Interview with Marcia Mount Shoop, author and theologian
I’m always on the lookout for spiritual or theological works related to the body, especially if pregnancy or birth is involved. A recent discovery is Marcia Mount Shoop’s Let the Bones Dance: Embodiment and the Body of Christ, which presents welcome new thinking about how we might know and access the totality of our bodily selves, and bring this full awareness to the practice of Christianity. Today’s post is an interview with her about this topic and her other work.
A graduate of Vanderbilt Divinity School, Marcia was ordained in the Presbyterian Church, and her current ministry involves teaching, preaching, leading retreats and workshops, facilitating and consulting, and writing. Let the Bones Dance is addressed to Protestants, but its message is relevant to many if not all Christian denominations. The heart of the book’s concern is that Christian practice is largely focused on the intellect and reasoning at the expense of the body. This disembodied state creates a dis-ease that makes us uncomfortable in our own skin, a condition with wide-ranging consequences for ourselves, our communities, and our planet.
Surprisingly perhaps, but clearly and convincingly, the book draws on three female experiences — rape, pregnancy and motherhood – to explore more general features of all human embodied life and relate them to Christian life and worship. Rape exemplifies the tragedy associated with bodily experience and invites compassion. Pregnancy illustrates how bodies are in relationship and invites appreciation of our inter-dependence. And motherhood shows ambiguity, which invites a sense of adventure toward our lives as we take in conflicting aspects of events and experiences. Shoop’s lyrical writing deftly connects these academic-sounding concepts to concrete, accessible examples.
1. What inspired you to write Let the Bones Dance: Embodiment and the Body of Christ (LTBD)?
All of the experiences I use as windows into embodied life in the book (rape, pregnancy, and motherhood) are experiences I have had. These experiences have been my teachers, my guides to what life as a body is about–so much more than what we are conscious of and have cognitive access to. As someone who grew up in an intellectual tradition and in an academic family, this deep embodied knowledge opened me up to layers of experience that I had not made room for in my view of the world and of human life. So, really it was my own healing journey that inspired me to write it.
2. It is rare for women’s experience to be used as a model for all human experience, especially where bodies are concerned, but your book does just that. To what extent do you find that people, whether men or women, are able to appreciate the universality you are conveying?
Every time I am teaching or speaking about LTBD in the company of men, I get the question “what’s in it for me?” I am always thankful when someone asks that because it opens up an important dialogue about our unconscious biases about embodied normativity and gender. As a woman studying theology I was supposed to read the tradition (Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, etc) as speaking to my condition as a human being even though the tradition was written pretty much by men. They never qualified their constructions as only speaking to men. Women’s experiences are provisional, yes, but so are men’s. The limits of particular experience should not stop us from noticing the spark of recognition these particularities give us about all bodies. I constructed the book with this important dynamic in mind. We need to attend to the unique and particular–that is the nature of our universality–that we are always and already unique and particular. And the way we are made allows us to claim that irreducible nature of our uniqueness with new gusto. I encourage men to open themselves up to where they connect with the tragic, relational, and ambiguous nature of their bodies. There are many things that surface–time in combat, their yearning for deeper emotional connections with the people they love, cancer, struggles with masculinity, sexuality, and the list goes on.
3. Here’s what I took away from the book overall (and found really,really helpful): The whole of our bodies is greater than the sum of its parts. Our bodily life encompasses anything and everything that we experience as ‘”inputs” whether we realize it or not. Only a portion of these inputs to our bodies rises to the level of analytical thought or named emotion. That’s why present events can trigger emotional and physical responses relating to things that happened in the past. By expanding our sensitivity to this broader scope of our bodies, we can ‘re-member’ ourselves and become more attuned to God’s presence. Is this a fair summary of the main theme? What would you add or subtract?
Very good distillation! You have described one of the hardest concepts that I invite the reader to embrace–that cognition is not bulk of our experience. This is a difficult things for Westerners to take in because of our Cartesian heritage–“I think therefore I am.” The body tells us a very different story–and it holds the intricacies, ambiguities, and possibilities of our shared world. When we start to watch for these glimmers of embodied wisdom, it is startling to realize how much we neglect the way we are made and our capacity for redemption.
4. How do you live an embodied faith? What practices or approaches do you recommend to individuals for their daily lives?
An embodied faith is a fluid and response-able way of life. And it takes practice, practice, practice. I practice being present and living relationally, and I have moved away from static principles as the governors of my ethics. Our bodies tell us that we are at all times deeply connected to all that is around us; this embodied fact of my existence means that everything I am, everything I do, everything I become effects everything that is. It is a radical way to understand ethics–no longer are ethics about decisions, but they are about being and relationship. I have found, therefore, that the most important things I do to cultivate an embodied faith is to practice, practice, practice what it feels like to be present, to be open, to be connected, to let mystery and embodied connection have space without the need to explain and describe.
Yoga has been very important to me. I spend time everyday with animals and children. These beings keep me grounded in an immediacy and in an unspokenness. My horses, dogs, and cats are so intuitive that they cultivate a different kind of attentiveness in me. Interacting with them keeps me from spending my whole day in my head. Breath work and other kinds of energy work are also important to me. Any practices and room that I can give to my sentience–essential oils, breathing, art, stillness. These all help habituate me to a deeper connection with the world that calls me to feel at home here.
