Book Reviewed: Taylor W. David O. (2023). A Body of Praise: Understanding the Role of our Physical Bodies in Worship (Ada, MI: Baker Academic) (Amazon Associates link)
Reviewed By: John R. Katsion, PhD
Reviewer Affiliation: Associate Professor, Northwest Missouri State University
Total Pages: 224
I grew up in a church in the low-church, fundamentalist tradition. The most hand-raising we ever did was at the end of evangelistic meetings to get saved or signify that the evangelist’s sermon moved us. Otherwise, your hands were in your pockets, preferably holding your 1611 copy of the KJV. So, when I came to W. David O. Taylor’s book A Body of Praise, I will admit I brought no genuine desire to incorporate my body in worship. But after reading this book, I now have a greater appreciation of the need to include the nonverbal in more aspects of how I worship the Lord and a better understanding of the theological and biblical reasons for doing so.
The book introduces the need to consider how we include the body in worship. Taylor writes, “God, I contend, has created us to worship with our whole bodily selves: hands and feet, eyes and ears, nose and mouth, along with every cell and sense in our physical bodies” (4). He lays out in Chapter One the task of the coming chapters, which is to “persuade readers that our physical bodies play a far more decisive role in the context of corporate worship than they may have previously imagined” (8). Chapter Two takes up this charge by showing how we use the body in worship and how our physical body shapes our worship experience. It does an excellent job of showing how the body functions in worship and gives a sound biblical foundation for the importance of experiencing worship as physical beings: “we are not disembodied minds or talking machines; we are holistic creatures whose corporeal experiences of the world determine how we think about reality itself and live meaningfully in it” (25).
Chapter Three then provides a brief overview of how the body has been used historically in various church traditions. Taylor encourages studying the history of church worship practices because “it can serve to illumine how Christians in different times and places have appropriated the data of Scripture to worship God in bodily fashion” (30). This chapter emphasizes the need to contextualize all worship practices and to look at the cultural milieu in which the church found itself and how it adapted and used the bodily expectations of its day to inform its worship. And it is because of cultural context that Taylor warns the reader to beware of falling into ditches on either side of the “originalist” interpretation of history. We should neither feel we must include a practice that was part of the early church’s worship nor think that we must abandon all original practices as old and outdated. Instead, Taylor encourages the church to remain faithful to scripture by accepting worship practices that encourage Christlikeness as the Word made flesh and to reimagine church practices in healthy ways moving forward (39).
Chapters Four and Five give a biblical perspective on the body in worship. Chapter Four argues that it is essential to remember that we “both reflect and represent God through our bodies” (49). To support this claim, Taylor shows how the Bible describes various people using kinetics and haptics to worship God—Miriam dancing, worshippers bowing and kneeling before God, Old Testament examples of worshipers shaking before their God, etc. In Chapter Five, Taylor argues that two misunderstandings of scripture have hampered a better understanding of the body in worship. The first is a misunderstanding of John 4:22 – 24, where Jesus talks to the woman at the well and tells her that those who worship God “must worship him in spirit and truth” (56). Taylor argues that this verse has been misinterpreted over the years and that people have incorrectly used it to downplay the need for the physical in worshipping God: “On this reading, physical and material things are regarded, at best, as negligible and irrelevant, and, at worst, as problematic and hostile to true worship” (56). The second misunderstanding is with how the apostle Paul uses the term “flesh” in his various epistles, where the body itself has been wrongly perceived as “flawed and the primary cause of our human misery” (62). This misses the many nuances surrounding the New Testament understanding of the term.
Chapter Six gives a Trinitarian argument for why the body matters in worship. It begins with an understanding that, like the Trinity, the body is good, and ends with celebrating the “expansive vision for the body at worship” (79). Chapter Seven gives what Taylor calls scientific perspectives on the body. In this chapter, Taylor covers how the body works in worship through scent, sound, color, and time. Nonverbal scholars will love the emphasis on olfactics and chronemics. Chapter Eight looks at artistic perspectives of the body through the lenses of art, dance, and seating arrangements. It is particularly fascinating to see how brothers and sisters from other cultures have physically arranged their worship services. Chapter Nine looks at the ethical implications of ignoring those in the church who have bodies with disabilities and bodies that are marginalized and how to incorporate the body in a digital service better. Chapter Ten encourages the reader to use the body prescriptively through formalized postures and gestures. Taylor argues for the sign of the cross in worship and ritualized standing, bowing, kneeling anointing, and other prescribed nonverbal uses of the body in worship. Chapter Eleven then develops an argument for allowing spontaneous expressions of worship in a service. Taylor argues for the inclusion of times of extended silence to allow for spontaneous dancing or movement in response to the Spirit. Finally, chapter Twelve closes the book with a short encouragement and three hopes for our bodies: the hope of Christlikeness, the hope of service to our neighbor, and the hope of loving our Savior.
This is an excellent book with very few things that could be improved. If I had to find fault, I would have liked a better title, as this book deals with more than just the body in worship. In fact, it addresses seating arrangement, chronemics, and other nonverbal codes far more than the body. I also would have liked to emphasize the need to return to in person church gatherings for embodied worship. In our post-Covid world, many people have not returned to church but prefer to stay home and participate online. Taylor did, however, make some excellent arguments for physical worship in the presence of others in Chapter Seven. There Taylor talked about the power of entrainment and interactional synchrony in a congregation singing in each other’s company (88). However, in Chapter Nine, he speaks of digital online services and how they could replace embodied worship in the presence of others, especially for those with disabled bodies (121). Apart from the need to help those who cannot physically attend church, the argument favoring digital spaces as actual embodied physical worship seems contradictory based on earlier ideas.
But again, this book has far more commending it and is well worth the read. Chapter Four was particularly helpful in delineating a theological case for the body and its use in worshipping God. Taylor’s discussion of the theological concept of the image of God was particularly insightful. I believe his argument, based on the image of God, gives a theological basis for the importance of the body in defining our self: “To be truly human on this reading is not to have a body that exists in a metaphysically lesser role to that of a soul; it is to be a somebody through whom the image of God is made present to others” (48). Chapter Six does a great job of showing how our bodies bear the imprint of the Trinitarian God, ending with a question Taylor thinks all Christians should ask when worshipping: “How might I offer all of my body to God, yielding it, along with all of my anxieties and limitations and self-absorptions, wholly over to God in worship?” (79).
Another strength of the book is the questions it will raise in the reader. A Body of Praise has prompted me to ask our worship pastor about our practices. Why do we ignore scent in our services? Have we ever thought about adjusting our seating for particular services? How does our church accommodate those congregants with disabilities? Did you know something happens to our bodies when we sing together? Should we stress the need to be embodied together in worship more? I would never have had these conversations without this book. Another strength of this book is that some chapters could be helpful in an undergraduate classroom. Chapter Seven could be assigned reading in a nonverbal communication class, in a religious or non-religious institution, as it provides an excellent example of an analysis of the use of nonverbal codes in a specific context. It is an excellent example of an analysis of using nonverbal codes within a specific context. I also could see chapters one through three as assigned readings in a communication and worship class.
Ultimately, I recommend A Body of Praise to any communication scholar, especially those who study and teach either worship or nonverbal communication. This book has copious endnotes and cites many journal articles and books, making it an excellent resource for further study of worship and its nonverbal aspects. Most important, it will raise questions that, in the end, will help readers do a better job of worshipping God with their body of praise.