The lost memory of skin.
The year was 1983. The auditorium was full of my professors, family, friends, fellow students, local pastors, and denominational officials. I was about to earn my ThM degree in Old Testament studies. My mentor, Dr. Wayne Knife, thought it would be important for me to become ordained in tandem with receiving the degree. So for two hours, I fielded questions about theology. Among the few queries I remember to this day was a pastor who raised his hand to ask, “Are you a dichotomist or a trichotomist?” [Are humans made of two parts—material, spiritual—or three parts—soul, spirit, and flesh?] My thinking had been influenced by studying Hebraic thought. The question, while we had engaged it in systematic theology, seemed then, as it does now, improper.
“I am a monochotist,” my announcement was full of youthful exuberance. There is no such thing, of course. “Mono” means one. “Chotist” comes from a word meaning to separate or cut. It is a self-contradictory idea. One thing is not two or three things. 30 years later, I would answer the same way. Old Testament Hebraic thought would never have consigned compartments to my person. Scripture teaches that I am whole. Every aspect of my being is intertwined with every other. Michael Frost agrees in his latest work Incarnate: The Body of Christ in an Age of Disengagement.
Incarnational theology is a consistent refrain in my teaching. Yes, I enjoy the opportunity to teach pupils at a distance. And, I am pleased to join my faculty meeting via Web Ex. But I delight in the face-to-face teaching-learning experience with others in the same place, at the same time, breathing the same air. I wrote this review with paper & pen while reading a laptop screen. I sat in a comfortable, factory assembled chair. I drank a hot cup of coffee after grinding the beans. I celebrate the technological tools around me that created my drink and allowed my reading via electrons. But I totally resonate with Frost’s caricature that we are living in a culture of “excarnate” or “defleshing”: the grotesque view of a body exposed for scavenging. We have become practicing di- and trichotomists.
Early on, Frost hooked me, my whole person, with his writing. Michael has an easy style. His lovely prose takes us places with words. Metaphors are moving. Allusions to cultural artifacts peak relevance. I smiled as he referenced important movie ideas. Frost masterfully navigates natural history from Ireland to Hawai’i. He weaves pithy anecdotes with reflective quotations. One of Frost’s greatest contributions throughout Incarnate is introducing readers to other writers. The author exhibits a wide reading habit to sustain his thesis. Lost Memory of Skin is one such example. The novel laments the shift from flesh to little 1’s and 0’s, screens, and visual stimulation through pornographic images. Sadness filled me as I read the fictional overview. Frost’s non-fiction treatment of incarnational theology is summarized early: “In an excarnate world there is a lack of commitment to any one worldview” (17). Syncretism, though Frost does not use the term, is an ancient problem resurfaced in each generation: we want to pick and choose our own amalgamated belief.
I share Frost’s beliefs, summarized in my oft-quoted mantra, “We change technology so we don’t have to.” Frost points out big problems, we think are too small: internet, gadgets, online porn, and satellite-linked churches. Frost attacks the idea that human value depends on production. Western culture wrongly promotes objectification where “absolute freedom becomes an intense form of slavery” (49). Moses’ law was “a yardstick, a measure for our brokenness and our need for God’s grace” (66). Hebraic culture focuses on personhood in a social context, mirrored in the New Testament, still testified by Christians today.
Religion is indeed an embodied experience (chapter 5). We should emphasize the kinesthetic. A communal hermeneutic would play out with people, at events, from liturgy, through sacraments, for daily rhythms. Chapter six is Frost’s high note. He connects the testaments, shows the embodiment of Jesus in us, gives great examples, and quotes voluminously from Scripture. James K.A. Smith and Tim Keller are formidable names which sustain Frost’s Hebrew theology of persons (chapter 7). Those of us committed to monastic-mystic traditions love Frost’s emphasis on “spirited bodies” (chapter 8). Cultural connections are clear in chapter nine where Frost mourns “slacktivism” where our involvement with issues is little more than a mouse click. As he should, Frost believes activism is physical, local, personal, and costly. Our mission is not a trip away but a hike down our sidewalks, within our congregations, and dare we say it, within our own homes (chapter 10). Lesslie Newbigin’s classic Foolishness to the Greeks calls us away from our political parties to our personal pieties in our place (chapter 11) with incarnation presence (chapter 12). Frost’s table of “healthy religion” (chapter 13) is an excellent summary.
One is hard pressed to critique a volume with which there is so much agreement. As a biblical-theologian, however, I am concerned with Frost’s lack of connection to the written Word of God. Yes, Scripture is quoted in places. But there are entire chapters where the Bible is left unreferenced. Exegetical summaries would have been helpful, especially given the subject of incarnation. Hebraic connections to the important subject of “wholeness” would have helped, as would the inception of our attempts to disconnect in Genesis 3. Gnosticism has been our problem ever since, a point well handled in Colossians and 1 John but missing here. Frost’s comments about Matthew 5 (65)—lust equals act—are spot on. But it is important to note that our problem is transcendent: we separate flesh-spirit because we desire detachment from God’s authority over the whole of us.
Frost’s last chapter is reflective, honest: “life is not so simple.” He is just as daunted and baffled as the rest of us wishing for but not finding simple, straightforward solutions. Incarnate concludes with strong praxis. The author’s focus on non-anxious leadership mirrors his concern that our solutions are not one-size-fits-all. Frost’s missional heartbeat raises important questions. He wants soteriology (the study of salvation) to be believed through behavior. As I have told my students for years, “We do not need works for our salvation, but we do need works to show our salvation” (Ephesians 2:8-10). Here Michael Frost and I and all The Church can join hands to celebrate our monochotism. Our wholeness shows the whole gospel.
Michael Frost. 2014. Incarnate: The Body of Christ in an Age of Disengagement. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press. Reviewed by Dr. Mark Eckel, Professor of Leadership, Education & Discipleship, Capital Seminary & Graduate School, Washington, D.C. This review will appear in the print edition of Englewood Review of Books, Spring, 2014, www.englewoodreview.org