Body Electric

In 1818 a Scottish researcher named Andrew Ure animated the corpse of a hanged murderer using electrified rods connected to a battery.  The same year Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, inspired by Lord Byron's famous challenge to a small group of friends that they each write a ghost story.  As she later recalled, they had been discussing de Stael’s De l’Allemagne, “whether the principle of life could be discovered and whether scientists could galvanize a corpse of manufactured humanoid.”  They were aware of experiments similar to Ure's in which electricity was used to stimulate muscle contractions in animal carcasses and human cadavers.  Mary Shelley never specified how the creature in her novel was “galvanized” – or indeed whether electrical apparatus was even involved.  There was only a single reference to a "spark of being" that was somehow applied to a body assembled from charnel-house parts.  As far-fetched as her Gothic horror tale now seems, the possibility of bringing such a creature to life was treated seriously by leading scientists of the day.

Almost from its inception, the Christian church has used the human body as a metaphor for its own organization, with the Holy Spirit providing the spark that gives it life.  St. Paul wrote, "The whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love."  When working properly, the body of the church has behaved as advertised.  But at other times it has marauded across the landscape like the animated corpse in Shelly's novel -- that is, when the body in question is not threatening to dismember itself entirely. 

Why should this be so?  You can certainly say the church is a body that suffers all the ills humanity is heir to.  But there are also specific problems with the way this body is joined and knit together.  Jesus had tried to discourage his disciples from jockeying for position.  "The leaders of the Gentiles lord it over them," he told them. "It shall not be so among you."  He told them that "whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave."  Similarly, St. Paul said, "God has so composed the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part."  Yet as the Apostolic church spread rapidly throughout the Mediterranean world, its early communal structure was replaced by a hierarchical organization on the Roman administrative model.  The elders of the church appropriated the title "bishop"  from the Roman word for "overseer."   Eventually bishops and priests (who did not exist in the apostolic church) became their own clerical order, set apart from the laity, or people. 

Popes and priests came to believe they were at the head of the church, but according to the original model, Christ was the head.  If we seek those who deserve the greater honor, as St. Paul would have it, we must look elsewhere.  To the old woman with cancer who still shows up each week to play the organ because there is no one else to lead the music.  To the scruffy guy who would never darken the door of the church on Sunday mornings but religiously attends AA meetings at the church on Tuesday nights to make sure someone else stays sober.  To the ladies who arrange the flowers on the altar and launder the vestments.  To the woman who lost her only son years ago and now reaches out to the mother of a dying child.  All such as these, joined and knit together in ways that have nothing to do with ecclesiastical offices or denominations or creeds, are the true body of Christ.

Ephesians 4:15-16
I Corinthians 12:24

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