I’ve been aware of this book for a little while, though hadn’t got around to reading it until it arrived in paperback. Nancy R. Pearcey is an apologist and writer with a keen eye for cultural realities, and this book stands in the tradition of thinkers like Francis Schaeffer to examine what she (in my view rightly!) identifies as the de-humanizing threads running through much of our current cultural conversation. In Love Thy Body Pearcey engages with some of the trickiest topics that we can talk about as humans: death, personhood, sex, homosexuality, trans*, choice,abortion and euthanasia. There is much more to this book than merely a catalogue of important topics – but it is worth noting these at the outset of the review.
The basic premise of this book is that there is a better way, a truth that undergirds reality (shades of Glynn Harrison’s A Better Story, but more focused and more in depth, perhaps) in a startling way. This book is less a salvo in a culture war and more an invitation to think a little more carefully about what it means to be human. And why is that thinking so necessary? As Pearcey puts it at the outset of Love Thy Body; “We live in a moral wasteland where human beings are desperately seeking answers to hard questions about life and sexuality. But there is hope. In the wasteland we can cultivate a garden. We can discover a reality-based-morality that expresses a positive, life-affirming view of the human person – one that is more inspiring, more appealing, and more liberating than the secular worldview“. By and large, I think this book is a helpful tool for those of us engaged in doing that.
Given that I broadly agree with the substantive conclusions the author makes clear, I won’t go chapter by chapter in reviewing this book. Rather, I’d want to observe a few themes that flow through the book and make it so powerful. The first of these is the sheer robustness with which Pearcey engages with the arguments of our contemporary culture(s). One common feeling, expressed as though it is some kind of inalienable truth, is that it is important to be ‘on the right side of history’, a piece of rhetoric often brandished to persuade people to embrace progressive ethics. Pearcey notes, with reference to the early church’s conviction and compassion, that “The early church may have been ‘on the wrong side of history.’ But that’s why it changed history“. She is of course absolutely right – not least on issues of sexual morality – primarily because (at its best) the Church is meant to be calling the culture to embrace reality as it really is, with Jesus as king, and joining in God’s mission to restore and renew every aspect of creation.
A key aspect of creation – one that is frustrating to many progressive perspectives – is the generally dimorphic nature of human beings. Pearcey is full of compassion throughout the book – she wasn’t raised a Christian, and so has sympathy and empathy for the struggle of understanding why God’s ways might be best – and this sings out particularly in her discussion of intersex people. Best of all, she gives voice to one intersex person, who said “How do you think it feels being a pawn in someone else’s game? It hurts to be shoved into the LGBT camp by either side“. Hence Pearcey’s appeal is not to some artificial binary, but rather the richer and deepernature of reality. In a section that I found particularly helpful, and applicable to a range of situations, she writes: “Contrary to what postmodern gender theory says,there is greater diversity and inclusivity when we anchor our psychosexual identity in the objective, scientifically knowable reality of our biology as male or female“. I remember as a rather sensitive, depressed teenage boy talking to a mentor about the way I was feelings. He encouraged me to cry, if I needed to, just like Jesus did. Not for nothing did I resonate with the observation that what if “it’s not you but the stereotypes that are wrong“? Love Thy Body points away from individual problems, and indeed the individual, back towards the good God who created humanity in all its bewildering diversity.
This point about diversity is vital. Another thread that runs throughout Love Thy Body, echoing perhaps the body-language of the New Testament, is that of the importance of family. This is not some 1950’s reductive vision of 2.5 children but something bigger and deeper. And it is rooted in the embodiment that is the key challenge from this book to our culture. Pearcey writes “We are not merely disembodied wills. We are biological creatures who procreate ‘after our kind’. The family provides a rich metaphor for the kingdom of God precisely because it is the primary experience we have of an obligation that transcends mere rational choice and is constitutive of our very nature“. This is something that struck me – even as we recover the importance of the body to understanding the individual human, how much do we also need to take note of the bodies made up of bodies, echoing the church, but not always the church?
You can probably tell from my review that I’m a fan of this book. I think it applies the vital truth that humans are embodied beings to areas of controversy and complexity in a wise and winsome way. It avoids the pitfalls of some, and works in a way that ‘in-house’ Christian disagreements are not foregrounded. I would recommend this book in the first instance to those seeking to engage culture with the Gospel, but also to students of both theology and other disciplines. Love Thy Body is superb, and probably going to be in my top ten books of the year.
For more reading around the body and theology, you might like to check out the following:
- Paula Gooder’s excellent short Body: Biblical Spirituality for the Whole Person
- Jean-Claude Larchet’s superb Theology of the Body
- Klyne Snodgrass’s excellent (every pastor should read it) Who God Says You Are
- The multi contributor The Christian Doctrine of Humanity (edited papers from the LA Theology Conference) offers a good insight into the wider theological issues.