Paul Griffiths, Christian Flesh (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018).

Natalie Carnes, Motherhood: A Confession (Stanford, CA, ST: Stanford University Press, 2020).

I do not remember where or when I first encountered the charge that Christian theology had a body problem, but I remember learning of both this insight and its axiomatic nature in quick succession. I do not think it is the fault of any singular figure, department, institution, or school of thought, but I suspect this is a deeply held commitment that might as well be institutionalized in the curriculum standards dictating so much of today’s theological training. It was not until my doctoral program—shortly after repeating the axiom myself in the middle of a doctoral seminar—that I realized I did not know what anyone meant when they said body

I was quite sure I tracked with the general criticism that (1) Christians had for some time been trading in belief, practice, and argumentation that neglected or misunderstood the realities and nuances of embodied life, and (2) any viable theology had to emerge from the realities of embodied life, whatever we took them to be. I knew Christian theology was anti-body, I knew that was a problem, I hoped to be pro-body, and I was out to prove it. But I had the damnedest time trying to track down any compelling, sustained, or systematic reflections on what embodied life was supposed to entail. 

And so it was with great joy that when I finally set aside my dissertation materials to dive back into the broad streams of Christian theological discourse that I discovered Paul Griffiths’s Christian Flesh. In this lively text, Griffiths sets out to articulate just what Christians mean when we say body or flesh—or perhaps what we should mean.  

According to Griffiths, we must distinguish bodies from flesh. Bodies, he suggests, are “anything extended in time-space that doesn’t live,” whereas flesh refers to a living body, a body that has been animated by a soul. As such, the soul is that which distinguishes the body from the flesh.1

But flesh is not made flesh by a soul alone; touch is also central. Flesh, Griffiths explains, is “haptic,” which means that flesh is constituted in and through that flesh’s touch with other flesh and inanimate bodies. Touch is central to the fleshiness of the flesh, and we are given the capacity to caress or wound other flesh in and through our touch with other flesh. Put differently, a body really only becomes flesh in and through the touch of others; touch is the means through which we are given ourselves anew, as a fully constituted gift.

Flesh is also self-contiguous and bounded. That is, flesh is located in space-time in proximity to other flesh through touch, and yet flesh is also separate in fact and experience from other flesh with which that flesh shares space-time. The boundaries between flesh and the world flesh inhabits turn out to be rather porous, and those porous boundaries are properly constitutive of flesh. For Griffiths, this is most interesting in that objects of leakage—think urine, shit, semen, milk, sweat, blood, and tears—and ingestion are proper to the flesh precisely because flesh receives the world into itself and subsequently gives itself back out into that same world.2

We do not experience flesh in any kind of pristine, untouched, original sense. Griffiths reminds readers throughout his book that our experience of flesh is devastated, which is to say fragile and mortal. We inhabit a world wherein pain is an ever-present threat and, for some, a hauntingly close companion. All devastated flesh is also headed toward the demise of that flesh, where flesh will shift to a body—or corpse—and unbecome in the ground.

The trick, then, is to determine what of our fleshly experience is inherently fleshly and what of our fleshly experience is because of the devastated nature of the flesh, which is, of course, all we have ever experienced. Like any compelling theological anthropology, Griffiths turns to Jesus Christ, whom he urges us to read as a kind of key to the mysteries of the flesh. Griffiths distinguishes Jesus’s natal flesh (the flesh of his time between birth and crucifixion) from his damaged flesh (the flesh in the crucifixion) and analyzes the shifts that flesh undergoes in the transfiguration, resurrection, and ascension. Jesus’s life—as a double-natured person—offers us a moving narrative of flesh’s transformations. But because that body is not itself the body of God as much as the flesh of a divine-human person, whatever ways our flesh is similar to Christ represents those realities that belong to flesh as such. That is, whatever is true of both Christ’s flesh and our own is essential to flesh itself; those factors cannot be the accidental effects of a sinful world. The differences, then, help to highlight the nonessential fleshly experiences we have due to our sinful devastation.3

These differences prove to be rather fascinating. In examining the story from Luke 8 of Jesus in a storm, Griffiths concludes that Jesus’s flesh is not vulnerable to the same kind of pain or damage that our devastated flesh is, and yet Jesus is certainly capable of permitting such damage.4 Similarly, Jesus does not appear to require food in the way we do; he is capable of eating food, but it does not seem that his fleshly persistence depends on such consumption, nor is it clear that he tastes or enjoys food. Indeed, as Griffiths notes, “Scripture is chaste in the extreme about depicting or commenting upon what it seems like to Jesus to be Jesus.”5 For Griffiths, these are features of undamaged flesh, which means they were features of flesh prior to the fall and will be features of resurrected flesh as well. 

