The Fatal Tensions of the Fight Churches

“It’s physics, basically.  You bend the guy the other direction than God intended.”

Or so says Paul Burress, pastor of Victory Church and central character in Fight Church, the new documentary co-directed by Brian Storkel.  Like Holy Rollers, Storkel’s previous effort, Fight Church is a sympathetic-but-not-uncritical account of an unconventional religious practice—that is, an entirely conventional practice which some Christians have dressed up with a patina of theological justifications and clichés. Burress’s church is one of some alleged 700 churches in the United States that have taken to the increasingly popular sport of mixed-martial arts as a form of Christian witness.  Fight Church doesn’t pull its punches: “Can you love your neighbor as yourself, while at the same time kneeing him in the face…as hard as you can?  is the question that the trailer poses and which the film carefully considers.Fight Church

The filmmakers chart a few pastors closely, and put their justifications in a nice dialogue with a movement to keep MMA illegal in New York.  The close-up on the lives of these pastors is undoubtedly helpful:  it’s not easy, after all, to understand the texture of the beliefs and commitments of those engaging in practices we find idiosyncratic (at best) from a distance.  And with one or two exceptions, most of the pastors featured seemed like nice guys, with supportive families and an intense sincerity about their convictions.  At least as much as the film showed us, anyway.  A cynic might allege that some pastors master the art of faking the authenticity required for the job, and cynics aren’t always wrong. But part of the conflict the film induces, in fact, for some Christian viewers may be to wonder how nice guys could go so far wrong.

But the filmmakers may also make their study too close to engender a proper understanding of why MMA has moved nearer the center of American religious communities. There are the occasional and expected bits about how the church has ‘feminized’ men, but almost no exploration of what this means. I was surprised, and mildly impressed, to realize at the end of the film that Tyler Durden hadn’t been mentioned at all.  The narrow focus of the filmmakers leaves so many questions about MMA itself unexplored: the film almost makes it feel like MMA has always been there, rather than being itself a recent phenomenon with its own intrinsic meaning and questions. Whatever else we make about it, Fight Club found its way to a sympathetic male audience somehow.  Without more broadly contextualizing the kind of life which fight clubs are a reaction against, it’s harder to properly understand the tacit and embedded reasons within the practice that those Christians who undertake it must assume.  MMA itself may be innocuous, or only superficially so, but it’s easier to tell when we understand the conditions of its emergence.

That complaint aside, though, the film succeeds at doing what Storkel and company do so well: provoking interesting questions and presenting a range of opinions on them, which makes excellent fodder for thought. I said, though, that the filmmakers are not entirely uncritical: they are in a corner, and that corner is sparring with the fight church guys. The film tacitly raises the question of how children are being formed in these communities, but does not (alas) deal extensively with it.  Which is too bad, because it’s one of the most troubling aspects that shows up on screen, and by leaving it tacit in the images it seems as though Storkel and company are making the critique more effective than if they dealt with it explicitly.  The camera stays on one young fellow who takes a turn in the ring and sits crying afterward. While that’s an unhappy image, it’s also not so nearly as disturbing as the image of an eight-year old or so boy out shooting guns with his father (who is so amped up that he couldn’t even imagine critiques of fight churches, unlike the others in the film). Yes, he’s supervised, but it’s still jarring to see. Why are they out shooting?  There is no reason given, and the viewer is left to assume that there’s a short line between the kind of hyper-masculinity that partakes in fight clubs and the violence that guns at least signify.

