Book Chapter

Word and body


Jasper A (2007) Word and body. In: Hass A, Jasper D & Jay E (eds.) Oxford Handbook of English Literature and Theology. Oxford Handbooks in Religion and Theology. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, pp. 776-792.

First paragraphs of Introduction: The Word became flesh In the twenty-first century scholars increasingly approach body and embodiment as a critical theme or discursive category and in this context it is clear that Christianity is not the first or only ideology to use, shape and exploit the perceived pleasures, needs and shortcomings of the body and embodiment to its own ends. Nevertheless Christianity appears to have been the source of some very powerful ideas about the body in European societies, at least since Constantine adopted it as the ‘official’ religion of the Roman Empire at the beginning of the fourth century. There is today something of a common assumption that Christianity has always been implacably hostile in respect of the body or human embodiment. But theological sources reveal a story with a different, and perhaps more predictable emphasis. The evidence suggests that the prevailing theological attitude to the body throughout this long period has been one, not so much of unrelieved negativity, as of equivocation. In words attributed to John Climacus, the seventh century Syrian Abbot of Mt Sinai, for example, the body is viewed as both a helper and an enemy, an assistant and an opponent, a protector and a traitor. And this Christian equivocation about sexual enjoyment, health and fitness, longevity, beauty, adornment, physical cruelty, gender, sexuality and the training of the body is clearly also reflected in the work of writers of English poetry drama and literature to a significant degree for well over a thousand years. Even in its earliest debates, in formulating the extraordinary doctrines of incarnation and bodily resurrection, Christian leaders and theologians have been strongly divided on the subject of body and embodiment, moved by both extreme reverence and by an equally notable anxiety. They have provided innumerable authors since that period with a palette of very strong colours with which to enrich their own varied texts and narratives about embodied, human existence, revealing a characteristic ambivalence about the value of human incarnation in the context of longings and hopes that often appear to transcend it.

The word; Flesh; Feminism; Body; Mary Wollstonecraft; The Ancrene Wisse; John Donne; A L Kennedy; Charlotte Brontë; Gospel of John; Body, Human Religious aspects Christianity; Sex, Religious aspects Christianity

Title of seriesOxford Handbooks in Religion and Theology
Publication date31/12/2007
PublisherOxford University Press
Publisher URL
Place of publicationOxford, UK