Evangelical Theologies of the Body: What About John Wesley?

I wrote the following as a sample blog for my REL100 course this fall. The goal is to give students an example of how to write a simple blog post that takes an article, links to it, summarizes it, and then offers one good critique drawn from class (the examples of Shepp and Wesley come from Marie Griffith’s Born Again Bodies.) I’m going to put it up on the course blog we’ll be running (set to launch soon!) but I thought I’d put it up here in the meantime. 

Evangelical Christians are doing yoga and reading sex manuals and for some evangelical leaders that is a problem. As Matthew Lee Anderson argues at Christianity Today, the real problem is that evangelicals do not have a substantive theology of the body:

The downside is that evangelicals have sometimes been clumsy in our efforts to see how the Word should shape the flesh. Our approaches to the body have often proceeded in rather piecemeal fashion. Whatever trend happens to be in vogue at a particular moment, Christians readily respond with a “Jesus approved” version. When dieting became the rage, Christian dieting shortly followed. As yoga gained popularity, Christian yoga started up. And as the sexual revolution unfurled its banners, Christians sought scriptural warrants for indulging the pleasures of the flesh.

In search of an evangelical theology of the body, Anderson turns to an odd place, Pope John Paul II. Specifically, Anderson looks to John Paul’s Theology of the Body, a compilation of radio addresses given between 1979 and 1984. Anderson especially appreciates John Paul’s theology of sexuality that affirms sexual pleasure within the larger meaning of the human body as “a witness to creation as fundamental gift, and therefore a witness to Love as the source from which this same giving springs.” Such an approach to sexuality strikes a balance between sexual pleasure for its own sake and a prudish anti-sexual stance that renders sex a necessary evil or sinful.

While John Paul II does offer a complete and “deep” theological understanding of the body, Anderson’s assertion that American evangelicalism has lacked a theology of the body misses some key historical evidence. He argues that Christians have taken to diets and yoga as reactions to cultural fads. He dismisses these approaches as “piecemeal” and shallow. Whether he means to or not, Anderson is dismissing a history of evangelical thought and practice revolving around bodies that has seen the body as a means for devotion to Jesus and read spiritual progress in fleshy terms. For example, in 1957 Presbyterian minister Charlie Shedd published Pray Your Weight Away in which he equated obesity and fat with sin. Shedding pounds was an act of righteousness and self-discipline. Even one of the founders of American evangelicalism, John Wesley, argued against overeating and promoted fasting as an embodied practice of spiritual discipline.

Anderson is most interested in  the role of a theology of the body in discussion of sexuality, so it makes sense that he would be less interested in Shedd and Wesley. Anderson also wants to find a theology that avoids disciplinarian tendencies of previous evangelical ideas about bodily control. To that end, maybe evangelicals like Anderson may have to turn to new sources, perhaps even Catholic sources, to escape their history of bodily self-discipline.


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