Incarnate: The Body of Christ in an Age of Disengagement

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Incarnate: The Body of Christ in an Age of Disengagement, by Michael Frost.  Downers Grove: InterVarsisty Press, 2014.

The prevalence of digital communication media in culture and the ministry of the church is the source of much anxiety, confusion and commentary for those paying attention to these changes.  It seems that the various effects of the depersonalization of mass media are beginning to be more widely recognized (see Aziz Ansari’s new book, Modern Romance).  Though few are ready to ditch their iPhones in favor of a more personal form of communication (like, say, words spoken across a table over coffee), there is a growing suspicion that something is not right.  This is also true of the church.  People are beginning to ask, “What does the body have to do with ministry?  With worship?  What does a sense of place and all the associated limitations of life lived in our bodies (and not on screen) have to do with the way we flourish?  What does the incarnation have to do with the Christian life?”

In Incarnate: The Body of Christ in an Age of Disengagement, Michael Frost, founding director of the Tinsley Institute, approaches these questions with a simple answer: everything.  The book is a wide-ranging examination of “excarnation”—what happens when a culture moves away from the everyday, local, embodied  rhythms we were made for as human beings.  “The trend toward excarnation,” he notes, “has influenced the church and led to a disembodying of our faith…the excarnation of our theology, the exaltation of disengaged reason as the road to knowledge” which has culminated in “a disembodied approach to the mission of the church, a drift toward nonincarnational expressions, where disembodied advocacy is preferable to the dirt and worms and compost of localized service.” (12)

Frost’s contention in the face of this development is this:

I believe that in a time of disengagement and excarnation, the body of Christ is required all the more to embrace a more thoroughly embodied faith, a truly placed way of living that mirrors the incarnational lifestyle of Jesus.  Now, more than ever, it seems, such a call to incarnational living needs to be heeded. 

Unfortunately, the promise of this premise (with chapter titles like “Rootless, Disengaged and Screen Addicted,” and “Wandering Aimlessly in a Moral Minefield”) quickly fades on account of the book’s lack of structure.  More often than not, it reads more like a set of more-and-less associated reflections on the state of a digital culture than an explanation of his conviction to lead an incarnate life.   

Because the book does not so much build but wander, rather than walking through each individual chapter I will attempt here to bring out some of the highlights—of which there are many.  So many, in fact, that it makes the book all the more frustrating to read.  Clearly Frost sees the interconnectedness of a strong notion of the value and necessity of the body in everyday living and culture-making.  And clearly he sees how those important foundations are eroding in a culture which has lost a sense of the importance of locale and the limits of the body.  The connections are simply left unclear. 

In chapter one Frost observes incisively that our disconnection from a sense of place is connected to our addiction to digital media.  He likens the mobility so highly valued by millennials to a state of constant tourism, noting, “Like tourists, the lives of liberated Westerners are marked by mobility and impermanence, a looseness of ties to place and people.” (17) He observes that this motif is nowhere more prevalent than in the bland nowhereness of the airport lounge.  He observes brilliantly that,

The next time you’re sitting on a fake Brentwood chair in an airport TGI Friday’s under a red-and-white candy-striped awning, surrounded by brass rails and fake stained glass, your meal lit by faux Tiffany lamps, your server wearing a re-and-white striped soccer shirt, remind yourself that you’re not actually anywhere right now.  Your body might be in the airport lounge but your mind is somewhere else—on social media, playing online video games, watching Fox News on the airport screens, dreaming of somewhere else.  You’ve realized your primary status in contemporary society as a disembodied one, free to roam, free to stray, free to be, well, free. (17)

Again, in chapter one (it begins so strong!) he observes how extensive this pressure toward discarnate living has become, noting, “These days even some church leaders themselves are intentionally excarnate, appearing only on screen via satellite links…multiplied and digitized for a consumer audience…its hard to see how the video-based multisite church can’t tend toward idolatry, pride and self-promotion”. (25)

He suggests in chapter two that this push toward the excarnate is straining our sense of self.  He argues, not without grounds, that Christianity—a religion dependent on the incarnation of God himself—“has become an out-of-body experience—personalized, privatized, customized—and it is being dished up by a clergy increasingly disconnected from an incarnation expression of faith.  Frost sees all of this as a manifestation of an anthropological, metaphysical, and religious dualism.

