Words matter, and representation matters. Our imaginations, powerful as they are, are only as wide as the words and experiences we have to fuel them.
I grew up in church and in Christian subculture, and that gave me a rich, textured tradition that has fueled my imagination and my journey with God. Church, and the scriptures we read there, gave me incredible landscapes, like detailed topographical maps, to explore my faith and make sense of my life. Except one part of the map was nearly blank. Labeled “For Women Only,” it was hastily sketched, thin black lines on white paper. Where everything else was vivid and detailed, this part offered little direction. And it seemed like most people could navigate just fine without that part of the map, but I found myself really wishing there was more to it.
When I tried to bring my whole self – my female-bodied, female-experienced self – to the table, when I tried to use my theological imagination to chart a course – I had nothing. Instead of a lay of the land, I got a list of shoulds and shouldn’ts – mostly shouldn'ts. The language and tradition I received from the church had few women characters, few connections to God that weren't tied to a male form or body, and few ways to connect with God or my faith while also being connected with my own, female, body.
But the church of our ancestors was not this way. When I looked at Christian tradition – from the early church through the medieval period – I found a treasure trove of women's words, women's experiences, women's leadership and examples to build from and see my life in. Instead of having to reach outside of myself to connect to God, I found myself connected, rooted in God with my experiences. The closest I can come to describing it is that it's like the difference between knowing something through theory and seeing it versus practicing it in real life.
So many women have great difficulty relating to a male-imaged God, and even for those of us who don't – there is richness, texture, and life in God that we miss out on by refusing to acknowledge or center on the feminine parts of God. It is harder to mistreat bodies – ourselves and those of others – if we learn to recognize the Divine in them. But it can be hard to recognize the Divine – in ourselves and others – if we limit the Divine only to male bodies and pronouns. If we look to scripture, we find a God who is comfortable describing herself in feminine terms. If we look to the Epistles, we find Paul repeatedly describing himself as a woman and mother in order to illustrate his relationship to the early church. If we look to the writings of church fathers (and mothers!), we find them exhorting one another and all believers to relate to God as Mother, and to strive to lead, teach and care for others as women did.
Compare that with now, with #MeToo, with women's status in the majority of Christian denominations around the world. God's order, and God's expression, and God's choices have demonstrated that women have always been central to the life and leadership of God's work in the world. To that end, the book is definitely focused on bodies, body image, and the image of the Divine in bodies. Because none of us – men, women, or nonbinary folk – can get to where we're headed with an incomplete or incorrect map, God has gone to great lengths to reveal God's self to us – the Incarnation is proof of that. It is kindness, love, and worship of God to pay attention to all of God's self, as revealed to and through us.
Hannah Shanks is the author of This Is My Body (Upper Room, 2018).
About the Book:
I hope This Is My Body can be a handhold for people who feel alienated from God because of who they are or how their body exists in the world. For so many of us, participating in church has meant distancing ourselves from our bodies and our selves. I hope readers, like me, can come to find that God isn't the one asking us to do that. Instead, the wonder of God is God-with-Us – this central Christian understanding that God came to earth in a body, and was wholly carried and cared for through a woman's body and all the processes that came with it. That same God-body suffered, broke, and carried scars – just like us. I hope readers can take away this idea that God gets it, and that God cannot and will not be contained in the boxes we keep God in. And we don't have to be contained in those boxes, either.
I wrote this book for people who are not mothers. I wrote it for my prior self, who was ambivalent about having children and, shall we say, less than enthused when I looked around at the toll mothering took on the women around me. I wrote it for the people – male, female, and nonbinary – who mother my child within their homes, classrooms, churches, and restaurants. I wrote this book for the priests, sisters, and pastors I've watched pour their life into those they serve. I wrote this for all the folks who are church faithful and church tired, and for all the folks who have tried to connect to God through church but found something in the way.
The work of mothering – of breaking and bleeding in order to bring something new into the world – is the work of God. So if that's what you're about, I hope this book can be for you.
The work of mothering is also about learning to be bigger than fear – bone-deep, heart-pounding fear for those you would lay your life down for. So if that's something that sounds familiar, I hope this book can be for you. And the work of proclaiming "This is my body" is about recognizing God in ourselves and others – in our flesh and our core. It asks us to grow instead of shrink, to re-member ourselves instead of cutting off parts of ourselves in order to fit. So if that sounds like gospel to your ears, I hope this book can be for you.
This Is My Body is available in print and in ebook and epub formats. To order, visit The Upper Room bookstore.