Today I have something special – an exclusive interview with Tara Owens. She’s one of my dearest friends in the whole world, and she is the author of Embracing the Body: Finding God in our Flesh and Bone. It is an exquisite, wise, vulnerable book about the theology and spirituality of the body, not just viewing our bodies as the world does (obsession) or as the church often does (denial) but reclaiming a Christian view of our bodies, and how awareness of our body can reconnect us with God. I’m delighted to share this chat we had about her spiritual journey, writing tips, and body image:
Tara – you’re a certified spiritual director, veteran writer, wife and mum – can you tell us three things we may not know about you?
That’s a fun question! I’ve always thought I would win the “two truths and a lie” icebreaker game—because I have at least three outrageous things about myself that I can share, all of which are true.
First, I used to be an amateur boxer. For nearly eight years, I competed in boxing, muay thai boxing and kickboxing. It surprises people, because I’m a soft-spoken spiritual director, but I loved the sport and learned so much about myself from it. I hope to get back to in some time in the future.
Second, five years ago I had a heart attack. It was completely out of the blue, and almost totally unexplained—I didn’t have high blood pressure or cholesterol. It’s one of the things that created this desire in me to write about the body in a way that both honored the gift that we’ve been given in flesh and bone, and acknowledged that our bodies sometime betray us deeply.
Third, I’ve never had a full cup of coffee in my life. I know that I tend toward fallen, addictive behaviors, so I’ve avoided coffee because I just have this sense that if I started it, I’d be mainlining it every morning within a week or so. It’s part of the way I steward my own weaknesses.
Oh, and I’m British and Canadian, living in the United States on a green card. And I once had a warrant out for my arrest.
What was your view of your body before you became a Christian?
I think before I became a Christian, I saw my body as something to be obeyed and assuaged. Because I’m so attended to the physical world in so many ways, my body was full of desires and impulses that I felt in many ways powerless to curb. I also felt like it was the place of power that could be used to control others. It was a very animalistic way to be, even though seeing me walking around or talking to me, you would never have thought I related to my body like that.
How has that changed since you came to faith?
When I first came to faith, I definitely felt like my body was still unruly and powerful, but I absorbed a lot of the messages that I should be ashamed of it, and control it. That didn’t last for very long, though, because God got a hold of me really early in my journey and began talking to me about a third way of being with and in my body that acknowledged both its power and its beauty. It was a bit of a lonely journey, though, because no one else seemed to think that way.
What got you thinking there was a need to write this book?
When I was in my spiritual direction training program at Tyndale Seminary, we were required to lead a three hour seminar on an issue relevant to spiritual direction. I’d recently walked through a fairly intense chapter with God where He was showing me how He was redeeming my sexual history and releasing me from shame in many areas. I’d noticed a tendency in the communities I fellowshipped with to relegate the choices someone made sexually before they came to Christ into the category of sins to be ashamed of. While I agreed that those choices were not God’s best for me, and definitely places of brokenness and sin, I wasn’t ready to dismiss all of my story into the category of “wrong,” and move on.
I knew there was something about my sexuality that was pointing toward God and my desire for Him, and that if I mined my experiences, I could see where and what those longings were—redeeming more of my past because of Christ’s presence in my present.
So I started doing research into the topic. And while there’s a lot of writing on purity in Christian circles, there’s not a lot of writing on the glory of our sexuality. My search for materials on the topic led me to the larger questions of how we see our bodies in the Church as whole, because this lack of discussion around the topic was glaring to me. Many authors say that they write the book that they needed to read, and in many ways, that’s the case for Embracing the Body.
There is a creative exercise at the end of each chapter. Why did you decide to put those exercises in?
I’m a spiritual director, so I always want to see things made practical and applicable in people’s lives. I want people to take things off the page and go experience them with God. So the exercises were just a natural outflow of that.
Which is your favourite creative exercise?
Wow… what a great question. Although I like them all, I think it would have to be the exercise in Chapter 6: Beauty or Beast called “Blessing Your Body”. I like the way it invites people to actively participate in the blessing of our bodies, the blessing they are to the world and to us, even when there are things about them we really don’t like. It’s a very challenging exercise, but so fruitful.
Talk us through your process of writing the book – how long did it take to write it? What were the difficulties along the way?
