Since Thetis dipped Achilles in the Styx, men (especially men) have dreamed hot dreams of invulnerability. The Greeks kept dreaming, but they knew these dreams couldn’t come true. Even Achilles—best of the Achaeans, half divine and a tornado of destruction in his aristeia, his moment of glory—this Achilles dies a pathetic death, ambushed and pierced by an arrow at his one narrow point of weakness. A heel of flesh marks the great gulf fixed between the glory of mortals and that of the immortal gods.
We might think we’ve outgrown childish dreams, but the annual supply of superhero films suggests otherwise. Invulnerability is often the very definition of super-heroism. Superman cowers before the green glow of Kryptonite, but we know he won’t get hurt. A bullet to Superman’s eye smushes the bullet, not the eye.
Even human superheroes somehow escape the limits of flesh. No human could survive unscathed if he glided to the sidewalk from a skyscraper on bat wings, but Bruce Wayne does it all the time, and somehow doesn’t spend half his time in the hospital. At the end of The Dark Knight Rises, Batman has seemingly survived a nuclear blast and rapidly found his way to a Florence cafe to spend a lazy afternoon sipping wine with Catwoman. Spiderman is more vulnerable, emotionally as well as physically, but he bounces back from beatings and falls as if made of rubber.
Fantasy; escapism and wish fulfillment, waking dreams in vivid CGI. Of course. But it’s a fantasy to which Americans have devoted all our legendary pluck and ingenuity, not just at the movies. We’ve got the technology to remold bodies in almost any way we want—tuck here, enhance there, replant hair and pump those pecs and biceps, washboard those abs. The successful bodybuilder tries to exercise himself to robothood, until he wriggles free of his soft and pliable, penetrable and vulnerable fleshliness. We are the metal men, we are the iron men, exercising together, buns stuffed with steel.
And there are our efforts, at once brazen and pathetic, to evade aging. Some write, with straight faces as far as I can tell, about “curing aging,” perhaps within the next few decades. We erase wrinkles and excise excess flab, tighten cheeks and lift breasts and color hair. We fight aging with mental games and exercise and avocados. Maximize those antioxidants. If you’ve got the cash, you can try out an experimental monthly dose of human growth hormone. The one thing that we can’t do about aging is stop the ticking clock.
Our obsessiveness about exercise and health seems supremely anti-Gnostic. We love to love our bodies. But that’s only superficially true. We don’t love the uncooperative, aging flesh we actually have. We love the super-humanity we hope to make from it.
This is one place that the cultural radicalism of the gospel shows through with blinding clarity. In the prologue to his gospel, John announces that the divine Word, God’s own self-communication, who was with and was God, has become flesh to dwell among us. John immediately adds that the disciples of Jesus saw his glory as the glory of the only-begotten. According to John, God’s glory shines in the very vulnerability and weakness of flesh.
As the gospel continues, this glory in flesh is more narrowly specified. Jesus announces over and over that his hour of glory is coming, heightening anticipation that he will blast the Jews with more than words. When it comes, it looks suspiciously like an hour of humiliation. Where the aristeia should have been, we see instead arrest, torture, mob action, a travesty of a trial, three posts driven upright into the ground. Jesus never looks more fleshly than he looks at Gethsemane and Golgotha, never looks less like demi-divine Achilles. John doesn’t flinch. Jesus rises to glory, but the resurrection is the climax of an hour of glory that began when he sweat drops of blood. Before resurrection, God’s glory is already embodied humanly, in a crucified man.
The Spirit replicates the pattern in the ministry of the apostles. Paul’s glory is in an earthen vessel. He is afflicted but not crushed, perplexed but not in despair, struck down but not destroyed. The apostles bear the dying of Jesus so that the life of Jesus can be “manifested in our mortal flesh.” It works that way to make it clear that strength and power is from God and not from Paul.
If glory can show itself in flesh at all, it’s got to show itself as the glory of humiliation, the strength of weakness, the invincibility of passion. If that cannot be glory, then our lives are sad indeed: We face decades of increasing vulnerability, punctuated, if we are lucky, by a few moments of triumph. But the gospel says that glory refracts above all through the mangled body of Jesus, laying down his flesh for his friends, giving his flesh for the life of the world. If glory glows there, it can shine in my frailties, it can beam from white hair that the Bible describes as a crown, it can glow through the angularities and asymmetries of decaying flesh. That is good news indeed, because for the time being flesh is all we’ve got.
Peter J. Leithart is on the pastoral staff of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College. His most recent book is Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective (Wipf & Stock). His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
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