[Paleopsych] CHE: The Gospel of Born-Again Bodies

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The Gospel of Born-Again Bodies
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.1.21


    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
    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
    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 Amazon.com 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
    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.

    R. Marie Griffith is an 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).

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