The Torching of Earthen Vessels: A Reply to Frank Turk

It’s oddly fitting that while we were examining whether and how patriotism is compatible with Christianity on the Fourth of July, Frank Turk of the Pyromaniacs was torching my book.

“Torching,” for those who are keeping score at home, is a figure of speech.  At least I am pretty sure it is.  Judging by the review itself, I wouldn’t be half surprised to learn he actually pulled out the gas and matches.  In short, he really did not like it.

Here’s a little backstory:  I had dinner with Frank a few weeks back and it was a spirited and friendly conversation that I thoroughly enjoyed.  I like Frank a lot:  he’s like the curmudgeonly uncle who comes over for Thanksgiving and buries a few intellectual gems inside a whole lot of snark.  We don’t often agree, but I’m still willing to listen.  So when he told me he hated the book, I suggested rather pointedly that he should say so online.  Frank has been around a long time and has skewered a lot of people.  To come under the knife is something of a rite of passage and it makes me just a little bit proud.

Or at least it might have, had Frank demonstrated that he’d even read it.  But taking only the review itself, there’s only scant evidence for that.

Frank has, I gather, three complaints that he wishes to lodge against the book.  The first is that it is not the book he expected, the book that evangelicals need.  As he puts it:

His intellectual fire power is so great, I was really hoping that he would, in a manner of speaking, split the atom of apologetics in a popular style so that the resulting blast would have taken out all the trite babbling which passes for spiritual writing on the subject.  I was hoping for a practical theological mushroom cloud which would rattle the popular discussion.

Now ignore Frank’s silly overestimation of my own ability, because it really is quite laughable (or terrifying–I could go either way).  The thing to take away, kids, is that there is no reviewer quite so dangerous as the disappointed reviewer.  The sort of expectations that Frank had for the book turned out to be too high.  Okay, then.  So?  The sensible thing to do with a book once it fails to live up to your over-inflated hopes is to evaluate it on its own terms, to see the goods that are there and learn to appreciate them as such.  That Frank clearly failed to do, at least judging by his review.

But allow me to add this:  I said when I set out that I had hoped the work would help an evangelical conversation about the theology of the body eventually emerge, but that if it didn’t that someone else would fill in the gap.  In fact, I have sometimes half-heartedly joked that the fact I was allowed to write the book to begin with is itself an indictment of the evangelical theological world.  That conversation hasn’t yet emerged and it’s clear my book won’t be its catalyst.  But when Frank suggests he is writing the review in order to goad “someone else to try and write it until we get it right,” well, I’ll join him in that effort.  Nothing would make me happier than a work on the subject I could give out besides my own.

Let’s move on.  Frank’s second complaint is that I’ve allegedly committed a gross inconsistency by critiquing evangelicals and their relationship to the secular culture in the second chapter and then praising evangelicals for the same in the seventh.  The offending sentence in the seventh chapter is this:  “If there were a sexual arms race, evangelicals would be winning.”  As Frank puts it, “To say that we are somehow a superpower in the sexual arms race when one has already establish how inept we are at engaging unbelievers is, frankly, just sloppy.”

Here I can only presume that Frank had grown so tired of the book that he simply gave up reading.  And I’ll take some of the blame for that.  When readers fail to understand, it ought to make the author pause and consider whether things have come off as well as he imagines.  So I’m open to having dropped this particular ball.

But Frank’s critique here is akin to me simply quoting this line from his review and then moving on:  “[Matt's] a bright fellow who has a deep liberal education, and he writes like someone who is really there, really in the middle of the intellectual playing field when he’s blogging.”  It would be so misleading it might even be funny.

So let me simply quote myself, from all of one page later (122):

“For all [evangelicals'] efforts to recover the goodness of pleasure, our understanding of human sexuality still does not go very deep.  The loud arguments within evangelicalism that pleasure is good border on defensively shouting, “Hey, we’ve got pleasure too!” in a world that cares about little else. Evangelicals can and should win the pleasure war, but not on the same terms as the world.  And judging by our literature and manner of life, we are closer to treating sexual pleasure as an idol than we have ever been to treating it as a curse.”

