whenever the subjectivity of the body becomes an object, then we are ushered into the world of shame. In an earlier part of this series we discussed this in relation to marriage, but it has important implications for all the ways the body is portrayed. This brings us to theme for this meditation; namely, the way art and media portrays and extends the image of the body out into the world.

To develop this we must understand a little more about the word “media.” Media is the plural form of the word “medium” and refers to all the ways we insert any intervening agency or means or instrument to extend human communication. When two people meet one another and talk there is no medium between the two. If I am speaking to a very large audience, perhaps in a stadium where there are thousands of people, then a microphone becomes an intervening medium which extends my voice. A microphone is a modest medium because we still share the same space and I am speaking to you in real time. A cellphone is also a medium, but it allows us to communicate across great distances. If you and I were to talk on the phone and I was in Kentucky and you were in Kazakhstan, we no longer share the same space, but we speak in a shared space of time, what we call “real time.” A YouTube video is a further extension of media because I can be taped speaking and that tape can later be shared and someone can view it and we no longer share time or space. This medium allows the full separation of both space and time and makes it available to potentially millions of people. This is where we get the term “mass media.”

There is no media which is inherently evil, but there are ethical implications for how media is used in relation to the ethos of the body. This meditation focuses specifically on ways in which bodily images are portrayed and extended out into the world. When an image is portrayed – perhaps a provocative billboard, or a Super Bowl commercial, or even nudity in a pornographic magazine or website, a body is ripped from its wholeness and turned into an object. This is a powerful force in our world. Carl’s Jr. Hamburger paid 4.5 million dollars for a 30 sec. spot of Kate Upton using her body to sell hamburgers and French fries. Our culture is inundated with these kind of images. They are used to incite lust or inordinate desires in the viewer, often to engender lust or to associate a bodily image with a product, like a new car. In both cases, John Paul II makes the point that it necessary to assign the evil in the proper place. We often refer to these images as “dirty images.” But, in the Christian vision, the body is never dirty, because we are always image bearers in our bodies. The evil is in the separation of the body from its full reciprocity as a person – a subject. The evil is in the lust, whether is a sexual lust or a material lust, that is the evil which must be named. To view images in this way is to separate a person from their God given wholeness and turn them into an object. This unleashes tremendous destructive forces because when this happens an image becomes an idol.

Marriage, Human Sexuality, and the Body: Egalitarianism vs. Complementarianism (Part XI)

This is the eleventh part in this series on the theology of the body. If you want to listen to the messages, they are found by clicking “listen” on the home page of my website.

This particular piece in this blog series seeks to explore whether the mystery of Christ and the Church informs the discussion or debate about egalitarianism and complementarianism. Egalitarianism emphasizes the equality of the genders; the term complementarian emphasizes distinctions between the genders. This has become one of the defining dividing lines between denominations, especially as it relates to marriage, headship, submission, ordination, leadership, and a host of other issues. I have served the church around the world long enough to realize that deeply committed Christians have different understandings of these issues and they are, at least in part, born out by our own experiences of wholeness or brokenness in the manifestation of these principles. But, when seen through the mystery of Christ and the church to which we all are pointing, either as symbolized in marriage, or as we embody it collectively as the church, the bride of Christ, we might be able to view this discussion in a different light.

In an earlier blog post we explored the wonderful truth of man and woman as “subjects.” This is the testimony to egalitarianism. A woman is not related to a man as an object. Rather, they are both full subjects. In marriage, one is not subsumed by the other; rather, the two become one flesh. Submission is not the duty of one, but the call of all. The wife submits to her husband as unto the Lord, and the husband lays down his life for his wife just as Christ laid down his life for the church. Both are called to self-donation as two subjects.

However, just as Christ and the Church is not one thing but two glories brought together in the marriage of the lamb, so each of us brings our own unique glories to the union. These glories cannot be placed into universally defined vocational roles or “appropriate tasks” type boxes. Nevertheless, we each have our glories to share. We each bring distinct perspectives which, in the Christian vision, are not sanded down and domesticated, but received and celebrated. This is the testimony to complementarianism.