Of course, nothing I’ve said actually addresses the substantive question of whether Christianity and MMA inherently conflict with each other. For that, I would encourage readers to consider the most astute theological analysis of the question I’ve read, which was written by a one-time participant in the sport and which endeavors—rightly—to take its Christian advocates and practitioners seriously as dialogue partners:

During the fight, I had to ignore not only my body but my opponent’s body as well—which is to say I had to ignore him. After taking an opponent down to the ground, I would hit him until he decided it wasn’t worth it anymore and gave up by tapping out. Some opponents were more stubborn than others and thus needed more convincing than others, but I always vowed to never hit them any more than I needed to in order to get them to tap out—witness the triumph of rational morality, or to use the language of Jus In Bello, “proportionality”!…

In all these ways—in my training, in the moments leading up to the fight, in the fight itself, and especially in the days following the fight—the way to excel as a fighter was not by living as an integrated human body, but rather by (somehow!) detaching my “self” from my body. So I agree with the MMA Christians in their insistence that any account of masculinity must also offer an account of embodiment. And yet, I simply observe that the successful mixed martial artist must subscribe to a false account—one in which pain is not real and in which human beings are somehow outside of or apart from the body.

I have no way of telling whether this recounting of MMA’s effects is accurate, nor have I any reason to doubt it. But I’d note that this kind of ‘disintegration’ from the sport seems like an exaggerated form of the kind of distancing from our bodies that we experience in any sort of pain. Physical suffering has that kind of effect: we say “my arm hurts” when our pain sensors intrude on our conscious experience, rather than “I hurt.”  Nor is such momentary fragmentation necessarily vicious:  a person who is ‘out of shape’ may not feel like getting out of bed the day after an intensely difficult workout, after all, even though overcoming that kind of pain and the distancing from our bodies it entails may be what they need to achieve a more healthy integration. (If you ask me whether I have experience of this, I will say that I am well acquainted with being ‘out of shape’ but not so much the latter phenomenon.  Draw your own conclusions.)

Still, MMA is not a workout, and whether it is licit for Christians to undertake has to involve considering how we treat our neighbor within the practice.  Not every contest of strength is wrong, it seems to me:  wrestling as an activity aims at throwing one’s opponent to the ground and immobilizing them. Arm wrestling is a contest of strength of an even more benign sort. Such demonstrations of strength and weakness are enjoyable to some men and women (and highly dubious to others), and while I’m strongly averse to infusing them with testosterone so that they become litmus tests of manhood, it’s hard to think of a serious objection to them, either.

Whether MMA falls along this spectrum or is of a different kind of thing is a difficult question. The fusion of martial arts, boxing, and wrestling and the aesthetics of the cage and the ring give it a gritty atmosphere (which was unquestionably pronounced in its early years, but I understand has been sanitized somewhat to reach a more mainstream audience) that seems to want to incorporate the no-holds-barred mentality of a street fight and its taboo connotations into the living room. I’m an outsider both as a viewer and a participant, but from a distance the sport seems to thrive on a kind of bloodthirstiness that aims at harming one’s opponent (like boxing) and winning submission not necessarily through immobilizing or overpowering one’s opponent but incapacitating them such that, if the defeat is serious enough, their body temporarily loses the ability to function altogether. And therein, it seems to me, lies a moral world of difference.

I’m an MMA skeptic, then, and this film doesn’t help persuade me not to be from a theological standpoint.  But then, I came into it having written a book on a closely related subject, and so am in danger of confirmation bias.  Take that as you will.  But the kinds of justifications offered by pastors were most frequently just the sort of pragmatic, anti-theological ‘reasons’ that come up in related discussions like tattoos, which leave no room for any kind of limits on our “Christian witness” besides those which are unquestionably explicit in Scripture itself.  Yes, tough guys need Jesus: but surely starting a fight club in the church basement is not the only way (or even the best) to reach them, is it?  Perhaps we should think about that for a while sometime.  After all, in my experience the pragmatic justification for these kinds of programs is always the least creative and least innovative. Such justifications somehow manage to presuppose the worst of the very people they’re trying to reach—namely, that they are interested in and would only be fully satisfied by a church which can slake their thirst for just this kind of practice. And they infantilize the churches that undertake them, for they cheapen the very mysteries and sanctity of holiness which they have been entrusted to bear witness to.

