Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith

by Matthew Lee Anderson

231 pp. $14.99.  Bethany House.

The preface to Matthew Anderson’s book is subtitled, “In Which I Clear my Throat.”  How could I but love this book?  Oh, and in one of the concluding chapters, he takes an “emergent” Christian author to task for putting the Western preference bodily presence at the feet of Descartes.  Yes, those of you who have read some Enlightenment philosophy, he said that Descartes regards the body too highly.  And Matt Anderson takes him to school in a blistering and funny endnote.  What chance does someone like me stand?

What’s really remarkable about this book, though, beyond the erudite sense of humor, is the strong balance between self-criticism and an insistence that some ideas are better than others.  Some books are so self-critical that it’s hard to understand why the author wanted to write a book in the first place, and others (the majority of bad books) become so convinced of their main ideas that they treat any who differ as idiotic, morally deficient, and otherwise unpleasant as human beings.  Anderson, instead of these extremes, starts out each of his first few chapters reciting common pronunciations and then qualifying them.  Do people say that evangelicals shade into Platonism as they hate the body?  Behold, Anderson insists, the evangelical delight in weddings and our language of being bodily present with God in the resurrection.  And while you’re at it, read some Plato beyond the Phaedo (54).  Does modern Christianity shade into Gnosticism in its preference for disembodied bliss as a picture of the afterlife?  Go read some actual Gnostic texts, Anderson suggests, and stop using “Gnostic” as a catch-all pejorative (37).

(I have to note that I too have noticed the almost infinite flexibility of “Gnostic” as an insult for one’s enemies.  But Anderson published it in a book, where my observations have been mainly conversational.)

Earthen Vessels is my sort of book because it knows and owns its influences.  Although Anderson cites a wide range of ancient, medieval, and modern theologians along the way, his intellectual framework is without a doubt an Augustinian one: his account of the Fall (66-67) is one in which material creation, human beings included, are good, very good.  Logically prior to the distortions and travesties of the sin-warped world are the inherent goodness and God-belovedness of bodies, of minds, of all things seen and unseen.  Not once in the course of the book does Anderson pine for a world without bodies, even as he treats with deft exegesis those passages in the Bible that seem to point to such states.  At all points in the book he proceeds not as one trying to articulate “a new kind of” anything in particular but as someone who’s inherited a rich tradition.

Anderson’s humble Augustinianism serves as a handy toolbox as he takes on questions as diverse as tattooing (chapter 6), the death of the body and contemporary America’s obsession with vampire stories (chapter 9), the importance of architecture for Christian worship (chapter 5), and abortion as the logical outgrowth of consumerism and individualism (chapter 4–this was the second time in the first four chapters that I experienced at once the gratification of seeing a published theologian writing what I’d been saying for some years and the horror of realizing that I’d have to quote Anderson if I published my own thought at this point).  The real joy of this book is seeing how Anderson unpacks Augustinian theology as a genuine guide to Christian faithfulness for the twenty-first century.

One especially helpful move that the book makes early on is to step beyond the impasse that happens when, to use Anderson’s terms, one side of a question deploys the “legalist card” and the other side the “libertine card” (28).  Taking his own reasoning beyond that impasse, Anderson calls for a (tentative) stance of suspicion towards arguments that make the individual’s conscience the final arbiter of such things (29), preferring public reasoning that actually might bind the lives of Christians if we take seriously the contours of our own tradition.  Of course, such a move puts him in a position where both the civil libertarians (“you can’t tell me what to do with MY BODY”) and the economic libertarians (“you can’t tell me what to do with MY CASH”) will likely call foul, but from that starting point he can actually proceed to think theologically about the ways that we human beings relate to God, to self, and to others.

