Beyond Disembodiment: a book review.

Excarnation denotes the ancient practice of removing flesh and organs from the dead. Author Michael Frost uses this term to connote a set of practices in late modernity which cause us to life ‘disembodied lives.’ This is evident in the  problem of Internet pornography or a contemporary fascination with Zombies, but it is more widespread than even these phenomena. Our lives are increasingly transitory, screen-mediated and morally disengaged from community. We objectify others through our language (saying ‘action will be required’ rather than ‘let’s act’). Richard Sennett has claimed that the primary architectural symbol of contemporary life is the airport departure lounge–a bland, liminal space full of people who belong and long for somewhere else (15-16). There is no sense of shared community in an airport lounge!  People spend hours staring at a screen (either overhead or their own personal devices) and consciously minimize their interaction with those around them. Zygmunt Bauman says that the primary metaphor for modern living is tourism. We are marked by mobility, impermanence and loose ties with others and therefore are endlessly sampling experiences but have little firm commitments to ideology or beliefs (17).

Unfortunately the Church–the community formed around the Incarnate One–is to often shaped by our modern excarnate tendencies.  A hyper-dualistic theology which focuses on eternal reward (great pie-in-the-sky when you die) impacts our practice. We know more about God than our actions demonstrate. Our worship focuses on our private heart experience. We close our eyes, oblivious to those around us, and sing sometimes indecipherable lyrics. Ethically, our involvement with those on the margins is increasingly mediated. We give to missions organizations and charities. We engage in click-activism by signing online petitions. Yet our daily lives are disengaged from those who are suffering and we know little of what it means to give our lives sacrificially to a cause for the good of the community.

This problem is the focus of Frost’s new book, Incarnate: The Body of Christ in an Age of Disengagement.  Frost, whose previous books include Exiles and The Shaping of Things to Come is an Aussie missional guru and one of my go-to guys when I want to read something which tells me how to live a compelling, creative, missional life. Here he offers an incisive analysis of our current Western context and draws on the insights of the likes of  Charles Taylor, N.T. Wright and James A. K. Smith and a number of thoughtful missional practitioners. I read and underlined a lot, flagging many quotations and references to research further.

But the impact of this book is what Frost says for what our lives should be like. What does it mean that we follow an Incarnate Christ? What are the implications for the church’s mission? Frost suggests and prods us to a more embodied approach to life and ministry through out this book and has profound things to say about the character of our mission, the formative nature of our communal practices, and reflective re-engagement with our communities. It is clear that Frost sees the church as an alternative to our dualistic, excarnate culture. But this does not drive us remove ourselves from culture. It gives us a framework for holistic mission that infiltrates every aspect of the wider culture with an embodied spirituality which calls us all to abundant life.

As I was reading this book, I wondered if Frost was overstating the current church’s ‘hyper-dualism.’ Certainly the church culture I grew up in was guilty of the sort of theological, anthropological and religious dualism he warns of, but I feel like the conversation has changed and holistic mission is much more ‘mainstream.’ Yet dualism still pervades many contexts (and certainly the wider culture). I set this book alongside similar critiques (such as Jamie Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom). Frost has lots to teach us, and writes compellingly about how excarnate we’ve become and what we need to change if we are to walk in the way of Jesus. I am still processing this book but I recommend it highly to anyone who cares about what it means for us to be in the world and not of it. Frost will help you do both! I give this book five stars: ★★★★★

Thank you to IVP for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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