And there you have it, folks, precisely the sort of critique of the evangelical mentality about sex that Frank was looking for and that is perfectly consonant with chapter two (a point on the side of the book’s internal unity, he said).   What’s more, that’s the sort of critique that I’ve been making in various places for at least the past year.   Disappointment has a way of going around, I suppose, because I was frankly hoping that Frank would have taken it upon himself to actually engage the substance of the book.  But at this single point of contact, he so so badly misreads me that I don’t quite know what else to say in response.

Frank’s final concern, of course, is probably to blame for why he read that all so badly:  he finds the book boring, pedantic, a little too academic for his tastes.  He thinks it reads like a term paper and even goes so far as to call into question my belief in “the thesis of Earthen Vessels,” which I take to be that the gospel offers good news for human bodies.

It is true that the book came off more academic than I was hoping, largely because the enormous gravity of the subjects that I dealt with impelled me at every turn to show as much of my work as my editor would allow.  I could have buried my sources, let my prose go, and turned in a very different book.  It might have sold better and perhaps Frank would have gotten quite a bit less sleep.

But I didn’t.  And if Frank wants to suggest that somehow my failure indicates an unsteady grasp on the gospel, well, he’s looking for evidence in the wrong places.   But from what I can tell, St. Paul would have had a tough time getting Romans through his framework, because the lifting is very heavy and the moments of jubilous exaltation are relatively few.  I might even say they come on balance about as often as they do in Earthen Vessels.  

So the point about the writing, well, I understand.  Really, I do.  I did not write the book as well as I had wanted, as well as I could have.  Three more edits would have improved the book considerably, smoothed over some of its rough edges and made it a bit more accessible.  Much like the human body, the thing is rather imperfect and may take some sitting with in order to appreciate.  But the real question is whether there is anything worth sitting there for, whether there are any treasures buried beneath the imperfect prose and excessive quotations.  That is a question that Frank Turk does not answer because it is a question he does not seem to be interested in.   I still have the vanity to believe there is, but then I have written the book so I know how to read it.  And so it is a question, it seems, that you can only answer for yourself.

 

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The Price of Earthen Vessels ($3.49) and the Value of Writing

The quickly lowering price of Earthen Vessels for the Kindle (now $3.49, for a limited time) prompted this question from a friend:

At what point is that kind of painful? It’s such a great book; you slaved over it for ages. And now Amazon wants to charge less for it than the latte I’m drinking?? This is a very messed up country.

The real question, of course, is why she was drinking a latte when there are digital copies to be sold. Does it matter that the supply is limitless? I think not.

But there’s a serious question here that prompted a lot of thought. I’ve specifically avoided writing about writing and publishing, in part because it’s rather clichéd for writers to go meta as soon as they’ve found a little success and in part because I still haven’t found much success. Ask me again when I write something that comes out like Oliver O’Donovan, Annie Dillard, or Rick Warren—three writers who all mastered their respective approaches, different though they might be. In other words, it seems presumptuous to speak about the craft of writing at my age (though probably not more presumptuous than speaking of theological anthropology—consistency, who needs it?).

Yet I have realized that with respect to this project, at this stage in my life, I simply don’t care how much the publisher charges. The less it costs, the better, if it increases the odds that the thing will be read.

As an author, I sometimes feel a tension between something like charity for my audience and a burning to simply say something that needs to be said, in the precise way I want to say it.  Such a burning isn’t necessarily rooted in a lack of concern for the audience.  Rather, there is a sense of disaffectedness, a detachment from the need to listen to the market’s opinions that selling a book necessarily introduces.