This is one of those interesting debates in the church where both sides have been wrong, and both sides have been right. In the cultural context of autonomous solitude the genders are at war with each other, and they struggle for power and dominion over the other. Even scriptures can be used as bludgeons against the other as we struggle to position ourselves into the siren song of autonomy. But, in the greater song of the New Creation, we see that it is only through dying and self-donation that we discover the true meaning of our own identity. This identity can only be fully realized in community as reflected in the family, the church and, ultimately the Triune God—the eternal “sweet society.” Christ as the head, laid down his life for the church and called us joint-heirs. The church, in turn, joyfully submits to Christ and is summoned into glorious union with the Triune God. So, egalitarianism and complementarianism are not two things, but different aspects of the one thing; namely, the mystery of Christ and His church.

Marriage, Human Sexuality, and the Body: God is Not Just Saving Souls (Part X)

This is the tenth part in this series highlighting key insights from John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.

The word “incarnation” is taken from John 1:14: “the word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  The word incarnation simply means “in the flesh.”  At a particular time—in the fullness of time—the eternal Second person of the Trinity became a man, i.e. he entered into human flesh and became fully man with no compromise in His full deity.  Colossians 1:19 and 2:9 really drive this point home.  Col. 1:19 says, “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him,” and in 2:9, he says, “in Christ all the fullness of the deity dwells in bodily form.”  This means that the body is designed to be the recipient of divine fullness.  God believes in bodies – he designed them with functional and spiritual capacities.  As we have noted throughout this blog series, all the means of grace are mediated through the body:  bodies are baptized, bodies take sacraments, bodies read or listen to God’s Word, Bodies express self-donation in the world, and it is a body through which God supremely made Himself manifest in the world.

If you know anything about the early church, you will know what a radical truth this is.  The gospel came into a cultural setting which did not trust the body.  There were many gnostic movements at the time which taught a secret “knowledge” or “gnosis.”  The theme through much of it is that the body is evil and cannot be trusted.  In short, the body is a trap which must be overcome to release the light within and discover the real you within.  This is still a dominant motif in Buddhism and Hinduism which, in different ways, do not share the Christian view of the body.

Today, we are seeing the resurgence of a lack of confidence in the body.  We are told repeatedly that the body cannot be trusted.  This is particularly evident in the recent attention given to gender reassignment.  Today, it is said that you might be a woman trapped inside a man’s body, or a man trapped inside a woman’s body.  This Christian and contemporary view might best be contrasted by three statements.  In the Christian view, the heart is deceitful, the mind needs renewing, and the body is trustworthy.  In the contemporary view, the heart must always be followed, your mind is clear and your body cannot be trusted.  This is an inverse of the Christian vision.

We must reclaim a Christian view of the body.  We must reclaim the truth that there are ethical boundaries inherent in our creation as “male” and “female” because we were declared “very good.”  St. John was so insistent on this point that he boldly declared that anyone who did not confess that Jesus Christ had come in the flesh is the antichrist (I John 4:1-3).  We have been painfully slow in recognizing this.  This is why we must be more precise when we refer to the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Resurrection—to say it more accurately, the bodily Incarnation and the bodily Resurrection.  This is at the heart of the Christian proclamation.  Christ’s bodily resurrection, as I Cor. 15 argues, is the first-fruit of our bodily resurrection.  The two are linked.

Despite the language of popular Christian discourse, God is not saving our souls so that they may someday dwell in some disembodied state for eternity.  Salvation is about all of creation being healed in its full embodiment.  This is why truly evangelical preaching must embrace not only inward faith leading to justification, but full bodily redemption.  Our vision of sanctification is extending the holiness of God into all the world.

This is why we care about creation; this is why we cannot turn a deaf ear to the bodily plight of desperate Syrian refugees.  This is why we must rescue women trapped in human trafficking, feed those who are hungry, and a thousand other things.  These are not ancillary tasks of the church which we squeeze in on the side, but they are our fleshly demonstration of our confidence in the bodily incarnation and the bodily resurrection.  The gospel must never lose its earthiness, its enfleshment, its embodiment. There are thousands of ways in which this world dis-incarnates human existence and the gospel reverses them all!

Marriage, Human Sexuality, and the Body: The Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Part IX)

This is the ninth part in this series highlighting key insights from John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.