5. Can you describe embodied worship practices that you have experienced or that you lead when you preside? How can the Eucharist be celebrated such that we are ‘re-membered’?
These experiences are hard to describe, and so very rich. I can tell you about one I did for a few years on a regular basis. While I lived in North Carolina I led a weekly weeknight worship service in called Deep and Wide. We gathered with all kinds of different music–sometimes Taize, sometimes gospel, sometimes hymns, sometimes instrumental. We then had a short reading–often something that someone would come with that evening. This reading would take us into 20 minutes of silence. Our silence was broken in different ways–sometimes a song, sometimes a touch, sometimes the Lord’s Prayer. And we moved from our silence to the Eucharist.
There was no reading from a paper allowed at the Eucharistic Table. We told the story of the Last Supper in different ways. Our Great Prayer also was always different–sometimes shared stories, sometimes corporate prayer, sometimes intentional listening. And our Communion was always something everyone took part in receiving and sharing–we looked each other in the eye, we stood close. We attended to the bodies around the Table. And we ended our evening by taking any left overs and distributing them among us to use for a life giving purpose–some people took bread home to their children, others took it out onto the street outside the church and offered it to people there, others ate more themselves, others fed the birds or a pet.
There are many more… Really it is about being available to the Spirit’s generosity and not trying to control the space. Practicing surrender, improvisation, and incompetence also are important spiritual skills in traditions like Presbyterianism that are so habituated to order and everything being scripted.
6. At present there is an exodus, especially of younger people, from the institutional churches. What connection, if any, do you make between this trend and the tendency toward an intellectualized religion?
I wrote LTBD because I see a direct connection between the disembodied dynamics of Mainline Protestant worship and the languishing of these churches. There are many layers to this disembodied ethos–one of the most telling is our lack of racial, ethnic diversity. Mainline traditions have held a normative status in the American religious landscape for generations so those vested in these communities can be oblivious to their own culturally derived biases and practices. In the second half of LTBD I explore some marks of our disembodied dis-ease in terms of the ways our communities are formed and the way our practices are normed. So many of these norms and practices reflect white culture–but that is not a common understanding for those within these institutions. This obliviousness to our own cultural biases and practices are, I believe, connected to the church’s waning resonance in our world today–a world that is getting more diverse, a world where the voices of those who have occupied marginalized spaces are becoming more and more audible. All of this is intimately tangled up with bodies.
7. How can we form our young people to know full, healthy embodiment in a culture where rape is common and sexual activity is often disconnected from relationships?
This is a huge and complicated question. I am currently engaged in a three year consultation with Vanderbilt DivinitySchool around these questions. We are exploring together what it can look like and feel like to be a community with a healing intention around sexual violence. The focus of our work so far is on power–how we use it, abuse it, are unaware of its subtleties and quiet brutalities. Our work, of course, focuses on bodies and all the ways we hold and enact power–especially unconsciously. LTBD is our theological framework. And the work has been rich so far.
8. How does a disembodied faith relate to the global climate crisis?
These things are profoundly related. My pregnancy chapter is really dedicated to this dynamic. Our cellular interdependence is really the core of this connection. Our estrangement from our own bodies and our estrangement from the earth are tangled up with each other in devastating ways. In my pregnancy chapter I use mercury poisoning of unborn children as one example of our intimacy with creation.
9. What are the types of retreats or workshops that you lead?
I lead lots of different kinds of retreats and workshops like Wandering Home (a retreat for women) that centers around cultivating Christian community for people who have felt, at times, exiled by the tradition; and the In-Forming Communities of Healing Initiative at VanderbiltDivinitySchool that I mentioned above. I also do workshops and exploratory sessions about whiteness and racism, trauma healing, cultivating cross-cultural community, and embodied spiritual practice. I have also been doing a lot more with sports themes lately because of my newest book, Touchdowns for Jesus.
10. Tell me about your second book, Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of the Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports (TFJ).
In the book I look at fanaticism, race, gender, higher education, and Christianity in big-time sports. I wrote this book in a much less technical way than LTBD in hopes of connecting with a broader audience of sports fans. These are pressing issues, not just in the world of sports but in our world in general. The crux of the matter is how power is used and abused and how we can make space for more redemptive ways of building communities and institutions. In that sense, it connects to the core hope in LTBD as well. And this book reflects another reality of my life–I have been married to a man who is a football coach for twenty years.
11. Any plans now for another book? What topics capture your attention at this time?
I just turned in another manuscript a few weeks ago. That book will be coming out this fall from Wipf and Stock Publishing House. I co-authored this book with DukeDivinitySchool theologian and ethicist, Mary McClintock Fulkerson. The title is A Body Broken, A Body Betrayed: Race, Memory, and Eucharist in White-Dominant Churches. This book uses Eucharist as a template to explore white culture and race in white-dominant churches in Mainline Christianity. Eucharist surfaces some of our unconscious practices that avoid truly dealing with the wounds of race. Eucharist also can provide a template for some new embodied practices that can help us cultivate spaces of healing around these same wounds.