If there is anything that reading Total Truth showed me, it’s that Nancy Pearcey can creatively weave a unifying thread through a broad spectrum of issues. Love Thy Body is no different. But before I track that thread, let me share how my search for a good ethics book led me to Love Thy Body.
When I started teaching introductory ethics courses at the undergraduate level in 2012, I was fairly unaware of the offerings for holistic introductory textbooks that covered the basics well. During my graduate studies, Dr. Heimbach and Dr. Liederbach primarily taught through original sources or more narrowly driven texts on various ethical issues such as racism, sexuality, and war. So when it was time for me to teach my first class I was at the mercy of those older colleagues who had blazed the trail in finding the best texts for this introductory purpose.
It was helpful for me, my first year, to simultaneously teach at a Christian liberal arts college and a community college. I was restricted at the community college to a curriculum that the ethics teacher before me put together. Thankfully it interacted a lot with original sources such as Aristotle, Plato, Kant, and John Stuart Mill. However, I was frustrated at the lack of contemporary thinkers and resources, so I had to bring in my own content. This process was a great opportunity to consider how I wanted to approach ethics as an academic discipline.
The class I taught at the Christian liberal arts college was a different story altogether. I’m an Evangelical Christian (In the Carl F. H. Henry sense of the designation), and a graduate of a Southern Baptist seminary, so I felt very thankful for the space to express how my faith guided my understanding of ethics and my approach in teaching it. My department head, a seasoned and wise philosophy professor, gave me some excellent texts to play with, and I’m eternally grateful for his guidance. He introduced me to Disputed Moral Issues by Mark Timmons, and The Moral of the Story by Nina Rosenstand. Timmons’ book was a go-to basic ethical systems book that I used for several years, and Rosestand’s book was a work of art, incorporating countless movie and novel scenarios into discussions on major ethical issues. But neither one of these texts approached ethics from a distinctly Christian worldview, and I did not have the years of research and engagement necessary to write my own thorough text that hit all the basic systems and issues. So, I explored…and failed. I first went to an old Evangelical stalwart, Dr. Norman Geisler. I thought it’d be a safe and accessible option, but I found myself constantly apologizing to my students for either the shallowness of the arguments or the lack of contemporary relevance of the subject matter. No offense intended toward Dr. Geisler, for he had helped me think through other theological issues and I still hold him in great respect. Next, I went more moderate in my approach and used Kingdom Ethics by David Gushee (pre-LGBTQ affirming), and Glen Stassen. I agreed with a lot of what was in this text, but it was very focused on the Sermon on the Mount and came across as overly preachy. Plus, it was thick, and difficult to get through with the students. Next, I went old-school and picked up a book called Moral Nexus by James B. Nelson, first printed in the 70’s. Again, I found some things I liked, but it was out of date, inaccessible to the students, and too focused on ecclesiological concerns.
Did I ever find a good book? Yes, I did. Surfing the internet for texts one day, I came across The Matrix of Christian Ethics by Patrick Nullens and Ronald Michener. It was gold. It approached the issues from a broadly Evangelical perspective, it engaged all the major contemporary ethical issues, it addressed post-modernity with fairness, and it gave practical wisdom for living out a Christian ethic. If you want a good intro to ethical thinking from an orthodox Christian perspective, then this is your book. I loved the book so much I decided to go study under Nullens in Belgium for my PhD.
So, what does this all have to do with Nancy Pearcey’s Love Thy Body? If this book had been around when I started teaching, I would have incorporated it into my intro to ethics courses without reservation. While it doesn’t cover every major ethical issue, it does cover the ones that focus on how we treat our bodies. She engages abortion, euthanasia, infanticide, homosexuality, transgenderism, sexism, pornography, and a highly relevant look at the “hook-up” culture. Even though I love the all-inclusive nature of The Matrix of Christian Ethics, Love thy Body interacts with these issues in a powerfully thorough way. Using a critique of the “two-story” approach of contemporary views on personhood to drive her apologetic, she interacts with everyone from Plato, Herodas, and Augustine to Freud, Fish, and Foucault. Her range of references and research is impressive, and also critical, in her efforts to show how intrusive this pagan compartmentalization of body vs. soul has been in our anthropology and ethics. If I were writing an introduction to ethics curriculum today, I’d use this book as an entry point to how we relate our body to ethical responsibility.
