An Orthodoxy of Obesity or a False Idol of Thinness? – by Katie Flanagan

 As children, or somewhere along our matriculation through maturation, we are taught (or at least lectured) to, “be careful not to judge a book by its cover.” This lesson is likely selectively applied throughout life. Today, I rarely do judge a book by its cover (I at least read the back cover and check the number of pages). However, I will admit to judging a wine by its cover. Attractive labels and clever names (along with inexpensive prices) often catch my eye when selecting my happy hour companion. But when selecting companions in life – friends, partners – I like to think that I do not judge ‘books’… people… bodies…souls – by their covers. And then I stumbled upon an article about a new book, The Daniel Plan, which made me think a little more deeply about the familar life lesson.

The book is written by Purpose Driven Life author and mega-church pastor, Rick Warren. It is about his journey up to and through  his new ‘purpose driven diet.’ Warren experienced his health-epiphany ‘on the job:’

On that particular day, I was baptizing 858 people… That took me literally four hours. As I’m baptizing 858 people, along around 500, I thought this … ‘We’re all fat. But I thought, I’m fat,” he said. “I’m a terrible model of this. I can’t expect our people to get in shape unless I do (USA, Today, 2012).

Initially, I cringed – first when reading the headline – Is this another moneymaking ploy for the ‘best-selling’ author/man of the cloth? Dr. Oz is involved…Then, I cringed again after reading the quote above. I am pretty sure ‘corporeal judgment’ is not among the most religion’s baptismal rites.

Placing my critique of the capitalistic endeavor aside, I began to reflect on the body and its place in religion/spirituality. The disciplined body does indeed have a place in some religions. Forms of Christianity, Monastic life, and Buddism uphold ascetic lifestyles. That is, a lifestyle characterized by abstinence from various sorts of worldly pleasures (i.e. food). Indulgence in those worldly pleasures is thought to impede spiritual and religious goals. Rituals such as fasting and abstaining from certain foods are routine in some religions such as Catholicism. These rituals said to emulate sacrifice and produce disciplined, devout, religious bodies. Those bodies are often idolized and celebrated as they physically embody spiritual ideals.

Among Christian denominations, Protestants did not get the memo on asceticism.

Obesity has become rampant among American Protestants. Nearly one in five Methodists is obese, according to a 2006 Purdue University study. Among Baptists, it’s more than one in four. Meanwhile, fewer than one in 100 American Hindus, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists are obese. Even when allowing for geographical considerations, the research found Protestants to be fatter than people of other religious backgrounds (USA Today, 2012).

So, is a pastor like Warren helping to ameliorate the orthodoxy of obesity. Or is he just worshiping a false idol of thinness. Would you care if your pastor was overweight? Is that person less disciplined, more susceptible to sin? Therefore is he/she less qualified?

I have wrestled with these questions. The FSU football team chaplain is not a skinny a man, neither is my own pastor. Do I care? Should I care? If I care, am I just judging a book by its cover?


7 thoughts on “An Orthodoxy of Obesity or a False Idol of Thinness? – by Katie Flanagan

  1. We are told not to judge others by their cover since childhood, and we believe that it is wrong to do so and that we are always doing it. However, it is not exact the case. People still care about the appearance. What Iphone 5, 6, 7……will be like? What will I dress to show my sexy body at party tonight? Which pair of shoes should I wear to go with my clothes? Some people enjoy it, but some others are just suffering from people’s judgments of their covers. Job seekers lose jobs for not dressing well even though competent and capable. Negotiations collapse due to one party’s improper dressing. Dishes delicious but with bad looking are shoved away. People keep away from people who wear ugly/stinky dressing. Colored people are deemed inferior. They are taking place, and nobody wants to admit that. Who can be sure that s/he never judged the other one’s cover?