I come now to the end (really): the Fight Church phenomenon is really nothing more than a passing fad and will be forgotten in a decade by everyone except those laborious historians of religion on their never-ending quests to dissect the nature of American evangelicalism. So let me write the obituary now, if only for posterity:  at the heart of the fight churches were both the strengths and weaknesses of the evangelical world. Its best and most reasonable proponents (which are featured in this film) were motivated by an interested seriousness to reach their neighbor with a message that has captivated them, yet were simultaneously unrestrained by any form of moral reasoning other than that which lies on the surface of the Bible and so unable to untangle their own praiseworthy motivations from the problematic and troubling practices which they took shape within.  The Christianity of the fight churches deluded itself into thinking it was strong, while it was actually weak, and into believing that in its battle for the world it had managed to overcome its brittle frailties. And when the struggle with this contradiction wore the fight churches out, they fell to the ground exhausted where they yet lie, exhausted, beaten, and alive only in the knowledge of the God who forgets nothing and those researchers who strive to imitate him.

Fight Church is a film that you should watch.  It’s available both digitally and on DVD.  I received access to a copy for free:  whether my review is worth the money I was paid is a question I leave entirely up to you. 

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God Become Man: Toward a Richer Theology of the Incarnation

For He was made man that we might be made God; and He manifested Himself by a body that we might receive the idea of the unseen Father; and He endured the insolence of men that we might inherit immortality. —St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation

A Mistake

It has been common these past few years to speak of “incarnational theology” as a way of describing the Christian mission to the world: we ought to “incarnate” Christ to the world as Christ “incarnated” the Godhead to us.[1] There is much to appreciate in this sentiment. It represents an appropriate recognition that humans are God’s image-bearers. It pays heed to the New Testament’s assertion that Christians are the body of and ambassadors for Christ. It takes seriously Paul’s shocking language of “filling up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ” (Colossians 1:24). It rightly points to the synthesis of missionary activity and social activism that represents the best of evangelicalism.

Yet for all that, I think that applying the language of incarnation to believers is a serious mistake. It is not that this way of speaking is wholly wrong but that it tends to blind us to the uniqueness of the Incarnation of Christ. God becoming man was an astounding event, a greater thing than any of our philosophers or poets had imagined. Thus Lewis wrote, “It was the central event in the history of the Earth—the very thing that the whole story has been about” (Miracles). When we speak of ourselves “incarnating” Christ, we begin to blur out the sheer shock of the event. When Jesus came, God was here with us, but now we stand in the time between the times, waiting for him because he is not—not as he was, and not as he will be.[2]

Moreover, incarnational language is a hermeneutical failure: it is a misapplication of the New Testament “body” metaphor for the church. Whenever the apostles use bodily language to talk about the church, they do so to point to the unity of the people of God, not to the evangelistic impulse. The authors of the New Testament chose other images instead: fishermen, or servants working in the absence of their master, ambassadors and representatives to name just a few. Indeed, at no point does the Bible use the metaphor of the body describe Christian witness to the world. So we would do well to set aside the idea that we “incarnate” Christ. We do not incarnate him, because we cannot—the Incarnation was unique—but that does not negate the instincts of which the theology of the last few years has been an expression. It simply means that we need to do better in expressing those ideas.

Important as these semantic issues are, though, there is a much more significant problem: namely, how much we miss when our incarnational theology is about us instead of about Jesus.

On the Incarnation

I have come to tears in a class only once in my life—a few weeks ago, listening to my theology professor exult in what Christ did for us in the Incarnation. In evangelical churches, we often discuss Jesus’ death on the cross, and sometimes his perfect life or his resurrection.[3] Rarely, however, do we speak of the Incarnation. It usually only gets a mention at Christmas—usually when we talk about how the Virgin Birth was necessary for the fulfillment of prophecy, one of many confirmations that Jesus was indeed the foretold Messiah.

But the Incarnation means more than this. It always has. That God became a man is bigger than paying for our sins—marvelous though that alone would be. The language is there throughout the whole New Testament:

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

—Luke 1:76–79

Zechariah’s prophecy includes salvation from sin, yes, but it points to something more: light coming into the world, death’s power ending, and peace reigning. How does Christ’s work accomplish those? It seems to be at least partly in his coming into the world.

