Tortured Wonders

Rodney Clapp, Brazos Press, 2005

By Gareth Higgins

In the church of my youth we often sang a song that anticipated a church made up of ‘dancers who dance upon injustice’ – a noble sentiment, to be sure, but not enough by itself to actually lead to real live, fleshed-out dancers actually doing any kind of two-step on the injustices that plague our world. It was all too easy to live our faith primarily in our hearts. It was entirely possible to turn up to church in gas-guzzling SUVs, and read
Psalms about the earth being the Lord’s; or to pray for the unity of the body of Christ, while inhabiting sectarianised spaces as a matter of course; or to sing of dancing on injustice without ever imagining what that might require of the dancers.

So when a book is described by Eugene Peterson as ‘the freshest contemporary approach to Christian spirituality that I am aware of’, it’s worth taking notice. The subtitle is ‘Christian spirituality for people, not angels’ – an invitation to imagine what it might be like to talk about spirituality as if it were something that actually worked in the real world, rather than only in the elevated conversations of ordained clergy and academic theologians.

Locating spirituality in the human body, Clapp recognises that the tendency toward ethereal spiritual talk does no justice to the fact that all of us are bound and freed by the limitations and potential of our own flesh. We are in between angels and brute animals – our bodies are the only ‘place’ we have to ‘be spiritual’ in. Christian spirituality cannot be pitted against physical bodies – and it is to Clapp’s credit and our gain that he writes
so honestly about the stuff of which we are made. He is wonderfully self-deprecating; honest about the limitations of his own body, writing about sex, diet and exercise, alongside an entire chapter on the life of Elvis Presley as a paradigm for a life lived, as Malcolm Muggeridge would put it ‘between the steeple and the gargoyle’.

He knows that we like the word ‘spirituality’, but may be unsure what to do with it; for him, an answer to that question begins with an attempt to draw on evangelical, catholic, and orthodox traditions. He suggests that the contemporary tendency to protect ourselves against contamination – from germs or ideas or other people – mitigates against a fully incarnated Christian spirituality. Just as lack of physical exposure prevents the human immune system from developing, so avoidance of the realities of a fully earthed life stunts spiritual growth.

For Clapp, creation is no less body than soul; many of our ‘abilities and loves grow out of our bodily limitations’, so an exploration of sex, eating, dancing and death is inevitable. He reviews the orthodox/evangelical/catholic tradition on sexuality and finds it wanting
(although he recognises that at least part of the motivation for sexual Puritanism was the fear that children born out of wedlock would not be properly cared for); and suggests a more realistic assessment of sexual love as desire rightly ordered in the context of lives fully lived.

He suggests that we often gloss over the reality of death and need to face it in order to appreciate life in the now. An exploration of the Eucharist as the ‘re-membering’ of the body of Christ is nothing short of inspirational, although he stops short of suggesting the compelling idea that Jesus’ intention in inviting his disciples to ‘do this in memory of me’ might have been a way of re-constituting ourselves as Christian community not merely as part of a structured ecclesiastical ritual, but at every single meal time. This is a small omission, for the section on what he calls the ‘benefits of eucharistic citizenship’ is a reminder of what is lost when, as is currently popular, people leave the church. The Eucharist is a food that ‘not only staves off death, but vanquishes it’; using the ritual as a space for offering prayers for healing, and seeing the Eucharist as the central activity of the church will also stand as a bulwark against the individualism that has become another part of the contemporary myth of progress.

The second part of the book reflects on the recent shifts in Western culture to post-Christendom; there is a glorious chapter on Elvis – in whom Clapp finds a life fully lived in all its flaw and beauty; a man who in his deepest yearnings sought God, but who felt he had become ‘'a dollar sign whose task it was to dramatize the fact of his own existence’. Clapp suggests we live in ‘Elvis World’; that Las Vegas is everywhere, and we have turned Jesus into Elvis – in a culture where ‘you can be whatever you want to be’ is the religion of the day, sadly many Christians have only offered ‘with God’s help, you can be whatever you want to be’ as the alternative. The concepts of justice or community, or the body of Christ existing for the sake of a broken world are all too often considered inferior concerns to the self-actualisation of the middle class Christian soul.

For Clapp, the antidote begins with the ‘first and basic Christian exercise: to acknowledge death’. Jesus lived in the real world as a man with working bowels and sweat glands; in this, as with all things, he identifies with us. It is not our task to become holier than thou – trying to be an angel will never work when you’re made to be a person.

At the same time, full personhood requires an honest assessment of where we're really at, our limitations and strengths, rather than the dishonest sweat of Elvis, who in later life began taking salt tablets before concerts in order to produce a wet brow rather than actually working for it. Life is beautiful, but spiritual and bodily disciplines are not easy; though a life lived in the light of grace, with proper attention to discipline will become
one in which the ‘burden is easy and the yoke light’.

Tortured Wonders is a genuinely imaginative piece of work; any book that makes a case for sexual morality based on questions of justice already earns its keep by avoiding the dictates of fundamentalism or the anything-goes version of liberalism. Yet the book is about much more than that – Clapp writes evocatively of what he calls the three sides to salvation – body, mind and spirit; and embodies the very generosity that he suggests should be its keynote. I wish he had written more about social justice and politics, but this is only because what else he has to say is so well thought-through; and it is not difficult to imagine what he thinks about such concepts based on the notions of love and grace exemplified throughout.