The Stories Bodies Tell

Jesus is asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” about the blind man (John 9:1-12). We take comfort in Jesus’ response that neither sinned, but neglect the narrative that Jesus offers in its place: “he was born blind so that God’s work might be revealed in him.” The story of the man’s broken body is not about sin (though this story is the narrative of many other healing miracles), but rather about God’s purpose that the man’s body may show forth God’s glory once it is healed. We are to understand that the man was blind, simply so that he may be healed. Jennifer Glancy’s recent book, Corporal Knowledge: Early Christian Bodies, (Oxford, 2010), reflects on the narratives into which bodies are cast.

The pre-existence adds another wrinkle into how we understand the stories bodies tell. Origen, one of the first early Christians to really propose the pre-existence asks rhetorically that if there were no pre-existence, “why do we find newborn babies to be blind, when they have committed no sin, while others are born with no defect at all?” (First Principles, 1.18.1). The argument is that the best explanation for why babies are punished with disability is because of sins their pre-existent souls must have committed.

This narrative of pre-existent sin, and its punishment in the body, is familiar to Latter-day Saint history on the issue of race. (See this series for some further reflections on this theme in LDS discourse) Though largely repudiated, this narrative of bodies telling stories about their souls remains in force in LDS discourse. Rather that thinking about sin as the cause of physical disability, LDS discourse often holds that excessive righteousness is the cause of mental (and sometimes physical) disability. I find it interesting that reward, and not punishment, is seen as the basis for physical and mental disability. Larger themes of theodicy in Mormonism follow a similar pattern, where trials are meant to be understood as opportunities for growth, rather than divine retribution.

In spite of this reversed narrative of reward instead of punishment, the idea that “blessings” are the reward for “righteousness” is a persist discursive trope, from the health benefits of the Word of Wisdom, to the protection from wearing garments, righteous living is meant to produce certain kinds of bodies. LDS bodies are also supposed to communicate certain values, which helps explain the sometimes obsessive concern over dress and grooming standards. Bodies decorated and shaped in certain ways, including how they dress, are designed to tell a story of where these bodies fit socially in broader American culture. These “standards” do not represent a neutral norm, but rather subscribe to larger cultural norms around identifying something about the person by the way they present their body.

The idea that the body houses a certain meaning, or communicates meaning is foundational to culture. Whether we distinguish the bodies of children from adults, men from women, slave from free, (and, if those who seek a biological basis for sexual preference succeed culturally, gay from straight) the body socially locates the individual.

These divisions, for all of their problematic entailments, are too often given the status of divine revelation and order, rather than social effect. The idea that God is the creator, and the belief in a certain original and continuing divine intentionality in the ordering of the world plays an important role in solidifying these social effects as divine will.

I see plenty of problems with these stories. Whether it is the idea that bodily disease and figure tell something about sin, righteousness, or divine benevolence, or the idea that our bodily presentation locates us socially in more and less moral ways, the stories our bodies often tell are wrong. But must we give up on the idea that bodies tell stories, or should tell stories, or can we just tell different stories about them?

6 Replies to “The Stories Bodies Tell”

  1. Wow.

    Somebody was discussing this at both SMPT and Sunstone this year. I will need to dig up her name.

    These are some of the more interesting, but also more complicated, aspects of our theology. Thanks, TT.

  2. No, no! Tell me I’m not going to beat Chris H. to the comment about Kant seeing the human form as the only perfectly beautiful object because only humans are capable of demonstrating moral autonomy (freedom).

  3. I’ve had my eye on this post for a while, and I’ve been trying to both formulate my comment and deal with my anger. It just annoys me that people think of reward/punishment in everything.

    Every year a lightning strikes hundreds of people globally. They are all wicked? And, yet, put a Molly Mormon dress on Miss America, and you have a Molly Mormon, regardless of how fake that facade is (what’s the html code for the c with the cedilla?).

    There are two kinds of problems with this kind of thinking, at least. First, it thinks of a straight punishment/reward relationship, and sees each adversity of human life as punishment, and each lucky strike of healthy genes or fortuitously placed bets on a roulette table as a blessing. REGARDLESS OF HOW RANDOM THEY ARE! (I mentioned anger, right?) God has told us, that he chastises those whom he loves, and that means the Saints (and some others) who are worth the trouble.

    Second, this way of thinking only sees the reward/punishment as an immediate act – reward thing. You do something wrong, God strikes you down? And, yes, if you happen to have been born into a rich family, and thus have a rich inheritance waiting for you, and thus can be a spendrift, and still think you’re “blessed” for your righteousness, while someone, who happened to start that construction business at the wrong time is wicked? Are we not seeing our lives as an eternal project, where the idea is to learn from our experience, and this mortality is just for that — experience.

    Was that enough? Or shall we talk about a guy who lives the live of a prodigal son, and then is barely saved alive from a brain tumor by a miracle surgery, and who subsequently begins to appreciate the things in life that have eternal value rather than just entertainment (straight from Hollywood, I know)? Or the guy who gets to live the life of a prodigal son, and die an old, wealthy man with a big family around him, because he finally decides to settle down and happens to invent some gadget, from which he derives rich royalties and can keep partying with fast women and loose cars (the family’s there waiting for him to croak to read the testament, to see who’s gonna strike it big)?

    Mixing the premortality into it is just a bunch of hooey! If mortal acts have mortal consequences, then let it stay that way.

    Anyway, what I’m getting to, if I haven’t lost all my audience yet, is that eternity is right in this very moment. What I’m doing now is weaving the tapestry of what I’ve done and then we add to it the desires of my heart and the actions of others, forces of nature, vagaries of randomness etc. In the end, very few acts and consequences are like pulling a trigger and putting a bullet through someone’s head. If the Lord says, he won’t rememer our sins after sincere repentance, does he not mean it?

    It is true that who I am now is not just the result of what’s happened since the glorious day my dad announced to my sisters, “we have a boy!” I believe what’s written in D&C 93 means that we bring into this life an eternal something, call it “personality” for lack of a better definition.

    I also am quite certain, that if we do not see the Eternity continuing in us since the “beginning” (whatever that will turn out to be, in regards of the aforementioned D&C 93), and do not see the message of the gospel as primarily a spiritual one, we are like the pharisees, who were concentrating on the “little stuff” and whom Jesus condemned for omitting the “weightier matters of the law”.

    It’s good if we can be sober and take good care of ourselves — that will be visible, too, in the long run — and I’m sure that wearing “modest” clothing is good (what the Amish call “plain”), but arguing endlessly about caffeine while forgetting that WoW also tells us to eat meat “sparingly” (who can honestly call a half pound steak “sparing” in any condition, when half the world lives malnourished?) and that white sugar is a much more potent enemy of righteousness in the Mormon corridor than nicotine and tar causes us to externalize something that is essentially supposed to be internal. I would love to go on in this vein…

    Make no mistake, I believe in WoW, I pay tithing with faith etc. but for me the gospel is not in those. It is in “I came into the world to do the will of the Father.” That is, I do not exist for my own self only.

    Sure, I wear a white shirt and a black suit every Sunday. But I also wear that bright red sweater and a maroon/gold tie that go with it and also verbally keep reminding people, that the white shirt does not make me righteous.

    Also, have you noticed, that the Red Handbook’s new edition, which is, if you haven’t noticed, published for the whole world to see, says that a what shirt should not be made a requirement for performing priesthood duties, like blessing/passing the Sacrament? I’m expecting that to be put to practice.

    Take the bait, anyone?

    Okay, I also defend LFW to my last breath.

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