Book Review: Earthen Vessels by Matthew Lee Anderson

An idea that gets thrown around a lot these days is being “incarnational.” We’re desperately trying to figure out how we are to live out our faith in the here and now—but we might have missed a step, suggests Matthew Lee Anderson. Before we can really figure out how to live our our faith, we need to understand why our bodies matter to our faith. That’s his goal in Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith, where he seeks to help readers develop a theology of the body.

Anderson’s book is roughly divided into two parts—the first gives readers the theological framework for thinking about the body (chapters 1-4) and the second (chapters 5-11) deal heavily with a working doctrine of the body’s implications. When seeking to develop a theology of the body, Anderson (perhaps surprisingly) turns to a broader stream of thought, one that includes John Paul II’s work on the subject. This is helpful for readers as it drives the point home that we’ve done a pretty lousy job of addressing the topic directly. It’s not that evangelicals have been ambivalent or hostile toward the body per se, bu there is a sense in which “evangelical attempts at understanding the body’s role in our spiritual lives seems to have been dominantly reactive rather than proactive” (p. 41).

But why is it that we need to discuss this topic at all? Because how we think about the body directly affects how we live in the body. Or, as Anderson puts it, “What the body is shapes what the body does” (p. 53). So our view of the body directly impacts what we do with it. If we think of the body as a prison or a machine, we’re less likely to properly steward and enjoy it as God intended. But if we see the body in the way that Scripture describes it, which is that who we are (our inner life) is inextricable from what we are (embodied beings), then it changes everything. “What our bodies do, we do,” explains Anderson. “What we do to other animated bodies, we do to other persons” (p. 60). Because we are social creatures whose authority over creation has been divinely appointed, we can’t be reduced to the naked individual, choosing only the relationships we deem to have value, anymore than we can use our authority to “exploit creation for our own (broken) ends” (p. 78).

As Anderson digs deeper into the implications of our view of the body, he leaves few controversial subjects untouched. He looks at tattoos (chapter 6), he does so by asking what is a tattoo? Because the ancient practice of tattooing is incredibly distinct from our modern version (ours is primarily about aesthetic self-expression, where the ancient world’s was primarily about ownership, and thus a point of shame), we must be careful to examine both the Scriptures and our motivations for getting tattoos. Is it a means of self-expression or attempt at self-construction? Anderson’s handling of this subject is one of the highlights of this book.

Equally insightful are his chapters on the pleasures of the body (chapter 7, dealing with sex, marriage & pornography) and homosexuality (chapter 8). Here again, he shows the depth that a working theology of the body adds to the debates surrounding all sorts of questions that these topics bring up. “Sexual purity”—whether acting upon heterosexual or homosexual desires—”is a communal concern because what each person does with their body affects everyone else,” he writes (p. 155). What’s fascinating is how he builds the argument against pornography, not only because of its links to sex-trafficking, but because “human sexuality is inherently social, and masturbation is not” (p. 135). Sex is to be an act of self-giving to one’s spouse, allowing one another the freedom to enjoy one another. He also tackles the potentially dehumanizing effect of treating sex like a “need”:

The teaching that our wholeness depends upon sexual fulfilment lies behind many of the problems in evangelical teaching about sex. We implicitly convey to young people that sex is a need by marginalizing those who re single or cordoning them off in singles groups so that they will hopefully get married. Then we expect them to live some of the most sexually charged years of their lives without yielding to temptation. No wonder young people struggle to stay sexually pure: either sex is essential to their flourishing as humans or it isn’t . And if everyone who is married thinks it is, then young people will too—regardless of whatever else we tell them. (p. 132)

There’s so much ground that’s covered in these chapters, it’s a struggle to adequately summarize them; indeed, these two chapters (seven and eight) are truly worth the price of the book alone.

There’s a sense in which I really don’t envy Anderson for having written Earthen Vessels. The content is extremely challenging in all the right ways and it is very engaging, but there’s a very obvious tension that exists in a book like this—that is, who is the audience? Is it the academic or the lay reader? This tension was more apparent in early chapters (and felt very obvious when Jean-François Lyotard was referenced) than in the latter half of the book. As Anderson transitioned away from thinking about the body to thinking about what we do in the body, he seemed much more comfortable, less formal (and had fewer references to Oliver O’Donovan, whose work I’m looking forward to reading).

Evangelicals will do themselves a great service by becoming more proactive in developing an understanding of the body if we’re serious about practically living out our faith. Matt Anderson’s careful and faithful work in Earthen Vessels will prove to be an invaluable resource. Read it thoughtfully and carefully and see how it changes your view of the body as a result.

Title: Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith
Author: Matthew Lee Anderson
Publisher: Bethany House (2011)

Posted by Aaron Armstrong

Aaron is the author of several books including the Big Truths Bible Storybook, Epic Devotions, Awaiting a Savior: The Gospel, the New Creation, and the End of Poverty, and Contend: Defending the Faith in a Fallen World. His next book, published by Lexham Press, will release in Spring 2023.

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2 Replies to “Book Review: Earthen Vessels by Matthew Lee Anderson”

  1. I was at a conference last week and attended a workshop on Sexuality and Singles — defined more broadly than just genital sex. The concept of the body in relation to being human was a foundational point. This sounds like a good book to read to expand on that theme.

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