God wants you to be temperate but could not possibly expect you to be svelte.
Growing up Catholic, I knew that what you ate mattered to God, who substituted fish for meat on Fridays in Lent and, I hoped, was pleased when I gave up chocolate that one time. But it never occurred to me that God might care how much you weigh until I went to college. In the dorm room of a Christian fellowship leader I saw a book called Slim for Him, which seemed to me an unholy mixing of categories. This just could be what it looks like to apply the gospel to every area of your life. But didn’t being this kind of Christian mean deliverance from worry about slimness? I also visited a charismatic women’s Bible study, where my cheerful host’s “casting out the calories” of the chocolate cake seemed of a piece with prayer time spent speaking in tongues and catch-up chat highlighting recent miraculous healings, no one neglecting the work of the Spirit.
Adrienne Rose Bitar is not surprised to find the godly worried about the gut. Bitar sets Christian weight-loss guides in context of diet plans that, she argues, trace our sickness to modern society. In her book, Diet and the Disease of Civilization, diet manuals are not mostly about diets but stories. Blockbuster diet plans devote fewer pages to the actual foods eaten in the system and much more to drawing a vision of a better you in a restored world. She characterizes these big-arc food stories, whether the Paleo diet or Michael Pollan’s dilemma, as versions of an American jeremiad. Diets “retell the narrative backbone for our national consciousness: a tragedy of the jeremiad lamenting a lost Eden, simmering with potential, and always grasping for a better world.” Whether pushing protein or granting grains, they lament the corruptions generated by “civilization,” but offer hope. Hope is why dieters keep buying these books, what comes available to anyone willing to change what is on their plate.
Most of the diets Bitar describes tweak the cliche that our (great) grandmothers could have told us how to eat properly. They look backward in our ancestry–but to much earlier parents, in a much remoter past.
Many diets popular in the last few decades hearken back to a primitive ideal. Christian diets recall the most ideal primitive of all, the garden of Eden. Bitar’s study of Christian diets is just one chapter of her analysis. Other scholars read religious influence on diets in a negative register, seeing these programs as the residuum of Puritanism, self-denial done sans devotion, or thinness prized in women in place of holiness. Building on R. Marie Griffith’s work on American Christian fitness culture, Bitar is struck by how positive recent Christian diets remain. Unlike weight-shaming versions from earlier in the twentieth century, recent Christian diets of emphasize pleasure over privation. Whereas Christian diets formerly charged the overweight individual with responsibility—sin–newer ones generalize the blame. The sin belongs to civilization, not mostly to a woman eating a muffin or a man hoping to wear an old suit to a high school reunion.
Worry about weight is not just a narrow concern, and it’s certainly not just a female one. Ted Haggard, promoter of The Jerusalem Diet, reports that “pastors are the single fattest group of people I know.” Real appeal supports Bible-times diets like Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren’s The Daniel Plan. Bitar reports that “religious Christians have some of the highest obesity rates in the country.” Varied causes account for this, perhaps because eating remains an “acceptable vice” in a culture harder on other vices. Whatever the cause, getting hold of one’s relationship with food might help move other purposes forward. Pastor Warren promises that, “Real food has the power to give you your life back and more fully engage in the purpose for your life.”
Devotional diets call Christians back to God’s creation, to eat God’s foods in God’s timing. Whether recommended meals are abstemious or hearty, lentil pottage or ribeye grilled rare, the plans re-educate the appetite to prefer what God wants us to eat. They emphasize the beauty of food and pleasure of eating it. George Malkmus of The Hallelujah Diet starts out sick but gets well through vegetables. Malkmus reflects that “God designed us to be foragers.” Civilization separated us from God but we can actually return to right creation, the way we are meant to be, by eating our greens. Eden was a garden, after all, so what people should be eating are plants. Especially raw and juiced. A follower of Malkmus’s diet exclaims, “[w]ith each bite, I sank a little deeper in bliss.” Health, wholeness, and holiness seem to come together when plant-based foods also please. As Faith and Fitness magazine proclaims, “for God so loved the world, He gave us sun-dried tomatoes, Honey-crisp apples.”
Rita Hancock, author of The Eden Diet, emphasizes the timing of eating more than the content. In a move consistent with other Christian diet advisors, Hancock notes that our bodies might be more faithful in following God than minds may be. Bitar’s take on this emphasis in Christian diets is provocative, observing that as “a direct conduit between God and the world, the instinctual body can materialize a vision of nature and God that the mind cannot think into being.” We should eat when we are hungry and not when the clock says it’s time for lunch. Bitar notes the inconsistency of this trust in the body’s appetites in contrast to Christian handling of other bodily appetites; sex, for instance, is usually not a realm where pastors advise the faithful simply to follow hungers where they lead.
Hunger is a meeting point between God and creation. Thus, as Bitar explains, “waiting until true hunger clears the pathway between instinct and satisfaction allows God’s time to reintegrate into the timetable of the body.” Our natural bodily signal lets us know when God wants us to eat. Of course, many species of hunger would be monstrously misconstrued as divine visitation. But for the believer dismayed by her own body, by its ungovernability and excess and griefs, such an interpretation may be compelling. This view reimagines a physical ache not at as punishment or insufficiency but gift. God’s gift comes not just in the food that satisfies hunger but in the want itself, as it awaits satisfaction. Feeling hungry is to feel already God’s solicitous attention. Bitar doesn’t call it this, but hunger here seems like a humble mysticism of the every day.
Bitar’s argument is interesting and timely. First, it suggests yet another way food might be moralized, beyond sustainability-minded agriculture and its indictment of the junk that manufacturers direct down our gullets. Second, it pays high respect to texts more often dismissed as frivolous. Even more, Bitar pays respect to people easily dismissed, calling the devotional diets’ narratives “imaginative and complex” and insisting that it is “important to listen to the stories” they and their adherents tell. This approach is exceptional, given current tendencies to vilify people who seem unlike us. Many people count their weight a weakness. It’s an easy target for someone hoping to mock the follies of one’s foes—look, pious plus-sizeds praying over oversized meals! By implicating Pollan and portly pastors in the same project, Bitar suggests a commonality not so obvious before. Here elites and evangelicals may be on the same side of a hope for something better, something we hold in common.
Food is important for more than nutrients, as I have insisted before in this space, and is rightly considered in cultural and even moral terms. If Bitar is right that diets are not mostly about eating, it could be said as well that eating is not mostly about body size either. Even sounder ways of ordering one’s meals come not through looking backward from dismay about the present, but accepting cycles of fast and feast in community. Christian communities have been good at this. This is especially evident right now, when many Christians sit within liturgical seasons of fasting as they anticipate the feast of Easter.