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Listen to an interview with author W. David O. Taylor on The Living Church Podcast
Review by Emily Hylden
If I don’t have to go to a store to gather my groceries, or enter a movie theater to enjoy a new feature film, do I really need to attend a church with other people to worship well?
What is essential about worship? While it’s a timeless question, in the last few years we’ve been grappling with a new pressure: especially since the COVID pandemic, church gatherings have included virtual elements, making us wonder whether and how our bodies matter for worship. The Rev. Dr. W. David O. Taylor explores this question with generosity and profundity, drawing on Scripture, Church history, science, art, and ethics. He wonders with readers about ableism and inclusion, about our cultural locations and their attendant assumptions, and about the breadth of worship.
It’s a courageous and fraught subject, to look directly at bodies and religion. As Taylor observes, the body is never neutral in worship, “never merely a body,” but always interacting with other bodies, with traditions and assumptions, with cultural locations, with expectations and limitations, and with the Creator of bodies.
Taylor begins by tracing the story of bodies from Genesis through the historical books and psalms, drawing in theological and historical perspectives of interpretation to provide a foundation. Turning to the Gospels, he highlights Jesus’ touch as a cornerstone of his healing ministry. Jesus declares the holy meal with his disciples at the climax of his earthly life to be his body and his blood.
Taylor faces head-on biblical interpretations that have subjugated the body, and outward or physical manifestations of faith and worship, beneath those of the intellect, the soul, or inward attitudes. He exegetes John 4:22-24 with many voices, both historical and contemporary, to contend that worship necessarily includes physical, outward, and visible signs, inspired and driven by the work of the Holy Spirit. Our bodies are bound by time, they are always stuck in the present moment, and they draw our wayward hearts and minds to the only point at which humanity may experience God: here and now. This is where worship begins.
Rather than prescribing answers, Taylor invites us to ask more questions of ourselves and our worshiping communities; but far from leaving us rudderless, he provides an incredibly exhaustive index to enable our continuing quest. The endnotes indicate a deeply researched work, and the book reads easily. It is well-organized with clear and concise arguments, developing as a symphony to the telos: of the book, of bodies in worship, of all creation — unity with God in the person (and body) of Jesus Christ.
The work of worship is to offer praise and thanksgiving, a sacrifice, to the God revealed in Jesus Christ, and — by the mystery of the Word made flesh — to become one with each other and to somehow become one with Jesus’ body. Taylor begins by exploring how bodies have often been made subservient to spirits, souls, intellects, or myriad other names for less-tangible bits of humanity, but this is to misunderstand God’s revelation, not least in Scripture. Our bodies are intrinsic to who we are. They are the site of our redemption, and so we cannot avoid dealing with their presence in worship.
Still, we wade into more problems as our bodies attempt to worship and live together peaceably. What do we do about loud babies who disrupt old ladies’ prayers? What do we do about those who cannot comprehend what they experience? What do we do about people who aren’t present, or those who are sidelined or tokenized? In each case, Taylor draws us back to the body of Christ, wondering together what Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection reveal about how to honor these varied bodies when the body of Christ comes together in worship.
This book doesn’t seek to focus on contemporary issues of the body and religion, and indeed Taylor mentions many times that specifics are outside the scope of this work, but he gives an outline of how a curious reader might apply his principles. By engaging the big stories of Scripture, human history, biology and neuroscience, artistic expression, and theology, the reader encounters a robust vision of how all bodies contribute to the kingdom of God.
The Rev. Emily R. Hylden lives with her husband, the Rev. Jordan Hylden, and three sons in Lafayette, Louisiana, and is host of the podcast Emily Rose Meditations.