[Paleopsych] Christianity Today: Slim for Him

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Slim for Him

[A lot of silly AntiRacism here, but it bears out what I said in my meme, 
"Imitate Christ, not Elvis!", reproduced at the end. That meme has not 
spread, at least not to Google.]

Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity by R. Marie 
Griffith Univ. of California Press, 2004 323 pp. $21.95

Several weeks ago my wife and I were driving home from Atlanta to
Chapel Hill. A few miles out of the city, my eye caught a billboard
featuring a lean young white woman pointing to her bare midriff.
The caption read, "Look hon, no scars." The logo at the bottom
directed viewers to the website of a local birth control clinic.
Baffled (as usual) by the subtleties of modern advertising, I asked
my wife what it meant. She patiently explained that it was an ad
for tubal ligation. I drove on, thinking something deep like, "Oh."

After reading R. Marie Griffith's Born Again Bodies this past
weekend, I saw the billboard in a new light. It is not often that a
work of first-rate historical scholarship opens our eyes to the
unspoken assumptions regnant in the world around us. But this
one--written by a Princeton University religion professor--does.
And no wonder. The book is exhaustively researched, elegantly
crafted, methodologically self-conscious, and argued with moral
passion. The volume marks a worthy successor to Griffith's
influential Harvard dissertation on Women's Aglow, published in
1997 as God's Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of

The scope of Born Again Bodies is intimidating. Though focused on
the American story, it begins deep in the Middle Ages and ends
yesterday. In the process, Griffith ranges back and forth across
the Atlantic, lingers among Puritans and their evangelical
successors, delves into the intricacies of 19th-century New Thought
partisans, ventures into the hermetic realm of body purging and
fasting zealots, surveys a plethora of Christian-inspired sexual
prescriptions and proscriptions, investigates the largely unknown
sideroads of phrenology, physiognomy, and soma typing, and finally
ends up in the vast subculture of the contemporary Christian diet

Griffith's main argument can be stated in two sentences. Between
the early 17th and the late 20th centuries, American body
discipline practices evolved from a ritual of repentance to an
exercise in self-gratification. Though a wide range of more or less
secular forces propelled the process, Christians in general and
white middle-class Protestants in particular pioneered that
development. A closely related sub-argument is that Christians
perennially have viewed the body as a window into the soul.
Occasionally the process worked the other way around. A few body
disciplinarians--usually New Thought advocates--felt that they
could change the mind by manipulating the body. Either way,
everyone, it seems, perceived an intimate connection between the
spirit and the flesh. When it came to eternal matters, Christians
saw through a glass darkly, but when it came to temporal matters,
they saw clearly. The body told no lies.

Historians generally have interpreted the evolving meanings
associated with rigorous dieting (and other kinds of physical
denial) as a process of secularization. What started as
mortification for sin, they say, turned into purposeful
renunciation to compensate for the guilt of affluence and leisure.

Griffith disagrees. She argues instead that religion has been
involved in those cultural protocols from beginning to end. The
story is an evangelical one, centered on the good news of
abstemious eating: go out, bring the (obese) sinners in, give them
the (lo-cal) salvation message, hear their (before-and-after)
testimonies, urge them to stay the (one-course) course, offer a
helping (though never a second helping) hand to the weak-willed. If
it is a New Thought story of gnostic discernment (there are
bariatric secrets to be known), it is also a Wesleyan story of
entire sanctification (permanent deliverance from the temptations
of the palate), and a Reformed story of divine sovereignty (God's
nutritional laws are non-negotiable). Above all, it is a
millennialist story of can-do achievement. Our destiny lies within
our hands. Just put down the fork and push yourself away from the

The meat in the sandwich lies in chapter 4, aptly titled "Pray the
Weight Away: Shaping Devotional Fitness Culture." In this chapter,
inner grace manifests itself most forcefully and unequivocally in a
lean, firm body, which stands as a mark of a disciplined life, a
holy people and, above all, right standing with God.

A sampler of the titles produced by the Christian--mostly
evangelical-fundamentalist--diet industry in the past half century
tells the tale. In alphabetical order:

   Devotions for Dieters
   God's Answer to Fat: Loøse It!
   Help Lord--The Devil Wants Me Fat!
   I Prayed Myself Slim
   More of Jesus, Less of Me
   Pray Your Weight Away
   Slim for Him

These and scores of other works, which sell in the millions, have
been complemented by religiously based support groups such as Body
and Soul, Overeaters Victorious, and 3D (Diet, Discipline,
Discipleship), not to mention a cornucopia of dieting
paraphernalia--including exercise tapes, work-out clothes, and
training manuals--and a never-ending schedule of seminars.

In her analysis of the postwar Christian diet industry, Griffith
isolates at least two problems that ought to trouble the
conscience. The first is the redefinition of the sins of the mouth.
Where once the emphasis was on gluttony (enslavement of the
appetites) or disordered desires (longing for a good less than
God), now it was on fat. Just that, fat. And so it was that Gwen
Shamblin, CEO and founder of Weigh Down workshop, could say, "Grace
... does not go down into the pigpen."

