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.