    We have perception when we were born. We reach for objects with bright colors. It’s our nature. However, we also put them into our mouths to taste. By doing this, we are in order to see the truth of things and to see whether they are them just like they appear. It is human being’s another nature to advance, which breaks judgments to accept and respect others. Whether does a pastor like Warren need to deal with the issue of obesity? It seems that he has to. What matters most is that teaching people to “taste”,and taste sincerely.

  2. As stated, nearly everyone has been told to not judge a book by its cover by their parents, grandparents, relatives, or friends. On the surface, I agree with this way of thinking. One should not jump to any conclusions based on superficial qualities such as appearance/looks. Of course I am taking this phrase further than simply a book and relating it to judging people. In the post above, an interesting interpretation of religion with relation to obesity has exposed me to a phenomenon I did not realize on my own. Granted I am not someone who attends church multiple times per week I have had plenty of interaction with pastors and do appreciate the theme of obesity among specific religious affiliations. While some may consider it superficial to consider someone obese I have a different outlook. Coming from an extremely active family/lifestyle in Colorado I have always considered health and fitness a large part of my life (even though I mistakenly assumed everyone works out and enjoys eating healthy). Now living in the south I realize how the type of food and culture (and even religious beliefs) shape most of the community. I believe that people such as pastors in a leading position can influence their community members and becoming more healthy will not only benefit them, it may benefit the community and its members all together.

  3. Having celebrated Easter just yesterday, as a practicing Catholic who just went through 40 days of Lent, it is easy to see how the body is used in religion. Over those 40 days, I gave up eating fast food (a somewhat hefty accomplishment considering the extremely limited dining options in Tallahassee) and every Friday abstained from eating meat (another difficult task, even as a former vegetarian of 8 years). Even though I have been in different churches over the years, the priests have always looked somewhat “in shape” although, like Katie said, I have not been one to “judge a book by its cover.” However, after reading this post, I begin to remember the members of the mass I attended yesterday in Pensacola, Florida. Two priests resided over the mass, one younger and the other much older but both were in good shape (which may be misleading simply because of the garments they wear during service). I then tried to remember the people in the church. I attended with my cousin and his fiancé, both of whom are avid runners and often participate in marathons and triathlons. They also attend church every Sunday. Most of the other people I saw were also in fairly fit condition. While I obviously can’t assume the general church going population was in good shape because the priests were, I guess they can be influential in some respect. If the pastor discussed in the USA Today article, perhaps shared his weight loss experience in the Homily or even with patrons after mass, it would have to be influential at some level. If he wants to be a positive influence on the community outside of his vocation, perhaps he should lose weight without judging those who do not.

  4. A pastor of a church is not only a leader of his congregation but more often than not he is also a leader in the community. Personally I believe that as a leader and someone who has a great influence over so many that the pastor should set a good example and try to live a healthy lifestyle, and even when he may fail share his experiences with his congregation. Go through the process of losing weight or living healthy together as a family base, that way they all know they aren’t alone in what they are feeling or experiencing.
    On the other side of the argument who am I to say what a “good example” is? Many people have different point of views on weight loss and what exactly a healthy lifestyle entails. With that being said I think that any pastor that wants to have a positive influence on the community is doing a great service to his church.
    As long as the issue of weight and lifestyle choices (i.e- food consumption, working out, etc) is brought up in the manner of living healthier and longer and not for vain purposes I would support my pastor in his endeavors.

  5. The questions that are “wrestled” with in the above blog, are ones I am now thinking deeply about. I am very strong in my faith and have been ever since I can remember. The place that the body has in religion/spirituality is a complex, or at least to me. As a member of the catholic church, I am more knowledgeable about Catholicism than any other religion. There are times in the religious calendar that are characterized by abstinence from worldly pleasures. The Easter season is the best example of the obligation to abstain from food and alcohol. There are days where Catholics are encouraged to abstain from both and other days that include restrictive eating. Helping to understand where the body belongs in this context is the purpose behind fasting. When we “give something up” for Lent, we are embracing a form of fasting, an excellent spiritual discipline. Some give up things they have an inordinate desire for, e.g. sweets, caffeine, etc. Some people choose to give up sins (gossip, drunkenness, etc) for Lent. In this way, Lent represents a spiritual training time to overcome evil.