All of this is leading to a fear of the worthlessness of our bodies, illustrated by our current obsession with vampire and zombie fiction.  And in a moment of brilliance, he observes that “This warped desire to see human bodies humiliated while at the same time being disturbed by it plays itself out in our societal obsession with online pornography.” (49)   He provides his anthropological corrective soon after, declaring that “We are our bodies.  We don’t live in our bodies.  And therefore our bodies and the bodies of others are precious and worthy of respect.” (53)  This is indicative of the way the book will progress: astute cultural observation, followed closely by his anthropological corrective, culminating in chapter eight, titled, “We Are Spirited Bodies.”  In this chapter Frost leans heavily on the work of writers like James K.A. Smith and Tim Keller, and Nancey Murphy as he develops his anthropology.  His discussion is lively as he makes his case that as “spirited bodies” (emphasis on bodies) we ought to fight against excarnate living.  He begins to scratch at the connection between dualistic anthropology, dualistic ecclesiology and a problematic theology of vocation.  But even here it feels underdeveloped, vague, opaque.  Furthermore, this discussion would have better served the book far closer to the beginning (or the end), rather than right in the middle.  The remaining chapters advocate for incarnate living and worshiping in a culture pressing all of us to live in an increasingly excarnate fashion, covering mission, the sacred-secular divide, and place.  The book finishes with some helpful practical suggestions on pushing back against excarnation, warning against the application of the Biblical themes of rescue/deliverance as escape from culture, and finally suggesting that to arrive at an incarnational finish line we must reevaluate our reflective practices, soteriology, anxiety and missional posture, among others. 

The beauty of this book is in its potential.  The premise is highly apropos for our cultural situation, and we frankly need more theological reflection on the effects of digital culture on our humanity.  And this is precisely why the book was so frustrating.  It was full of profound cultural observation, and Frost obviously sees the anthropological connections, but he fails to make those connections clear, fails to connect the proverbial dots.  Instead of adept cultural critique answered by the clarity of the Christian conception of man, it reads like a collection of Frost’s loosely affiliated musings on church, culture, and liturgy.  This book is full of high quality one-liners (see quote from p. 25 above!) which deserve a further investigation and development that they do not receive. 

If you’ve read and thought deeply on the anthropological shifts occurring in a culture dominated by virtual vocational, social, and religious experience, this book may be of some use to you.  But if you’re looking to get into the discussion for the first time, perhaps Frost’s general principal—that excarnate life is not what we were made for and will cause some damaging effects personally and culturally—is all you need.

(Photo Credit: Amazon)

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About the Contributor

Danny Hindman

Danny Hindman
Danny Hindman graduated from Wheaton College in 2010, and studied Communications and Media Ecology under Dr. Read Schuchardt. He is currently pursuing a Master of Divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO, and is interested in the intersection between biblical anthropology, Christian Ethics, and Media Ecology. 

Comments

  1. Howard Wetzel says:

    I am glad to see the McLuhan metaphor of discarnate enter the discussion in this context. Several thoughts: 1) Discarnate does not refer only to the experience of life with elctronic media, tho’ that is it greatest present evidence. Dialectic-based ‘objectivity’ divorced from the subjectivity of the senses is also discarnate. That is the cause Pope Francis’ current effort to build a Church built on mercy rather rule and definition. Eric McLuhan’s recent ‘Sensus Communis’ addresses this. 2) The McLuhan idea of ‘discarnate’ rests principally on loss of concrete place as we are able to be in many places at once in both word and act. There is another dimension to being discarnate with all of our screen time: we are losing a sense of what the body is for; the body is in incorporated less and less in the purposes of our intent, from contraception to the comfort and convenience of modern life (automobiles to TV remotes to robots).

  2. Danny, instead of this book, are there other books you’d recommend that delve more into how to solve excarnate life?

  3. Danny Hindman says:

    Well, KK, I suppose haven’t come across my ideal book on the subject. But some of the best books that have shaped my own thinking on the subject are these (all at a pretty popular level):

    Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom, both by James KA Smith

    The Presence of the Kingdom by Jacques Ellul

    The Art of the Commonplace and What are People For?, both by Wendell Berry

    The Glass Cage by Nicholas Carr

    Alone Together by Sherry Turkle

    And in addition to those some assorted books on Biblical Anthropology that I can send you too if you’d like. Let me know if that helps!

  4. Text is a virtualization of the writer’s bodily presence. Does text necessarily create a sense of false locality? Because “engagement” is not local / F2F does not necessarily make it less authentic or influential. Suggest that technology is accelerating the evolution away from religious and political identity based in localism / tribalism. Suggest a fundamental “either-or” bias here between universality and locality, both of which can be morally incarnate.

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