The contemporary scandals in Christian circles hold nothing on the central scandal that forms our faith. Jesus wore skin, breathed breath, died death. Jesus ate, slept, eliminated waste. Jesus felt pleasure and pain.
Our early churches rejected the idea that Jesus was all God without flesh, just borrowing a body for God’s time on earth. It was considered heresy to suggest that Jesus was only God or only human—he was all of both and all the time. God became one of us, as popular song proposes. When God got born Jesus, God got skin. Doctrine says God didn’t learn sin—but if we study the gospel records of Jesus carefully, when he wore skin, he sure came close to what we call “sin.”
Slaves and monastic saints and homeless people and prisoners and prostitutes and people living with AIDS know the glory of a God who loved and became flesh perhaps a little better than the economically and socially privileged do—we for whom it’s still convenient to deny our flesh and wallow in our duality.
Barbara Brown Taylor blames Freud, portions of the apostle Paul, the Protestant Reformation, and the Greeks for the particular piety and shame with which contemporary Christians deny the flesh, this unfortunate misunderstanding of Christ’s central mystery and meaning.
Taylor taunts our deep discomforts with a sad yet hilarious story about dissecting a Christian mural where the God-man Jesus is practically naked, wearing skin without blemish or blister or even one tickling prickle of body hair. Our first-century Christ was a hard-working middle Eastern commoner of modest and rural parents. But he shows up in art as a pink-skinned hairless Caucasian ready to model for a 21st century fashion magazine.
Is it any wonder we’re so messed up? We like to blame current glossy magazines and websites for our twisted and pornographic imaginations when it comes to body image but apparently these creepy disconnects with reality have their roots in classic Christian art.
Taylor further tempts us by suggesting that the scandal of the incarnation doesn’t just mean that Jesus is in full solidarity with our suffering and our pain, but God is also with us in our pleasure, too. She relates a particularly vivid anecdote where she and another preacher admit to each other over dinner and wine that they sometimes get turned on (she used the word “aroused”) while preaching a good sermon. While Taylor is quite delicate in her choice of euphemism and manner of description, the message of this passage is quite clear: God is sexy. While Taylor witnesses this as evidence of “divine audacity,” this question raised more discomfort and speculation than affirmation when we discussed it in Sunday school class.
As Taylor takes us on a journey without much jargon into a joyful body-theology, I gratefully shed so much shame and blame from my decades of spiritual confusion concerning the very heartfelt and sometimes hurtful issues that this chapter addresses. From a very young age to only very recently, my own deep alienation regarding these core tenets of Christian mystery and revelation caused me great pain. A better understanding of a God who wore a body is deeply liberating to this middle-aged body.
It’s funny and fateful and not at all unusual that I’m nursing a particularly acute sports-related injury while writing these words about embodied spirituality. As my pain speaks to me, the glorious reality of a God cloaked in skin comforts me.
While I love the narrative of the cross, the crucifixion always confused and troubled me as perhaps a little too masochistic, the substitutionary side of the coin struck me as almost cruel and disgusting. I always “got” the political aspect of the cross as the radical statement of God’s solidarity with the executed criminal. But as I meditate on a Jesus who chose to wear skin, I see him renouncing the sin of not loving that skin by choosing to experience brutality and physicality of pain in such a way that He could embody empathy and compassion for all bodies everywhere, for generations past, present, and future, loving victims and executioners. It’s the experience of God dying, not the symbolism of it (whether subversive or substitutionary) that speaks to me today.
Of any example I can imagine in modern literature, Baby Suggs’s sermon in Toni Morrison’s bluesy, tragic novel Beloved perhaps captures the resurrected and liberated requirement of loving flesh best of all, as she reminds those whose flesh has been owned and disowned to shake off the shackles of self-hatred and shame.
In what Gerald Britt calls “an exhortation to victorious self-love, communal affirmation and the spirituality of personhood,” Baby Suggs preaches:
“Here,” she said, “in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it… No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them! Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ‘cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed…What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give leavins instead. No they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it.”
“This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And oh my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it, and hold it up. And all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver - love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet… More than your life-holding womb and your live-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.”