Ha! I’m not sure it was so much a process as it was a pilgrimage. And it took a very, very long time. This book was four years in the writing, most of which wasn’t actually writing, but thinking about writing. One of the things I’ve been most grateful for on this journey is having a very, very patient publisher in InterVarsity Press, and an amazing editor in Cindy Bunch. There was a huge emotional and mental journey that I had to go through, which eventually worked itself out physically, in order to just get to the point of sitting down and writing. I blew past my first deadline by more than a year, and I am not proud of that fact at all.
Eventually I realized that I needed help to get the concepts and passion and words that were in me out on the page. That’s when I found Preston Yancey (author of Tables in the Wilderness), who agreed to coach me through the initial stages of writing. In many ways, it was just having someone to keep me accountable to the writing process, and check in with me every day. And that’s what he did—he sent me an email each day, which I was required to respond to, whether or not I’d written, and then on Saturdays we talked through what had worked well and what had worked badly in my writing journey that week. That, plus using Scrivener to keep track of my word count goals made the process of writing very practical, accountable and measurable for me.
It was through Preston that I found a community of writers of faith, headed up by Elora Ramirez, that also provided support and encouragement as I wrote. This small group of women provided the “good cop” to Preston’s “bad cop. They prayed for me, encouraged me, and walked the road alongside me. It was such a gift.
One of the big difficulties at the end of the journey was trimming down the word count. Even after cutting huge parts of the book, I was more than 15,000 words over my word count. I was so shocked and grateful when Cindy Bunch accepted those words! Not every writer gets that incredible advantage. But she thought they were all vital to the arc of the book, so they stayed.
What is the best tip you can give to someone writing a book?
I have two:
First, sit down and write. Really. Every day. Just do it. No matter how you feel, no matter what’s going on in your life, sit down and write. Even if it’s just for 10 minutes and you erase everything you write, get words on the page.
Second, have a community around you. Whatever that looks like for you—a writer’s group that meets in a coffee shop every week, a writing partner, an online community—find a place that’s supportive to the crazy-headedness that artistic creation can sometimes be. Writing is a very lonely pursuit. Even if you are surrounded my people in your every day life, writing is ultimately a solitary work of you and the page. Having people around you that understand that is vital.
You talk a lot in the book about reclaiming the joy of our bodies, but for those of us who are ill, this may be hard to imagine. You’ve had your own brush with ill health – what does this book offer to those who struggle with their health?
Although I’ve never struggled with chronic illness, and I wouldn’t presume to speak to those places without permission and knowing the person’s story first, I have experienced my body betraying me in what felt like a pretty profound way when I had a heart attack five years ago. My hope is that this book isn’t a simplistic call to delight in our bodies—you and I both know that they are places of great horror as well as deep joy.
For those who struggle with illness, my desire would be that Embracing the Body is a gentle invitation to experience the good things that are still part of our embodied experiences, even when we’re suffering, and that Christ is still deeply present in our flesh and bone, even then. It’s hard to think of our bodies as holy when they are in deep distress, but they are still the only place where God is consistently made visible to the world.
That doesn’t mean that we should be thankful for illness or deny our feelings of despair or betrayal, but that there are things going on both under and within those feelings in our relationships to our bodies and to God. I hope that for those who are ill, there’s a sense of God’s delight over them even in illness, and an invitation to experience God in new—and I hope profound—ways.
Tara M. Owens is senior editor for Conversations Journal. Owens also provides spiritual direction through Anam Cara Ministries and is a part-time instructor for the Benedictine Spiritual Formation Program at Benet Pines Monastery. She lives with her husband, Bryan, and their daughter in Colorado Springs. You can buy Embracing the Body, currently $12.58 from Amazon.com, £11.23 from Amazon.co.uk or £8.76 from Wordery.*
*Contains affiliate links, which means if you follow the link and buy anything at all, you help this site, at no extra cost to you.“I have experienced my body betraying me” – @Tanya_Marlow interviews @T_Owens on her new book, Embracing the Body: “Writing is a very lonely pursuit.” – @Tanya_Marlow interviews @T_Owens on writing process, spirituality, sexuality: “I knew there was something about my sexuality that was pointing toward God” – @Tanya_Marlow interviews @T_owens: “There’s a lot of writing on purity in Christian circles..not a lot on the glory of our sexuality” – @T_owens:
Over to you:
- When you have experienced illness, what are the aspects of your body you are still thankful for?
- What do you think about using your body to reconnect with God?