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.

—John 1:11–18

John couples the Incarnation of Christ—not his death or resurrection, but his becoming flesh—to our becoming children of God once again. His description of the Incarnation points to our adoption.

For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.

—Colossians 2:9–10

Paul goes on in Colossians to talk of the penal substitutionary aspect of Christ’s work in very definite terms—but he starts here by showing how we are filled in Christ even as the “whole fullness”[4] of deity dwells in him.

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

—Hebrews 2:14–18

Hebrews shows us Jesus as propitiation for our sins—hallelujah!—and it also shows us his help for us because he has suffered under temptation just as we have. More: his death delivers us not only from the penalty from sin, but also from death and the power of the devil.

We could go on, and on, and on. The Incarnation matters, and it matters as more than a means of getting Jesus to the cross so that he could die for our sins. We evangelicals too often reduce everything to penal substitutionary atonement. Yes, the atonement is incredible and amazing. It is one of the central affirmations and joys of the Christian faith: our sins are paid for! Glory to God! But Jesus did more than that, and he is worthy of yet more praise. He did not stop at paying the price for our sins while leaving our bodies subject to corruption. He did not content himself with performing a judicial act while leaving our wills broken, certain to turn again to the same sin that led to our death in the first place.

Redemption is not less than substitutionary atonement, to be sure—but it is more, much more. Redemption is the forgiveness of sins. Redemption is the cleansing from unrighteousness—not only from its guilt, but from its corrupting stain on our souls. Redemption is our wills being unchained from the power of sin. Redemption is partaking in the divine nature. Redemption is resurrection from the dead—not a rescuscitation from which we will only die again, but being raised to immortality. Redemption is the mending of our communion one with another. Above all, redemption is the restoration of fellowship with God: Jesus took up our flesh that he might unite humanity once again with the Triune Godhead.

As we were in the beginning, so shall we be again—but better.

Saint Athanasius said it best long ago:

For being Word of the Father, and above all, He alone of natural fitness was both able to recreate everything, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be ambassador for all with the Father….

He took pity on our race, and had mercy on our infirmity, and condescended to our corruption, and, unable to bear that death should have the mastery— lest the creature should perish, and His Father’s handiwork in men be spent for naught— He takes unto Himself a body, and that of no different sort from ours….

And thus taking from our bodies one of like nature, because all were under penalty of the corruption of death He gave it over to death in the stead of all, and offered it to the Father— doing this, moreover, of His loving-kindness, to the end that, firstly, all being held to have died in Him, the law involving the ruin of men might be undone (inasmuch as its power was fully spent in the Lord’s body, and had no longer holding-ground against men, his peers), and that, secondly, whereas men had turned toward corruption, He might turn them again toward incorruption, and quicken them from death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of the Resurrection, banishing death from them like straw from the fire.

—Saint Athanasius, On the Incarnation

If Christ did not unite every corner of what it is to be human with his divinity—without the Incarnation—we remain guilty, foolish, wicked, common, enslaved, indebted, dead. But with the Incarnation, we have everything. We have been transformed from guilt to innocence, folly to wisdom, wickedness to righteousness, commonness to holiness, slavery to freedom, debt to heirdom, death to life. All of that in the Incarnation, where the God-man remade us as humans-with-God. Hallelujah.


If you have not read Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, you should. It is one of the most important books in the history of the church, and therefore in the history of the world. It is also short. Do yourself the great favor of getting a copy and reading it well. For my part, I have made a commitment to read it on March 25—the day on which the church has traditionally celebrated the Annunciation of Christ to Mary—every year for the rest of my life. I think it is that important.


