Book Review: Body


Regular readers will know that I am fascinated by what it means to be human, and that one of the ways I think we might understand that is by considering the importance of human embodiment and the relational capacity that these bodies offer us. Such readers will also know that I’ve recently started working at SPCK, a publisher. So today I’m mashing up my different life interests and sharing a book review of a new book from SPCK. ‘Body: biblical spirituality for the whole person’ is a new book from biblical scholar and theologian in residence at the Bible Society, Paula Gooder (who you should definitely follow on Twitter).

In ‘Body: a Biblical Spirituality for the whole person’, Paula Gooder explores what the Bible says about the human body, and how it might be integrated into our spirituality and Christian living today. This is a thoughtful book, written by a serious academic, that is tightly focused in pursuit of its goal. Gooder’s guiding principle is amply illustrated by her subtitle – ‘biblical spirituality for whole person’. With endorsements from James Dunn, Krish Kandiah, Jeff Lucas and Jenny Baker, this is a book that somehow straddles and synthesizes the oft-separate worlds of academy and church. When I tweeted quotes from my readthrough on the SPCK Academic Twitter account, we saw interest from a range of folk! But on with the review.

Gooder is a respected and prolific New Testament Scholar, and so she sticks very much to her guns in this book. This is a book that deals directly and engages beautifully with what the New Testament says about the body. As she notes, ‘The body lies at the heart of some of Paul’s most significant theology‘, and that ‘far from being the villain that some consider, Paul is careful and sophisticated in his language about bodies‘. This is a book that engages carefully with how Paul grappled with different schools of thought, noting also that ‘What Paul says about the body has, historically, been read through the lens of a certain philosophical tradition‘, but does so in a way that doesn’t exclude readers who, like me, don’t have specialist knowledge of those kind of debates! This is a book that brings real and eloquent clarity to complex issues – but recognizes the importance of involving these voices and questions in the conversation.

The way that Gooder talks about individual bodies – the personal shape that you inhabit, the one I inhabit, etc – is beautiful. As she notes, ‘There is a link between our body and who we feel ourselves to be‘. This originally concerned me – I think the reality is a lot more fundamental than that – but I was relieved to later read her opinion that ‘we cannot be truly who we are apart from our bodies‘. This is an important point – threaded through the notion of bodily resurrection that Gooder engages with carefully in light of its appearance throughout the New Testament – but one that is often overlooked by Christians and misunderstood in our culture. For the individual, there is also a jarring challenge; that ‘without bodily resurrection, Faith is pointless‘. This is a book about faith and spirituality – but it is a book firmly and intelligently embedded in New Testament Christianity, the vibrant orthodoxy focused on Jesus Christ. And this is the pivot on which Gooder’s book turns, her argument hangs, and the value of this contribution is measured: ‘Paul’s argument about resurrection did not begin with the nature of our resurrection bodies, but with Jesus himself‘. This Jesus-centric focus is vital – allowing engagement with complexity that doesn’t get bogged down in specualation.

There is a fascinating discussion about cremation/burial, which reminds me of a cartoon:

One of the most beautiful pictures of the Body in the New Testament is when Paul speaks – nay, waxes lyrical – about the Church being the Body of Christ. This has to do with the way that we are intimately involved in Christ, and Gooder explores communion, spirituality, and living in the light of what the New Testament says about the body. This is because, as she observes, ‘Paul believed that what will happen to Jesus has become inextricably entwined with what will happen to us‘. Talking about individual bodies in relation to Jesus is valid – but the New Testament demands that we engage with more corporate language too. Gooder’s focus on the Pauline corpus is very helpful, with some really useful observations on 1 Corinthians in particular. If this piques your interest, you might enjoy a paper I did in 2016, ‘Human Embodiment in Contemporary Culture: 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 in relation to universal and subjective experience‘, which explores this a little.

I’ve shared before a review of a book by a friend on why Paul isn’t the toxic misogynist (as just one negative label) he’s billed as being. Gooder is not concerned with any particular hermeneutical or ethical direction, but rather wishes to re-read and rehabilitate Paul and his theology of the body for the church today. This book does not just consider Paul’s view of the body in isolation, but helpfully compares it to other key words, in a way that can be very illuminating for the contemporary church, if we are willing to listen. I particularly enjoyed Gooder’s pneumatological chapter, ‘The life-giving Spirit’, where we read that ‘New life in the Spirit is an essential part of Paul’s message about Christian life and faith‘, even as we are reminded of the vital importance of a balanced biblical understanding: ‘Just as with Jesus’ resurrection, we need to keep in mind the ‘now’ and ‘not-yet’-ness of this experience‘. It is here that Gooder provides one of the key practical challenges for followers of Jesus: ‘Taking proper care of our bodies – temples of the Holy Spirit – should be ranked alongside prayer as a spiritual discipline‘. This is contentious but arguably vital – just as many Christians elevate personal prayer over, for example, the corporate sharing of the Lord’s Supper, so too do we often detach things like health from our ‘spiritual lives’. This book is a brilliant stick of dynamite into a number of modern Christian tangents!

By focusing this book on what the New Testament says about the body, Gooder is directed by the concerns of the Bible, rather than the many questions our culture asks about bodies and identity. This emphasis is vitally helpful – Gooder can celebrate and expose the real concerns of the Bible about the way we live and act. But just as the New Testament does not shy away from questions of sex, food, money and power, neither does Gooder in her treatment. I enjoyed the raw, meaty description of the Lords Supper; ‘the bread that we break – the body of Christ – draws us into participation in his body‘, linking that vital sacrament to ongoing Christian life. Sex gets a look in, with the balanced observation that ‘in my view Paul was not at all obsessed with sex nor vehemently opposed to it‘, a view that is challenging to many aspects of church and culture today.

As we come to the end of this review, it is worth noting the way in which the body, and particularly its resurrection – fits into the end of things. In a week when the world has been shocked by a devastating gunman attack on the LGBT community in Orlando, it is good to be reminded that ‘The resurrection of the body reminds us that death is not the end; suffering will pass‘. Indeed, this book is not just one that offers hope and comfort now, but also one with a theology of hope and a future. I think Gooder hit the nail on the head when she observed that ‘Paul’s theology provides us with ample threads from which we might weave a beautiful theology of the body‘.

You can probably tell that I liked this book a lot! Weaving together thoughtful academic study and practically useful discipleship is a rare thing – and this book does both well. I was pleased with the way in which some serious scholarship is integrated but not dominant. This is a book that is accessible yet also deep. I hope it is widely read! I think this book would be very helpful for those of us thinking about what it means to be human, how it is that Christians should live well in our bodies, and for how New Testament language should shape the church. ‘Body’ is out now, and I suppose I should tell you to grab a copy from the SPCK website. Obviously, its also available elsewhere!

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