A Reflection on "Right Bodies"

Yesterday in the Twitterverse, or at least in the portion of the Twitterverse I interact with, there was a long discussion of an article by Rev. Tish Harrison Warren, a priest of the Anglican Church of North America (which is relevant to this discussion, but more on that later).  The claim of the article is that the Christian blogosphere (which, I suppose I should disclose in case it wasn't obvious, includes me, I guess) is run a muck because all sorts of people are writing things without being subject to proper authority.  And the person offered as the poster-child for this problem was Jen Hatmaker.  I will confess to not being familiar with her work prior to yesterday, but evidently Hatmaker recently come out in support of LGBT relationships in a Christian context, provoking the now-predictable backlash.

The tenor of the response to Rev. Warren's article was that it was pretextual effort to silence a female voice who is LGBT affirming.  I think that's right, ultimately, for reasons I will get into below, but I was really struck by Rev. Broderick Greer's comment, quoted above.  The idea of "bodies" and "right bodies" really stuck with me, and something I kept turning over in my head last night.  I think Rev. Greer hits on the heart of the matter with his focus on bodies.  This discussion is really a discussion about bodies, how we think about bodies, and maybe more importantly how we fetishize parts of the body in Christian discourse (and in the broader culture as well, but here I'm going to focus on the Christian world).

One of the things that surprised me the most in coming into the Episcopal Church was how affecting it was to see a woman in vestments up on the altar during the Eucharist.  The first time I saw it, it was very jarring--not wrong, in the sense of "this is an outrage" or "this shouldn't be happening," but something that disturbed the basic mental framework that I had for how the Eucharist should go.  Seeing a female body on the altar is the breaking of a paradigm, but it is a breaking of a paradigm that you don't even realize you really held until it is broken.  It's kind of like the window analogy that I have used before--when you look through an intact pane of glass, it is easy to convince yourself that there is nothing between you and the outside world; only when the glass cracks do you become completely aware of the existence of the pane that is filtering what you see.

Without being aware of it, I had absorbed a "right body" paradigm for the Eucharist as a Roman Catholic--only male bodies could be in the central place in the Eucharist.  That right body paradigm is different from the intellectual discussion of women's ordination, because I had left behind the intellectual arguments against women's ordination long before I started going to Episcopal services.  I walked in to that Episcopal Church convinced intellectually that women priests and deacons and bishops were OK, and I still needed to shatter the right body paradigm that I had.  And, truthfully, it didn't happen overnight--it took months to move from the initial jarring visual, through being accustomed through habit to seeing Deacons Diana and Colleen on the altar, to the point of feeling that it was right and necessary that they be there, that the visual of them and their bodies was unremarkable.  All of this process occurred while I was fully and completely intellectually convinced of the appropriateness of their ministry.  It was never about that.  It was about coming to see (or, perhaps, feel) them as having the right bodies.  Or, maybe better, coming to see and feel that there is no such thing as having the "right" bodies.

We, as Christians, are deeply confused and conflicted about bodies, it seems to me.  And my primary piece of evidence is the way that we fetishize bodies, or more specifically parts of bodies.  If you think about how a fetish works mechanically, it takes a thing that has a particular embodied existence and set of functions and invests them with a wholly new set of powerful emotional resonances.  But, and I think this is important, in the course of that investiture, the original meaning and purpose of the thing is lost, swallowed up by the new and overwhelming blanket of meaning.

Take, for example, shoes.  Shoes are deeply practical items--they protect our feet from the unbelievable pounding they take when we walk.  They also can be stylish items, especially in the hands of people with more fashion-sense than I possess.  But, for folks that have shoe and foot fetishes, both the practical aspects and the stylish aspects are mostly or entirely beside the point, swamped by the tide of sexualization that washes over these objects.  So, it is not just that a new meaning is placed on an object such as a shoe, but that the original or primary meaning is lost.  Now, in the case of shoes, that's mostly or entirely harmless--who cares whether or not people are recognizing the foot-protecting qualities of shoes?  But for some things, the fetishization process is not harmless, and losing sight of the original purpose of the object can have tragic and grave consequences.  US culture is made completely sick by our collective fetishization of guns, for example.

It is clear to me that Christian culture fetishizes bodies and body parts.  Skin and skin color are probably the most obvious and most destructive fetish we labor under (and, yes, we labor under it in church, in case you were wondering).  But a close second is the way we fetishize genitalia--the penis for men and the uterus for women.  The fetishization of genitalia is worse in the Christian culture than in the broader culture (and, to be clear, it is bad in the broader culture).  Think about how much meaning and significance is placed on a woman's uterus, how many do's and don'ts and should's and mustn'ts are tied up in such a small portion of a woman's body in the Christian discourse.  The largest Christian denomination in the world publicly and unapologetically claims that a woman's uterus is the defining feature of not just her body, but her entire reality as a child of God.  Movement, athletics, the arts, the sciences, communication, emotions, love--all of that is occluded and sidelined by the overwhelming fixation on a woman's uterus and the transcended significance applied to the fetish object.