  1. The use of the adjective as a verb is annoying, but perhaps tolerable in light of the lack of a suitable alternative.  ↩

  2. Yes, the Spirit indwells us, and yes, God is everywhere. But the picture we have in the consummation of all things is God with us in a deeper way—and we do not have that yet.  ↩

  3. Though we spend far too little time on either Jesus’ life or resurrection.  ↩

  4. What a phrase!  ↩

Marijuana, Caffeine, and a Therapeutic Drug Culture

That’s the subject of my latest essay over at The Gospel Coalition.  Here’s my concluding paragraphs:

Yet the more interesting cases come closer to us. Consider the interrelationship between caffeine and marijuana. On the one hand, many of us rely on caffeine to fuel our work obsessions. Caffeine abuses reveal an overworked, exhausted culture that refuses to rest. A cup of tea is a wonderful gift. Five cups a day may signify unhealthy dependency.

On the other hand, recreational marijuana use seems can engender something resembling sloth. Proper relaxation is a sort of satisfaction—”a job well done”—not a form of escape. Cannabis use may undercut this rest, or at least short-circuit it.

Sloth and overwork are symptoms of the same diseased understanding of how we labor. Some people will strap themselves to and die on the wheel of performance, while others escape their troubles by medicating themselves. In that sense, drugs are (ab)used to therapeutically fill a gap that is felt without being articulated.

Drug use of various kinds highlights our culture’s fundamental commitments and raises questions about how we interact with those commitments as Christians. Just how far does the therapeutic mentality infiltrate our churches? The fastest-growing segment of drug use seems to be painkillers and prescription medicines. Such “white collar” abuses reveal the same sort of escapist mentality that marijuana may foster in different social contexts.

Expanding the framework for evaluating marijuana implicates us all. But the gospel of Jesus Christ creates churches where we carry one another’s burdens. We admonish one another by observing the ways we have failed in our discipleship because we idolize performance and success. Then we begin the process of repenting for our own sins and ensuring that a gospel-centered judgment about whether to use marijuana will actually sound like good news.

I approached the piece as something of an exercise in moral reasoning.  It’s underdeveloped in a lot of ways, but I am attempting to expand some of my earlier thoughts on the body into new areas.  Make of all of it what you will.

 

When Your Publisher stops Publishing Your Book: Earthen Vessels *Really* Cheap

Well, I don’t know exactly what to say about this so I’ll out with it:  18 months after releasing Earthen Vessels on the world, Bethany House has decided to stop selling printed copies it.

Earthen VesselsThe news took me by surprise and was honestly pretty disappointing.  I know that the book hadn’t sold like anyone hoped, for various and sundry reasons.  But none of that had added up for me to them taking it off store shelves quite so quickly.  They apparently see things differently and have given me three weeks to decide what to do with the remaining stock.

So there you have it.

The upside is that you have one last chance to buy paper copies before they disappear to the used books section on Amazon and to discount retailers everywhere.  (I’d buy the remaining copies myself if grad school bills didn’t stand in the way.)

If you’re looking for a single copy, you’re easiest and cheapest route is probably still the discount folks on Amazon who are selling it for pennies plus shipping.

But if you’re a pastor, a teacher, someone with a lot of friends who are thinking of tattoos, or someone who simply wants a lot of copies of a book I wrote, this is your chance to get as many copies as you want unbelievably cheap.  How cheap?

$2.50.  Plus shipping.

I’ll Skype with anyone who buys 8 or more copies about the book once you read it.  So if you’re in a book club and want to read something and talk with the author, this is your chance.  So there’s something.

Otherwise, here are the details:

Deadline:  For the orders and payments, midnight, Sunday December 17.  (Unfortunately, orders won’t be delivered in time for Christmas.)

Cost:  2.50 per copy.

Shipping:  (a)  1 copy:  $1.42.  (b)  2-5 copies:  $2.68.  (c) 6-10 copies:  $7.99,  (d) 10-20 copies:  $8.99, (e) more than 20 copies:  email me at matthewleeanderson.84 at gmail.com.

Payment:  The only way you get your books is if you fill out this Google form completely and send the appropriate amount of money via the Paypal button over there –> on the sidebar.

I’d appreciate it if you forward this to anyone who wants a readable, thoughtful theological account of human embodiment…and who happens to be able to purchase hundreds copies at a time.  (I kid on that part.  Kind of.)

