Every now and again, I’m privileged to be at conferences meetings or events that I wouldn’t expect to be. One of the best things about this random trait of my experience of life has been free books. Recently, I was enjoying SBL/AAR in Boston, where I built up quite a stack of books. One of the books I was most excited to aqquire and even more excited to read, is the book I’m reviewing today – the English translation of Jean-Claude Larchet’s Theology of the Body from St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.
This is a brilliant, readable, short and provocative Eastern Orthodox Theological account of what it means to be human from the perspective of having and being a body. Regular readers will know that this is, in my view, one half of what it means to be human. As well as theological anthropology (what the Bible says about being human) the language of body in the Bible touches on ecclesiology (what it means to be the Church) – one of my values around Church unity is to listen and learn about theology and bible reading from diverse voices, from other parts of the church. Larchet’s Theology of the Body falls into this category.
Firstly, the shared inheritance of Trinitarian Christianity and the big story of the biblical Gospel are writ large in this little book. Larchet – with helpful but non-intrusive notes from a translator – works through how the various elements of the Bible engage with the body. Refreshingly, Larchet is keen to emphasise the progress of the Gospel story – examining ‘The Body in its Original State’, ‘The Body in its Fallen State’, and ‘The Body Saved…’ as the three major acts of this drama. Rightly so, Larchet spends the bulk of his time (four out of six chapters) engaging with the way the Body is transformed by the kingdom of God, invited and transformed by the Gospel. In this respect, it could be helpfully brought into conversation with Body: Biblical Spirituality for the Whole Person by Paula Gooder. There are a number of challenging observations and eminently quotable observations in this book – I’ll probably do them on social media in the coming months.
Secondly, some questions I have around this particular book and how it interprets the Christian tradition to move closer to religious dogma than biblical truth, in my opinion. By considering the biblical account of the body and how it is caught up in and transformed by Christ, there is much beauty in this book. By seeking to tie that transformation to religious tradition, this book commits a few interesting missteps. Firstly, in the chapter on ‘The Body in Spiritual Life’, Larchet is very much traditionally Eastern Orthodox in his view on sacraments, virtues, asceticism, and the way in which people live out their faith. This makes for an interesting discussion – to what extent can what we do to honour Jesus be reduced/categorised in a system of action? Secondly, in the penultimate chapter on the fascinating subject of ‘The Body Transfigured and Deified’, Larchet draws on a traditional Eastern Orthodox understanding of Relics – as an evidence of the Body’s transfiguration and deification. I will quote a chunk, before responding:
“… the veneration of relics is not idolatry. It is not directed at an inanimate object, but concerns the persons of whose bodies they remain apart, and through which these persons continue to express and manifest themselves, albeit in a different manner”
There are a lot of questions to ask here. A key one – are relics idolatry – is summarily dealt with, yet I don’t think answers the question. The issue, as I see it, is replacement of veneration of Christ with the veneration of objects representing persons who are not (or not yet) Christ. By both Eastern Orthodox and non-Eastern standards, this appears to me to to be unhelpful at best and idolatrous at worst. I hope that this question can be resolved by conversation over translation – something I hope to explore in the new year.
Overall, then, this is a really helpful little book. Sitting easily alongside Roman Catholic and evangelical accounts of a theology of the Body, this is both beautifully ecumenical (Almost evangelical, in the true sense, in its ecumencism) and distinctly Eastern Orthodox. This is not a book for everyone – as my review hopefully shows – but for those of us (hi!) interested in what it means to be human, and considering the voice of the wider church in that question, this is a vital read.