    To relate this back to the topic of obesity, learning to have self-discipline often times results in a thinner frame. Now that I think about it, there are only a few priests I have seen that I recall being obese. Even then, I never questioned their self-discipline or susceptibility to sin. This is great food for thought, no pun intended. I don’t think that a false idol of thinness is the case because the scripture we learn from only mentions overweight people to describe the rich and royalty. The body is used throughout religion/spirituality to represent sacrifices and obedience, providing others the opportunity to judge a book by its cover.

  6. Just other night I was watching the show GCB on ABC, (dont judge), and the storyline for the night was how one of the chracters Sharon did not feel sexy or pretty to her husband anymore. She she was depressed she turned to the Bible like a good chrisitan woman, and decided to take on a new task to make her feel better, and started creating meals found in the Bible. Well her husband started eating the meals and was losing weight as well as Sharon. She then realized that the food in the Bible was very healthy and lacked all the junk that we have in our diets today. She then created her own meal line called “losin’ it with Jesus”. Now yes as ridiculous as this plot of a television show sounds, it seems that the issue of weight is not only a part of our mass culture but also in religion, as Katie discussed. For some reason the Bible belt states are the heaviest every year it seems, when new research is coming out. Does that mean that all the preachers need to make it their responsibility to live a healthy lifestyle so that their congregation will too? Many would look at an overweight pastor dressed in his garb for church and think what a holy man, how righteous, a follower of christ, he must be a good person. But then look at him in everyday clothes, people may think unhealthy, lazy, diabetic, and lethargic. This shows that A) judging a book by its cover can only tell a little bit of the story in those pages, but it cannot tell you everything; and B) that if you are a leader in the community, then it comes with the territory to lead the people in the right choices. So for these communities with bad diets, it can not be done by just watching the biggest loser or hoping Dr.Oz can teach you something, but by getting up and taking action to help and epidemic that is it seems is taking the bible belt by storm.

    1. Fantastic topic. It was stated that “nearly one in five Methodists are obese”. My first thought was this: Is it because they are Methodists that they are obese, or because the majority of Americans and American culture is obese? I blame our over- consumptive society. In the Bible Belt obesity is a large problem, the culture in the deep south is dependent on fried food, fast food, soda and sweet tea. Unlike Buddhism and Judaism, Christianity does not have a firm bedrock in adherence to restrictions on particular eating habits. But getting to the question at hand, do I think pastors and preachers should be physically fit, or at least not obese, the answer is yes.

      It is stated in the Bible “Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity” Titus 2:7 Being a good model also means respecting the body God gave you and being a good example for others. If a person is preaching and teaching, it would be a large stumbling block for me if this particular person were not living the word he/she was preaching. The bible also states in Proverbs 25:27 “ It is not good to eat too much honey, nor is it glorious to seek one’s only glory” to me this means you should not indulge to excess and you should not give in to your own gluttony. I feel it is a pastor’s duty to be the best example they can be in relation to the works of the Bible, and in the bible it stresses everything in moderation. Wine and food are the main ones. I feel it is not right to “judge” someone by their cover, maybe they have a glandular problem, we can’t be sure, but on the majority that probably is not the case. It would be hard for me to gain understanding and knowledge being passed on by someone who does not take care of the physical body that God has given us. In my opinion it is disrespectful to be so cruel to your body, its not even an image issue, it’s a health factor. Excess fat leads to horrible stress on the heart, shorter life span, and serious health conditions! Is it “morally” wrong to be over weight? No, I don’t believe so, but for me personally, I would need someone who is trying their hardest to be an example of Godly representation here on this earth.

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