On the upside, paper copies are now collector’s editions!  And while it’s neat to have published a book by the age of 30, I suppose it makes me a hipster to have one go out of print by the age of 31.

In Awe of Bodies: How the Olympians Remind Us of Our Humanity

Editor’s Note:  John Dyer is the author of From the Garden to the City, an excellent book on Christianity and technology.  We are delighted to publish his reflection on Olympians and bodies. 

From Embarrassment to Awe

Passing a row of large televisions at a bigbox store yesterday, I became aware that I was surrounded by images of human flesh.

Normally this would evoke one of two reactions from me. If my two small children were with me, I would be embarrassed and angry that I had exposed them to something they shouldn’t see. If I were by myself, I would probably feel shame about the battle inside me between the part that wanted to stare at the screen and the part that values holiness and purity.

But this time, I had a surprisingly different reaction.

I looked up at the screen and even though I saw a woman dressed in form-fitting, skin-revealing clothing, I didn’t feel overwhelmed with embarrassment or shame, but with awe at the stunning figure before me. I even looked rather closely at her, carefully following the line from her deliberately outstretched hands, along her lean, muscular arms, past her pulsating abdominal muscles, and down around her large, powerful thighs as she launched off the starting block, propelling herself into the water ahead of her seven competitors in the time trial.

Bodies Are Good For Something

To tell you the truth, I actually can’t remember if the first person I saw on screen was a male or female swimmer, but I used a woman in the description above because it heightens the problem of how we’ve been trained to view the human body and the reactions we have even to its description.

Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe was of Native Ameri...

Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe was of Native American (Sac and Fox) and European American ancestry. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a given day, our eyes will land upon thousands of images of products and people on billboards, screens, and magazine covers. And for every 100 images that prominently display a human body, probably 99 of them do so primarily in reference to that person’s desirability, particularly their sexual desirability. According to these ads (that we see all day every day) the human body is a tool whose primary usefulness is its ability to attract other bodies for the purpose of engaging in private activities.

After all, we don’t really need the body for anything else. Work can be done on computers, things can be ordered online, and church can be streamed to a screen. Bodies are, for the most part, simply an awkward go between. When we do think about our bodies, it’s usually to find a way to give it pleasure, ease its pain, or make it look better. Continue reading

“You Don’t Have a Soul”: C.S. Lewis Never Said It

"You don't have a soul.  You are a soul.  You have a body."

Image courtesy of Amanda O’Rourke at www.amandaorourke.com.

 

Editor’s note:  Below is the definitive take-down of the idea that C.S. Lewis said that “You do not have a soul.  You are a soul.  You have a body.”   In recent years, the attribution has taken on a life of it’s own and it is our hope to clear Lewis’s name of it.  

I am grateful to Hannah Peckham for doing such an excellent job writing this.  You should follow her tumblr, because it’s one of the best, and on Twitter too.  

In the nearly fifty years since C.S. Lewis’ death, his writing has profoundly influenced the way many Christians understand their faith. In an odd twist, however, one of his most famous quotations is not even his.

The statement “You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body” makes the rounds, in a seemingly cyclical pattern, on the internet and in print. John Piper tweeted it last year; Ravi Zacharias included the quotation in at least one of his books. It can also be found in several New Age handbooks, a guide for psychics, and a devotional for fathers. This pithy summation of the distinction between body and soul is almost exclusively attributed to Lewis, although a few recent authors baldly claim it as their own. Continue reading

An Aspen in a Forest of Pines: Thinking through Asexuality

I first met Chris Krycho after he reviewed Earthen Vessels and proceeded to grill me about it.  He’s a thoughtful fellow and wrote the following.  As I had been planning on addressing the same piece soon, I asked if I could post Chris’ insight instead.  I am grateful and honored he agreed.  For more, follow Chris on Twitter.  

