Friday, January 16, 2009

HONORING THE BODY by Stephanie Paulsell

Here's a story believed by a lot of cradle Christians:

Once upon a time God created Adam and Eve with bodies and souls. Right away they gave in to a bodily desire--hunger--and fell into sin. Then they gave in to another bodily desire--lust--and conceived Cain. From then on, spirit and flesh have been at war in the human body. Spirit is good, flesh is bad. The Christian must subdue the flesh through the work of the Holy Spirit, and then, when the body dies, the person will waft into a state of spiritual bliss unencumbered by a body. In some versions of the story, the Christian will eventually be given a spiritual body (whatever that is), presumably one that will no longer cause the problems that bedevil the physical body. And they all lived happily ever after.

If you find yourself agreeing with any part of that story (or if you recoil from a faith with such a negative view of the body), try this book: Honoring the Body by Stephanie Paulsell, an ordained Disciples of Christ minister and a professor at Harvard Divinity School. Paulsell believes that the body is good, and she invites us to explore with her "how we might honor the body in activities that punctuate our daily lives: bathing, clothing, eating, working, exercising, loving, and suffering."

Students of scripture or theology might study the human body in light of, say, St. Paul's spirit/flesh dichotomy or the church's doctrines of incarnation and resurrection. Paulsell's book, a volume in Jossey-Bass's Practices of Faith series, takes a different path: seeking "wisdom from "scripture, history, and [especially] contemporary experience, in story and song and poetry." It's a fine introduction to Christian thought on the goodness of the body, a refreshing corrective to legions of Christian writers who favored asceticism over paradise, and a helpful embodiment of interpretations now being taught by biblical scholars and theologians.

Here's a sample story from chapter 6, "Blessing Our Table Life":
Diana is in the midst of seminary education, learning to be the minister God is calling her to be. She is smart and funny and an exceptionally good listener, and so she has done very well. But she began to get a little tense, a little nervous, before her field education, her year of supervised ministry in a parish, began. She finally admitted that what she was anxious about was her role as cupbearer during the Eucharist, a task her teaching pastor had asked her to assume. Having been born with cerebral palsy, Diana jerks a bit when she walks and drags one leg. She was afraid, really afraid, that she would spill the cup on the floor or, worse, on someone she was serving. But, being Diana, she didn't ask to be relieved of this duty; she gave it a try. And things went well. Nothing spilled, but she remained extremely vigilant.

One spring Sunday, Diana served again as cupbearer and walked from person to person kneeling at the rail at the front of her church, offering them a drink. "The blood of Christ," she said to each one, "the cup of salvation." And as she raised the cup to each person's lips, taking the utmost care not to fall, she saw her own reflection in the shiny silver chalice. Over and over again, she saw the reflection of her body in the cup. This is my broken body, she thought, serving this church. This is my body, teaching people what we do with brokenness in the church. Here in this cup is new life, and here is my body, expressing the truth of what this new life means!
We are not, nor ever will be, disembodied spirits. We are Christ's body, taken, blessed, broken, and given. His body, and our bodies in his, are honorable.

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