For Griffith, the second and more troubling problem is the diet
industry's race and class pretensions, intended or not. She shows
that the presumed audience was white, sustained by a "racialized
ideal of whiteness, purged of the excesses associated with nonwhite
cultures." It also was middle- or upper-middle-class, sustained by
the affluence and leisure that made costly diet foods and gear (and
for women, cosmetic enhancements) affordable.

Those presumptions were not value-neutral. Rather they carried a
normative edge that made the firm, angular bodies of an idealized
white middle class the rule of thumb for all. Admittedly, a few
African Americans, such as T. D. Jakes and Jawanza Kunjufu, joined
the crusade. But most of the leaders were white, and most seemed
unable to imagine that there might be a difference between good
health and (their notion of) good looks, or that economic
deprivation and ethnic tradition might play a role in diet options
and choices. "In ways both explicit and implicit," she tells us,
"white Christian men and women exchanged ideas about how to uphold
their image in the world, to sustain their place at the top of the
racialized class hierarchy embedded in American society and the
Anglo-American Christian tradition." (How the firm, angular bodies
of black athletes--ubiquitous in advertising for Nike et al.
--figure in this narrative is not entirely clear.)

Though Griffith does not say much about it, there is a Giant Pooka
in the story, and it keeps popping up in unexpected places. Bluntly
put, the diet industry, Christian and otherwise, is fighting an
unwinnable battle. Sociologists, she tells us, have found that
religious practice correlates positively with obesity. Christians
in general and Southern Baptists in particular are the heaviest.
Yet who is surprised? Whole Foods-style supermarkets might be
growing, but so are McDonalds. Indeed, I do not recall ever seeing
a fast-food franchise boarded up for keeps.

What's not to like about this brilliant and deeply earnest book?
Only this: Griffith makes Protestantism the chief protagonist. To
be sure, she shows that similar attitudes about body politics crop
up among Mormons and, from time to time, Catholics, Jews, and
secularists too. Yet she insists that "Protestantism--as the
tradition that has most comprehensively influenced the course of
American history--takes center stage in this story." This claim
raises more questions than it resolves. That a majority of leaders
in the diet crusade happened to be Protestants is undeniable. And
that the crusade often looked like a Protestant revival also is
undeniable. But I see little evidence that the sleek-body promoters
drew upon historic Protestant principles, or that they represented
the actual life of faith practiced Sunday-by-Sunday in countless
Protestant churches. By my lights, the true culprit in this sorry
tale is not Protestantism but consumer capitalism gone off the
rails. Once upon a time Protestantism had something to do with
capitalism's birth, but it should not be forced forever to bear the
guilt for capitalism's excesses.

I close on a personal note. Many decades ago one of my U.S. history
professors--a scholar well-known for his high-minded support of
progressive causes--casually remarked in class that President Taft,
"being corpulent, was prone to be lazy." Neither he nor the
200-plus students in the lecture hall noted anything amiss. But I
winced. As a lifelong battler of the scales, I suspected that Taft
had felt the same desperations I have felt. And since then I have
wondered about the many ways that I too might have diminished my
students' lives. Marie Griffith's marvelous book will make a lot of
people think twice. She has done what many historians aspire to do
but few actually manage to accomplish: make this world a more
humane place.

Grant Wacker is professor of Church History at Duke University's
Divinity School. He is the author of Heaven Below: Early
Pentecostalism and American Culture (Harvard Univ. Press).


Meme 033: Imitate Christ, Not Elvis!
sent 4.10.18

We went to a wedding this Summer for a daughter of an Evangelical friend I 
have known since my college days. (It was I who got him to meet his future 
wife, so I was indirectly responsible for not only his wedding but for the 
very existence of his four children.)

To my horror, the music at the reception was played by an Elvis impersonator 
by the name of Rick Spruill. Whether he is a true heir of Presley, I neither 
know nor care. Elvis was obnoxious when he was alive; his impersonator is 
obnoxious now. (I wish I had had the foresight to have brought along a CD of 
Bach's Orchestral Suites, called "Suites for Dancing," played in dance 
tempos on the theory that Bach intended his suites to be danced to. After 
the impersonator had left, I could have asked those remaining at the console 
to slip in the Bach, to delight, I hope, the audience.)

Anyhow, I protested to the Evangelicals there that Christ is King, not 
Elvis, but to no effect. Later I was talking to a Mormon friend, who is 
hugely overweight in a conversation about Mormonism, in which he repeatedly 
stressed the importance of winning souls for Christ. I asked him if Christ 
was King and if he believed in the imitation of Christ. Yes, on both 
accounts. Then I suggested to him that he was in fact imitating Elvis by 
eating himself out to Elvis proportions. He said I had a point, and I 
suggested to him that he think about this the next time he reaches for 

Sadly, to all appearances, he continues to imitate Elvis. But here's hoping 
that the meme, "Imitate Christ, Not Elvis" will spread among the Christian 
community and become the first diet method in all of history that works.

[I am sending forth these memes, not because I agree wholeheartedly with all 
of them, but to impregnate females of both sexes. Ponder them and
spread them.]

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