In an interesting piece in The Atlantic last week, Rachel Hill highlighted David Jay and his organization, the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network:

But what all asexual people have in common — and what defines asexuality as an orientation — is that, while they may have a desire to connect with other people, asexuals have no desire to connect with them sexually. Asexual people are not the same as celibate people: it’s not that they are purposefully or unintentionally abstaining from sex they would otherwise like to have, but rather that they have no interest in it.

The article is fascinating on several levels: its examination of asexuality as a “sexual orientation,” its exploration of the idea that for some people, sex just isn’t that important (however odd that may seem in our society), and its recognition that a sex-defined culture is perhaps not always beneficial. Continue reading

What Robertson Means for Marriage

Part two of my thoughts on Robertson and marriage, over at the Washington Post.

My basic argument there is that the reaction should be seen as a genuine sign of hope for evangelicals and Americans:

Evangelicals are hardly a perfect lot, a fact which we are often reminded of and have internalized well. And our cultural indignation is only sometimes righteous. But the evangelical reaction against Robertson’s errant and unfortunate remarks is a hopeful sign not just for evangelicals, but for those who are concerned about the public viability of the institution of marriage. If we can bracket, if only for one moment, the thorny question of who should get married, we might be able to see here the seeds of consensus about the sort of thing marriage should be.

The backlash against Robertson’s remarks by evangelicals and those who also recognized their corrosive effects may not be marriage’s finest moment. But it may provide hope that the civic and religious virtues needed to make the institution of marriage strong are not yet as far gone as cultural critics are sometimes tempted to think.

Read the whole thing.  And then let me know what you think.

Pat Robertson, Bodies, and Divorce

That’s the subject of my short essay over at Relevant Magazine.

I sound a note that will doubtlessly be a familiar one to readers of Mere-O and of Earthen Vessels, but the brouhaha affords evangelicals an opportunity to re-examine our own understanding of the relationship between marriage and bodies.

And so I did.

Marriage requires a covenant in part because loyalty is the lifeblood of love. But the body will decay, and the temple will come to ruins. We may not wear the bottoms of our trousers rolled, to quote T.S. Eliot, but my wife and I will almost certainly grow old. And in the slow corruption of our flesh, the vow takes on a new dimension, making it possible for us to imitate the sacrifice of Christ’s body through the giving of our own. It is the cross that is the shape of love in a broken world, and it is the cross we must carry in order to love broken bodies.

Read, as they say, the whole thing.

Let’s Call it Danish Gymnastics: The Yoga Body

In the fall of last year, Al Mohler initiated a firestorm by suggesting that “yoga cannot be fully extricated from its spiritual roots in Hinduism and Buddhism.”

In making his argument, Mohler was drawing on Stefanie Symen’s The Subtle Body.

But Symen’s book was not the only book on the history of yoga in the past year. Mark Singleton’s treatment, The Yoga Body, was put out by distinguished publisher Oxford University Press only a few months before Symen’s.

Somewhat paradoxically, Symen’s book sucked up all the discussion, but Singleton’s is actually more controversial.  If the question of whether the postures of what we know as yoga can be extricated from their Hindu roots is contentious, the question of whether they have Hindu roots at all should have been explosive.

Singleton sets out his thesis early:  “The primacy of asana [or posture based] performance in transnational yoga today is a new phenomenon that has no parallel in premodern times.”

While there are clearly references to yoga in the Hindu sacred texts, Singleton argues that the lack of emphasis on postures makes yoga a homonym to how it was used historically, not a synonym.  Whatever connection there is (and Singleton hedges at the last second against disavowing a connection altogether), contemporary posture based yoga is developed and appropriated the ancient texts for its own purposes in response to the introduction of new discourses into India–namely, the “physical culture” of seeking social transformation through bodily health that the YMCA brought to India.

'Saratoga CV3' photo (c) 2002, SDASM Archives - license: http://www.flickr.com/commons/usage/

Singleton’s story is a complex one, but the simplified version goes something like this:  starting the mid 1800s, Per Henrik Ling’s system of Swedish gymnatics was adopted throughout England and Europe.  Ling’s approach was similar to the YMCA’s–it was oriented toward the development of the “whole person,” not just the body.  And it had the advantage of not requiring weights or machines, which meant it was perfect for physical education (a concept that was incorporated into the school system during this time), the military, and elsewhere.