It is a little weird that we sell books at all, actually.  Yes, we need to eat and publishers have to pay bills.  All of that is well and good.  But every now and then, we ought to think about our books outside that context and hope that we’ve written something that is good enough that (paradoxically) it should still be around even if it doesn’t make any money at all.    Continue reading

Instruments for Righteousness: The Earthen Vessels Symposium (Ch. 10)

I have been rather reluctant to write anything in response to Fred Sanders’ post about Earthen Vessels, if only because I’m convinced it’s better than the book itself.  Fred has a way with things, and it’s fully on display here.

You won’t want to miss this one, particularly if you were one of those folks who thought that the book felt like a rambling set of blog posts.

I’m tempted to simply quote favorite lines from Fred’s piece, but I’ll simply offer a few broader thoughts instead, and trust that you’ll do yourself a favor and go read his.  I endorse it unequivocally, unhesitatingly, and vigorously.

First off, Fred writes: “Evangelical spirituality, which is shaped in response to the good news that our salvation has been purchased for us, is inescapably mundane,” he says, playing off of the word mundus, earth. “It takes our position in the world seriously, and the body as our connection with it.”

This connection, of course, runs throughout the whole book in various ways.  The fourth and fifth chapters, for instance, find me rambling on about consumerism, the relationship between humans and the rest of creation and the ways in which architecture, technology, and the media shape our perception of our own bodies.  I have sometimes been fascinated by the question of how the death of one man made possible the renewal of the whole cosmos.  While that man was Lord of the cosmos, the conformity of our bodies to his death and resurrection will invariably result in the transformation of the social space that our lives inhabit.

Think through the logic this way:  Paul suggests that we are to “present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.”  There’s an attentiveness that’s built into that idea of “presentation,” a way of being in our hands and feet that impels them from within to go about things very differently.

Yet to choose a slightly different example, presenting the instruments of our eyebrows to God as “instruments for righteousness” will lead to subtle shifts in our daily relationships.  My example is one of stress and concern:  some of us simply look it, and look it without realizing it.  And our friends and neighbors, bashful as they are, will usually detect it but very rarely point it out.  Faithful, local transformation can start at home, in the reframing of our bodies through the presenting of our members to God.

Of course, that all raises the question about what the pattern is for the presentation of our bodies to God.  And here, I was reluctant to move too far away from the pattern we see in the person of Jesus.  Which is why when I get to yoga, well, I’ll let Fred summarize:

And with language about “holy attentiveness” to the parts of the body, Anderson knows he’s saying things that you hear in your local evangelical-populated yoga studio. Anderson flirts with recent yoga controversy, but eventually says that yoga’s no big deal if it’s just exercise. Go ahead, get in touch with your toes. Literally. But the more theologically meaningful your yoga is, the worse it is.

I couldn’t have put it better, and it nails the concerns I have for those approaches to embodied spirituality where the Spirit ends up bleeding all over the place into everything.  The end result is a badly charismatic neo-Kuyperian transformationalism that loses any distinctiveness or hard edge to which we can say “no” to things.  What starts with yoga ends up somewhere around Pole Dancing for Jesus.

So, I hang about the sorts of spiritual disciplines that are easily discernible in the life of Jesus;  prayer, fasting, silence and solitude, and reading the Bible.  But I’ll give the last word to Fred, who nails what I’m after in each of them:

But don’t miss the fact that these disciplines are introduced here for one specific purpose: to portray a pattern of Christian existence that follows the death-and-resurrection pattern of salvation. In a theme that runs through the whole book, Anderson warns that “our transformation is not a technique. We do not sculpt ourselves into the image of Christ.”

The Body’s Narrative

When I sat down to write Earthen Vessels, one of my hopes was to explore the body in its relationship to time and our own personal narratives.  That, like many of my hopes, was dashed upon the rocks as I set about the writing.  I couldn’t figure out the best way to jam it in, only one of the book’s many inadequacies.

