For the Body: Recovering a Theology of Gender, Sexuality, and the Human Body
Timothy Tennent’s new book For the Body delivers on its subtitle: recovering a theology of gender, sexuality, and the human body. The recovery reaches back to traditional Christian teachings, applying a conservative ethic grounded in a high view of Scripture to today’s church and society. Tennent is the president of Asbury Theological Seminary, as well as the professor of world Christianity. In a glowing foreword, the teaching director of Youth for Christ, Ajith Fernando, commends Tennent’s presidential appointment, frets over the loss of scholarly output that may come with administrative service, and celebrates the publication of this book as promise of Tennent’s ongoing scholarly and pastoral contributions to the church.
The book is divided into three parts. The first, longest by far, is titled “Our Bodies are Talking to Us.” Here, Tennant grounds his approach in the creation narrative, celebrating the goodness of bodies and the connection of all creation to Christ. He then looks at marriage, family, singleness, and friendship as ways that humans employ their bodies in relationship. The final section of the first part looks at the sacramental body, seeing the emerging reality of the new creation as signified through our bodies and our everyday lives. Throughout, arguments are thoroughly connected with Scripture, with theological strands, and with ecclesial traditions. A lay reader can appreciate the clear meaning of the book, while pastors and scholars can easily connect with nuances and historical writings in various traditions.
In Part 2, “Our Culture is Talking to Us,” the focus is on brokenness as seen in objectified bodies. Many Christian readers will easily sympathize with critiques of media, such as pervasive pornography, and the shame and self-image issues that plague many people. This critique ends with an interesting theological association, that cultural brokenness contributes to the “disincarnation” of human personhood (132). The book’s thesis claims to focus on same-sex marriage and transgender identity as two key cultural issues that warrant close attention by Christians. In this part, same-sex marriage is mentioned, but biblical analysis focuses on same-sex behavior, and very little attention is given to transgender identity. The main point, however, is to call attention to root issues. When we chase issues one by one, we miss an understanding of root causes, from which can flow a more patient and discerning approach to issues as they arise.
Part 3 offers “A Way Forward” by portraying the body discipled. Tennent names three root problems – biblical authority, irreparable harm/hate speech, and the loss of moral argument. For each, he recommends perspectives and practices for the church, beginning with foundational matters such as reclamation of identity, and embracing a high view of Scripture. He then offers advice for discipleship, and thoughts for leaders. Part 3 offers insight to individual readers, teachers and mentors, and pastors.
For the Body will support and challenge conservative readers and groups, those who agree with the opening claim that same-sex sexuality and transgender identity represent “disorder, a departure from God’s created design and redemptive plan” (31). These readers will find support for their point of view, and challenge for life and practice. Tennent encourages theological and biblical literacy and warns Christians against unkindness, detachment, and hate toward any persons. The book is a strong contribution to a kinder and more studied conservatism. The book’s overall approach is to question frameworks and look for roots. That approach promises to shift the willing reader’s gaze from dizzyingly rapid social changes around sex and gender to a deeper understanding of Scripture, a careful grounding in theology, and a humble and joyous living of one’s own sexuality and gender submitted to discipleship in the way of Jesus.
Progressives will very likely remain unpersuaded, or simply not engage the book and its arguments. The book makes a beautiful claim to recover tradition for today, but the downside of that approach is a frustrating appeal to questions and claims from many decades ago. For example, he restates and develops the idea that God’s creation of sex and gender is clearly binary, but he neglects the arguments of devout Christians who interpret the reality of different genders and sexualities as expressions of God’s creativity. A more contemporary approach could still reach a conservative point of view but would engage existing scholarly literature and lived experiences. This would likely deflate “the” Christian view, or admonitions to “the” church, which this book relies on, in favor of various Christian views and various Christian churches.
Disappointing, also, is the laser focus on the question of whether the Bible forbids same-sex sexual behavior. Exhaustive accounts of every possible verse have been explored since the 1970s, and this book rehearses that line of thought accurately but misses new questions that might better speak to our current moment. For example, he mentions the United Methodist Church’s split over LGBTQ+, just one of many examples that raises questions of Christian unity and charity. Since the time of Christ, his followers have disagreed about very important matters of belief and practice, and our time is no exception. What does Christian unity mean, when Christians don’t agree? And even more poignantly, how can Christians express a “look how they love one another” kind of fellowship, given the depth and significance of our differences? Explaining one’s point of view repeatedly and exhaustively, however kindly, is rarely received as love. Given the book’s title, I wanted to read more about what embodied love means between Christians who hold different views, and within Christian families where some members are LGBTQ+.
A final question regarding same-sex marriage would connect Christian pro-life ethics and pro-family ethics with families in our society headed by same-sex couples. How does a Christian pro-family ethic apply to families that marry or reproduce in ways that traditional Christianity does not affirm? Most churches say they welcome all families, but welcoming is fraught when it seems to require significant changes in belief (theological affirmation of same-sex practice) or profound changes in family lifestyle (celibacy in same-sex marriages). Legalization of same-sex marriage, reproductive technologies, and self-defined sexualities and genders raise questions of immense complexity and novelty. Older questions, such as those that animate this book, are more useful for questioning whether or not society ought to embrace same-sex marriage or transgender identity. Now that society is well down that road, our new context calls for new questions of incarnation, how to live as God’s people in the world as it is.
Finally, the book would be stronger with greater reflexivity. Tennent describes himself as having “been on a journey” that includes people, stories, friends, listening to the church through the ages, and learning to study Scriptures in a new way (xxiv). Tennent shares stories of his life, but not a journey of learning, change, or challenge over the issues at hand. Over issues of sex and gender, current epistemological and communication norms call for integration and implication of the author’s self in books and writings. Seeing the author as learning and growing, or as having changed his mind, or as having real stakes in these issues is vital for a skeptical or disagreeable reader to stay the course.
For the Body will make a strong contribution to conservative colleges and seminaries, and to readers who wish to explore the underpinnings of traditional theology and readings of Scripture. At best, it will challenge these communities toward robust learning, compassionate living, and deeper devotion to Christ. Unfortunately, it will likely do little to bridge the growing gap between conservative and progressive Christians, both individually and denominationally.