The contemptible human body


There is always fresh occasion for recalling Dorothy Sayers' injunction that the opponents of Christianity ought to have some inkling of what specifically they disbelieve. It was once the case that philosophers and theologians bore the weight of denouncing Christianity, by virtue of a widely held, commonsensical understanding that someone ignorant of Christian dogma can no more disassemble its foundations than a circus pony can expose the errors in Newtonian physics.

But when people in the Church can scarcely list its tenets, it's not fair to expect those on the outside to know the dogma any better. The chief sources of error about Christian teaching most likely are putative Christians themselves, be they the laughable Pat Robertson or the ill-prepared Sunday school instructor or simply the parent who preaches Jesus while exuding Barabbas.

But when hatred replaces learning as the chief qualification of the ecclesiophobe, it's still fair to expose the Church hater as an ignoramus, and there is perhaps no better word by which to introduce Guardian art correspondent Jonathan Jones, who recently let loose with this howler: "But in discussions of contemporary religion, the oldest and most glaring idiosyncrasy of Christianity is rarely stressed. This is its contempt for the human body."

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One might be tempted to insist that the oldest and most glaring idiosyncrasy of Christianity is the Triune God or the radical concept of forgiveness embodied in Christ, but that presupposes some common understanding of Christianity, and the last thing one can expect of the modern intellectual atheist is that he would know what he is talking about. But we can pass that by and settle on the more intriguing of Jones' errors, which is his belief that Christianity has, from the beginning, entailed a contempt for the human body.

This is fascinating news to anyone familiar with the early heresies that centered on the body of Christ. An important part of the debates within the great Christian councils, from affirmation of Christ's full Godhead and humanity in the fourth century to condemnation of iconoclasm in the eighth century, came about precisely because Christians revere the body, both as a creation of God and as a vessel sanctified by His indwelling.

My Catholic and Orthodox friends, who are in the habit of reverencing beautifully painted icons, still recognize the body of the least comely of humans as the greatest of all icons, beyond anything a mortal artist could craft. I doubt that Jones, were he asked to choose which is lovelier, a consumptive hobo or Venus de Milo, would opt for the hobo. Yet it is an article of Christian faith that man is crafted in the image and likeness of God.

These are a few of the facts, but that is no matter to an art journalist who imagines he grasps Christian history and dogma by virtue of knowing the Puritans frowned at naked breasts. Yet even the Christian sects at odds with depictions of nudes in art can still be counted on to man the lines at the slaughterhouses where infants are yanked whole or in pieces from their mothers' wombs. Meanwhile, one is hard-pressed to find someone who shares Jones' contempt for Christianity lifting a finger to stop this most fundamental contempt for the human body. Nor is it the secular humanist organizations funneling millions into Africa to avert starvation, or erecting orphanages in India, or bringing medical care to American inner cities.

So what we have is this: Christians remain indisputably at the forefront-in expenditure and action-of protecting and aiding the beleaguered human body around the world, but the defining characteristic of Christianity, to Jones, is that a few hicks can't tell the difference between classical art and porn. A regrettable fact, to be sure, but no reason to go making a fool of oneself.


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