Exploring a Theology of the Body and Confronting Shame (Episode 70 + Transcript)
Interview with Beth Felker Jones (Summer Rewind)
This is another episode of our Summer Rewind series, bringing back some of our greatest hits while we take August off to start our next book. Enjoy.
DESCRIPTION (Transcript Below)
We're tackling a topic that treads the tightrope between theology and personal acceptance - body theology and body shame. Why have we turned "your body is a temple" into a shaming mechanism? What if our bodies are the place we meet God? The place through which we glorify God?
In this episode we wade deep into the waters of Western philosophical tradition, consumer capitalism's impact on body shaming, and the misinterpretation of scripture that's contributed to a culture of body blame.
Dr. Beth Felker Jones joins Cyd and Geoff to talk about a theology of the body, and how we can lead our culture and churches into deeper freedom.
Follow Dr. Jones at Church Blogmatics.
Need coaching or spiritual direction that aligns with this podcast? Connect with Cyd Holsclaw here.
Join the Embodied Faith community to stay connected and get posts, episodes, & resources.
LISTEN or WATCH:
Geoff Holsclaw: 0:06
Have we turned our bodies, or have we turned the statement that your body is the temple of God into some sort of shaming mechanism? What if our bodies are the place where God meets us? What if our bodies are the place where God is glorified? How can we figure this all out when so often our culture forgets the body or shames the body? Today we have Beth Felker Jones, a professor of theology at Northern Seminary, here talking with us about a theology of the body and how we and our culture and our churches can move into deeper freedom. This is the Embodied Faith Podcast, helping you get unstuck in your spiritual life through a neuroscience-informed spiritual formation, and we are produced by grassroots Christianity. As I said, beth is a professor of theology at Northern Seminary. She lives in or just outside of Chicago with her husband, kids and pets. You might hear some dogs in the background. She got her PhD at Duke as the author of several books, including the wonderful Practicing Christian Doctrine. We'll be sure to tell you where to find her online, beth. It is so good to have you. Oops, let's get everybody on there. Everybody on there, we go. It's so good to have you on today.
Beth Felker Jones: 1:37
Great to be with you all.
Geoff Holsclaw: 1:40
This podcast is called Embodied Faith because we believe our bodies are very important for our journey with Jesus and our life of faith. In the West the philosophical tradition has often kind of forgotten the body through Descartes and other people. That leads to a disembodied faith which creates all sorts of problems. But there's also another kind of reaction which is to forget our bodies and to do that by hiding or shaming our bodies. You had a post that I saw a couple weeks ago that really kind of spoke about that. I wanted to have you on to talk about embodied faith, especially women. Theologians like yourself, also philosophers, therapists, coaches and counselors Women are often bringing attention to these issues about the body, about the forgetting or the hiding of the body. I'm mostly just going to facilitate a conversation between you and Sid, if that's okay with the two of you.
Beth Felker Jones: 2:42
Sure Looking hard Chad.
Geoff Holsclaw: 2:43
Or I'll just disappear and you guys can take it over. But maybe just to kind of start it out, beth, how do you see this kind of hiding of the body or body shame? Where did that come from, like culturally, or how do you see it? Then part two of that question would be like how is this happening theologically?
Beth Felker Jones: 3:02
It's one of my favorite topics and it's been central to my work as long as I've been doing this. I think the question of where it comes from is tricky, or at least there are multiple answers and probably some mysteries there as well. As you mentioned, the Western philosophical tradition has not been super friendly to bodies. Sometimes we go all the way back to Plato and blame him. The body is a prison. But then more contemporary, more modern thought Descartes, I think, before I am, and so on tends to really see the body as secondary to who we are. Also, I think this gets into our interpretation of scripture. It's not scripture itself, but it has guided a lot of Western interpretation of scripture. So that's also deep in our imaginations. And then there's the fact that bodies are tricky, right, they're hard to deal with, they hurt, they grow ill, they make us vulnerable. They're also wonderful and God's good creation. But the fact of those difficulties can, I think, make the body a scapegoat for all of our problems. That's a suggestion that Augustine makes in his autobiography, the Confessions autobiography anyway. He sort of says I'm paraphrasing I wanted to blame my body for my sins so I wouldn't have to take responsibility for them myself. And I think that kind of scapegoating is something many of us are tempted to.
