Tortured Wonders: Christian Spirituality for People, Not Angels
Rodney Clapp. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2004. 278 pages.
In Tortured Wonders, Rodney Clapp candidly and extensively examines the embodied nature of Christian spirituality. Previously an editor for Christianity Today and for InterVarsity Press, he now serves in a similar capacity with Brazos Press, writing and speaking to carry on an intellectual conversation between Christianity and popular culture.
Clapp takes his title from a poem by George Herbert and describes human beings as “tortured wonders,” living “in the space betwixt this world and that of grace” (23). His thesis is that the authentic spiritual life is intended for humans made of flesh, not for angels. Despite the influence of Gnosticism, he asserts that Christian spirituality has from its origins insisted on the goodness of the body as well as the soul.
Clapp divides his book into two sections: Classical Christian Spirituality, and Christian Spirituality in the Light (and Darkness) of the Twenty-First Century. First, he examines long-held historical beliefs concerning bodily functions, decay, sex, and death. Throughout this section Clapp insists that the church never gave up on the body because the primary salvation story is solidly grounded in creation, the incarnation, and the resurrection. He draws from Christian tradition to establish that humans are “ensouled bodies and embodied souls” (Barth).
Clapp wrestles in the second half of his book with how to be true in this century to Christianity’s richest traditions—traditions that are being stretched “in unanticipated directions” (51). Clapp uses Elvis Presley’s story to explore the idea of improvisation—adapting to change without losing the legacy of the past traditions. Death, sex, the grotesque, and bodily exercise are all discussed with a view to framing a contemporary theology of the body for our twenty-first century.
I enjoyed Clapp’s book a great deal. At the outset, he defines spirituality and grounds it in orthodox Christian tradition. His writing is unabashedly body-affirming; he insists that when the body is cared for and used in the ways God intended, the body knows pleasure and delight. His writing reflects a wisdom born of experience—this is not a young, naive writer who believes his body is invincible, but one who has known vulnerability and limitations. I particularly appreciated Clapp’s perspective on baptism and the eucharist, showing how their physicality shapes and transforms the soul. A particularly insightful and earthy chapter is “Jesus and the Grotesque”; I applaud Clapp’s candid yet respectful discussion of the body’s needs and functions. His writing models a celebration of the body—sometimes “tortured” because it is caught between “the divine and the bestial” (177), but still a “wonder” and dearly loved by its Creator. Clapp seeks to carefully articulate a theology of the spiritual formation of the body, and does so with great insight.
Without sacrificing scholarship, Clapp writes in a readable, interesting style. The book seemed a bit long, perhaps because he addresses the same topics in each of the two sections, but overall this is an excellent, cutting-edge book. I would highly recommend it for students and teachers of history, theology, or spirituality; pastors and counselors would also find it helpful and practical.