“I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.”

(Whitman, Leaves of Grass, Song of Myself 2)


My hygiene is deficient, one friend told me. She said I needed to use lotion (she swears by Jergens), on my entire body, after every shower. (I was also instructed to reapply every night after washing my face, to wash my hair and sheets more often, and to upgrade my toiletries.) These may well be commonplace for you, but I am a lazy man and try to bypass as many steps in my morning and evening routines as possible. However, after our conversation, I did wash my sheets and my hair (don’t ask how long it’d been), and I did start the morning lotion routine, which I’ve kept up.

The first time she made me cover my face in lotion—something I thought I only had to do at the beach, with great discomfort—I felt my skin. In the plainest tactile sense, I mean my fingertips and palms massaged my forehead, nose, and cheeks in a way they never do without a washcloth. And in a more cognitive sense, I mean I recognized anew that I had a very large organ covering my whole frame. I imagine wearers of makeup acknowledge their skin every day. But I only think directly about my skin when acne shows up. This positive recognition of my skin, as a thing I could care for and improve, made me suddenly more opaque to myself, no longer merely a mobile consciousness, but consciously an organic animal.

I experienced the same sensuous feeling when I read Paul Griffith’s Christian Flesh, too: an uncanny “haptic intimacy” with the matter that makes the world and me in it. He gives far more attention to mundane bodily activity than is polite, and it makes me squirm. But it also gives me pleasure in my own human concreteness:

It’s not possible to touch something at a distance. … the chair needs to be in contact with the buttocks for sitting to occur, and the skin needs to be wetted by water in order to be washed.

In order for the lover’s flesh to be olfactorily available at a distance, there must be contiguity between some particles of those things and the olfactory nerves.

[Eating is] a matter of the lips, the tongue, the throat, and the gut. It involves ingestion, by taking flesh and inanimate matter into one’s own flesh; and excretion, by ejecting waste into the world through the urethra and the anus and the mouth.

Although it isn’t all so graphic, his prose is often awkwardly plainspoken, sometimes too in touch with the everyday for some. It’s explicit, both straightforward and uncensored. This bold way of writing—which doesn’t blush to theologize anal cavities or cunnilingus—emerges from the moral argument of the book. It follows the radical and disturbing core of the gospel: all things are good (per the Creation), and (after the Fall, but per the Atonement) all things are lawful for us. So what, in itself, is unworthy of attention?

All things are lawful! Or, as Griffiths renders it from the Vulgate, “‘Everything’s permitted to me’” (1 Cor 6:12-20). He covers this central ethical point in chapter 3, “Flesh Cleaved.” In St. Paul’s argument, Christian flesh, our living bodies, belong to Christ. In the sexual metaphor of the passage, Christians are “cleaved” to Christ in baptism, which means they are secure:

unlike all other cleavings, separation can only be brought about by the decision and action of the Christian. From the side of Jesus, which is the same as to say from the side of the triune LORD, no sundering can occur. The baptized are marked as Christ’s own for ever; and this means that haptic intimacy with Jesus’s flesh can never be fully and finally removed even though it can be seriously damaged by sin.

Which is, of course, where he comes to the “But not everything’s expedient” and “I’ll be brought under the power of nothing” part of the spiel. Like most translations, Griffiths puts “‘Everything is permitted to me'” in scare quotes, implying that St. Paul was parroting a licentious Corinthian slogan. Whether the apostle was satirizing and condemning their claim, or truly affirming but reframing it, is contested. Griffiths implies the controversial second reading, but following his logic yields both real alleviation and attractive justice:

… Anything that can be cleaved to—the flesh of another human creature; the flesh of a nonhuman animal; an inanimate object—is, simply by virtue of its existence, a creaturely good. To cleave to any such thing is, therefore, to cleave to a good. Similarly, all creaturely cleavings, fleshly intimacies established by some creature with another, are necessarily good, good by definition. Fleshly intimacy is what flesh is made for; it’s only by exchanging such intimacies that it can be established as flesh. Considered simply as such, cleavings have in them nothing but good. None can be placed under the ban.

How is it then that not all cleavings sit well with Jesus-cleaved flesh? How is it that some, in their performance, speak directly against what such flesh is? If not because of their objects (everything is permitted), and not because of anything wrong with cleaving as such (again, everything is permitted), cleavings that speak against Jesus-cleaved flesh must do so because of the way in which the cleaving is done.

On this score, Griffiths sees two kinds of “cleaving” (i.e., in his vocab, “an intimate fleshly attachment constituted by touch” with food, clothes, another person, etc.) that “speak against” one’s condition as a Christian (being “Jesus-cleaved”). These actions he calls “fornicatory,” continuing St. Paul’s sexual metaphor. And of such cleavings, there are two subcategories: “idolatrous” and “scandalous.”