It was this system, along with Dane Niels Bukh’s rhythmic exercises, that framed the YMCA’s approach in India.  Singleton highlights the fact that when the organization took its message of social transformation through bodily transformation to India, they found “no “system” or “brand” of physicalized yoga that could satisfactorily meet India’s need.”  So they created it, coopting the few posture-based practices that were in use at the time and fusing them with medical gymnastics, calisthentics, and body building.

According to Singleton, distinctively Hindu or Indian yoga developed in reaction to this fusion, and seems to have been accompanied by a tinge of anti-imperial nationalism.  The Indians might have learned about the “physical culture” from the British, but they were intent on making it their own.  And “yoga” as we know it was heavily influenced by this collision of cultures.

Singleton strengthens his case by pointing out that even as late as the 1930s, for many in the west yoga meant something totally different than the posture-based practices we know today.  And somewhat ironically, a cluster of postures and practices similar to contemporary yoga was popular in Britain (specifically), but was associated with Scandinavian systems of gymnastics.

Singleton’s case for this is thorough, but I’ll only highlight two prominent facts.  First, Singleton reviewed Health and Strength magazine, a British publication that was the most popular outlet for the “physical culture”.  He describes the conclusion this way:

Indeed, among the articles on yoga in H&S (or in its sister magazine The Superman) during the 1930s, none outlines a course of bodily extensions of the kind one would expect to find in a modern “hatha yoga” class today: if such articles are to be found, they are scarce. On the other hand, the magazine is replete with exercise schema designed exclusively for women and which are based to a very large extent on stretching. But these are not designated as, nor associated with, yoga.

Additionally, he analyzed Niel Bukh’s Primary Gymnastics (1925) and found that “at least 28 of the exercises in the first edition of Bukh’s manual are strikingly similar (often identical) to yoga postures occurring in Pattabhi Jois’ Ashtanga sequence or in Iyengar’s Light on Yoga.” Both Jois and Iyengar were students of T. Krishnamacharya, who taught yoga in the Indian royal palace and whose classes were categorized as “physical culture” or “exercise” in the official palace records.  By that point, the Danish gymnastic system had reached such a level of popularity that it had been incorporated into the British Army and into the Indian YMCA.

None of this means that the creators of yoga consciously stole from the Scandinavians.   Cultural transmission rarely happens that intentionally or consciously.  But it does raise serious questions about the pristine and ancient history that is often used to praise contemporary yoga.

Nor does it mean yoga has no spiritual dimension.  Singleton hedges here too:

This does not mean that the kind of posture-based yogas that predominate globally today are “mere gymnastics” nor that they are necessarily less “real” or “spiritual” than other forms of yoga. The history of modern physical culture overlaps and intersects with the histories of para-religious, “unchurched” spirituality; Western esotericism; medicine, health, and hygiene; chiropractic, osteopathy, and bodywork; body-centered psychotherapy; the modern revival of Hinduism; and the sociopolitical demands of the emergent modern Indian nation (to name but a few).

At the same time, Singleton’s analysis complicates the “anti-yoga” argument for Christians.  If the postures of contemporary yoga were developed in response to Scandinavian stretching systems, then they may be more easily extricated from the problematic ideologies that often accompany them (which Mohler reluctantly grants in the followup).  To give only one example, I’m pretty sure I was taught this in cross country, only we called it “beauty queens.”

If nothing else, the question of what yoga is and where it came from is far more complex than people realize.  In fact, it’s so complex that yoga proponents haven’t quite figured it out.  The possibility of a “secularized” yoga simply for the purposes of health has some proponents decrying its commercialization and yearning for a return to its more spiritual roots.  Yet if Singleton’s thesis has any weight at all, then the “return” may not be as far back as advocates suggest, and yoga may have more to do with the secular west than they realize.