This morning I woke up and during my exercises I saw a commercial on the television set which was quite amazing. A large x-ray screen was set up and through the screen the viewer sees skeletons approaching one another, then kissing and hugging one another. Then, they peek their heads around the corner of the X-ray screen and you see that it was two men kissing, or two women kissing, or two disabled people kissing, etc. The commercial closes with the following admonitions: “Love knows no biases. Love knows no disabilities. Love knows no genders.” Interestingly, all three of those statements are Christian statements. It is what is NOT said, but assumed, by the commercial which reveals the real two messages of the commercial. First, that any love which is to be authenticated must culminate in a sexual act. Second, the disassociation of the human body from love. The sexualization of all relationships has been one of the great losses of our generation (discussed in an earlier blog) and the second point of the commercial is actually the theme of this blog.

A theology of the body enables us to see how God has woven into the very fabric of creation and inscribed in the design of every human body wonderful, theological truths which we have largely ignored. The church has been caricatured into two camps. On the one side are the conservatives who are portrayed as angry protestors, shaking their fists in the face of those who support the erosion of traditional Christian values. On the other side are the so-called “progressives” who listen to whatever the culture is saying and find new ways to say that the Bible affirms that. But our culture does not need to meet an angry church. Our culture does not need a church which serves only as a cultural echo chamber. We are in the sunset of that time when we need only raise our voices and state what are against. We must be able to articulate what we are for. We must sing a more beautiful and more compelling song about God’s design and plan. His design, as we have seen, is nothing less than our bodily reflection of the Trinity and the wonderful trajectory leading to union with Him. We must embody an entirely new vision which is holistic, beautiful, compelling and resonates with the biblical and historic witness in deep and profound ways.

The next few articles will seek to demonstrate the connection between our bodies and the incarnation of Jesus Christ and His bodily resurrection. One of the prevalent comments made to us today in regard to same sex marriage or gender reassignment is that we are making “much ado about nothing,” or “a mountain out of a molehill.” The whole arena of human sexuality is seen as a very minor issue, unrelated to such great and vital doctrines as the incarnation and the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. At the heart of a proper theology of the body is a new awareness of the deep connections between a whole range of issues which have co-opted the church and the glorious truths which lie at the very foundation of the gospel itself.

The connection is born out of our belief that the human body has a dual meaning, i.e. it has a concrete physical meaning, as those physically created male and female with practical capacities, for union, for self-donation, for covenant faithfulness and through the bearing of children participating with God as little co-creators with Him. But our bodies also have a deeply spiritual meaning as pointers to mysteries beyond us. This is why we find ourselves using sacramental language when referring to marriage (either our own marriage, or as singles the offspring of marriage, or all of us as members of the church, the bride of Christ). Marriage is an outward sign of an inward and invisible truth. It is sacramental or, if you prefer, a “means of grace.”

St. Paul points to this when he says that the mystery of marriage is profound, but I am “speaking of Christ and the Church” (Eph. 5:32). The picture of the church as bride and God as husband finds its final eschatological expression in the following texts. The marriage supper of the Lamb in Revelation 19:6-9 and the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven in Rev. 21:1-4 like a “bride adorned for her husband” draws upon marriage as the most apt analogy to describe the union of Christ and his church. This amazing mystery of Christ and the Church does not fall out of the sky disconnected from all that has gone before it. Rather, deeply woven into the Old Testament is the idea that Yahweh is Israel’s husband. We should not read Rev. 19 and Rev. 21 without recalling to mind, for example, Isaiah 54:5 where Yahweh declares, “your Maker is your husband—the Lord Almighty is His name … the Lord will call you back as a wife distressed in spirit.”

Israel is God’s bride and this, through the gospel, eventually encompasses not just the remnant of Israel, but men and women from every tribe, tongue and people who are summoned into the church as the bride of Christ. So God and Israel in the OT eventually gets broadened to become Christ and the Church in the NT. So, the marriage between a man and a woman is a type or picture of the greater truth—the deeper mystery of Christ and the Church. This is why John Paul II calls marriage the “great analogy” and the “pedagogy of the body” in the sense that God places us all in bodies and calls us to embody the gospel in enfleshed ways. This, of course, is exactly what happens supremely in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Jesus embodies the gospel in his very presence in the world. The incarnation is the final link between anthropology and theology. To destroy the bridge of the body is to disconnect God from the physicality of the world.  If we do that, we are only left with Artistotle’s Unmoved Mover, not the God of biblical revelation.