Body: Biblical spirituality for the whole person
Church Times Bookshop £9
THIS is a wise, learned, intelligent, and pastorally sensitive book from a New Testament specialist who writes for normal Christians rather than for fellow academics, and who is at the top of her game.
Paula Gooder’s contributions to the life of the Church of England are well known, and her writings are widely appreciated. Body continues a run of excellent books on theological themes, forming a sequel especially to Heaven (SPCK, 2011).
Along with St Augustine of Hippo, St Paul has acquired a reputation for being against all things physical, especially sex. He is thought to have preferred the mind or soul (which is what people think he means by “the spirit”) to the body (which is what they think he means by “the flesh”).
Gooder takes this structure apart piece by piece, providing a superb guide to Paul’s vocabulary about the components of the human person, based on exact study of Hebrew and Greek, and yet fully accessible to any reader willing to make the effort. It is a model of how to present such material.
The picture that emerges is that Paul took bodies seriously — after all, he uses the body as a metaphor for the Church, the body of Christ. He did not believe in souls’ going to heaven while bodies were of no account. On the contrary, he thought our bodies would be transformed or transfigured in the coming age.
Gooder does not ask whether this is conceivable, preferring to present it positively as Christian teaching. But she does show, through painstaking analysis of Paul’s writings, that it is the authentic Pauline message.
Our bodies are not to be ignored, despised, or neglected; nor, on the other hand, are we meant to spend time agonising over whether they seem to us beautiful or perfect. They are an essential part of our embodied existence, an element in the psycho-physical unity that forms the human person. Whether or not something non-corporeal survives death, such a component would not be our true selves, which are necessarily embodied. The resurrected state must somehow involve physicality: we do not have a self that is independent of our bodily existence.
Above all Body is an optimistic book, life-affirming in its encouragement to take our bodies seriously as an essential part of spirituality, which is not about some inner self, but about the whole person.
Gooder mines the corpus of Pauline letters for insight into Paul’s “anthropology” (in the theological sense of his doctrine of the human). For good measure, she also handles the resurrection appearances in the Gospels, which likewise emphasise the physicality of the risen Lord.
The notes and bibliography show just how much research has gone into a book that yet manages to feel light and friendly, almost an easy read, because it is written so simply and accessibly. All Christians would benefit from reading it.
John Barton is Emeritus Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at Oxford, a Senior Research Fellow of Campion Hall, Oxford, and an Anglican priest.