Vulnerability and Embodiment

August 4th, 2016
This article is featured in the Does Preaching Matter? (Aug/Sep/Oct 2016) issue of Circuit Rider

Accepting and embracing vulnerability is essential to unlocking our power as women and men in ministry because it has everything to do with our bodies and embodiment. While we can obscure our true selves and hide our theological commitments quite easily if we choose, our bodies are much harder to disguise, although we try desperately to do so. Our bodies are essential to and revealing of who we are. We express ourselves through our bodies, which communicate what we think and feel as much as our words do.

This is particularly true in ministry. Ministry does not happen solely through speech but through action, through our bodies acting out our theological commitments. Ministry is about bodies touching bodies—in sharing the peace, in praying, in baptisms, in Holy Communion, in pastoral care, and in commendation of the dying. This is also life, of course. But in life and especially in ministry, we need to be much more conscious of the kinds of effects our bodies have on others, both for good and for ill. Bodies express intimacy, which is essential to relationship but can also destroy it. Intimacy is all too often misinterpreted or abused; misconstrued relationships can result in sexual and ethical harassment and violation. We know that there are many people in our lives, directly and indirectly, who seem unaware of how their bodies communicate with and affect those around them. For ministry, since the body is connected to acts carried out in the name of God, the stakes are higher. Ministry should reflect a theology of embodiment.

The task of preaching is an example of how critical it is to think about the body and its role in the call to ministry. Preaching is possibly the most public act of theology in ministry. It’s also an act of extraordinary power, a kind of power that should be assessed carefully. The preacher is afforded an authority unprecedented in most other arenas of life. While authority, and its accompanying figures, continues to be a location of societal critique, a preacher still has attributed authority, in part because of the nature of the subject matter on which she preaches. A preacher is afforded an assumed authority because she is preaching the gospel, the scriptures, the Word of God (note capitalization).

But preaching is not just about the words that one speaks. As a result, one’s body is connected with that power and authority of which the preacher must constantly be aware. Our bodies have the potential to comfort and console, to nurture and protect, but also the possibility of wielding power that brings about pain, suffering, and even death. Bodies that tower, bodies that yell, bodies that shake their fists and point and pin down are not those that seek to present an interpretive point but those that intend to coerce and subjugate into belief. A preacher has to consider what, and how, her body is communicating with as much care as she considers her words and her tone. Preaching is not simply about content but about embodied content. Preaching is a necessary act for understanding the theological promise of the incarnation. The Word becomes flesh again in proclamation, incarnated anew in the body of the preacher and in the body of the congregation. To take the incarnation seriously means that we have to take our bodies seriously.

This article is excerpted from Lewis' book She: Five Keys to Unlock the Power of Women in Ministry, from Abingdon Press.

In the act of preaching, the consciousness of our bodies works itself out in a number of ways. Because of the versatility of our bodies and our gestures, they are a medium for intimating emotion. Our bodies can actually work against our words, with an ill-placed or ill-timed gesture, or a bodily stance that contradicts what we are saying. At the same time, our bodies can be used to enhance our communication in ways that only using words cannot. It’s never just what you say but always how you say it.

Yet, there are too many voices out there, voices that are usually far too loud and too influential, that continue to insist, especially to new preachers, that words are enough and that the body can only be a distraction from the very important act of proclaiming God’s word. Their advice is usually something along the lines of “you need to get out of the way of the gospel” or “get yourself out of the way so that the Word of God can be heard.” Sometimes this ill-informed advice refers to the need for preachers to be aware of their own issues and not to have too much of themselves in a sermon, whether in stories or illustrations about themselves, their opinions, the proverbial soapbox, or even their theological ideas.

For all these reasons of self-awareness it’s essential to know yourself as a biblical interpreter and as a theologian. But this kind of advice betrays the assumption that the Word of God can be communicated without the subjectivity of the preacher. Pure objectivity in biblical interpretation and theological thinking is an impossibility, because it makes a dangerous claim about the authority of scripture. The Word of God was incarnated, embodied in the man named Jesus and lived in Jesus’s ministry, touching on all human senses and experience. God’s Word, then, must also be experienced—felt, seen, tasted, smelled—and yes, heard. God’s Word can be experienced, when the relationships between bodies are mutual and interdependent. 

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