The camera can lie. It has always been able to, and with the advent of digital technology the possibilities for manipulating images are endless. Most of us find the possibility of looking better in our photographs than we are in the flesh quite attractive, but it scarcely matters since we do not earn our living from our looks (and just as well, too). In the fashion industry, however, appearance is everything, and for those in the media appearance is also a serious issue. Not surprisingly, many pictures of models, media ‘personalities’ and even sports stars are thoroughly airbrushed before publication. They are a symptom of a deep-seated problem.
Increasingly our society is obsessed with bodily appearance. From every direction the media bombard us with the message that in order to be happy and successful we must have a certain body image – young, slim, well-dressed, tanned (as long as it comes out of a bottle, given the dangers of skin cancer). Appearance, we are told, is everything. Nothing that is more than skin deep is really significant.
The results are devastating. More and more people are becoming anxious about their appearance, apart from those who faced facts and gave up on that futile pursuit years ago. It isn’t only the more ‘mature’ who invest their hard-earned cash in the premature rigor mortis of Botox injections. Some who would be hard-put to find a wrinkle at their age are also eager customers. For those with less money or a little more sense there are numerous cheaper options. How ironic it is that these treatments, which of necessity are repeated regularly, in fact provide a regular reminder of the ageing process. Saddest of all are the young girls (and some boys) who become so desperate to avoid supposed fatness that they develop anorexia, sometimes with fatal consequences. The day of stick-thin models may have gone, but for too many people the presence of an ounce, or more, of extra fat is a cause of shame and anxiety. And as for wrinkles….! As a result Girlguiding UK recently mounted a campaign aimed at ensuring that airbrushed images in magazines and adverts are clearly labelled as such. A petition, containing 25,000 signatures, was presented to 10 Downing Street. Whether it will have the desired effect remains to be seen.
The Christian’s first reaction to such cultural trends may well be to deny that the body has any real importance and so should be ignored, other than doing the minimum to maintain health. Isn’t the body only dust and destined to return to dust? Isn’t God interested in the soul and isn’t our task to save souls? Surely the body is of peripheral concern to Christians? In the history of the Church there has been a significant weight of opinion that encouraged the despising of the body as, at least, beneath concern, or, at worst, positively evil. Extreme versions of this outlook led some to live as hermits in the desert, trying to beat their recalcitrant bodies into submission.
It is an outlook, however, that owes more to pagan thinking than to the Bible. The Scriptures clearly teach from the outset that God created human beings with bodies as well as souls. The body may derive from ‘the dust of the ground’, but it is God’s handiwork and in Genesis 1:31 is included in God’s verdict that his creation was all ‘very good’. By God’s design, man is an embodied creature. Indeed Calvin even speculated that man’s upright position, distinguishing him from the animals, was an element in the image of God which he possessed.
The human body is of concern to God, and is therefore not to be despised or neglected. Many of the regulations of the Mosaic Law – God’s Law – related to the body. There are rules governing health, hygiene, disease, clothing, sexuality. The body matters to God. It is of course also implicated in sin. It is through the body that our fallen nature often expresses itself and the body too suffers the consequences of sin, finally returning to the dust from which it was taken.
One of the most amazing aspects of the Christian faith is the fact that in order to save men and women the eternal God actually took human nature, the body included, into permanent union with himself. The early Church quickly recognised that denials of the true bodily nature assumed by the Son were heretical and to be rejected. The redemption accomplished by Christ required bodily suffering to the point of death, followed by a triumphant bodily resurrection and ascension. The Saviour who reigns in heaven still has, and always will have, that body.
Salvation, God’s gift to sinners, embraces the body. The Lord saves people – not just disembodied souls. Paul reminds us that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and that everything we do with them is of concern to God. ‘Therefore honour God with your body’ (I Corinthians 6:20). In the same vein the apostle urges us ‘to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God’ (Romans 12:1). Sanctification must involve the body, and our Christian hope is of eternal life in resurrected, perfected bodies.
The world’s obsession with the body needs to be met not with ascetic denial of the significance of the body, but with a biblical theology of the body – created by God, fallen into sin and redeemed in Christ.