Embodied Spiritual Formation: a book review

The Christian church, especially in the West, sometimes fails to give bodies their due. There are a lot of reasons for this. An emphasis on the ‘spiritual’ has led to a denigration of the physical.  In part, this is due to the Neo-Platonic influence  in early Christian thought, but modern evangelicals also have done their part to denigrate bodies. And yet the Bible affirms created matter as good and draws no strong distinction between our bodies and souls. We are embodied souls and ensouled bodies. What we do in our bodies and how well we care for them has a direct impact on our spiritual life.

The Life of the Body: Physical Well-Being and Spiritual Formation by Valerie Hess and Lane Arnold

Valerie Hess and Lane M. Arnold have teamed up to  explore the role of the body in Christian spiritual formation. Valerie Hess teaches Spiritual Formation  and Leadership to graduate students at Spring Arbor University. Lane Arnold is a spiritual director and writer in Colorado Springs. Both women bring a depth of theological reflection to our physical bodies, as well as experiential insights; however the Life of the Body: Physical Well-Being and Spiritual Formation is not merely a book to get you to think more carefully about our physical nature.  Hess and Arnold want you and I to embody the sort of life which helps us enter more freely, and more satisfyingly  into our relationship with God. This is a book about spiritual formation which invites you to consider what you eat and drink, how you care for your body and the physical world.

There is so much about this book which I heartily affirm. In eleven chapters, Hess and Arnold cover a range of issues which relate to the body and physical reality: the incarnation, the church, worship, having a balanced life, having a theology of food, extremism (i.e. eating disorders and unhealthy habits), when bodies don’t ‘work’ like they should, aging, raising children to care for their bodies and care for creation. In addition, four appendices provide a look at ‘Holy Habits for the Whole Body,’ scriptural passages which discuss ‘the body,’ a list of suggested resources relating to each chapter, as well as a small group discussion guide.

By rooting their reflections in Jesus’ incarnation, they are able to affirm the essential goodness of our embodied life. Their reflection on the church, names it as an embodied institution–the physical expression of the Kingdom of God, which is made up of a bunch of people with bodies. They challenge us to think of ways as a church that we can help one another make healthy choices and engage in appropriate self-care.

Yet it would be wrong to think that being aware of our physical needs in spiritual formation means that we should focus solely on ourselves. Hess and Arnold talk about ‘your body’ but they also talk about physical life in general. They move easily between addressing issues of self-care to advising justice in food consumption, concern about agricultural practices, offering a sociological critique of how bodies are ‘imaged’ in our culture and advocating for environmental care. They are not just suggesting people ‘take care of themselves.’ They are urging us to thoughtful engagement with our physical world as we seek to grow in our relationship with God.

This is an accessible book with many practical suggestions. Each chapter closes with a prayer and reflection exercises which help to put the chapter into practice.  The authors share vulnerably about their own struggles with their bodies and offer advice and challenges in a gracious way. This is not the sort of book which will ‘guilt’ you in to dieting or an exercise program (though the authors advocate this). Rather they offer a gentle challenge to be more vigilant with what we do with our bodies.

Hess and Arnold have an important message for the church and I happily commend to you. Several years ago I changed some dietary habits and got into a regular exercise routine (which I am now struggling to get back into). I was amazed to discover how much this affected my prayer and devotional life positively. If we are serious about spiritual formation and growing in our faith, than appropriate self care is a must. Hess and Arnold are good guides on the journey to spiritual health. I give this book four stars: ★★★★☆

Thank you to InterVarsity Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

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