Sunday, January 30

The Gospel of Born-Again Bodies

By R. MARIE GRIFFITH associate professor of religion at Princeton University. Her latest book is Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity (University of California Press, 2004).

One of the most durable themes in modern American political culture, crassly visible in the latest presidential race, is virility. In this brutish and partisan arena, candidates vie for masculine supremacy before audiences they hope will admire their strapping vigor -- indeed, not simply admire but lust after it (if they are women) or identify with it (as manly men or wannabes). Long before Arnold Schwarzenegger's famous slur on liberal "girlie men," pundits like Bill O'Reilly and Ann Coulter repeatedly sneered that a Democratic mollycoddle like John Kerry could not begin to match the mettle of his swaggering Republican counterpart, notwithstanding their respective sports and military records. Although Kerry fought back vigorously, the public image was set, and Mr. Bush won the battle for brawn.

Liberals can be he-men too, of course. Bill Clinton's electric charisma and seductive exploits saved him from charges of effeminacy -- and judging by the hosts of beaming women who still wildly cheer him, he's only grown sexier in the post-Monica, South Beach Diet years. But the steady climate of panic in post-September 11 America has expunged the "kinder, gentler" language of yore and demanded imagery of a leaner, meaner sort, to which it is hinted only the stodgiest of feminists or the girliest of men could object. Masculinity exhibits itself variously in our culture, talking tough being one important mode and toting instruments of animal slaughter another. But that masculine ideal manifests itself above all through a body defined, in ever narrowing terms, as "fit."

Not surprisingly, the new macho fitness has materialized in nearly every cranny of our culture. Its ascendancy is, interestingly enough, most peculiarly visible in that other mounting obsession of the culture, religion. Perhaps, since the U.S. population, with its acute and intensifying religious sensibilities, is the most body-obsessed society in the world, it makes sense that these fixations would be intertwined; yet studies of religion have rarely overlapped with studies of body obsession.

A few years ago, I set out to investigate the intersections of religion and fitness in American culture and studied firsthand the varied ways in which Christianity has powerfully shaped American bodily ideals. Witness, for instance, contemporary images of Christian heroes, such as those featured in the massively successful Left Behind series co-written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Such images invariably depict brute strength and courage, displaying both the will and the capacity to slay the vile enemies of God.

At the same time, as scholars such as Stephen Prothero and Richard Wightman Fox have noted, popular representations of Jesus have fluctuated over time, recently shifting once again away from the gentle, feminized Jesus of Warner Sallman's iconic portrayals toward a more muscular ideal. Think, for instance, of Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ, in which the figure of Jesus looked brawny even (perhaps especially) while he was being crucified, his brutalization serving as a call to arms for audiences meant to depart theaters deeply affected by the continuing war between good and evil. Or witness the artist Stephen Sawyer's well-known depictions of a burly, steely-eyed Jesus decked out in prizefighter gloves and shorts and appearing victorious as the "Warrior King," ready for combat in a boxing ring. Evangelicals, counted among the most reliable sectors of the Republican Party's base, have embraced this shift: As Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, told one reporter in April, the "effeminate Jesus" long prevalent in the culture is "a kind of marshmallowy, Santa Claus Jesus, which is not at all in keeping with the Gospels."

"Marshmallowy": soft, gooey, squishy, chubby, flaccid, fat -- now marked as the very antithesis not merely of the American presidential ideal but of Christ himself, the model Christians are to follow. That is a highly influential theme in contemporary evangelical circles, crudely but brilliantly summarized in a tabloid headline a couple of years ago, "Fat People Don't Go to Heaven!" The story beneath that lurid caption in the Globe, a national weekly tabloid circulated to millions of American readers, recounts the rise of Gwen Shamblin, founder and CEO of the nation's largest Christian diet company and recent subject of extensive news-media coverage from Larry King Live and 20/20 to The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker. Shamblin markets her concept of a spiritual route to guaranteed weight loss and her stringent guidelines for proper Christian body size (she is on record as being a size 4 or 6) in the Weigh Down Workshop, whose copious videos, audiotapes, books, conferences, and 12-week seminars teach restrained food eating as a divine command. The eternal costs of overeating are markedly severe: "Grace," in Shamblin's words to the Journal, "does not go down into the pigpen."