In critiquing the two-story philosophy of human life, she lays a strong theological and philosophical foundation in the first chapter to address a faulty dichotomy often made throughout history between mind and body, person and body, or even the sacred and secular. She uses scripture effectively to address a poor gnostically driven hermeneutic that might be tempted to call all flesh evil or lesser. She has left room for unpacking how our bodies relate to the doctrine of sin more fully, but she has oriented our hearts back to a better starting point than what our current culture offers. One of the strategies I appreciate most within this work is Pearcey’s constant reference to how early Christians were counter-cultural in the way they approached an embodied spirituality: “What really set Christianity apart in the ancient world, however, was the incarnation—the claim that the Most High God had himself entered into the realm of matter, taking on a physical body. In Gnosticism, the highest deity would have nothing to do with the material world” (pg. 36). She builds this narrative into several of her chapters. For instance, in her chapter “Schizoid Sex” she references the way that Roman and Greek societies treated slaves, women, and youth, and then writes, “What Paul’s early readers would have understood is that it is no longer acceptable to treat a person as an object” (pg. 143). Love Thy Body proclaims the reality that the biblical narrative and the foundational principles of Christianity equip society to love themselves and others in a much more consistent, compelling, and realistic way than any alternative offered by competing worldviews.
Pearcey takes readers on a tour of the digressive history of a dualistic view of human existence. From the Greeks and Romans, she moves on through Kant, Darwin, and Nietzsche to the bedroom of postmodernism. Pearcey lands often on a critique of postmodernism, as that philosophy which most actively protects an ungrounded view of personhood. She provides apologetic after apologetic defending the biblical view of an ideally embodied person vs. a dichotomous view of a person and her bag of flesh and bones. Pearcey’s critique of the two-story theories of life is used to orient the reader towards a better way of viewing women’s health issues, men’s lust issues, gender issues, sexual attraction issues, mental health issues, and end of life issues. She understands that people want a hopeful path to walk that doesn’t disregard their complex challenges and desires. She sums up the purpose of the book best near the end of the last chapter. She says, “People are inundated with rhetoric telling them that the Bible is hateful and hurtful, narrow and negative. While it’s crucial to be clear about the biblical teaching on sin, the context must be an overall positive message: that Christianity alone gives the basis for a high view of the value and meaning of the body as a good gift from God” (pg. 261).
There’s very little for me to argue against in this book. Pearcey handles the figures and philosophies she engages with fairness and skill. She rarely comes across as heavy-handed in her critique of ideas and launches her attacks at lies more than liars. There are shortcomings, but the shortcomings have more to do with the breadth of content than with skill or precision. There is a new wave of secular thinking already moving quickly through academia; one that attempts again to unify body and mind under the flag of naturalism. Pearcey makes one quick reference to Martha Nussbaum’s thorough work on Greek-Roman sexuality, but it is Martha Nussbaum’s version of the capabilities approach that will be shaping the next generation’s secular worldview. There are those within the non-Christian academic world that recognize the problematic nature of splitting humans into two and those scholars are trying to write more compelling philosophical narratives as we continue to attack the ground-floor of postmodernism. Even as I prize this excellent ethics book on embodied humanity, which uses a critique of postmodernism as a trailhead to a better biblical way, it is my hope that she is watching what is coming and already preparing her next book for those of us who want to faithfully engage the culture with truth in love.
Category of Book: Christian Anthropology, Christian Ethics
Best Use: Textbook for undergraduate courses in Ethics, Culture, Theological Anthropology, Apologetics, Worldview