Cyd Holsclaw: 4:37
Yeah, yeah, I see that too, and the thing I'm curious about is where is? You know, the thing that I think I have struggled with and I think other people that I know have struggled with is the sense of if I could just sort of erase everything that's wrong with my body and sort of start from scratch. And especially now that we're in this world of you know, so many people carry trauma in their bodies too, that the idea of if I could just get rid of all of it and start fresh, that somehow that would make me spiritually whole. Where do you see that sort of popping up, or where did that sort of become a common understanding?
Beth Felker Jones: 5:16
Yeah, that's such a good insight. It seems to me there's at least a couple things that go into that. One is what you've named the fact that so many of us have experienced trauma in the body, of course counter to our intuition there, what we need for healing is to reconnect to our bodies, but we often try to disconnect in response to that trauma. I also think consumer capitalism plays an enormous role here. It's difficult to sell products to the soul, but you can sell them to the body, and so we're peddled endless things to buy which promise a kind of salvation, right, salvation of new skin and new hair and new thinness and new fitness, a kind of salvation even from death, right, if we could only be healthy enough we could, we could make ourselves immortal. And so I think we're all subject to that kind of pervasive advertising and the pervasive false hope that if we buy the right things to fix up our bodies, then all will be well.
Geoff Holsclaw: 6:30
Yeah, I think there's a lot to unpack there as far as where the kind of this body shaming has come Like. You started off by asking on this it was a Twitter thread as well as one of your posts about how is it that the term like your body is the temple of God has been inverted not to be a statement of grace or hope, but is actually now like the shaming mechanism, like make sure that your body is living up to all these standards? And I think what you just said is maybe capitalism has also taken that like are you treating your temple the right way? You know so, like how does that manifest and this may be for Sid and yourself how does this like how does that that inversion of that statement, your body as a temple become this way of shaming bodies instead of celebrating them? I guess?
Beth Felker Jones: 7:25
Or I'd love to hear from you and I yeah.
Cyd Holsclaw: 7:32
Yeah, I just, I mean, I'll just speak from my own story because, that's the story I know best. But I think you know there's those moments of oh, I didn't exercise my body as much as I should have this last week, and it turns into those shoulds, right. Or I ate a little more dessert than I should have, or I have I'm carrying around a few more pounds than I should be, and I think that that sort of sense of like, if I'm supposed to glorify God in my body, then my body should really look like, even maybe like this Greek ideal right Of what the human body should look like in all its splendor. And if I'm not actually carrying around a body that looks like that, then somehow I'm not bringing enough glory to God through my body because I am not treating my body enough, you know, like good enough, well enough, and so I think that that I think it can be a huge shame of, especially when you hear the way people talk about bodies, and especially the way I hear you know other women talking about other women's bodies, like we're not so kind to each other, and you know. Just on that note, I just wanna say you live in Chicagoland, right? And the King Spa is there, the Korean Spa, and one of my favorite things about the King Spa is that you have to be naked to go into the wet rooms, to go into the pools, and there's something so liberating to be in a room full of intergenerational naked women and to just look around and go all of us. just they're just bodies, like we all have ordinary bodies, and nobody's body is the picture of perfection. But I think they're like, for me personally, that pressure of if I'm going to glorify God in my body, then my body should be as close to perfect as it can possibly be.