But leave it to a friend, Father David Baumann, to write an absolutely lovely meditation that expresses it all quite better than I might have:

I can only imagine what Jesus’ body was like. It is easy to assume that his hands bore calluses and scars from carpentry, that his feet were hard from much walking, his muscles were corded, and his skin darkened by frequent exposure to the sun.

The skin of a young child is like a blank canvas. Life’s adventures are few at that age. Human skin is a medium on which is written the tales of one’s life. Take the thought deeply enough and one can become immersed in the meaning of Jesus’ incarnation—the word, literally translated, means “in the meat.”  God himself took our flesh, and had skin as we have, and it came to bear the marks of his divine life on earth. Go even farther, and one comes to resurrection—the destiny of the believer’s body on the far side of death. The resurrected body becomes perfect, yet surely will be recognizable through its direct connection with this life.

Once my skin was as flawless as that of the child I bathed, but now my scars, wrinkles, and blemishes tell the unique tale of my life, every mark on my body evidence of some adventure or escapade, even if just the adventure of living for more than six decades in the world. “My body shall rest in hope,” says Psalm 16:9b. My body, such as it is, also lives in hope. Jesus shared my human nature, and shares it still. In my love for him, I await the consummation in the greatest adventure of all.

 “Human skin is a medium on which are written the tales of one’s life.”  I could not more perfectly put the point.

An Interview of Massive Proportions: Grounded with Ryan Dobson

Well, here’s something.

Ryan Dobson has all the radio instincts of his mildly famous father, and his co-host Toben is a crack up.   The combination made for a lively, rollicking conversation that opened with me reducing Montana to F-150 outdoorsy and Washington to Subaru-Outback-sporty-outdoorsy.  A joke about Oregon being the home of VW’s, and it was downhill from there.

For two solid hours. 

In short, it was the most fun on a radio interview I’ve ever had, and if they were all this fun I’d give up writing and go work in radio.

We talk everything from my life in high school to the history of Mere-O to tattoos (Ryan has several, which officially made him the first radio host who understood the culture) to sex and everything else.  If you’re new to Mere-O and want to hear a little about my background, some of the key parts are there in the first ten minutes.  And if you want to know what I fail at, it’s there in the last five.

With a lot of interesting, relevant stuff in between (particularly the second hour, when I found my groove and we really began going).

If you have been reading Mere-O for five years or five months, I suspect you will find it an interesting and enjoyable listen.

Death’s Double Aspect: The Earthen Vessels Symposium (Ch. 9)

There’s no time for niceties here:  Ben Simpson has a critique to offer, and it’s a solid one:

Is death an enemy, an evidence of a horrendous evil still operative in our world?  Has death been defeated, or does it wait for a final defeat?  Resurrection awaits us, yes, but we still must die if our end comes before Christ’s return, and if this is so, what is our posture toward death when it comes?

This is the tension, and it is a tension that I believe needs further nuance and greater care.  When we say that the body is mortal, we concede we live with this reality in view, and we must ascribe to this reality a reason for its presence.  Death is coming, for the world we have been born into is not as it should be.  The enemy, death, remains, though that enemy has been defeated, so that when death comes, it can be received not with despair, but with triumph.  Triumph comes by way of Christ and his resurrection, who is the first fruits of the resurrection to come.

Though Mr. Anderson asserts the reality of a future hope, asserting strongly a belief in the resurrection, he needs to develop an eschatological line of reasoning, one that develops death as consequence of sin, Christ as victorious over death in the cross, the resurrection as an evidence of future hope, and that future hope as determinative for how we can live without fear of death in the present.  Ultimate hope shapes present outlook, including my view of the body and how I am to live while I remain within it.  Paul’s remaining in the flesh, I believe, was shaped by just this kind of conviction, as was his posture toward death.  Death would come, whenever the Lord so appointed.  Until that day came, however, he could joyfully proclaim what he knew to be true concerning Jesus.

