Stonework is published by Houghton College, a Christian liberal arts college located in New York’s rural Genesee Valley. Stonework seeks a diverse mix of mature and emerging voices in fellowship with the evangelical tradition. Published twice a year, the journal reflects the arts community at Houghton College where excellence in music, writing, and the visual arts has long been a distinctive.

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  • Issue 6
    Poetry by Paul Willis and Thom Satterlee. Fiction and interview with Lori Huth. Essay by James Wardwell, and student poets from Christian campuses.
  • Issue 5
    Poetry by Susanna Childress and Debra Rienstra. Fiction excerpt by Emilie Griffin. Art from Houghton's 2007 presidential inauguration and a forum on women writing.
  • Issue 4
    Matthew Roth--new poems. Diane Glancy--from One of Us and an interview. John Tatter-on gardens and poetry. The Landscapes of John Rhett. Stephen Woolsey--on the poetry of Jack Clemo. James Wardwell--on Herrick.
  • Issue 3
    Poetry by Julia Kasdorf, Robert Siegel and Sandra Duguid. Fiction by Tom Noyes. The portraits of Alieen Ortlip Shea. An anthology of Australian Poets
  • Issue 2
    Thom Satterlee - Poems from Burning Wycliff with an appreciation by David Perkins. Alison Gresik - new fiction and an interview. James Zoller - Poems from Living on the Floodplain.
  • Issue 1
    Luci Shaw — new poems with an appreciation by Eugene H. Peterson & Hugh Cook — new fiction and an interview

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Body Worship

Terence Paige

“Their embrace had been a battle, the climax a victory. It was a blow struck against the Party. It was a political act.”

--George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Thus George Orwell explains to the reader of Nineteen Eighty Four that the affair between Winston Smith and Julia is actually an act of resistance against the totalitarian state of Oceania. For the state’s oppressive control of its people is seen in this novel, in large part, in the “sexual puritanism” of Big Brother’s Party. Winston’s adultery with Julia symbolizes his individual freedom and attempt to assert his selfhood over against the ever-present Party. The effort is doomed, of course, and the Party ends up destroying the couple as human beings, anihilating their affection for each other and so, symbolically, the last shred of mental resistance to the Party.

Nearly half a century after this novel came out, Frank McCourt published his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, Angela’s Ashes (1996). In it, McCourt describes the grinding poverty of his childhood in Limerick. At the very end of the book, he escapes the depravation of life in Ireland on a boat to America, fulfilling a childhood dream. The boat carries him away, not merely from one location to another, but out of his old life and into the new life of financial independence, hope and freedom. The freedom motif is concretized in a sexual encounter he has the evening that the boat arrives in America. Frank goes with an Irish priest to a party with complete strangers. “The priest whispers to me, These are bad women. We won’t stay here long” (p. 361). But they do stay too long, Frank has his first sex with a married woman, and exclaims two pages before the book’s end, “at long last I don’t give a fiddler’s fart if the Pope himself knocked on this door and the College of Cardinals gathered gawking at the windows.” Once again, the choice of free sex has become the symbol of personal freedom and the attempt to attain selfhood over against the forces of oppression—in this case, the Catholic church and Ireland.

These two works exemplify a trend in contemporary thinking which broods over us like a storm-cloud filled sky. It is not simply the frank acceptance of sexual immorality in these books. Extramarital sex is as old as civilization, and we know it goes on in Christian and non-Christian societies. The difference is that now a pervasive new ethic has appeared that not only excuses sexual freedom but has made it into a kind of sacred principle. According to this outlook, sexual freedom is elevated into the very definition of human freedom, the means of self-actualization, the goal of relationships, and a key to the meaning of life. We might think of it as a kind of sexual idolatry, tied to the more generalized body-worship of our culture. The former religous goals of achieving meaning in life by giving oneself in love to God and neighbor are now being replaced in the public sphere with an obsession with the body and idolization of sex. Post-moderns are being sold a new “beatific vision” to quest after: not union with God, but buns of steel and the perfect orgasm. To challenge the right of anyone to have any sort of sex they please is, with few exceptions, the new heresy. Talk about sexual morality is redefined (as in Nineteen Eighty Four) as oppression. This new outlook permeates every level of contemporary American culture, from popular magazines, books and videos to high-level academic discussions in university circles, even seeping into Christian leadership.

The evidence of this idolatry screams at us from magazine racks in the supermarket, mainstream movies, television and novels. A recent issue of Self magazine shouts from the cover: “Say Yes! to Sex,” while magazines like Glamour and Cosmopolitan are not embarassed to promise on their covers new erotic techniques. Sex is offered in many popular magazines as the panacea for a rocky relationship. Along with this trend a new kind of class-consciousness is emerging. At the top of this hierarchy are singles who have illicit sex as often as they want; at the bottom are those with none. On the sitcom Friends the most devastating put-down that Joey can muster is, “How lame is it that you haven’t had sex in six months?” In the 2005 movie Monster in Law the character played by Jennifer Lopez is told by her friends, “you’re turning into a freak … It’s because you haven’t had sex.” The message is clear: having sex distinguishes you as high class in the new social order; your life is worthwhile. A life without sex—especially casual or risky sex—is barely worth living. Sex with a complete stranger is better than no sex at all.

