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Embodied Liturgy by Frank C. Senn; and others

24 March 2017

Andrew Davison reads reflections on the incarnation of Christ

Embodied Liturgy: Lessons in Christian ritual
Frank C. Senn
Fortress Press £22.99
Church House Bookshop £20.70


Theology in the Flesh: How embodiment and culture shape the way we think about truth, morality, and God
John Sanders
Fortress Press £52.99
Church House Bookshop £47.70


The Holy One in Our Midst: An essay on the flesh of Christ
James R. Gordon
Fortress Press £52.99
Church House Bookshop £47.70



CHRISTIANS have often consid­ered “the flesh” as part of an igno­minious trio, alongside the world and the devil. Today, more neutral, even positive, things are being said. If, for Paul, “flesh” signals opposi­tion to God, and spirit signals obedience, then the body can be spir­­itual and the spirit can be fleshly.

The flesh is everywhere in the doc­­trines of Christianity, the religion of the incarnation. “The flesh is the hinge of salvation,” as Tertullian put it: caro cardo salutis. Each of these three recent books from Fortress Press takes the flesh as its theme.

Frank Senn is an American Lutheran liturgist. His Embodied Liturgy grew out of a course on the body in worship, taught at a faculty of performing arts in a Christian university in Indonesia. His remit was to explore liturgy “from the perspective of the body”.

The result is comprehensive, even to a fault. Everything one can im­­agine is covered here, and more besides, from fasting and feasting to funerals and flagellation. Some material is, therefore, covered just too briefly. The section on Christian visual art, for instance, runs from its begin­nings to the opening of the 20th century in three pages.

The text is mainly descriptive, mar­ried with commentary and commendation. Senn treats elements of theory accessibly, for instance when it comes to the embodied nature of thought, or the dualism of Descartes.

Senn’s most unexpected passages are his yoga-based physical medita­tions. His intent is to marry discus­sions in the text with ways in which the reader might attend directly to his or her bodiliness. Senn’s enthu­siastic pages on the chankra will raise apprehensions among some Christian readers, despite his attempts to head them off.

Readers will, in any case, have already to practise yoga if they are going to make much of what is said. I have no idea what is meant (in the marriage “partner yoga sequence”) by “the other partner does down­ward dog but places his or her feet on the partner’s back.”

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson are celebrated for having shown the inherently bodily reference that runs through thought and language, not least in Metaphors We Live By (1980) and Philosophy in the Flesh (1999). While Senn mentions them in passing, they are the foundation of John Sanders’s Theology in the Flesh. This homage works through Christian theology in terms of Lakoff and Johnson’s insights: particularly, that metaphor is integral to language, not a poetic afterthought, and that the most determinative metaphors are spatial and grounded directly in bodily experience (as with that use of “grounded”).

Having laid this out in part one, the rest of the book deploys it in relation to theology. Part two deals with overarching categories such as truth, meaning, and morality, while part three deals with specific Chris­tian doctrines. Sin, salvation, judge­ment, the Church, and the Trinity are singled out, which highlights a perplexing lack of attention to Christology and creation.

The book concludes with a chapter on God and human speech. We have only human words at our disposal. Sanders considers what it means for those to be bodily words.

Sanders is interested in how the bodiliness of biblical metaphors underlies subsequent doctrinal formulations. He argues that diver­gent interpretations of biblical texts often come from divergent instinct­ive attitudes among readers about bodily life.

In his chapter on biblical interpretation, Sanders insists that metaphor is so central to human thought, and to biblical texts, that any claim to be dealing with the “lit­eral meaning” that dismisses others as proceeding “merely metaphoric­ally” is de facto highly questionable.

One does not need to agree with every one of Sanders’s theological positions to want to hail this book as a triumph. It marries systematic theology to what is certainly one of the most exciting aspects of contem­porary philosophy.

Senn’s book is easy going; Sanders’s requires concentration; James Gordon’s The Holy One in Our Midst: An essay on the flesh of Christ is a heavyweight theological monograph, although engagingly written. Its subject is the extra calvinisticum: the conviction that, while the fullness of the Son’s divinity was united to humanity in Christ, that did not limit the Son from being also everywhere present, as before, “outside the flesh”.

Lutherans first coined the phrase as a slur among their own number in the 1620s, although the ideas in play go back to Luther, Calvin, and their contemporaries. Indeed, they go back much further, since Calvin’s position was simply what had prevailed since Christian antiquity (as E. David Willis demonstrated in Calvin’s Catholic Christology, 1966).

The Lutheran rejection came not in saying that the Word was con­fined to Christ’s human body, but, rather, in saying that the incarnation conferred omnipresence, or ubi­quity, on Christ’s flesh. Reformed theologians objected to this — and were entirely correct, to my mind — on the grounds that it violates a Chalcedonian maxim about the incarnation, that in the union of natures the characteristics of each were preserved.

This is material for doctrine buffs. If the previous paragraph set your heart racing, the book is for you (and if you want more, there is always Willis’s book and Andrew McGinnis’s The Son of God Beyond the Flesh, both also excellent). Gordon goes further than previous writers in seeking to justify the extra calvinisticum: first, by laying out theological objections and respond­ing to them, and then by setting out a biblical analogy with God as both present in the temple, and also transcending it. I loved this book.


The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is the Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, and currently a member in residence at the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton.

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