The “tension” that Ben gets on to goes straight to the heart of the chapter, and really to the heart of the book as well.  There’s lots more room to develop it along the lines that Ben suggests, but let me offer just this much.

I think Ben hasn’t quite described my take on Paul in the first part. The fault lies with me:  I don’t work out my thoughts on the passage in relationship to the categories of creation and redemption, but Ben’s thoughts are giving me that opportunity.  To it, then.

Ben summarizes my reading this way:

“[Death] is rather to be received, and the life that is given until that day is to be regarded as a grace and a responsibility.  It is a gift that is to be stewarded.  Death, then, is not a “horrendous evil,” but a witness to the brokenness and decay of the present created order.  Paul, as he is portrayed here in Philippians, is softened somewhat.  It is gain, but not a gain that is to be rushed.”

All of that I agree with, except for Ben’s suggestion that the “witness to the brokenness and decay of the present created order” and “horrendous evil” are mutually incompatible.  It is precisely that “brokenness” that is so tragic, and which is the same “irruption of the created order” that Ben later suggests I’ve inconsistently introduced. Paul’s death points to the “irruption” of the created order as much as my friend Justin’s.  Only such irruptions are, in light of the resurrection, viewed as moments whose meaning is transformed by grace.

In that sense, the manner of our death signifies both dimensions:  it points to the brokenness of the fall and our restoration in Christ.  Paul’s confession that “To die is gain” is startling precisely because of its reversal¾without our prior confession of death’s irregularity, then it lacks any of the power that it so clearly has.  The hope that we have doesn’t look past death¾instead, in looking at death it sees not death’s triumph, but it’s tragic defeat, it’s pursuits and aims rendered senseless by the redemptive grace of God.

When Ben talks about how we should hold “death within our imagination,” then, he is exactly right to suggest that it should eschatologically formed.  But the eschatological dimension of death’s defeat has its power in light of the recognition of death’s radical disruption of the original created goodness.  This double-aspect of our relationship to death was not clarified like it should have been, and hopefully this is a step toward doing that.

 

 

 

Christian Ethics and Gay Desires: The Earthen Vessels Symposium (Ch. 8)

On page 28 of Earthen Vessels I quoted Oliver O’Donovan’s standard for theological ethics:  “The Church can be committed to ethics without moderating the tone of its voice as the bearer of glad tidings.”

On the question of homosexuality, I felt the burden of that responsibility more keenly than anywhere else.  Brian Hedges deploys the language of contextualization to explain what I’m up to.  It’s an astute point, and one that is applicable to the book beyond just this chapter.

Some of the early reviews suggested that Earthen Vessels read like a collection of blog posts that had been (more or less) stapled together.  I thought that description is wrong then, and I still think it wrong now.  But until Brian’s review, I don’t think I had reflected well enough on just how deeply my experience blogging shaped my book.

Those who stopped at its formal arrangement stayed only on the surface:  somewhat paradoxically, while the book uses the most polarizing language possible (sin) and references a narrow sliver of Christianity far too often (evangelicals), it is often shaped by public concerns.  Baptism and communion are hardly “private” events, but as practices they are unique to the church.  Tattoos, sexuality, cremation, video screens–these are the points where Christianity’s claim to affect every part of creation begins to matter to those outside the fold, for they are places where our Christian witness either affirms or denies the practices of the world.

As someone whose writing has, for the better part of seven years, happened almost exclusively in public, I feel that obligation to “contextualize” pretty deeply–more deeply, I think, than I have realized.  We call it “Mere Orthodoxy,” but we didn’t spend the early years doing very much at all within the Christian online community.  That’s changed, slowly, and I’m mostly sorry for it.  Most of my “friends” online are Christians, but I still love places like The League, where a broad range of positions have a voice.

