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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

Body Image
November 17, 2011

“The camera never lies” – so we are told. We place a great deal of confidence in the truthfulness of a photo – so much so that we say a picture is worth a thousand words. But there is this wonderful thing known as “Photoshop” that allows any amateur to doctor a photograph so that it looks just the way we want it to look.

Painting an idealized picture of ourselves is a human proclivity as old as the hills. Since time immemorial, artists have assumed that people prefer romantically altered images to realistic depictions of human bodies that include warts and all. In today’s potent cocktail of Mass Media and Madison Avenue, idealized human figures bombard us at every turn, trying to sell us every product and fantasy imaginable.

The beautiful bodies gracing glossy magazines and media screens may in fact be faithful depictions of unusually beautiful people, but I suspect that such images are often doctored to achieve maximum effect. Scrub away the moles and creases, trim away the extra flesh, brush out the gray, whiten the teeth, and presto, a perfect human specimen! Faced with an unending barrage of such images, we struggle mightily to look in the mirror without lapsing into despair. It’s no surprise that poor body imagery runs rampant in today’s world.

Paul often uses body imagery to depict the nature of the church. One way he uses this image is drawn from Greek philosophers who likened civil society to a body (the “body politic”), with each member having a unique function that contributes to the vitality of the whole. Paul similarly argues in Romans and 1 Corinthians that every member of the church is critically necessary for the whole church to function as it ought. He adds another dimension to this “church-as-body-of-Christ” image in Ephesians and Colossians, focusing on the life-line dependence of the rest of the body on its head, Jesus Christ. Apart from the head, the body cannot survive. Both body images stress the necessity of right relationship if the church is to be true to its calling – right relationships of body members with each other, and the right relationship of each member to the head.

It’s how we work in robust partnership with each other and with our Lord that makes church life vital and God-glorifying. When these partnerships start breaking down, we understandably begin questioning whether we really are being “the church” anymore. If our church doesn’t live up to the image of Christ’s Body depicted in Scripture, is it still really the church?

Not only do our warts-and-all churches sometimes pale in comparison to the ideals presented in Scripture – they may seem to hold barely a candle to bigger, more thriving congregations down the street. There is an entire industry that regales us with stories of purportedly “ideal” churches that make our own churches look mighty sorry. On closer inspection, many such accounts turn out to be “photo-shopped” versions of the actual churches they claim to depict. The more we gaze at these “ideal” churches as glowingly portrayed in magazines and books or on TV, the more miserable our own churches seem in comparison. Eugene Peterson calls it “ecclesiastical pornography” – longing after glamorized images of perfect churches that make those of us who live with the unadorned reality of church-as-we-know-it feel that our own specimen is a far cry from the “real deal.” Just as no real human body can compare favorably to air-brushed centerfolds in glossy magazines, so no congregation can possibly attain to such idealized standards.

What defines our “body image” as the Church – a glamorized picture of church-as-we’d-like-it-to-be, a picture that makes our own “warts and all” church body seem miserable in comparison? Or will we be defined instead by trusting that when we are rightly connected to the Head and to one another, we have in this church-as-we-know-it everything we need to flourish in accomplishing His mission?

Your partner in Christ’s Body,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery

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