Dr. Timothy Tennent: For the Body
Ken Burns is one of America’s great storytellers. His acclaimed documentaries on the Civil War and on the Vietnam War are classic stories about how the deeper narrative of the American story and our shared cultural fabric prevailed through even the worst conflicts. The Civil War is more than just a collection of iconic battles like the First Battle of Bull Run, the Battle of Antietam, Gettysburg, Seige of Vicksburg, etc. It was a prolonged struggle and it took years for the nation to understand precisely what this war was all about.
We are now in the middle of another great conflict as a nation and as a church. The struggle presents itself in issues related to human sexuality, such as same sex marriage, or in gender reassignment. This has torn this nation in half, and the church is no exception. The United Methodist Church is almost surely headed for a cataclysmic split at the next General Conference. Just like the Civil War, families and churches and states are divided in a conflict that has only brought sorrow and grief. Like the Civil War, there are certain symbolic moments which capture the nation’s shifts in this struggle such as the divided Supreme Court 5-4 ruling in the Obergefell vs. Hodges case on June 26, 2015, which legalized same sex marriage in all 50 states. Or the famous cover of Vanity Fair that displayed Bruce Jenner, the famous Olympic decathlon athlete, of Kardashian fame who was the first transgender model to appear on the cover of a glamour magazine, with the simple but telling phrase, “Call me Caitlyn.” Both of these symbolic moments in this struggle happened on the same month of the same year.
The church has not been immune to this struggle. The United Methodist Church, like all the mainline churches have fought over this issue and have their own symbolic moments at General Conferences or General Assemblies. I believe that one of the reasons the church has struggled over this issue is that we don’t really understand what we are fighting about. Is this a fight about justice for people who have been marginalized, or is this a moral struggle about the biblical definition of marriage? Is this a battle over the authority of scripture, or the church’s capacity to retain a relevant place in contemporary culture? What are we struggling about? Sometimes the struggle over same sex marriage has obscured the larger spectrum of issues that have engulfed our society, including the normalization of adultery, digital pornography, couples co-habiting outside of wedlock, abortion, the growing addiction to violent video games which involve first person killing, and so on. The church has approached all of these issues in a kind of haphazard way as each successive generation of Christians has braced themselves for yet another battle without really knowing if any of these issues are linked together. The sexual revolution of the 1960’s, followed by Roe vs. Wade in the 1970’s, by the rise of the internet and the universal access to digital pornography in the 80’s and 90’s, and by same sex marriage and gender reassignment in our own day seem to support the idea that we struggling with a laundry list of challenges, with no real sense of where this is going, or if these issues are linked together in any coherent way.
It is clear to me that it is woefully inadequate for the church to simply say over and over again, in perhaps an increasingly louder voice, that we are against homosexual behavior, or transgenderism, or abortion or doctor assisted suicide, and so forth, without knowing what we are for. In other words, what is the grand Christian message, the compelling vision that has captured the church and rings forth from biblical revelation, to which we summon the people of God? What are we for? Are we really engaged in a dozen different struggles, or is this really about one thing, and we have failed to understand what that one thing is? We all understand that whenever you face a problem, you cannot propose an adequate solution unless you first understand exactly what is the problem you are seeking to solve!
This June I am taping a video series called For the Body, which is an attempt to “name” the underlying issue that lies behind these struggles. It is an attempt to dig beneath the myriad of presenting issues and get to the real heart of why the church is in such angst over all of this. It is to uncover the shared narrative which has historically been at the heart of the Christian message, but has been largely forgotten in most contemporary expressions of Christianity. The singular problem we are facing is that we need a theology of the body. What is a theology of the body? It is a Christian understanding of the very nature of human embodiment, going back to the dawn of creation, moving right through the incarnation, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and even our future bodily resurrection at the end of time. The video series I am preparing sets forth the seven key building blocks for a theology of the body. Our bodies are talking to us – they are telling us an amazing story – and we have not been listening. I have said many times that the great project that is presenting itself before this entire generation of Christians is the recovery of biblical Christianity. We have embraced a distorted, carnival like, caricature of the Christian message, and our task is to go back to the scriptures, go back and listen to the church through the ages, and recover the grand Christian story. There are, of course, many dimensions to this project, but I believe at the heart of this is the recovery of a theology of the body.
Let me say at the outset that the landmark book on this theme was by the late Pope John Paul II. Between September 5, 1979 and November 28, 1984 he preached a five-year series of homilies on the theology of the body that was collected into a single volume entitled, Man and Woman He Created Them: a Theology of the Body. Even in the late 1970’s and early 80’s he prophetically grasped what the central issue was and he set it forth in a compelling way in these homilies. However, it is addressed to a Roman Catholic audience, is theologically nuanced, and remains inaccessible to many Christian readers. Christopher West, a popular Roman Catholic author and speaker, has given his life to sharing this theme in more popular expressions, such as his Theology of the Body Explained, Theology of the Body for Beginners, and his more recent, Our Bodies Tell God’s Story. They are excellent resources and I commend them all to you. But, even these books do not actually set forth what exactly the building blocks are for a theology of the body, and they are, of course, not placed within a wesleyan theological frame which connects with our tradition and history. So, I have written a book entitled, For the Body, published jointly by Zondervan and Seedbed, which sets forth the seven building blocks for a theology of the body. It will be available in the Fall. Along with its release, Seedbed is preparing a video series to capture the heart of that publication in a way that makes it accessible to churches, small groups, and Sunday school classes. It is also framed to speak to those of you who long for the Wesleyan accent in this vital conversation.
Thank you for the many words of encouragement over the years to write some of this out and to help our own graduates who are on the front lines of this struggle. You are on the front-lines of this great project of discovery, and recovery. Seedbed is looking forward to the day when we will be able to roll this out and provide more support for you who are wrestling with this each and every day.
To preorder Dr. Tennent’s new book For the Body, click here for the link.
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