But when it comes to my thoughts on homosexuality in that chapter, my hope was to give people categories for understanding the sort of cultural pressures that are at work and provide pastors some tools to see how sexual activity can be closer to the center of our identity than other forms of activity without being the center.  The link, surprise, is the body.  Our identities are outside ourselves, in Christ and his love (and his body, the church).  But because of who we are, the unions that we enact with our body are of first importance to Christian ethics.

There are, though, other ways of formulating things.  For instance, sexuality is not only about “identity,” but also about organizing and arranging our lives together.  What’s more, sexual desire is a tricky, complicated thing.  Someday I’m going to write a book on it directly, and explore more deeply the nature of desire and how gay and lesbian desires are similar and different from heterosexual desire.  Desires might be all the same sorts of things, but as they are intimately bound up with the object they don’t always have the same effect on us.

At any rate, Brian is right to highlight the language of contextualization.  But contextualization is not enough, and going forward evangelicals need to push our thoughts even further than we have.

 

 

Worship and the Missional Movement: Zac Hicks on Earthen Vessels

Life circumstances have put me behind on responding, but haven’t kept Zac Hicks from interacting with my final chapter (life circumstances have also precluded the person who volunteered for chapter 10 from responding to it, so there you have it).

Zac’s at the forefront of the new crop of evangelical worship leaders, and as a fellow Biola alumnus is one of God’s chosen people.  His substantive reflections on worship are must-reading.  This is from part two:

Bending the worship structure “for the sake of the lost” carries through today to the modern missional movement (at least in its more extreme and radical thinkers), which will bend nearly all worship practices toward the supremacy of evangelism, such that, without question or pause, we’ll start online church and video feeds of our preachers.  As distressed as Anderson is with the inadequate anthropology exposed here, equally distressing is the lack of much of any theology of corporate worship.  In a recent email exchange with a friend of mine as we were dialoguing about the missional church movement, I asked him, “Could it be that the more extreme advocates for the missional church ultimately are molding a church that is so sent that it is never gathered?”  If the goal of mission is to gather the nations in, this leads to the question of what the nations are being gathered to.  Scripture seems clear that, in the words of John Piper, “missions exists because worship doesn’t.”19  The reality is the physical gathering of people on a weekly basis for the worship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is the most important and central thing that human beings do.20  Period.  Does this downplay mission?  Not at all.  If anything, it contextualizes it and infuses it with even more meaning and significance.

I’ll only have limited access to these internets (for writing, anyway) until December 15th.  So no promises I will be able to respond, but I am taking careful note of the comments there and will write up a massive response after that.

Thanks, as ever, for reading.

On Sexual Apologetics: The Earthen Vessels Symposium (Ch. 7)

Jake Meador, writing about my take on sexuality, wants me to expand my thoughts on the “apologetic undercurrent” of evangelical teachings about sexuality:

Sadly, evangelicals are often unwilling or unprepared to identify what’s sand and what’s solid ground. So on matters of sexuality, our discussion ends up trapped in the “sex and pleasure” cul de sac in which its impossible – or at least quite difficult – to discuss sex in terms other than the immediate bodily pleasure it gives us. Rather than concede that point, evangelicals need to reset the discussion. Anderson does that wonderfully, but it’d be interesting to hear him address the base cause of our muddled discussion, which comes from the “apologetic undercurrent” influencing the discussion.

I understand Jake’s concern here, and it’s one that I clearly share.  The evangelical mantra of “Hey, we have great sex too!” is wearisome and embarrassing.

But let’s just acknowledge the difficulties of the evangelical situation, if only to understand it better.  On the one hand, trying to shift the ground such that pleasure isn’t the only good under consideration almost invariably comes across as negative toward pleasure.  And for good reason:  near the heart of the evangelical proclamation about sexuality is the idea that pleasure, while good, isn’t good enough to justify a particular sex act on its own.

