Starting with the recognition that we are embodied beings, Gary Thomas explores in Every Body Matters: Strengthening Your Body to Strengthen Your Soul the importance of taking care of our bodies so that we might live up to the calling of God. He sets out on this exploration because he’s convinced that “Christians who don’t take their health seriously don’t take their mission seriously” (20). As I began reading, I wondered how Thomas would deal with the challenges of speaking about an understandably sensitive issue. Generally speaking, I came away feeling like he is appropriately sensitive to and aware of some of the challenges to maintaining healthy bodies that are out of our control, particularly in chapter 5 (“It’s Not a Fair Fight”). Further, the lasting impression is that the primary focus is on the positive goal of maximizing our physical ability to live up to God’s calling, rather than a negative goal.
Thomas offers a helpful corrective to a church that often considers the body disposable. Unfortunately, however, rather than dismantle deficient notions of a dichotomy between body and soul by focusing on humans as holistic beings, Thomas seems to preserve such a dichotomy, offering only a corrective to the way the body is viewed. In my opinion, this allows him to address a symptom, which certainly needs to be treated, but inhibits him from treating the disease, which is likely to continue to rear its head in the form of other symptoms.
Neither was I thrilled with the various common, but misguided “Evangelical” assumptions embedded in the book. For instance, Thomas draws special attention to a minister because of the size of his church and his eschewing of “scripted teachings” in favor of spontaneity (40). Similarly, Thomas falls prey to an all-too-common distortion among many Christians today when he accepts and endorses the assertion that young men need “to have their ‘soldier-like instincts’ awakened on behalf of Christ’s kingdom” (132). Perhaps Thomas should have fled the Pacific Northwest for Houston more quickly than he did.
One of the weaknesses of Thomas’s approach throughout his writings has been his tendency to come off as proof-texting. While he engages in some of that in Every Body Matters, he seems to do better at helping model the errors of proof-texting for readers. In chapter 6 (Is Being Overweight a Sin?), for instance, Thomas highlights references to gluttony in the biblical text, but notes that the mention of gluttony in Proverbs 23:2 seems to be in the context of a passage more interested in social awareness than healthy eating. Moreover, in a time when more and more people seem foolishly to be trying to use biblical wisdom literature as a manual for everything from parenting to dieting, Thomas issues an important warning that the intent of wisdom literature “is to offer general principles, not laws, and it must be read accordingly” (78). While I might go a bit farther, this is a significant step in the right direction.
Thomas concludes the book with a focus on practical helps for committing to healthy living by which one can care for the body, with suggestions for dealing with the sinfulness of neglecting our bodies, and with meditations on the manner in which physical fitness can prepare us for the rigors of life as God’s people. These sections will perhaps be helpful for some, but for others may seem to be old news. For instance, it’s rather common knowledge that it’s easier to commit to regular exercise when you’re held accountable by participating in a group.
Every Body Matters is an important book, coming along at a time in American culture in which its message is particularly pertinent. Thanks to Thomas’s reputation among the Evangelical community, it’s likely to be widely read. Certainly when measured alongside much of the garbage on the bestseller shelves at Christian bookstores, it holds up quite well. As such, even though it could have been better, I hope it makes a positive impact.
Disclaimer: Thanks to Zondervan for providing a copy of the book for review without any obligation that the review be positive.