Worship and the Physical Body: The Earthen Vessels Symposium – Part 1

Zac HicksCulture, Worship Theology & ThoughtLeave a Comment

I have the privilege of contributing to a blog symposium, along with several other authors and bloggers, on Matt Anderson’s terrific book, Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith.1  Matt is a fellow Biola-grad, lover of Christ’s Church, and blogaholic over at Mere Orthodoxy and Evangel.  Even as I interact with the book, be sure to check Mere-O in a few days from this post to see Matt’s interaction with me.

The final chapter of the book, “The Body and the Church,” instead of focusing on ecclesiology (the study of the church), in general, zeroes in on doxology (the study of worship) in particular.  To structure the dialogue, let me first attempt to summarize the chapter in a thesis statement, along with his subsequent supporting arguments.  Anderson’s chief point is that the physical body matters to corporate worshipThis, in turn, informs our perspectives on:

(a) how we are shaped by the form(s) of worship;2
(b) how we analyze disembodied forms of worship, such as online church and projecting technologies;3
(c) how we understand the role of the sacraments;4
(d) our musical repertoire.5

Interacting with the Big Idea

That the physical body matters for worship is not a given in our day and age, and Anderson is dead-on in the main thrust of this chapter to say that we’ve bypassed careful reflection about how anthropology informs our doxology.  Because we have an “over-spiritualized anthropology,”6 we worship leaders allow our congregants to present us with bad arguments for why they don’t engage their bodies in corporate worship—arguments such as “I’m a heart-worshiper,” or “I worship with my spirit.”  (I’ve written a response to this line of thinking that challenges both the faulty exegesis and hidden idolatry, and I suspect Anderson would agree.7)  Like Anderson, I believe that our mysterious mind-body-dualist composition as human beings means that spirit shapes body and body shapes spirit.  Formation (purposefully avoiding the term “spiritual formation,” here) is a two way street, because humans are essentially whole but dipartite creatures.8  My favorite radio host, Dennis Prager (a devout Jew), often points out on his weekly “happiness hour” that one of the best remedies to not feeling happy is to act happy.  We’ve all experienced it.  Husbands and wives learn it as an effective marriage therapy technique.  When we act in certain ways contrary to our inner disposition, we at times find that disposition strangely moved.  So, change doesn’t always move from spirit to body (Anderson points out the oft-used phrase, “from the inside out”9) but also from body to spirit.  This applies to worship in the sense that physical actions and rituals are not, in themselves, utterly meaningless.  With Anderson, I believe that our physical postures in worship—our sitting, standing, bowing, raising hands, closing eyes, clapping, dancing, holding hands—shape us as human (and, yes, spiritual) beings.  Spiritual worshipers should be physical worshipers. 

How We Are Shaped by the Form of Worship

I appreciate the thrust of this section: being shaped in worship is not ultimately about planned form or spontaneous formlessness but about how physicality shapes us as worshipers in any setting.  Anderson points out that the charismatic complaint I sometimes hear that more formal worship is devoid of substance because (a) it lacks spontaneous, genuine physical expression, or (b) “liturgical postures,” like corporate kneeling, are empty because they’re “forced.”  Points like these deny the reality of the two-way anthropological formation mentioned above.  Ironically, the complaint could go both ways:

The danger of turning worship of the living God into theater isn’t limited to any denomination. The evangelical liturgy…has just as much room for becoming theater as the ‘highest’ liturgical church.10

That the form of worship shapes us is an under-explored theme in evangelical doxology.  Anderson cites James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom11 as one of the exceptions.  Greg Thompson distilled and reworked some of Smith’s ideas at the Bifrost Arts conference in St. Louis earlier this year, pointing out that, when the structure and elements of worship are faithful to the scriptures and the gospel, they have the effect of being habit-forming to our faith journey.12  For instance, I cannot tell you how many times, in the midst of disciplining my children, we’ve nearly instinctively walked through the “liturgical cycle” of Confession of Sin and Assurance of Pardon, ending, in effect, with our Gloria Patri of thankful praise.  Our family has shown signs of being formed by the gospel-shaped liturgy of our local assembly’s worship.



1 Matthew Lee Anderson, Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2011).
2 Ibid., 208-212.
3 Ibid., 212-221.
4 Ibid., 222-224.
5 Ibid., 224-227.
6 Ibid., 212.
7 Zac Hicks, “Raising Hands in Worship: It’s About Obedience, Not Emotions,” 9/11/09.
8 I am here assuming a dichotomist, rather than trichotomist, anthropology, but I recognize that not all are agreed on this.
9 Anderson, Vessels, 210.
10 Ibid., 209.
11 Ibid., 212, n. 3.  Anderson, in the endnote, acknowledges some reservations about Smith’s methodology.  I’d be very curious what those reservations are.
12 Zac Hicks, “Bifrost Arts Conference: Liturgy, Music, & Space – Greg Thompson on How Liturgy Shapes Us,” 3/30/11.

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