Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014.
Available at Amazon.com
A review of Incarnate: The Body of Christ in an Age of Disengagement, Michael Frost, IVP, by Kara Martin
I have read several books by Michael Frost, and had feared that his latest offering would continue too closely on the missional theme, journeying over much of the territory covered previously. However, his latest offering, while on theme, contains some deep thinking and new ideas, especially around the danger of becoming “excarnate”.
He likens the modern western experience of life to being a tourist: always moving, never belonging, interested in collecting experiences while remaining superficial. His summary is that our culture is “rootless, disengaged and screen addicted.”
He contrasts that with the gospel’s appeal to incarnational living, which is about settling down, deep roots, real knowing and discovering the truth.
In his examination of western culture, Frost cites social media and zombie movies as proof of our temptation toward disembodiment. Even Christians are not immune to this trend as we drive to the church of our choice, send texts during sermons, prefer celebrity preachers, post smug criticisms of others on Facebook, “take action” by sending an email or liking a post, and are wary of opening our homes to neighbours or showing hospitality.
He suggests our focus is on an “excarnate faith”: a safe faith in our heads, rather than the dangerous example of Jesus, which might deeply impact our hearts and minds. This, Frost contends, is a poor theology of the body, a dualistic view of spirit versus body:
[Christians] value so-called soul work so much over physical life that such physical activities are either demonised (sex, eating), sacralised by putting into the service of the church (art, architecture, music) or completely ignored (exercise, work, play).
Frost contrasts this with Jesus’ physical presence, the way he touched those he healed, his love of eating and socialising, and his bodily resurrection.
As an alternative, he encouraged Christians o display an “incarnate faith”: to be true disciples by being “the bodily weight of truth, carrying the gospel in their lifestyles and the rhythms of their collective life.”
He demonstrates the possibilities by first dealing with the desires and idolatry/sin that ensnare us, recognising that we are “spirited bodies”, and participating in Jesus’ mission.
As an example of “bad” missional practice, Frost criticises short term mission trips, quoting Robert Lupton’s book Toxic Charity. However, there are plenty of positive examples, revolving around the local church affirming what is good in community and workplaces, and challenging what is harmful. There are echoes of Tim Keller’s gospel renewal message in these chapters.
I found particularly helpful Frost’s typology of healthy versus unhealthy religions. He defines healthy religions as focused on the pursuit of God rather than being concerned about things to avoid, and measuring godly qualities rather than quantities (numbers, giving…). Healthy religion finds our identity in grace rather than behaviour, expands life rather than constricts life, and results in transformation rather than simulating holiness. Healthy religion seeks wisdom rather than argument, keeps learning rather than maintaining blind spots, and releases and welcomes rather than suppressing and isolating.
While there is much to commend, the premise of the book is that “the core idea of the Christian faith is the incarnation”. I fear that this is an overstatement. While the incarnation is a significant distinguishing mark, we imbalance our appreciation of God and Scripture if we emphasise the life of Jesus over his dying and rising.
KARA MARTIN is the Associate Dean of the Marketplace Institute, Ridley Melbourne, has been a lecturer with Wesley Institute and is an avid reader and book group attendee. Kara does book reviews for Open House and Eternity Magazine.