Beth Felker Jones: 9:31
Right, and we let perfect be defined, I think, by consumer capitalism as well as by racist and classist standards of beauty, instead of by the perfection God is calling to of health and holiness in loving relationship with God and neighbor. Yeah, that's my experience as well. I think this is so deep in our culture that we just feel it sort of pressing on us from every side. In the last 50-ish years, I think fat and exercise have really been targeted as kind of a false salvation, or the absence of fat and the presence of exercise have been targeted as kind of a false salvation, making it seem as though our in health is an individual responsibility based on what we eat and how we behave, instead of health being a corporate matter, where we need things like good social ways of actually being together so that folks have access to good food and so on. So I think there's a real kind of pushing off of the communal need to search for good health onto individuals by saying it's your job not to be fat, it's your job to be in shape, right, and that just weighs so heavily on us. And I hear the fat thing raised all the time, right, fat is treated as a kind of moral failure when it's not, when, in fact, body size is way more complicated than we make it out to be and it has all kinds of social things attached to it. Just for instance, right that, oh dear, I have an alarm going off. I meant to stop that. For instance, the BMI right, which is the scale that's so often used to determine whether we're the right amount of fat, is based in racist standards. Right, created based on mostly white, rich bodies, and so we have this kind of outside force pushing on us. Right, which doesn't even reflect the reality of the diversity of God's people. And I'll stop with that, but I think it's really huge is this sense of if you're sick, it's your fault. To be healthy requires eating right and exercising properly, and if I do it, I can look smugly on you for not doing it, and I also don't have to take responsibility for our corporate health, because I can live in the delusion that everybody could, like me, eat properly and exercise properly, as though we're in our control, right, so much is not in our control.
Cyd Holsclaw: 12:28
Yeah, but I think there is some biblical interpretation which does really make us feel like it is in our control, when you look at all the way when I beat my body into submission and the corruption of the flesh and this is the way you used to live no longer live. The old has gone, the new has come. So can you speak a little bit to how the theological history of the way the church has interpreted those fleshy scriptures has also played into this sense of the individual moral imperative of our bodies?
Beth Felker Jones: 13:05
Right, right. So there's at least two important meanings of the word flesh in the New Testament. On the one hand there's a very positive meaning the resurrection of the flesh Christ has come in the flesh. On the other hand, paul does use it with negative meaning. He contrasts flesh with spirit, where flesh is the old self, the self under the condition of sin, and spirit is the new self, the self who is being renewed in the presence of God. So because Western culture is already dualistic in our thinking, we tend to think of flesh as bad and spirit as good. We've, I think, assumed that when Paul talks about the badness of the flesh, he's talking about stuff, materiality, the physical body, and it seems he's just not using the word that way. He's using the word flesh as a kind of consolidated way of speaking about the whole self under the condition of sin. Right, the man of flesh is not your body. The man of flesh is your whole self under the condition of sin, body and soul. But we just see flesh and we think body and we reduce it to that. I think one of the most helpful bits of scripture here for thinking about this is in 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul talks about the resurrection of the body, and he contrasts the body as it is now with the body as it will be at the resurrection. These phrases are translated in lots of ways, often really anti-body kinds of ways and English translations of scripture. But the two words are, or sets of words, are the body, the selfish body right, the body as it is directed by the selfish sort of will, and the spirit-led body, the body as it is under the direction of the Holy Spirit. And what's important to notice there is that in both cases we're talking about a body right, the body now, the body of the resurrection. Both are a body, a material body. The difference is not in materiality. It's in whether you're led by your selfish, sinful soul or whether you're under the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit. In both cases you're made of stuff, right, the Greek word soma there. So we import our assumptions on scripture right. We read in a way that doesn't always take into account the way the words, for instance, are being used in the context, and a lot of our biblical translations underwrite that in ways that are pretty deep in our heads too.
Geoff Holsclaw: 15:57
Yeah, a lot of our preaching or teaching that kind of repeats that in very unhelpful ways. I just wanted to circle back a little bit too to what you were saying about the classism and racism, certainly genderism, like why is it that dad bods are cool when we're curvy and I have my beer bod, but then we have trophy wives who are supposed to be skinny and beautiful? So that's a definite gender kind of double standard. Like you were saying about capitalism, as the West began to influence, especially like Africa, african understandings of what a beautiful body drastically changed from a larger, curvier body 50, 100 years ago was the ideal culturally. And then the more the West influenced Africa, the skinnier the assumptions were for beautiful women. So yeah, the capitalism Western like it's all, there's all these double standards that's culturally infused.