The meanings here are plain, harking back to the muscular Christianity of earlier eras while replaying its themes in a newly severe key: Christianity is a strenuous religion, suitable for enduring hard times and fighting enemies. It is a religion best represented by robust men as well as disciplined women, who must also live up to a version (though smiling and slenderized, hence carefully feminized) of the perfect hard-body ideal. Flab is absolutely out, for both men and women, for it suggests weakness, indulgence, lack of discipline, inertia, and sheer laziness, egregious sins in a high-strung world devoted to efficiency and achievement. It turns out, in fact, that America's own purportedly secular doctrine of the perfectible body is deeply indebted to Protestant currents that have increasingly perceived the body as essential for pushing the soul along the path to redemption.

Christian authorities, we well know, have long been deeply concerned about the role of the body in religious devotion and have sought to discipline it in a wide range of ways. Historians of late antiquity and medieval Europe, among many others, have traced out the effects of religious discipline on individual bodies, drawing our attention to the striking corporality of Christian piety in various epochs and its heavily gendered manifestations. Though most studies have focused on premodern asceticism and Catholic mysticism, we are also beginning to uncover the history of Protestant bodies. Aided in part by emergent paradigms in ritual theory and material-culture studies, Protestantism is increasingly appearing less a project of disembodiment (as at least its WASP varieties have frequently been imagined) than as a syncretic mix of practices and rituals deeply rooted in fixations about bodily purity and pleasure, a mix that has shaped and continuously reshaped absorption with the body in clearly discernible ways.

For American Protestant people, for whom sex, alcohol, smoking, dancing, leisure activities, and other bodily pleasures have historically been restricted or even eschewed altogether, eating has long carried dense and contradictory meanings. Like many Christian ascetics and mystics of earlier periods, early modern Protestants made extensive use of fasting as a religious observance. The physical effects of food abstinence being what they are, varied groups commended slenderness as they dissected somatic indicators of true faith, affirming that the signs of authentic spiritual renewal were grounded in the body. This project of "making visible the soul" was sustained vigorously in the 19th century, for example by Protestant health reformers such as William Alcott and Sylvester Graham who advocated a purifying diet, and no less by the physiognomists and phrenologists who discerned evidence of the inner self in the face and skull.

Protestants have long wrestled with the dilemmas provoked by human embodiment, albeit in ways that would, to all appearances, feel increasingly unfamiliar to their patristic and medieval forebears. While both Protestant and Catholic critiques of abundance, from Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards to Sylvester Graham and John Harvey Kellogg to Simone Weil and Dorothy Day, recall themes expressed by early and medieval Christian ascetics, the evolving fixation on bodily health and perfection represents a stark departure from older emphases on corporeal acts of penitence aimed at subjugating the flesh or achieving identification with the suffering, crucified Christ. Over the course of the 20th century, the gospel of slimness that came to permeate broad sectors of American religion and culture, obsessed with lean, tight bodies, would bear only a faint resemblance to the intense rituals of purification and self-denial that occupied Christians in earlier periods.

A dynamic and extremely profitable Christian fitness culture thrives today. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are following Christian diet regimens like Shamblin's Weigh Down diet, the Hallelujah diet, the Creationist diet, Thin Within, First Place, and the Light Weigh (a Catholic program). Countless others have purchased books from this flourishing industry: Typical titles from the past year include Ben Lerner's Body by God: The Owner's Manual for Maximized Living, Jordan S. Rubin's The Maker's Diet: The 40-Day Health Experience That Will Change Your Life Forever, La Vita M. Weaver's Fit for God: The 8-Week Plan That Kicks the Devil OUT and Invites Health and Healing IN, and Danna Demetre's Scale Down: A Realistic Guide to Balancing Body, Soul, and Spirit. During the past few decades of this industry's explosion, millions of American Christians have made a religious duty out of diet, theologizing about food and fat as never before. Disregard what goes into your body, they say, and you will not only gain weight, look ugly, and feel awful, but you will also doom yourself to a lifetime and likely an eternity of divine disfavor. The body is a hazard to the soul, able to demolish the hardest-won spiritual gains merely through ingesting the wrong material. Christian diet vendors have plainly hit upon a painful but highly lucrative theme. According to the sociologist Kenneth Ferraro, religious practice in the United States is positively correlated with obesity, with Christians generally (and Southern Baptists in particular) the heaviest of all.