On the other hand, this narrative that evangelicals are hostile toward sex and pleasure is so pervasive that it shapes even our affirmations.  Evangelicals share the blame for this narrative, of course, as we’ve retold it enough within our own movement (how else to sell those books and fill those conferences?).  But in attempting to offer an alternative, we rarely escape its domain.  Why start with full-throated affirmation’s of sex and pleasure’s goodness?  There’s no reason to, except to defang the sneaking suspicion that we’re opposed.

Which is to say, the apologetic undercurrent is very much tied to broader questions of evangelicalism’s relationship with the world.  I’m not going to identify a root cause here, but let me offer one better way forward for evangelicals who want to affirm the goodness of sex in ways that legitimate it without falling prey to anxiously defending it:  make beautiful art.

Evangelicals have a “more excellent way” on sexuality.  Yet that “more excellent way” depends for its excellence on being veiled and shrouded in darkness.  It is not a matter of prudishness that Scripture’s most intensely erotic book, the Song of Solomon, is also the most metaphorical.  Yet if evangelicals want to affirm the act outside of the terms that have been set for us by the culture, then we must leave the matter in the metaphors, rather than attempting to unveil it for the world.  Speaking in poetry about sex isn’t a matter of prudishness–rather, it’s a matter of suggesting that the goodness of sex includes the pleasure but goes beyond it.  Which is, I think, precisely how metaphors work.

Art conceals as much as it reveals.  The art that we are most intrigued by is shrouded in ambiguity, hidden behind a veil of uncertainty.  It takes us to the center of the mysteries of human existence, demonstrating their beauty and goodness as mysteries.

And when it comes to human sexuality, a mystery lies at the heart of the Christian proclamation.  If evangelicals wish, then, to escape the anxious striving that comes from trying to escape the dominant ethos of sexuality, we should start by rediscovering the truly human things and reinvigorating our appreciation for the arts.  Because the “more excellent way” of sexuality is graced with the loveliness of allusions and the subtle delights of analogies.

 

The Tattoo and the Text: The Earthen Vessels Symposium (Ch. 6)

Timothy Dalrymple added some insights into the reasons beneath various types of tattoos.  I have to underscore that the whole list is worth reading, but the last one is especially interesting:

4.  The Flesh Made Word.  More common in general is the practice of tattooing Chinese characters, and more common in Christian circles is the practice of tattooing Bible verses or biblical or theological phrases.  This is especially interesting in the light of the theology of the LOGOS and the incarnation.  In the incarnation, the LOGOS, the eternal Word, became flesh.  The LOGOS transcended the world and its changefulness, representing the eternal truth and the power by which all things were called into Creation.  But when a Christian tattoos a Bible verse or a faith-phrase upon her body, she makes her body into a text.  She reverses the incarnation of Christ; in her de-incarnation she is making the body, what is prone to messiness and effluvia and decay, into a true and eternal Word.  They are turning themselves into the Bible, or a part thereof.

I really appreciate Tim’s point here.  However, I am not sure the person who tattoos a verse has dematerialized their own body any more than the person who gets the Harry Potter tattoo.   The text is just as much a part of Magritte’s classic as the pipe, and last I checked no one is tattooing themselves in Times New Roman.  In other words, the decontextualized verse or stock Christian cliche has an intelligibility that is unique precisely because of its location on the body (or its use on the canvas).

There’s a question here about how “immaterial” the Bible actually is.  It may be a different sort of materiality than the body, but it is material in its nature through and through.  The symbols of the Bible are as much a part of the material world as any piece of art, as the illuminated manuscript tradition of the Middle Ages was only too happy to point out.

None of this is antithetical to Tim’s point.  If anything, I’m trying to point out that it needs to be broadened in two directions.  First, Tim’s point about the dematerializing effect of linguistic tattoos seems to apply to tattoos of any sort.  Somewhat paradoxically, the decision to inscribe the body points to the body’s insufficiency on its own, outside the remarking that we do to it.   Because of that, those who tattoo themselves with religious symbols are fundamentally no different than those who use the decontextualized verses or stock Christian cliches.