Beth Felker Jones: 17:02
So this beautiful, older, now African murder mystery at HBO. Sadly they only made one season. The number one ladies detective agency.
Cyd Holsclaw: 17:11
I think I got a show here.
Beth Felker Jones: 17:14
Jill Scott, who's a curvy woman, plays the main detective and when people are commenting on her size, she always says I'm a woman of traditional size and it's really beautiful.
Geoff Holsclaw: 17:26
Sorry for interrupting that for you, and it's not just like standards of beauty to, it's also age, and so we're addicted to youth here in the West. I remember when I was 24, I was in seminary and we were in a pastoral counseling class and the professor had said something to a woman I forget exactly how the conversation went and he, like accidentally, asked her age. And then he took the question back, like oh, I'm not supposed to ask your age. And then the woman said I am from the Jamaican culture that believes that age is valuable. And then she stated how old she was because she is of a non-Western culture that always wants to celebrate youth. And I was like you know, I'm sitting there, white guy I don't know. And I was like, oh, I need to think about that more. Like the celebration of youth is part of this body conversation too, and the not celebrating our elders and those, you know, her, older. So we don't have to go down that rabbit trail.
Beth Felker Jones: 18:30
I just wanted to put a pin in like our celebration of and again connected to gender, though right as men age, they're distinguished and respectable, and women just age out of visibility in certain ways.
Geoff Holsclaw: 18:45
That's true. And then you'll want to hide your age with different you know. Yeah, you could talk about that, or not?
Cyd Holsclaw: 18:51
Well, no, actually I have a different question.
Geoff Holsclaw: 18:53
Okay, go ahead, I'm gonna go in a different direction.
Cyd Holsclaw: 18:54
So I think you know I'm curious because I know a lot of the work that I do with clients is about, you know, befriending your body, like sort of learning to live at peace in your body, and especially as people experience trauma and understand trauma, so even with you know the pivotal book of Bessel Vanderkalk, that the body keeps the score. Like how do you address that from a theological way, that our bodies hold our histories. They hold our stories and in some sense they hold the sin committed against us. They hold the brokenness of the world. So can you just speak to that and how you teach that from a theological perspective.
Beth Felker Jones: 19:35
Let me recommend highly Andi Colbert's book Try Softer. Yes, so good, it's a kind of Christian version of the body keeps the score and is very, very helpful on this. For me, theologically, the image of Jesus bringing with him into the resurrection the scars of his crucifixion is a really central image, one that I can't fully unpack in words, but the idea that our final redemption and resurrection right, which includes our bodies, doesn't erase the histories of violence and pain which are written on our bodies, but instead carries them forward into redemption right, in a way where we have badges of God's healing and goodness, what exactly that might look like right, is something we can only imagine. I think it's really important. Those scars aren't erased, they're redeemed, and I think that's a helpful way, for me at least, to think about the stories of violence and hurt in my own life. Those stories are part of who I am right, and to wipe them out would be to not tell the truth about the way sin works in this world, and it would be to not tell the truth about healing, and so I think they can't be wiped out, they have to be integrated, and that's part of what those scars that Jesus bears suggests to me.
Cyd Holsclaw: 21:22
Yeah, I just love the way you said that. You know that it's the stories are brought into the resurrection, that there is a redemption of the whole story, and it just sort of brings to mind a story that we told in our book about. When I learned about how strawberries are grown in California I don't know if they're still grown this way I think it's probably changed with the growth of organic farming but the strawberries are cloned from this initial tissue and so they're sort of perfectly cloned that they'll all have the same genetics, that they'll all look the same and be about the same size. And then so they take this genetic cloning and that's the starters for all of these strawberries, and then they sort of humigate the soil to kill anything that could threaten the growth of the strawberries. So you take this combination of this cloned strawberry and the sterile soil and what you get is big, beautiful looking strawberries that just don't taste like strawberries should. And so I'm thinking about, you know, even just and this is a little bit, probably not as great as profound as you said it but the way that each of us carry a story that does in some sense sort of flavor, the way that people experience God through us, because we all carry these different histories and the way that God has met us in those stories. I just have been thinking lately about how our bodies are the only place where God can meet with us, because we're incapable of being anywhere else but in our bodies.
