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A Christian Perspective on Body, Health and Diet

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Though I'm an Anglican priest, my upbringing was Northern Irish Methodist. This is a tradition with many good things to say about the Meaning of Life. But concerning some of the more 'embarrassing' topics of life it's not so hot. One such is the body.


Don't even go there!


Looking back on my childhood I was scarcely aware of even having a body; I certainly wasn't encouraged to get to know or understand it. As for the nitty-gritty of sex and sexuality don't, as some might say, even go there. As many of these short pieces evince, what Christianity says about the body is by no means easy to determine. This is due, as always, to the great number of voices that shelter under the umbrella 'Christianity'. As with God, Christ, Heaven, Hell etc., there is little consensus as to how 'the body' should be handled (!) But before selecting a spokesperson, tradition or authority, we need to know what it is we're talking about when we say 'the body'. For instance, are we talking primarily about sex? Or are we limiting discussion to issues of health and fitness? If it's the latter, then agreement will be easily reached. Who would argue against the notion of eating five portions of fruit and veg a day? But getting to grips with 'the body' – as understood by feminist theorists, psychotherapists, Guardian journalists and trendy theologians – will take us down a very different path.


Let me stay with the tradition that formed me and the beliefs I took in with my mother's milk. If the Methodism of my childhood is rooted within a larger Christian tradition then it's probably going to be Puritanism (a school of theological thinking originating in the late sixteenth century and still with us in various guises today). This tradition in turn is partially rooted in the theological outlook of the Latin Church Fathers (including Tertullian, Augustine and Jerome). Puritanism is a very slippery word. If we use it today at all it's mainly as a term of abuse and derision. It keeps company with other words like prude, repressed and frigid. In many respects one can understand why this negative image stuck. Puritan Christians aren't known for looking upon the human body with much joy or excitement. In my dictionary of Puritan quotations there is no place for either the Body or Sex/Sexuality (there are however entries for self-examination and service.) There are lots of quotes under the heading 'Sin'. The sin of omission rather than commission continues today. The much loved (and much hated) Alpha course has very little to say on the subject. It's more interested in questions relating to God's guidance and whether he heals people today like he did in olden times. This silence is not exceptional; you'll hear very little from most pulpits about the human body, sexual or otherwise. Thus priests and ministers today are not explicitly against the body; they're simply more likely to draw a discreet and polite silence over it. I suppose this is a sort of advance on the past. We come up against a similar silence whenever we try to talk about sex's shadowy twin, death. If one rarely hears a good sermon about, say, pornography or the religious significance of orgasm, the same could be said about the finer points of dying with cancer or MS. A shitting, decaying, oozing body is no easier to deal with than one in ecstasy.


What's your problem?


So, the question remains: what is our problem with the body, and is Christianity a help or a hindrance in this?




Two pivotal moments in the Bible have greatly informed Christian reflection on the body. The first is the Fall of Adam and Eve, the second is the Incarnation. Before the Fall A and E were a blissful couple, very naked and very much in love. But after the Fall things fell apart for them. Something had changed in their view of the world and themselves. They were now ashamed of their bodies; desire for each other became suspect (at least according to some of the Latin Fathers). A new and rather mysterious sense of embarrassment and shame had stolen over them. As the text puts it:


Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, 'Where are you?' He said, 'I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.'

(Genesis 3:7-11)


The Incarnation


The first chapter of John's Gospel is the chief source for the core Christian dogma of Incarnation. It's the notion that God loved his creation so much that he became one with it. The eternal God becomes flesh for us in solidarity and as a means of hope.


And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.

(John 1:14)


Many theologians look upon this short verse as an antidote to the poison of wayward interpretations of Genesis' early chapters. They suggest that only by working through the implications of Incarnation can we return to the view that God really did like what he had made to the point that it was not just OK, but very good. (Genesis 1:31).


Natural, good, pleasurable, fallible, weak, vulnerable – here are signposts for a more grown-up and realistic understanding of the body for Christians.


This is the way I am


The body worries us in part because it is unpredictable and liable to fall apart at the seams. I often find myself using the words repulsive and grotesque about the faulty or incomplete body. But then I stop and think: is this the return of my wonky childhood theology? Am I not able to reach a place where all that I see and touch in creation is beloved of God – and therefore by me? Can I get beyond the notion that only people who look like Kate Moss are acceptable and valued? Then I think of a story by the Roman Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor. The central moment in her story 'A Temple of the Holy Ghost' is the speech by a hermaphrodite set to work in a travelling freak show. If only one of the Methodist ministers in my childhood had used this as a preaching text:


God made me this way ... This is the way he wanted me to be and I ain't disputing His way. I'm showing you because I got to make the best of it … Raise yourself up. A temple of the Holy Ghost. You! You are God's temple, don't you know? God's Spirit has a dwelling in you, don't you know? … A temple of God is a holy thing. Amen. Amen.




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