In a department-store line, I watched an undergarment commercial on a screen above the cashier's desk. It featured women expressing dissatisfaction with their figures, while the camera zoomed in on their chests.
It seemed I was watching a series of dismemberments, as the infomercial's editors divorced body parts from their owners in order to direct attention to deficiencies in quality and trajectory. I was struck by how tragic it is that millions of humans—impossibly complex in neurological makeup, fantastically unique, and almost unbearably freighted with potential—walk around obsessed with perceived appendage inadequacies (or superiorities).
This is no news flash: We live in a body-obsessed culture. Materialism—the conviction that only matter can be proven to exist and that belief in transcendence is at best a fond hope, and at worst a dangerous delusion—is the spirit of our age. Ironically, it leaves us with no spirit at all, just our bodies and their appetites, unbridled and insatiable. No wonder we approach the fridge—and each other—with a predatory eye. We're just trying to survive.
I believe that the only cure is to embrace nonmaterial reality as an integral part of the universe and ourselves. The conviction that we cannot be reduced to bodies is foundational to my worldview. It has also enabled me to justify avoiding any sort of consistent physical exercise for much of my life.
My husband is a kinesthetic person; if he goes too long without activity he gets restless. I, on the other hand, can be perfectly and indefinitely happy with a book and a comfortable couch. Although I often have felt a vague sense of guilt (and, lately, gravity), I have found a way to spiritualize my inclinations. I focus on soul things (books, ideas, music, relationships), not body things (exercise, nutrition). It's always seemed to me that exercising for exercise's sake is like wasting your life constantly fine-tuning your car rather than driving it somewhere.
Then, this past year, my parents got sick. Seeing how stress on the body—both theirs and mine—affects the well-being of the soul, I began reconsidering my position on exercise.
So I promised my 11-year-old son that I would run a race with him, and I downloaded a "Learn to Run a 10k in 13 Weeks" training guide. And I started to run.
Actually, run is a strong word. I began to shuffle forward in a continuous motion. But this was no small thing. I started rising an hour earlier than normal to jog before the kids got up for school. My friends said, "Who are you, and what have you done with Carolyn?"
I've been shocked by how spiritual an activity exercise has turned out to be. When I am running I am uniquely awake and open; it's not uncommon for me to wind up crying, laughing, praying, or praising. The neighbors must find this unsettling; I find it fascinating.
I suspect that my longstanding protest against materialism has made me susceptible to another time-honored heresy: Gnosticism, the belief that matter is inherently evil. Gnostics wondered how a perfect God could be defiled in imperfect human form. Gnosticism had to be struck down repeatedly in order to reach an orthodox understanding of the Incarnation: Jesus was fully God and fully human. The Word became flesh (John 1:14).
The Incarnation shows us that matter is not all there is. But it also shows us that matter matters. Jesus came a long way to take on our molecular structure. He pointed to other kinds of existence, telling his disciples, "I have food to eat that you know nothing about" (John 4:32). But he also fully inhabited our bodily reality, so much so that many of his miracles involved food, drink, physical healing, and even resurrection. One of his final earthly acts was to cook fish on the beach for his friends.
So maybe our bodies aren't the cars that drive our souls to the altar. Maybe they are an integral part of what we lay on the altar, and are up for healing and holiness with the rest of us.
After all, Jesus called us to love God with our hearts, souls, minds, and strength. Just as his words disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed, they call the overactive to stillness and activate the overly still. They restore the soul to those who overemphasize the body, and redeem the body for those who focus only on the soul.
"The physical part of you is not some piece of property belonging to the spiritual part of you," says The Message translation of 1 Corinthians 6:19-20. "God owns the whole works. So let people see God in and through your body"—even if that means shuffling forward in a continuous motion, one step at a time.
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More Christianity Today articles by Carolyn Arends are available on our site, including:
Saying More Than We Can Say | Why the arts matter even during a recession. (June 22, 2009)
Hiding What They Seek | In my desire to be 'seeker-friendly,' I'm often guilty of concealing Jesus. (March 30, 2009)
There Goes the Neighborhood | Do I have to love my neighbor if he breaks the law? (January 21, 2009)
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