Key Resources’ Chris Hamby recently interviewed Ragan Sutterfiled, VTS middler and author of This is My Body: From Obesity to Ironman, My Journey into the True Meaning of Flesh, Spirit, and Deeper Faith.
Chris Hamby: Tell me about the book, briefly.
Ragan Sutterfield: This is My Body is a spiritual and physical memoir. It is the story of my lifelong journey toward realizing how my body fit in with my soul, with explorations of theology and scripture along the way. On one level, it follows my path over a season of training for the world’s greatest endurance race, the Ironman Triathlon, but on another level, it is the story of my lifelong struggle to make sense of what place the body occupies in the Christian life.
CH: Some might look at this as a book about fitness and weight loss, but it seems more than that. Can you explain?
RS: For me, many of my unhealthy understandings of the body manifest themselves in a lifestyle that led me to become an obese cigarette smoker by my mid-twenties. My journey toward wholeness led me away from all of that. For someone else, obesity might not be the struggle, but the same truths about how God loves our bodies and created them as integral parts of ourselves still apply.
CH: What kind of transformation did you want? You mentioned to me that your wife moves and swims as a spiritual experience. When did you hit the point when your exercise became a spiritual activity?
RS: I’d made various attempts in the midst of my obesity to “get healthy,” but it was always a chore—rote movement aimed at nothing more than burning calories. When I met Emily, I saw how movement could be a spiritual practice, a way of drawing the whole self together that was completely apart from any concern for calories burned, etc.
So the point at which I began exercising as a spiritual activity was the point at which I began doing it for the joy of it. There was also a transformation of my desires over time. I believe that what is really healthy, what is really good, will always be the most pleasurable thing. I also believe that sometimes we have to be trained to enjoy the deepest pleasures.
CH: I heard you compare our bodies to a car. Can you expand on that analogy?
RS: The way many of us see our bodies, particularly in the Christian world, is as a vehicle to be driven by the spirit. Our real self is the driver, the spirit inside, and the body is just a machine we use to get around in the world. Once it runs down and gets too many miles, we can just get a new one.
This is a view of the body we acquired from various places ranging from Greek philosophy to the dualisms of the Enlightenment, but it isn’t a proper Christian view. To be a human being is to be a body and soul together. This is why it is important that Christ was resurrected in the flesh and didn’t simply flutter up to heaven as a spirit.
CH: How does this action expand your own faith? What does it mean that we can’t pray or communicate without our bodies?
RS: If we are to be “Easter People,” resurrection people, we must live our faith as though our bodies will be with us into the future. To be human is to be embodied and so to pray as a creature returning praise to God we must do so in a way that expresses the fullness of who we are.
It is no accident that prayer in many traditions and faiths has been accompanied by particular gestures and postures. We can’t avoid our bodies and so we must put them in service of any action we undertake, especially something so critical as prayer.
Of course we can do this in a more or less conscious way. My point is that we should work to be aware of our bodies in prayer just as good runners work to be aware of how their feet are hitting the pavement, the cadence of their steps, etc., so that they can run more efficiently.
CH: You hint at a Eucharistic element in your title. Can you explain that?
RS: At the very beginning of the book, I open by talking about how my aim is to bear witness to my experience of finding God through my flesh. This was a process of learning to see that my flesh is in fact a sign of God’s love in the world.
That is what the Eucharist is at its best—it is a sign of God’s love.
Alexander Schmemann spoke of how the bread of the Eucharist calls us to see all bread as holy. In the same way, Christ’s body calls us to see all bodies as holy.
CH: Could churches use this book on the body and faith for a Christian formation program or group study?
RS: The book is not a work of straight theology but is rather a spiritual memoir in the vein of Kathleen Norris. I think people can often connect with and can think from stories better than straight theology.
In the case of my book, I hope that through reading my story, and seeing how I was able to see God present in my body, readers in churches could be invited to reflect on the stories of their own bodies.
Everyone has a story about their bodies with both glories and tragedies. I think it would be wonderful for people to read my story and then be invited to write and reflect on their own.
CH: When does the book come out? Where can people buy?
RS: The book will be out on Mardi Gras 2015 (February 17). As far as I can tell, the release date was by chance, but I think it would make for good Lenten reading.
There is a lot of time in the wilderness in the book, but it ends in the expectation of resurrection. The book should be available pretty much anywhere books are sold: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and best of all, your local bookshop (if you’re lucky enough to have one).
Ragan Sutterfield (@ragan) is an author, an Ironman, and an M.Div middler at Virginia Theological Seminary.
Chris Hamby (@chris_hamby) is the digital producer in the Center for the Ministry of Teaching and an M.Div. senior at Virginia Theological Seminary.