Jesus’s resurrected flesh is a bit different, though. His resurrected flesh is often unrecognizable to others and is not subject to the spatiotemporal restrictions of human flesh. Although Jesus is readily present and showing his flesh, “it is not in fact fully available for fleshly interaction.” Whereas the natal flesh was often touched, much like his ascended flesh is via the Eucharist, his resurrected, nonascended flesh is not yet available for touch as eucharistic flesh. In fact, there’s some sense that touching his flesh in this unique between-time of the resurrection is inappropriate—Jesus goes so far as to rebuke Mary Magdalene for her attempted touch.6

Griffiths draws two key conclusions from these distinctions. First is that the ascended flesh is at the right hand of the Father (as an eschatological presence only); second is that “the ascended flesh, together with its blood, are fully and really present, though in a veiled way, in the eucharist.” So in the first sense, Jesus’s ascended flesh is not touchable now, but in the latter sense—the Eucharist—it is fully tactile and edible. And in one of the more fascinating passages of the text, Griffith’s sacramentality leads him to conclude that Christ’s ascended flesh is freed from “the entities of metronomic timespace” precisely because of Jesus’s simultaneous habitation of eucharistic time in each map grid. Jesus’s ascended flesh is thus principally available, at least physically speaking, in the Eucharist.7

If the goal of Christian life is to be incorporated into the flesh of Christ, as Griffiths believes, then one must begin to wonder what makes flesh distinctly Christian. In Griffith’s telling, there is no such thing: “Nothing available to the senses marks Christian flesh in such a way as to distinguish it from other human flesh. What makes Christians fleshly, therefore—what their flesh is and appears to be—is just what makes other human creatures fleshly. There is no distinctively Christian flesh; whatever it is that distinguishes Christians from non-Christians has nothing to do with their flesh.” The question, therefore, is not whether something like Christian flesh exists; it is what marks the flesh in the order of being. That is, “what does human flesh become when it becomes Christian? And what are the marks by which it can be recognized as Christian?”8

In this context, baptism is depicted by Griffiths as an act of the flesh that newly relates the flesh of the baptized to Christ’s flesh. Paul’s discussion of these matters in the Corinthian correspondence is also interpreted, with special attention to what it means to say that the Christian’s bodily members are, analogically and participatorily, Christ’s. Being intimate with one kind of flesh—namely Christ’s—means that some other kinds of fleshly intimacy are thus ruled inappropriate. But rather that assembling a list of forbidden acts, Griffiths draws on scriptural language to argue that Christian fleshly conduct is best presented by way of hagiography—writing the lives of those who exhibit it.

There are, similarly, no distinctly Christian kinds of clothing, food, or fleshly exchange.  I’ll focus on clothing for the time being, given that the basic argumentative structure and logical sequence of that category carries over to food and fleshly exchange as well. For Griffiths, there is no distinctively or properly Christian clothing; that is, no clothes are intrinsically proper to, or improper for, Christian flesh. Local sartorial conventions, however, may—or should—be observed, unless they carry with them a signal that they are something more than convention. If they carry that signal—as local gender-specific modes of dress, for example, often do—then they can become both fornicatory and idolatrous.9 Christians, Griffiths reminds us, have a radical freedom with respect to dress because of their cleaving to the flesh of Christ.

Similarly, fleshly contacts fall on a spectrum from the life-giving caress to the life-taking wound. Fleshly wounding is “concupiscent:” flesh seeks domination and control, and caresses of this kind are inappropriate for Christian flesh, whereas celibacy and virginity are depicted as characteristically Christian modes of responding to the connection between copulation and death.10 But there are no caresses whose form specifically forbids them to Christians—none at all.