But, if anything, the fetishization of the penis is even more intense and more all-consuming, bringing with it the narratives of power and control and autonomy and a host of other concepts that are lumped together in this weird, often toxic, stew called "masculinity."  And, in the place of intersection between those two lines of obsession, we find the ever-present catalyst for turmoil and churn in the present Christian world, LGBT questions and LGBT people.  LGBT people challenge all of the fetishized significance placed on the penis and/or the uterus, providing a glimpse into a possibility of being free of this all-consuming pressure of meaning.  Maybe we are not locked into a completely binary, all-encompassing, "complementary" understanding of human beings, with two utterly distinct ways of being human.  LGBT people are the wrong bodies because they threaten to reveal that the right bodies aren't special and fixed and given as the right body folks always insist.

I mentioned before that, for many conservative Christians, Christianity is only about one thing.  This monomaniacal quality, I am starting to believe, is a product of the underlying fetishization of bodies.  Right bodies and insisting on right bodies becomes possible and necessary when all you can see when you look at a body is the fetish object.  The fetishizers don't see the body as a body, in all of its rich complexity and diversity and nuance--they see the fetish object.  If they saw bodies in their diversity and complexity and nuance, then there would be no way to reduce all that down to some simple, binary formula of "right" and "wrong."  But once you only see one thing, you can grade and parse and sort based on that one thing.

There is no reason that I should have been jarred by seeing Deacon Diana and Deacon Colleen on the altar.  None.  It cannot be explained or defended in intellectual terms.  The sense of being jarred was a result of pushing up the ways in which I had fetishized the body and the parts of the body that carry masculinity and femininity.  This fetishization was real notwithstanding that I had disavowed it intellectually.  You don't need to be aware of your fetishes for them to affect you.

The Jen Hatmakers and the Rachel Held Evans's and Sarah Besseys and Margaret Farleys of the world are double-fetish breakers--they are the wrong bodies telling the right bodies (or those wrong bodies who accept the paradigm that the right bodies are right) that they are wrong about another and even more charged set of wrong bodies.  Into this stew, any tool or technique to protect their fetishes is justified.  Even obviously and comically pretextual ones, like a member of denomination that came into existence and finds its raison d'etre in rejecting the lawful church authority of the Episcopal Church banging the drum for the importance of lawful church authority ("physician, heal thyself").  Whether or not she is aware of it, Rev. Warren is neck-deep in this world of fetishized right bodies, and she writes as someone trying to protect that world.  A world that is, if slowly, starting to crumble and give way to something that is hopefully less fetishized, and better able to see and experience the joy and beauty and mystery of bodies as the are.  Which, after all, is how God made them.

That's almost certainly true.  Just not for the reasons offered by Rev. Warren.


Carl said…
NOTE: Original post with active links is on my blog: http://carlroberts.us/?p=478

Over at “A Sound of Sheer Silence,” Michael wrote a great post about “Right Bodies.”

I think Michael is coming from a Catholic background and is new to the Episcopalian Church, so he’s writing about how it is “jarring” to see a woman administering the Eucharist: “not wrong, in the sense of ‘this is an outrage’ or ‘this shouldn’t be happening,’ but something that disturbed the basic mental framework that I had for how the Eucharist should go.”

From there, Michael transitions to talking about LGBTQ issues and how “Christian culture fetishizes bodies and body parts.”

First, the officiating minister at my wedding was a woman. The officiating minister at many a communion that I have taken has been a woman. This is all normal to me because most of my adult life in church has been in the Methodist denomination. Cool. I am so progressive.

Second, some “Christians” have tried to avoid this whole “fetishization” of bodies thing by denying that Jesus Christ was actually a human body: Docetism. Because guess what? Bodies are stupid. They rot. They get sick. They have to eat all of the time. And they are a real pain to maintain. But apparently God thinks that bodies are cool enough to make one part of the Trinity a body. NOTE: I am not claiming this because I am not a theologian. I am simply stating the orthodox view (?).

So now we spend all of our time watching Dancing with the Stars and playing football. Awesome. We just love bodies.

We hate “mind” and “spirit.”

So yeah, bodies do matter, even though I wish they didn’t.

It’s not my fault. I wish we could all be incorporeal essences in states of pure bliss and communion.

Instead, we are monkeys. I AM TRAPPED IN A MONKEY BODY! HELP!

And what do monkeys do? Talk about their bodies.


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