Beth Felker Jones: 22:57
How God made this world, created that way.
Cyd Holsclaw: 22:59
yeah, yeah so our bodies become like this sacramental place where God meets us. It's the only place he can meet us, as in our bodies, and if we refuse to be in our bodies, then in some sense we refuse the presence of God with us.
Beth Felker Jones: 23:17
One way to define the body, kind of outside of theology out there in philosophy, is as a place for connections. Right, that's what our body is a place for connection. And yeah, if our purpose is to love God and love neighbor, then we do it in the body.
Geoff Holsclaw: 23:36
Amen. Well, you did end that post, and I wanna kinda end our time together referencing 1 Corinthians 6, 19 and 20. Do you not know that your bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own, you were bought at a price. Therefore, glorify God with your bodies. And so I was wondering if we could end with, well, just a reflection, like what does it mean to glorify God with our bodies? And then like how do we do that? What does that look like? We'll throw it to you, beth and Sid. You can throw in stuff too.
Beth Felker Jones: 24:13
It certainly doesn't mean watch your weight and sculpt your abs right, each abs. It means love people and that does mean health, right, eating for health, moving for health, but our eating and gym practices are so far away from health. It means to love people and to love yourself, because you can't love people without doing so Right. Love your neighbor as yourself requires a kind of self love. I've been pondering that moment where Paul says nobody ever hated their own body. I think most of us do, and that signifies to me a real need for us to find something new here. So to glorify God in your body means to become like Jesus, right, and it means to include and to embrace in our embodied lives the beauty of created diversity, right, gendered, ethnic and racialized diversities, all the diversities, right, which, which mark us. Those aren't something to be wiped away into a homogenized standard of magazine beauty, right, but but things to be carried into our, our loves. Yeah, I'm thinking about those strawberries there.
Cyd Holsclaw: 25:41
I don't know if I have anything to add other than you know. Just thinking that for like I like to think of, glorifying God in my body means because God is a God of reconciliation. So even just to learn to live at peace in my body and to demonstrate that I can live peacefully within this flesh is living like Jesus, who lived at peace in trustful surrender in his flesh. And so in that sense, just if I can be reconciled to my body, it's going to be easier for me to be reconciled with other people. If I can't even have reconciliation within my own body, if I'm constantly at war with my own body, it's going to be awfully hard not to carry that tension and that battle into all of my relationships.
Beth Felker Jones: 26:24
And so I have some things needed to practice, to pray, particularly about that in moments where I'm particularly aware of my body, when exercising, when getting a massage. God, help me to glorify you in my body and stop thinking about this as a big old mess that I have to correct properly.
Cyd Holsclaw: 26:51
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Geoff Holsclaw: 26:53
I think about the. Our bodies are made for connection and loving others. I know there's a thought that, like the desert, you know fathers and mothers and monasticism and asceticism is a real body denying a modification, which is true, right, and sometimes there's excesses, but when you read the manuals, it's always if there is a visitor that you're hosting, you will break your fast and you will celebrate with the visitor. And so there's the hospitality of the loving others and loving strangers that supersedes any kind of practice or mortification of the flesh that they're engaged with, because it's the serving and loving which is prime, which is the goal, and I think so. I just wanted to throw that out.
Beth Felker Jones: 27:34
There was just learning and even the mortification of the flesh of the fast is at its best. Not a body is horrible, right, but it's a recognition of the ways that our body is who we are and that what we do in the body is integral to our spiritual life. We don't fast to punish the body. We fast to focus on God. And in a body hating culture, maybe some of us shouldn't fast, and that's okay too.