Idolatrous cleavings are not constituted by a what. After all, creation is good (Gen 1:31), and idols don’t exist (1 Cor 8:4-6); so evil can’t be a what. Instead, the question is how. The way we cleave changes everything. On Griffiths account, to cleave idolatrously means that I invent idols in my mind, by reimagining the people and things around me. I become no longer “alive to the particularity and reality and recalcitrance of the flesh being cleaved to.” I turn others into “phantasms” for me to control and destroy as my cravings dictate. (A note on anthropology: “Short of heaven, and perhaps also the garden before the fall, all actual cleavings are in part idolatrous. None is altogether free of phantasms: whenever an apple’s flesh is bitten into and chewed, what’s in the mouth is always in part treated idolatrously; likewise when the beloved’s flesh is caressed.”)

“What now of scandalous fornications?” Griffiths asks. Idolatrous cleavings create idols for those involved; scandalous ones create them for onlookers. Because Griffiths (citing St. Paul) refuses a simple catalog of banned acts, Christians need great discernment to distinguish which actions glorifies the LORD from which “fornicate with prostitutes.” This discernment is especially difficult because it must consider “local and contingent social arrangements.” For example: “Wearing a white hood and mask, by itself, is not at all a fornicatory cleaving to clothes; it becomes scandalous only when there’s been a particular history, and when that history is known.” In Spain, a capirote suggests penitence and brotherhood, so Christians might wear it without a problem; in the US, it evokes violence and prejudice, which “do not sit well with Christian flesh.” These associations “speak against it [Christian flesh] as cleaved to Jesus because they can cause observers to conclude that the cleavings they’re observing are imitable, when in fact they may be damaging to those who have not (yet) cleaved to Jesus.”

Which sounds like rules, despite Griffiths’ (and St. Paul’s) best attempts to circumvent them. Surely there must be some prohibitions and directions to tell us what we must and must not do? Isn’t that how scripture works anyway? Griffiths says, not quite. We can interpret any prescription against vice as a description of virtue: “Don’t have sex with temple prostitutes and don’t eat food offered to idols can be rendered, when thinking theologically about what they must mean, as having sex with temple prostitutes / eating food offered to idols isn’t what Christian flesh does.”

That’s nice, but isn’t that a little too tenuous? Humans can suffer and inflict very real, very destructive acts on one another—sexual abuse of children, for example. If we don’t ban that, aren’t we deserting the most vulnerable? Griffiths responds with a clear-eyed look at the complexity of life and the expansive dominion of Sin. A violent act may be an idolatrous cleaving (beating a child) or it may be a touch that saves (shoving a child out of oncoming traffic). A nonconsensual touch may harm (molesting an infant) or heal (cradling her instead). Further still, no act in this world is altogether safe:

The view that there are patterns of fleshly intimacy to be banned in principle to Christian flesh typically ignores [this fallen moral fog] by a Manichaean gesture that identifies some cleavings as pristine and perfect and others as violent and vicious; the former are permitted and encouraged, while the latter are banned and vilified. This is not a defensible position.

What then can we do, if we really care about ethical life but can’t tell people what to do?

The remedy for fornicatory cleavings, whether idolatrous or scandalous, is single and simple. It has nothing to do with forbidding them or banning them. It is only a matter of fleshly attention to the incarnate LORD. Christian flesh lives as what it is—Jesus-cleaved—when, and only when, it’s attentive to the one to whom it cleaves. … The prohibition and the precept offer only illustrative guidance here; they don’t get at fornication’s root. Hagiography is more effective: writing the holy, showing how Christian flesh comports itself when attentive to the LORD to whom it cleaves, can show what fornicators need, and thus remember them. Prohibitions produce a striving toward a standard; hagiographies write that standard on the flesh.

Hagiographies perform and promote only one thing: attention to Jesus as the gift’s giver, and attention to those whose flesh participates in his, whether by baptism’s cleaving or by the image given in creation. They show the state of things and the state we’re in, and in that way they’re formative of those who attend to them.

“Hagiographies,” accounts of saints’ lives, often seem to portray only unachievable feats of self-denial that we’re supposed to mimic somehow. But Griffiths says we can read them as doxologies. Instead of praising human heroes, who turn our attention toward ourselves in a crushing comparison, they praise the LORD, whose first and final relation to us is love, without condition.

Which is where Griffiths ends his entire project. “If you’re my beloved,” he says, “I want to touch you unveiled. I don’t want clothes or other human beings or the accidents of bread to be what it seems to me I’m touching. I want it to seem to me that what I touch is you, skin to skin, unveiled. I want that from Jesus, too, more, in fact, than with any human beloved; and I want it with any human beloved only because I want it with him.” Which is what the Incarnation, the Passion, and the Resurrection mean: in my flesh, I shall touch God.