As a Christian, have you ever considered how your body participates in—even facilitates—your worship?
W. David O. Taylor’s new book A Body of Praise: Understanding the Role of Our Physical Bodies in Worship thoroughly analyzes the importance of the physical body for corporate worship. Embodied worship isn’t strictly a spiritual experience—the physical body is required to praise God rightly and fully. We don’t need our bodies out of the way to truly worship; we need our bodies to lead the way.
I’ve been a believer nearly all of my life, and the question still nags me in corporate worship: What do I do with my hands? Maybe it’s fear of man, or maybe I’m too hesitant to be vulnerable, but I’m always conscious of my physical movements. Taylor’s book helps us consider what to do with our bodies when we gather for worship.
A Body of Praise
W. David O. Taylor
Do our physical bodies really matter in corporate worship? Isn’t our soul the most important part of us? Aren’t our bodies, at best, negligible to worship and, at worst, a hindrance? The answer to this last question is categorically no, as Christians have attested throughout history and across the global church. The purpose of the body instead is to offer to God in worship what only it can offer—and what must be offered to God.
What we do with our postures, gestures, and movements in worship matters. How our senses of sight, scent, sound, taste, and touch are involved in worship matters. How our spontaneous and prescriptive activities form us in worship matters. All of it matters to faithful and fulsome worship for the sake of a body that is fully alive in the praise of God.
Intentionality of the Body
Taylor’s thesis is twofold. First, he argues there’s “nothing neutral whatsoever about the bodies we bring to worship” (4). He focuses his argument on organized corporate gatherings—your Sunday church service. (He’s not referring to worship as an attitude, lifestyle, or personal experience.) On Sunday, we bring bodies with particularities, limitations, and five senses that ought to be engaged. Since our bodies fundamentally shape our experience in the world, Taylor hopes readers will embrace their bodies as the wonderful means of “communion with God in the praises and prayers of the people of God” (27).
Second, Taylor argues we’re commanded to worship, designed to worship, and should delight to worship God with our bodies (5). The remainder of the book supports these three claims from historical, biblical, theological, scientific, artistic, and ethical angles. Taylor then addresses both prescriptive and spontaneous applications for the body in congregational worship.
We’re commanded to worship, designed to worship, and should delight to worship God with our bodies.
Taylor’s emphasis on the body as intended, essential, and good is relevant to contemporary Christian arguments on embodiment. His esteem for the physicality of our embodied state fits with the recent resurgence in evangelical and mainline-Protestant literature celebrating and studying human embodiment (historically, embodiment was more celebrated and studied in Catholic theological literature).
Additionally, Taylor raises questions regarding the purpose, and potential applications, of the body in worship. These questions, addressed throughout the book and listed specifically on page 137, are worth considering:
- Have we failed to properly instruct our people in the meaning of their bodily activities in worship?
- Have we succumbed to mindless rote behaviors?
- Have we given rigorous attention to the body at the expense of rigorous attention to the heart? Alternatively, have we overemphasized the heart to the neglect of the body?
- Have we begun to regard our bodily actions superstitiously? Or even incredulously?
- Have we come to love our visible deeds for the sake of being seen and praised by others?
Any theological stream would do well to consider Taylor’s points and provide sound theological foundations for its own treatment of embodiment in corporate worship.
Limitations of the Body and the Book
Taylor’s argument is limited by his definition of worship. Yes, it’s “in and through our God-given bodies that worship and mission, work and play, relationship and service are fully realized” (63). But he shortchanges the expansive outworking of a positive, biblical understanding of embodiment to the rest of life beyond corporate worship. We can use all five senses and every act of our bodies to bring glory to God on Monday through Saturday as well.
Our entire lives are experienced in a state of embodiment—and we’ll remain embodied in a glorified state for eternity. With all the good they can influence and produce, our current bodies are innately limited.
Even before the entrance of sin into the world, humans had intrinsic limitations (ontological, physical, epistemological), demonstrating inherent dependence on God. As the all-powerful Creator, he brought humans into existence out of nothing, ex nihilo (Gen. 1); our nature is limited by this creature-Creator dynamic (ontologically). We’re limited spatially; God is omnipresent (Ps. 139:7–10). We’re limited in knowledge (epistemologically); God alone is the source and revealer of truth (John 14:6). The very nature of our vulnerable existence is an act of worship to God as creator and sustainer (Acts 17:24).
As a charismatic Anglican priest, Taylor’s theological convictions undergird his recommended applications and claims regarding embodied worship. Many applications would be problematic depending on your tradition. His discussions on physical actions like burning incense, making the sign of the cross, dancing, kneeling—and especially various ways of administering the ordinances of the Lord’s Supper and baptism—wouldn’t be appropriate in many church communities. Physical liturgical practices ought to align with a church’s theological convictions.
Heart of Worship
The heart of worship isn’t attitudinal or merely spiritual (i.e., a posture of the heart). As embodied people, the heart of worship includes the posture of our bodies. Our bodies usher us into and facilitate worship, both individually and congregationally.
Physical liturgical practices ought to align with a church’s theological convictions.
It’s important, therefore, that we’re intentional and engaged in corporate worship. While many practices become familiar—even ritualized—we never want to settle for going through the motions.
Likewise, as we expand our exposure to the liturgies and activities of other confessions, we must avoid the temptation to adopt them a la carte and engage in a hodgepodge of unthoughtful, trendy practices. As Taylor successfully communicates, our bodies are more than vehicles for meaningless motion. Our great God deserves engaged, heartfelt, embodied praise.