Geoff Holsclaw: 28:02
Yeah, yeah, as we you know this podcast of being recorded just right at the beginning of lunch. You know where people pick up those fasts, yeah, and sometimes it's the yeah. Maybe your fast is the fast from exercising not you personally, but like, I think there are people who are addicted to exercising and this vision of themselves and the process, like actually your fastest not to exercise and I think that's a possibility that that exists.
Cyd Holsclaw: 28:28
I just you know he's not talking specifically to me, but I hear that as like oh yes, that's. I can resonate with that. I've had a, you know, I had a concussion a couple weeks ago and I haven't been able to exercise yet and it's really bothering me, not necessarily because I have the ideal, but there is some sense of like I have to move my body in particular ways in order to feel comfortable in my body. And if I start to feel less strong than there is, like there, there's a spiritual part of that. So thanks for just throwing that out.
Beth Felker Jones: 28:57
This is good, right, it is good. Yeah, it's so twisted in our culture and our thinking and how to, how to sort all that together is is not easy.
Geoff Holsclaw: 29:09
Well, that's why we're calling this embodied faith, so we could just figure it out and wrestle. I know that piece of advice I got early in my past. Oral life and spiritual journey was sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is to get a good night's sleep. Yeah, and take care of your body, of nurse your body, get enough sleep, all these types of things. All these types of things I always say that's always bust me for it. Well, I think we could end with. You know, this is a foundational verse in Galatians 220. I have been crucified with Christ. So we don't even talked about what that means, right, but that's a whole another conversation. I've been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, which is flesh there. The life I live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself up for me. And so, yeah, the life we have in these bodies is the site in which we are becoming more like Jesus, we're becoming more able to receive the love that he has given to us, and the place by which we get to share that love with others.
Cyd Holsclaw: 30:16
Yeah, Jesus wears our humanity and then invites us to wear his divinity in our bodies. Such a beautiful.
Beth Felker Jones: 30:28
Geoff Holsclaw: 30:29
Well, we'll put all these things in the show notes, but can you tell people where they can find you online? And then some of the things you're doing there at Northern Seminary?
Beth Felker Jones: 30:37
Yeah, thanks for asking at Facebook, twitter, instagram, best felker Jones, all one word. The thing I'm most excited about right now is a new sub stack newsletter. You can also find that, probably big Googling best felker Jones. That's where this post is about the body, as well as some other things. Instagram, instagram Northern delightful place to serve. Love my students so much. If you're interested in theological education, check us out. I'm happy to talk to you about it. Particularly, I'm directing a new demon program, doctor of ministry for pastors and Christian leaders who are interested in connecting theology to their work context ministry calling. If you are a pastor, theologian or someone who really believes that theology is good for the church and that it could help you do your work, I'd love to talk to you about that. Looking at that program. And, yeah, it's. It's the great privilege of my life to come side people as we, as we seek the things of God. So happy to continue to be in conversation.
Geoff Holsclaw: 31:40
Amen. Well you, regarding northern, if you're looking for a master's program, there's pretty much continuing enrollment, so you could check that out. As far as the demon that you mentioned is, that is the first class this summer or is it this fall?
Beth Felker Jones: 31:53
The first class will be at the end of August. Applications are open now and you can hop online and look at that and we'll help you out with any questions you have.
Geoff Holsclaw: 32:02
Cyd Holsclaw: 32:04
It's so good to be with you today.
Geoff Holsclaw: 32:06
To Beth, thank you so much for taking the time and because we don't always get to do this, but someone said and now I get to press the button so it shows up but Holly said thank you for bringing this topic into the light. So, holly, thank you for watching live for those of you who are listening to this, thank you so much for listening. Please share it. You can subscribe on YouTube. You can find it on where I don't have it written in front of me, on Apple, on Spotify. Please subscribe, and we do. You know there's some technology fees and other things. So you know this podcast is blessing you. There is a little donation link that you can kind of help offset these things. But, beth, thank you so much for your ministry at northern and elsewhere and thank you for taking a little time to jump on today.
Beth Felker Jones: 32:51
Thanks for having me.
Geoff Holsclaw: 32:52
Thanks, beth, and we will talk to you all sometime soon.