In the course of researching the Christian fitness culture, I interviewed many women and men who have participated in Christian diet groups, paying the fees to join one such group myself as a researcher. I interviewed many authors of Christian fitness literature, along with less well-known writers of denominationally focused diet workshops and local group coordinators. I attended a variety of small- and medium-size conference meetings devoted to Christian dieting and chatted with many other participants in those settings. I joined online Christian chat groups devoted to weight loss and engaged in thoughtful discussions with people leading quite desperate lives, because (as they see it) of their weight. Before e-mail addresses became restricted, I corresponded with numerous reviewers of Christian diet books, asking them to tell me more about the impact of this reading upon their lives. It is clear that readers and participants in this Christian fitness culture hold a wide range of views as to the proper Christian way to think about slimness and the body in today's world. They read selectively and think for themselves, in other words, and it would be a mistake not to highlight the multiplicity of perspectives that find sustenance in this culture.

But the culture of Christian food restraint has implications and consequences not always clearly perceived even by its more careful supporters. Christian literature about fitness, weight loss, and beauty has consistently instructed its readers how to uphold a pleasing image in the world, as standard-bearers of Jesus' love and prototypes of the redeemed life to which non-Christians would hopefully aspire. Yet American ideals of slender beauty stand in glaring contrast to attitudes throughout much of the developing world that have long associated fat with beauty, wealth, and merit or divine blessing, and more than a few commentators have denounced global patterns of food scarcity that emaciate impoverished populations in parts of Africa and Asia at the same time that privileged Americans struggle to stay fashionably slim. U.S. officials may lament the appalling realities of world hunger, yet few actively seek to promote physical health or longevity for those people considered national enemies (even potential ones), excepting types of humanitarian aid that unfortunately foster dependence and servility. It is well known that many citizens of other countries believe Americans to be deeply indifferent, if not contemptuous, toward foreign bodies. The ill health, life-shrinking poverty, and high death rates of such bodies, a cynic might say, bolster U.S. supremacy in both material and mythic ways.

World hunger seems a discordant context for situating Protestant American body fixations, and it would be as absurd to link them cursorily as to deny the countless initiatives aimed at helping the poor and hungry across the globe. Nor is it fitting purely to scorn modern-day pursuits as merely the solipsistic hobby of affluent, self-absorbed women and men. Observers may justly wonder, nonetheless, at the paradoxes evident here. American corporations have abetted the global proliferation of fast-food chains and the promotion of heavily sugared drinks and processed snack foods in developing world markets, transforming local eating patterns and increasing obesity rates overseas. As nutritionists and investigative journalists have corroborated, those types of products contribute in highly visible ways to the illness and poverty of expanding consumer populations. It is ironic, to say the least, that at a time when the most educated, affluent Americans increasingly shun junk food in favor of presumably healthier choices ("organic," "natural"), the fast-food and soft-drink (not to mention tobacco) industries have achieved unprecedented levels of success among the poor, both in the United States and abroad.

Mounting attention to the close correlations between ill health and indigence does not generally include religion as a key factor, nor are observers, aiming for pragmatic solutions more than scholarly analysis, particularly attentive to the nuances of history. But in fact religion -- as a strategic network of emotions, practices, and social alliances -- has held a vital historical role in what may aptly be termed American body politics: a system ensuring that some bodies are healthier, more beautiful, more powerful, and longer lived than others. While Christianity is by no means the only religious tradition able to contribute to such measures across space and time, Protestantism -- as the tradition that has most comprehensively influenced the course of American history -- takes a decisive center stage in this story. Like participants in assorted other religions, Christians carefully distinguish insiders from outsiders -- the saved from the damned -- and that concern with salvation plays itself out in numerous mundane ways. Intense concentration upon particular kinds of body work on the part of many American Christians provides a new way to read the politics of our cultural history and the crucial role of gender as well as more tacit, ambiguous, and intricate taxonomies of race and social class. Christian body practices offer, in short, a model for tracking the ways that ordinary middle-class white bodies have been tutored in the obligatory hungers and subtle yet stringent regulations of consumer capitalism. Lest we forget, the body -- whatever else it is -- is the material upon which diverse politics of exclusion are practiced, a point that the consumer culture of American fitness makes abundantly clear.

There are no easy remedies -- perhaps no remedies at all -- to the conditions promoting modern body devotion. Outside the explicitly religious diet and exercise groups, there remains very little that is demonstrably Christian about contemporary fitness culture, but that lack hardly renders it "secular" in any clear sense. However little they may realize their participation in a time-honored tradition of religious observance, more people than ever today are avidly pursuing a born-again body.