Refusing to worship the cult of the body

I’m teaching a course on faith and contemporary culture at the moment. We focus in on the values, beliefs and narrative of consumerism as a case study. By definition consumerism is never satisfied – the (temporary) answer is always more .. and more.

A couple of weeks ago in class we talked about the relationship of consumerism with the body. Here’s Werner G Jeanrond on this theme in an unjustly little known book I’ve just started reading called A Theology of Love.

Fasting, painful sporting activities, beauty operations, all sorts of medicines and remedies are recommended in order to reach a higher level of control over the body. A new and perfect body is longed for – a kind of secular object of salvation. The desire for the perfect body seems to have replaced the desire for the perfect soul in many quarters of Western society. This fight against the present and imperfect body and for the new and perfect body can, of course, never end. Asceticism, once the hallmark of religious aspirations, has made a comeback in the secular cult of the body. This cult of the body has seemingly reached eschatological proportions. Moreover, this desire for perfect bodies has become an inexhaustible source of wealth generation for those market forces that have offered their mediating remedies to meet this desire, fully conscious of the fact that this desire can never be stilled. Love cannot be made through the production of perfect bodies.

The tasks of a contemporary theology of love, therefore, ought to include the demythologization of the ongoing cult of the body and the reconstruction of possibilities for Christian respect and care for the body. (12)

As someone without a perfect body, I say AMEN!

The destructive goal of the cult of the body is the creation of feelings of dissatisfaction and envy. The motive is money. The promise is love and acceptance by self and others. The effect is destructive of self-esteem and erosion of identity. Its target is particularly women, but has increasingly moved on to men (in order to broaden the market).

Such is the saturation of our imaginative and cognitive space by consumer messages about the body, that we don’t, I think, in the church talk, preach, teach and reflect on the corrosive impact of the cult of the body. Assumptions that ‘our’ culture is somehow ‘neutral’, ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ are naive at best. For culture continually ‘forms’ and ‘shapes’ us. It acts, as James K A Smith would say, as a ‘secular liturgy’ that trains our hearts and loves.

We, I think, need active ‘reconstruction’ of a Christian theology of the body. John Paul II’s ‘Theology of the Body‘ represents a major serious Catholic response to the body in contemporary culture but I doubt that too many Protestants and evangelicals are aware of it.  An authentic Christian theology of the body will liberate people from the relentless demands of the secular cult of the body. It speaks of a radically different story and identity. I’ll come back to this in another post – this one is already getting long

The idealised image of the perfect body is telling us what the good life literally looks like. It is telling us (well me anyway – don’t know about you!) that I am not perfect. I don’t measure up. Something is wrong, broken, lacking. But the optimistic good news is that it can be fixed! Happiness and love can be mine. Implicit in this contract is that the key to salvation lies with me – to spend money on the right products or procedures, and/or to pummel my body into shape through diet and exercise.

This is a secular ‘gospel’ of sin and redemption.

Put like this is seems a pretty silly, thin and unconvincing sort of ‘gospel’ doesn’t it? I mean who really believes that shopping and/or exercise or a perfect body is the key to a happy life? But this objection fails to appreciate how consumerism works ‘below the surface’ – at the level of unspoken images, emotions, feelings and dreams. Described rationally it looks silly and superficial. But it is anything but – it is the driving force of Western culture worth mega-billions.

Why? What is so powerful about consumer images (like that of the perfect body)?

And this leads to one place where I disagree with Jeanrond’s language (and it’s not characteristic of the book). He talks about the desire for a perfect body replacing the desire for a perfect soul. But Christianity does not hope for a perfected soul. It hopes for a perfected resurrection body.

What consumerism ‘get’s in a way that some dualistic and overly rationalistic forms of Christianity do not, is that we are embodied creatures. We think, but we also feel, imagine, touch, and dream as we engage with the physical world in which we live. Smith again: we are ‘lovers’ and ‘worshippers’ who explore our way through

“an affective, gut-like orientation to the world that is prior to reflection and even eludes conceptual articulation … we are the sorts of animals for whom things matter in ways we don’t often (and can’t) articulate.” (51)

This is why pictures tend to be more powerful than words – try talking to someone who is watching TV or playing a game on a tablet. Images and pictures get into our hearts more easily and immediately than propositions and words. Images of the perfect body, for example, are designed to awaken our desire – not just sexual though that is certainly part of it – but desire for an attractive vision of an alternative life to one we currently have.

So the power or ‘genius’ of contemporary consumerism is that it instinctively understands human nature. We are holistic, not dualistic, creatures; we all desire some sort of kingdom; we all worship something; our lives are shaped by our loves. Smith puts it like this

I think we should first recognize and admit that the marketing industry – which promises an erotically charged transcendence through media that connects to our heart and imagination – is operating with a better, more creational, more incarnational, more holistic anthropology than much of the (evangelical) church … they rightly understand that we are erotic creatures – creatures who are orientated primarily by love and passion and desire … meanwhile, the church has been duped by modernity and has bought into a kind of Cartesian model of the human person, wrongly assuming that the heady realm of ideas and beliefs is the core of our being. These are certainly part of being human, but I think they come second to embodied desire. And because of this, the church has been trying to counter the consumer formation of the heart by focusing on the head and missing the target: it’s as if the church is pouring water on the head to put out a fire in our heart. (76-77)

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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2 thoughts on “Refusing to worship the cult of the body

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with this. I see my children taught from an early age through the media and friends about the need to look a particular way to look right. And I resonate with what Smith says at the end, but is the counter-attack by the church not only missing the mark by not having a holistic message, but does theological training also push various idolatrous desires – of the novel, or the perfectly orthodox, and worst of all of the buying of books that publishers push to meet the desire of our hearts in knowledge. When I read through blogs, I imagine that of the buying of books, there seems to be no end. I know that temptation in myself.

    • Yes, maybe worth a post or two on Christian consumerism; any publisher is in the business market and sell books. I guess where that morphs into consumerism is where it sells false promises and myths of ‘keys’ of happiness, spiritual ‘success’ etc Very easy to guilt-trip people.

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