Book Review: Elvis, the Body & the Problem of Method

March 01, 2007

Book Review: Elvis, the Body & the Problem of Method

Book Title: Tortured Wonders – Christian Spirituality for People, not Angels

Author: Rodney Clapp

Publishing Information: Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, 288pp.

Reviewed by Michael Jensen

The loathing of the body certainly dies hard in Christianity: Christian history is dotted with examples of believers who have fallen into excesses in denial or indulgence of human physical nature. Christians behave even today as if the real spiritual action is everywhere else but in what we do with our bodily members. And yet, where else do we live but in our bodies? How else do we relate to others than with our bodies?

 I found many of the themes of Tortured Wonders – Christian Spirituality for People, not Angels, by US writer and editor Rodney Clapp, resonated with themes in my own thinking. Clapp is aware of the difficulties of the word ‘spirituality’ – but it is part of his goal to recapture the notion of the spiritual for the everyday, ordinary and earthy happenings of our flesh. These can indeed be ‘spiritual’. If it is to be true to some of its grandest theological themes – creation, incarnation, resurrection – then Christianity must affirm the body; and Christian holiness must be worked out with reference to life that is bodily, with all its burpings and oozings. As Clapp puts it: ‘…Christian spirituality cannot be pitted against physical bodies.’ (p. 17)

Clapp writes with great humour and insight about bodily life. I did not expect ever to read a book on Christian spirituality that addresses quite specifically the matter of breaking wind – but here it is! Likewise, there is a brilliant chapter on Elvis and the cult of celebrity here. Clapp takes with great and appropriate seriousness the business of food and sexuality and living in community. His version of Christian spirituality is life-affirming and filled with grace and generosity and joy. He emphasizes the practices and disciplines of the Christian life as a part of our bodily expression of faith – something more rationalistic Protestants could reconsider. (Did we need three chapters on the Eucharist though?)

 However, I was bewildered somewhat by Clapp’s method. He repeatedly asserts that he is affirming and describing an ‘orthodox Christian spirituality’, and refers again and again to ‘the tradition’. Problem is, Christian attitudes to (say) sexuality for the majority of Christian history have been a good deal more troublesomely negative than they are today. Appealing to ‘the tradition’ as the theological source is problematic for Clapp to say the least. His antidote is to say that the tradition is a ‘living tradition’ – which I suspect allows him to appropriate the features of the tradition that match the zeitgeist and reject those that don’t. Though he explores many scriptural passages, scripture is not authoritative enough here: frequently, what is needed is not a selective and arbitrary approach to the tradition, but a re-reading of scripture. So, with sexuality for example, it is possible to critique ‘the tradition’ by showing that scripture says much that is positive about it.

 Clapp’s book itself is a book for people rather than angels. Its lesson is salutary – Christians should repent of their disembodied Gnosticism and embrace the life of the Spirit as it was designed to be lived: in the body.

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