In a similar register, Natalie Carnes’s Motherhood explores a different—though clearly related—type of tension between bodily life, contiguity, and separation. That tension turns out to be haptic all the way through. Carnes’s Motherhood is the result of a rather compelling question: what if Augustine’s Confessions were written by the twenty-first-century mother? How might the form, insights, and questions appear when undertaken from such a perspective and set of experiences? It is both an important and interesting question.

Carnes’s Motherhood borrows from the structure of Augustine’s Confessions but with crucial differences. Whereas the implicit interlocutors of Augustine’s text are God and the author, God is only an explicit conversation partner in the last four books of Motherhood. In the first nine, she instead reflects on and writes to her daughters. The text speaks of a singular filial figure, though Carnes explains in the author’s note that she has pulled episodes from the lives of her three daughters into the singular story that appears between those yellow covers. 

By assuming a largely Augustinian framework, Carnes is free to simply explore the world from an Augustinian perspective rather than to quibble over Augustinian minutiae. Consider, for example, the Neoplatonic overtones of the charity that children call us to. That charity, she explains, “is a way that constantly magnifies, not because your needs multiply but because you call me to be open to the needs of others.” In a passage that reads as if it could be a contemporary translation of Plato’s Symposium, Carnes writes that “beauty promotes lateral regard. . . . Regard moves outward, laterally, from the one admired object to multiple to many.”11 The child calls the mother out of herself to that child and to any number of others beyond.

The text does not lend itself to an easy overview or analysis because of its mechanics and structure; no singular argument runs the length of the book, as each individual chapter explores a different theme from the author’s own experience, curiosity, and theological commitments. That said, who really cares? Developing a sustained argument is not the point of the text (even as there are myriad arguments working throughout); the point is a reflective, enlightening reading experience. As such, I will try to focus on a few of the themes and insights that I found to be most compelling and helpful, even as I anticipate that readers of Motherhood will be drawn to different sections for varying personal reasons, much like my students are drawn to different parts of the Confessions or like I have been drawn to different parts at varying stages of my life. 

As Carnes works to navigate new professional opportunities in relation to old expectations she’s yet to completely throw off, Carnes is beckoned toward a new horizon by her child’s simply phraseology: “come and play” (as opposed to the Augustinian “take and read”).12 This episode is illustrative of the various themes Carnes weaves together in any given chapter. She pushes past tropes of work-life balance to speak of motherhood’s production of a divided self, where she is fated to live in two different, far countries simultaneously.13 

Overlaid with that narrative is the exploration of her daughter’s play as a kind of liturgy. Drawing on the work of Romano Guardini and Maria Montessori, Carnes theorizes a kind of play wherein a child creates new worlds. In this sense, play is the means through which we come to understand and situate our own experiences within a broader world; it is our attempt to make meaning out of the worlds we create. In a similar register, liturgy, as a kind of play, is an activity through which we are returned to the kind of openness to life we so readily see in children. Most crucially, though, Carnes speaks of her own child’s invitation toward play as an invitation to divine communion. She writes, “In your play, there is freedom, there is care for the self, there is preparation for the soul to stretch out into the world and toward the divine. Your play reminds me of who I am, how to desire, and what it means to be human.” And in learning to play anew, Carnes realizes that her work—from that other distant country—is transformed as well. She is reminded, that is, of the potential of playfulness in her work. Much like the way that Augustine’s conversion was precipitated by a beckoning from a child, so too is Carnes’s.14