The irony in all of this is that our culture’s obsession with body-beauty and sex is itself the destroyer of bodies and persons. We can draw a straight line from this idolatry to national health problems, the spread of STD’s, and the result in lives wrecked. We can link this idolatry to innumerable divorces and the destruction of families. We can see its immediate corollary in the astonishing rise in the number of children born to unmarried mothers: over one-third of all births in America now. Secondary effects of this idolatry are incalculable, but include the social and psychological effects on generations of children who are abandoned by their fathers (and in some cases, mothers), who are the collateral damage of sexual freedom, never taught the goodness of spousal love and commitment. Or the devastation wrought on victims of child sexual abuse by people who have been inflamed by our culture. Or the psychological and spiritual damage done even to consenting adults who buy into the cultural lies about sex. In short, the most fundamental human relationships involving trust and intimacy are in process of being devastated by this idolatry. We can connect body-idolatry to young women’s self-loathing that is acted out in bulimia and anorexia. The measurement of self-worth in waist size and breast size is a stupid proposition when you put it in words like this. But when this valuation is expressed in an air-brushed photo of an apparently perfect model in a Victoria’s Secret ad, the message has a siren power. The feminists taught us to beware the “objectification” of women, and we should have listened: for now the idolatry of our age is slowly destroying the personhood of the other as both men and women are treated as bodies to use.

A few years ago a visitor to our home brought an issue of Seventeen with her, a magazine whose title announces it is targeted at high school girls. That issue contained an article on sex toys which surveyed various objects in the sort of graphic detail that one would expect from Penthouse or Hustler, not a fashion mag your child is reading. Another issue of the same magazine from this year had an article entitled, “Are You Ready for Sex?” in which there was really nothing about being “ready,” but plenty about “sex.” Like lemmings being led over a cliff, a new generation is being called to believe the lies that did not work for my generation. And the prophets of this body-worship believe no one is too young to be indoctrinated. Those who oppose them are the new heretics. What effect will this have on these children—their self-image, their values, their ability to form loving and faithful relationships? And what effect will these children have on their children?

Sometimes a ray of hope breaks through, the thought that our culture recognizes its own problem; but like an alcoholic bemoaning her addiction, the moments of honesty in the media only highlight how powerful the chains of body-worship are. Magazines may talk about the real importance of the “inner you,” yet the very same issues are filled with pictures of inner you’s who all have glowing skin, perfect hair and perfect thighs.

Does Christianity have anything constructive to say about the body? Contrary to popular myths, Christianity has a profound and positive view of the body. This begins with the Bible’s account of creation: our physical makeup is part of how the Creator intended us to be from the beginning, and humans with their bodies were declared “very good” (Gen. 1:). The body was meant from the beginning to be an expression of our personhood in relationship to one another and to God. The body is involved in our ultimate destiny: it is the hope of classical Christianity that God will one day raise up those who have died in faith, and give them eternal life with a body. Hence the body takes on “eschatological significance,” as theologians might say. Life in the body now is a pointer to future life with God.

Our relationship with God even now involves our bodies, because God designed us this way. This comes out in Paul’s words to the Corinthian Christians (1 Cor. 5:1; 6:12-20), who seem to have believed that they were “free in Christ” to do whatever they wanted with their bodies, which did not matter to the eternal life of their souls anyway. Some of them had no qualms about using prostitutes, and one was committing incest. Paul’s argument to them is interesting. First he asserts that they ought to remember that their bodies, like that of Jesus, will be raised. Our future should determine our view of the present: we will enjoy God in an embodied way in heaven, hence we anticipate that by the use of our bodies now. Secondly, he tells them that sexual union makes a person “one flesh” with another. In other words, sexual union is not something extraneous to our souls; it touches the innermost fabric of who we are and hence cannot be taken casually without damaging our own souls. Paul next reminds the Corinthians that Christian freedom does not mean bare autonomy. “You do not belong to yourself; you were bought with a price” Paul tells the Corinthians (1 Cor. 6:19-20). The price was the death of the Son of God. Calvary not only rescued us from the deadly results of sin; it redeemed us. And in antiquity, to “redeem” meant to purchase a person’s freedom from slavery and restore their life. Christians are also called “slaves of righteousness” (Rom. 6:18), which is another way of saying slaves of God—for slavery to him is the greatest freedom. Paul describes the Christian’s body as “a temple of the Holy Spirit within you” (1 Cor. 6:19). We often hear today that phrase apocopated into “my body is a temple,” which in turn becomes a motto for self-worship. But what Paul means is that God calls us to relationship with himself, and that relationship includes the use of our bodies. Immanuel is with us by his Spirit. We are precious to him; we matter—and not just our souls, but our bodies also. A temple is a place where people come to sacrifice, to pray to the god, to meet with the god if possible, and to view his or her image. But no image of the Spirit is shown to the world except us. No sacrifice is made except what Christ has already done. We represent the eternal one to the world, and what we do with our bodies should reflect that. It is not that we invite others to worship us; we are not a “temple” in that sense. But we are a temple in the sense that both temple and body are “holy places” that belong to God, and they are not to be desecrated. This idea is carried further in the book of Ephesians, where the church is pictured as Christ’s bride, dedicated to him and made holy by his death.

Finally, Paul calls on believers to “glorify God with your body” (1 Cor. 6:20). Normally we think of “glorify” as something we do with our mind or our mouth. It is to exalt, brag on God, praise him, and give him his due. We glorify God in reciting the creeds; or in singing hymns; or in giving thanks or witnessing to others. How does one glorify God with the body? The answer is that our very physical selves are to become hymns of praise to our maker and redeemer. It reminds us of the creed of Israel recited every day by pious Jews: “. . . You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deut. 6:4-5). All we are, including our physical selves, is subsumed under the command to love God. It must be both mental and physical, both emotional and rational, both intangible and sensory. The daily tasks of muscles and organs all are psalms to the one who created and also redeemed them. It is not worship of the body, but worship of God by the body. And in this turning over of the physical self to God the paradox of Christianity is tested in our flesh, as the surrender of ourselves leads to finding ourselves: “whoever abandon their lives for my sake and the gospel will save them” (Mark 8:35).