As someone who’s tried to think theologically about LGBTQIAW questions on this site, I especially appreciated his chapter on homosexuality, a chapter that begins with entirely too many provisos and apologies but really articulates some interesting points about the ways we frame the debate.  (In other words, even where my answers might differ from Anderson’s, we share a sense that folks tend to ask questions that won’t lead to answers that do any of the work that we want those answers to do.)  The chapter begins with the concept, central to an Augustinian theology of the human person, that desires are integral to who human beings are but are not constitutive in way that makes the death of those desires an entirely bad thing in all cases.  In other words, he begins with the conviction that conversion is possible and that conversion might actually transform what once we thought of as the core of our being (143).  He rightly points to the rhetoric of gay-marriage and gay-ordination advocates as having its roots, historically, precisely in evangelical speech about sexuality’s place as the core of identity and about sexuality as being constituted of “needs” that one gets fulfilled by means of marriage (146).  Rejecting the idea that traditional Christian theologies of sex begin and end with “clobber verses” condemning temple-prostitution and pederasty exclusively, Anderson uses the image of the iceberg (153) to indicate that the traditional Christian teachings on marriage and sexuality do not get the prohibitions of “abominations” and “pederasty” tacked on as meaningless codas but rather have at their “underwater” core a picture of mutuality and complementarity that logically leads to a picture that holds forth a robust picture of mutual self-giving that renders alternatives not terrifying so much as sadly inadequate by comparison.  In other words, Anderson’s is a theology of sexuality that attempts to find its roots not in the “needs” language of modern psychology but in the mutual self-giving of the Trinity, which in turn takes its shape from the counsel of Scripture.

Such is not to say that the question thus becomes easy, and Anderson readily admits that pastoral concerns, such as those that might arise should atheist gay couples adopt children and then convert to Christianity, will require some genuinely difficult deliberation (158).  Such thoughtfulness does not mean that ultimately Anderson’s theology of sexuality is going to satisfy those with genuine and strongly-held political differences, but I for one respect his honesty as he takes on more interesting questions than I see answered in most exchanges on the subject.

The other chapter in this fine book that particularly interests me is that on “spiritual practices” as often advocated by liberal (or progressive, if you prefer that name) Christians.  Anderson’s chapter argues that such “spiritual practices” as yoga and Eastern meditation could be harmless or destructive, that variables as complex as interior disposition, influence from other human beings, and the ability to assimilate body positions into an orthodox account of existence make any attempts globally to say “good” or “bad” about such things inescapably reductionist.  Following up and addressing those who say that their “spirituality” happens when they take walks on windy days, hike mountain trails, or play with children; Anderson makes a helpful (and very Augustinian) distinction between bodily pleasure, which is inherently good but subject to abuse, and those means of grace that Scripture sets aside as genuinely spiritual, namely reading and meditation on the Scripture, solitary prayer to God after the manner of the Psalms, and gathering around the Eucharistic table.  Anderson grants that listening to particularly good rock albums and laughing at an particularly good joke are good things but insists that they’re simply not the same as those practices that Scripture and traditions set aside as particularly Christian (190).  After yours truly got a slap in the face from a certain Cynthia for neglecting a range of spiritual practices mentioned in another book, Anderson’s chapter on Christian spiritual practices was a welcome read.

For the sake of the suspicious, I will mention here that Anderson contacted me and sent me a complimentary copy of this book for review, but as the review just mentioned should tell anyone who’s suspicious, a free book don’t always become a book that I like.  To his credit, Anderson contacted me the day after that review went live, showing that he does not fear the scrutiny of a reviewer with a nasty little personality like my own.  For that reason, but for many other and better reasons within the book itself, I can recommend this volume without reservation to thoughtful Christians looking to think through some of the hardest questions about living as embodied existences in this fallen but God-beloved world.


5 thoughts on “My Kind of Theologian: A Review of Earthen Vessels by Matthew Lee Anderson”
  1. Very interesting, I will pick up a copy. I wanted to ask, since you have read it, if he interacts with Eastern Orthodox theological anthropology at all? There may not be enough relevant to the topic to do so, but they do have a fairly distinct anthropology from the western tradition, and I wonder if valuable resources might be found therein…

    1. Not that I remember. As I noted, this book is thoroughly Augustinian, though, and it’s not nearly as interested in an “explore the range of historical horizons” as it is in articulating a single coherent position that speaks to a broad range of contemporary questions.

  2. Cool. At the risk of sounding entirely mercenary, if you click on the picture of the book cover in this review and order it from amazon, I do get a small “finder’s fee.” 🙂

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