Guest post by Kristen Hanna
I was sitting in a local coffee shop the other day when a small gaggle of teenaged girls passed by my table. One by one, they stepped up to order their iced lattes and milkshakes, every last one of them sporting the same lime-green shirt that read: “Don’t objectify me” on the front and “I am a soul, not a body” on the back.
While the sentiment is noble (“I am not property; therefore, do not treat me as such.”), I couldn’t help but feel a bit squeamish with such a strong delineation between body and soul. My body issues began long before middle school insecurities and the age of photo-shopped magazine covers offering a host of fad diets and sex tips. No, my issues began in perhaps the weirdest of all places: the church.
I grew up a quasi-Calvinist Baptist, and while I will not speak for all quasi-Calvinist Baptists, there was certainly a notion that the body was more of an obstacle to be overcome than a gift; to be a “true Christian” meant escaping the sinful, broken trappings of the body. It was often said at funerals of elderly relatives or those battling terminal diseases that they were finally “free of their bodies.” While well intentioned, we were not too far off the mark from the ancient heresy of Gnosticism, the notion that living purely “of the Spirit” is the goal, and that the material body is something that must be transcended in order for sanctification to take place.
I sat through talk after talk in youth group urging us not to “listen to the desires of our flesh.” Mostly, this referred to sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. But what about good desires? What about urges to act in love? Or rest? Or replenish? What about urges to speak truth or offer comfort? Some might argue that these gifts come from the Spirit of God and not the physical body. Not only does that assertion put us squarely in line with the ancient Gnostics, it does nothing to uphold God’s good creation of humanity.
The conversation surrounding the physicality of living has already begun. We see it unfolding in places such as Baltimore, Ferguson, McKinney, Texas, and much more recently and tragically, Charleston, South Carolina. Caitlyn Jenner is continuing to force us to grapple with issues of gender that have just as much material heft and consequence as they have ideological weight. How are we as Christians to enter into the conversation about issues that present not only philosophical dilemmas, but also real, tangible, physical realities?
Emily Stimpson, a Catholic author and blogger, suggests in her book These Beautiful Bones that, yes, we can have these kinds of conversations, and they take place in small ways in our realms of everyday living. They happen in our places of work (even if you are not employed by the church!). They happen around dinner tables, in coffee shops, on the athletic field; anywhere we are, we engage in this dialogue, whether spoken or unspoken, in which we sort out just what it means to be a whole, human being in the Kingdom of God.
Two such common places where we regularly encounter this line of questioning is at the fount and at the table. It is in these thin spaces of matter and spirit conjoined that we are reminded that the two are inseparably linked. We do not only baptize the soul, we baptize the whole being, real flesh and real bone to do real, Spirit-filled work in the world. When we partake in Holy Communion (all denominational quarrels aside of how that actually works), we hear the words “this is my body, broken for you.” Christ offered his body to the church, to us. The body of Christ is gift; the Incarnate God is gift. If we are shaped in the image of God, the Imago Dei, then our bodies, ourselves, are also gifts. We as whole beings are living signs of Christ’s love and redemption to the world.
When our whole being is viewed as gift, attributes of our inherent physicality become part of the manifold ways in which we move, work, and create. Our breath becomes a way to praise; our hands a way to build; our very selves become the most effective instruments for loving God, others, and creation. Yes; we are broken. Yes; we do not always love, or praise, or build in ways that are mutually beneficial, but the good news is that through the Risen Christ who bore the scars of his deriders and executioners, we are kept whole in the grace of our loving God, scars and all. God did not take on flesh to save some esoteric notion of “spirit” or “soul;” God took on flesh to teach human beings (all human beings) how to use their entire ordinary being- flesh, brains, heart, eyes, ears, and all- to love and live in profoundly glorious ways.
Kristen Hanna serves as Director of Music and Worship at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. A born and bred Texan, Kristen grew up in the Dallas area and received her Bachelor of Music from the Meadows School of the Arts and Master of Sacred Music from the Perkins School of Theology, both of Southern Methodist University. During her graduate work, Kristen served at various local churches in the Dallas area. Kristen grew up in the Southern Baptist Church and was confirmed in the United Methodist Church in 2009. She is a candidate for the Order of Deacons in the North Carolina Annual Conference. When not directing church choirs or planning worship, Kristen enjoys reading a wide variety of literature, knitting and sewing, solving the world’s problems over coffee with friends, and experiencing the beauty of creation while walking her corgi, Rory.