It is likely that because my wife and I are currently raising a two-year-old daughter I was also drawn to Carnes’s chapter on domination. Her descriptions of repetitive confrontations, desire for obedience, and the eclipsing of child-oriented concerns with parental perception rung true to the experiences I’d had the very morning I read of them. But it is her framing of the unhealthy side of those desires in terms of the libido dominandi (i.e., the lust to dominate) that proved most moving and unsettling. She speaks of a desire for her child’s freedom, a desire that is so deep that she ends up coercing it, and she tells of the mysterious ways in which we dominate our children in hopes of setting them free. In this context, Carnes turns to Jesus’s parents. The biblical narrative, for example, speaks of a Mary who provokes and challenges her son in uncomfortable ways, and yet those challenges seem to enable the flourishing of Jesus’s identity in important, moving ways. This is the kind of nonlustful parental challenge she aspires to and calls readers toward. But regularly issuing such rebukes while also keeping my own lusts and tendencies toward punitive resentment in check is quite difficult to do. It is incredibly easy to lose sight of what is good for my child, and I, like Carnes, am embarrassed at how frequently this happens. This is precisely why she speaks of her child exposing her to the world: “By your advent, you birthed new parts of me and dredged up old parts I had suppressed or denied. I was laid bare through your arrival in ways I never had been and would never have chosen.”15

This exposure is, to be sure, more complex and multifaceted for Carnes than it is for me, given her investigation of bodily exposure during breastfeeding and personal exposure in professional contexts. And yet Carnes seems carefully attentive to the dynamics animating Joseph’s fatherhood, and this enables her to speak of parenthood in general and fatherhood in particular in fascinating, insightful ways. As she indicates, Joseph is a largely silent and passive figure in the Gospel texts. Joseph’s name, Carnes tells us, only appears five times in Luke’s Gospel. He is situated in the closest proximity to two crucial figures, and yet he has no major scene himself. 

In the wake of finding their missing child in the temple, Carnes wonders what Joseph must have heard in Jesus’s unrepentant response to Mary’s rebuke: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49 ESV). As Carnes notes, “He has a divine child and a wife who gave that divine child her very flesh. His own proximity to divinity is not so intimate as his wife’s; his claim to the family is more open to question.”16 Joseph endures the appearance of being cuckolded, and he is crucially aware of his lack of blood relation to the child. There is a moving humility in the silence of the text regarding Joseph, Carnes suggests. Joseph was a man regularly confronted with his own unimportance in the life of his child, and she calls us toward this humility as well. 

To have a child is to be invited to throw off the chains of domination with which we so eagerly harm and limit ourselves and others. In Carnes’s telling, “Life with you can also train me in a different way—a way of loving without grasping and living exposed without frantically covering. It is not just that I am learning to adjust myself so that you can be free, but these adjustments teach me how to be free as well.” The child, once again, invites us out of ourselves and into the world to discover others and love them in new ways. In this sense, it is the freedom of the child that comes as an invitation to the parent. In and through the freedom of that young one—in and through my own confrontation with my desire to dominate—the child presents us with an opportunity to learn how to be God’s child. The child calls us to unwavering presence, to resist the seductions of control, to be ourselves before others, and to thereby give ourselves over to that child and God simultaneously. Enabling the child’s transformation thus depends on undergoing my own transformation, and such rebirth—accomplished in particular navigations of myriad, petty situations and challenges, stretched out over the whole of a life—is much more difficult that anything Nicodemus initially imagined.17 In other words, the process of making and living with a child is a constant invitation to become a child of God, and the beauty of that process is made possible here by some rather difficult revelations.

As I have read and reread these texts, I’ve become more and more interested in why I find them so compelling. I am interested, you might say, in my own interest. What is it about these two texts, I have been asking myself, that I find to be so compelling and helpful? Such reflections, I think, will help contextualize and clarify what I take to be noteworthy about these texts—their commitments, tones, and tenor—beyond the realm of sheer argumentative content. 

First and foremost, I imagine that my own immediate context and situation has much to do with this interest. My wife just delivered our second child, and so my mind has been increasingly wandering toward the reality of this new life, which came to be within my wife. With a two-year-old and a newborn, I am considering the possibilities and limits of my parental relationship and capacities. Likewise, I have been overwhelmed by a strange wonder at the very possibility of two bodies joining in a way that might give rise to a third. That’s not to moralize or normalize this kind of sexual encounter or outcome as much as to gesture toward the wonder I feel at the sheer fact of its possibility. Flesh comes from flesh, and it must leave that flesh in order to become its own. 

The timing is also key: I first read Motherhood during Advent 2020. It is likely no surprise that given my immediate context, as stated above, I spent that season thinking a good deal of Mary in the last forty-eight hours. I am just now, I think, discovering the depth and breadth of the resources made available in considering Mary as the mother of God, the textual silences surrounding Joseph’s fatherhood, and the impossibilities of a postresurrection (pre-ascension) touch of Christ’s flesh. Those parental resources are new to me. The possibilities and limits of such forms of Christian touch are just setting in.

The third factor in my interest must be the tone in which these texts are delivered. Both thinkers (and, therefore, both texts) are distinctly Augustinian. In a method patterned after the Confessions, Carnes asks more questions than she answers. Similarly, Griffiths’s delicacy in choosing which issues to speak boldly about, which to speculate on, and which to pass over in silence remind me of Augustine’s own careful deliberation. Both thinkers are quite comfortable with the limits of their knowledge on their respective topics. And, refreshingly, rather than simply telling me what Augustine said about parenthood or flesh, both Griffiths and Carnes are thinking out of an Augustinian register so as to produce more insights, questions, and connections to a vast array of topics. It is, I think, simply more interesting this way. 

And finally there’s bodily fragility. Part of bodily life—and therefore parenthood—is the reality that we will all end up in the ground. Bodies turn to corpses and then decay. This is true for all flesh. In the words of my favorite poet, “We, and what we love, will soon be annihilated. Which sounds more dramatic than it might. Let me just say dead.”18 I was painfully reminded of this reality the day before Thanksgiving last year, when I, holding my two-year-old daughter, slipped down the stairs of our home. I tossed her sippy cup, her dirty diaper, and both of her stuffies, and I managed to hold on to her as the two of us landed on her little foot. It was fractured; I fractured it. Even in the most unsuspecting arenas, under the mildest of conditions, bodies break down. These authors, I am happy to report, have given us theorizations of bodily life—and the shared forms of bodily life that constitute parenthood and childhood—that do not shy away from this kind of real tragedy and vulnerability. In order for a body to be a body, Griffiths suggests, it must be capable of being harmed. 

To be frank, it has been quite some time since I found theological texts this deeply provocative, creative, and constructive. I doubt this review column will always feature such glowing reviews (though this will certainly not be the only time), but these two texts have been the most generative conversation partners for me in the last year. They have pushed me to think about bodies, parenthood, theological writing, and particular passages of Scripture in new ways. They do not shy away from the limits and tragedies that constitute our lives, and their commitment to theorizing the possibilities of bodily life never pushes them to shy away from any metaphysical commitments. Perhaps the real kicker is that these projects both represent the crucial insight that the theology is anti-body discourse so regularly overlooks: the body can be spoken of but rarely in any meaningful way. These texts, rare that they are, have clarified for me the veracity of that possibility.

  1. Griffiths, Christian Flesh, 2.
  2. Griffiths, Christian Flesh, 14.
  3. Griffiths, Christian Flesh, 28.
  4. Griffiths, Christian Flesh, 37.
  5. Griffiths, Christian Flesh, 41.
  6. Griffiths, Christian Flesh, 46; also see 44, 45, and 47.
  7. Griffiths, Christian Flesh, 49 and 50. For what it’s worth, I am sticking with Griffiths’ use of Father in order to connote the crucial Trinitarian relations and full divinity of the Son.
  8. Griffiths, Christian Flesh, 57 and 58.
  9. See Griffiths, Christian Flesh.
  10. As Griffiths explains, “‘Concupisence’ is a good shorthand label, and one with a long pedigree, for damage that flesh has undergone with respect to the caress” (Griffiths, Christian Flesh, 124ff).
  11. Carnes, Motherhood, 47.
  12. Carnes, Motherhood, 85.
  13. Carnes, Motherhood, 73.
  14. Carnes, Motherhood, 82; also see 77 and 78.  
  15. Carnes, Motherhood, 103; also see 107.
  16. Carnes, Motherhood, 120.
  17. Carnes, Motherhood, 111; also see 112 and 129.
  18. Ross Gay, The Book of Delights: Essays, 1st ed. (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2019), 50.