Posted July 20, 2004
What Would Jesus Weigh?
In the Church, the Body's Back in Vogue
By Henry G. Brinton
Sunday, July 18, 2004; Page B01
Early on a Sunday morning in New York last November, I was among several hundred people crowded into a large tent for prayers, singing, Scripture-reading and Holy Communion. We were a diverse group in age, race and denomination, full of enthusiasm and nervous energy. But unlike your average Sunday morning churchgoers, we were all dressed in running clothes. The preacher encouraged us to pray for everyone we passed on the course that morning, and for everyone who passed us. Then we went out and ran 26.2 miles.
That interdenominational worship service was held before the start of the New York City Marathon, and it served as a wake-up call for me. For years, the Christian faith I embrace and proclaim had focused on the soul, and had seen the flesh as something less important -- sometimes even totally depraved. But that morning I caught sight of a broad-based movement that is seeking to reclaim the ancient truth that spirituality involves more than just the spirit -- it also includes the body.
Suddenly we have churches offering "Christian Yoga," which presents elements of the Hindu practice of hatha yoga in an intentionally Christ-centered setting. Others feature weight-loss classes with names like "Jesus Is the Weigh" and "Weigh Down Workshop" (which has been offered in at least 10,000 churches), and book publishers are turning out titles such as "The Maker's Diet," outlining a "Biblically correct" eating plan, and "Honoring the Body," which offers a series of meditations on bathing, clothes, eating and, yes, having sex. While some of this is just a fad and a reflection of our weight-, diet- and sex-obsessed culture -- and thus an attractive way to expand church membership and sell books -- I believe it also reflects a very positive development in religious thought. After 2,000 years of being largely separated, spirit and body are finally coming back together.
Neither Jesus nor the Jews wanted this split to exist, but a group of Greek thinkers in the early church introduced a dualistic philosophy that had a negative view of the body and a positive view of the spirit. Later theologians developed this theme: Saint Augustine believed that the soul makes war with the body, and the Protestant reformer John Calvin saw earthly human existence as "a rottenness and a worm." But recently, theologians and religious scholars have rediscovered the value of the flesh. No less an authority than Pope John Paul II has given a series of strikingly positive talks on the theology of the body.
There's ample precedent for this. Jesus, like his Jewish colleagues, saw the flesh as a good gift of God, and he rejoiced in the pleasures of touch and taste and other bodily sensations. "From the beginning Christianity has been an incarnational faith -- 'the Word became flesh'," says my Catholic friend Bill Parent, a priest at Mount Saint Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., "which means that there is something fundamentally good about our human flesh."
Today, people are more and more eager to make a connection between body and spirit, and many are pursuing this goal through diet and exercise. My marathon training has become a running meditation for me, and I have been amazed by the clarity of thought (along with the occasional agony of the body) that I experience during my workouts. The exercise cuts through the clutter of life and offers the gift of simplicity -- if only for a few hours a week. There are no phones to answer, no bills to pay, no sermons to write -- only the path that lies ahead. I have come to love the freedom running provides to think and dream and problem-solve, and I find myself becoming tense and irritable when the opportunity to exercise is taken away from me.
Long runs with parishioners have led to some heart-to-heart conversations that might not have occurred at any other time, and I have found myself growing closer to these church members through the pursuit of shared athletic goals. Mike Watson, a member of Fairfax Presbyterian who once led me up Sugarloaf Mountain in a grueling training run, appreciates the chance running gives him to "observe and be thankful for the nature God gave us and the ability we have to get out and move about." And Bill Parent has used his training runs as a chance to recite the rosary, transforming his running into a cardiovascular religious discipline.
One of the mistakes we've made in religious circles is to define "salvation" entirely in terms of life after death, when in fact the word can describe health and wholeness in this life as well. A Germantown-based ministry called Body & Soul has a holistic mission of promoting physical discipline, spiritual growth and evangelism through exercise. It conducts classes in aerobics and strength training set to Christian music, and advertises itself as the place "where faith and fitness meet." Created by aerobics instructor Jeannie Blocher in 1981, Body & Soul has grown to include classes in more than 30 states and 15 foreign countries.
The reunion of spirit and body carries with it the possibility of integrity -- that is, the bringing together of different parts into a unified whole. As human beings, we long to be complete and undivided, enjoying integrity as physical, emotional, intellectual, sexual and spiritual creatures. But there is much in life, in us and around us, that creates division and shatters this unity. One reason Dan Brown's book "The Da Vinci Code" has become such a hit is because it tells a story -- fictional though it may be -- of a spiritual movement that portrays the body and sexuality in a very positive light.
Such perspectives are popping up even in preaching. Last year, Diana Butler Bass, a senior research fellow at Virginia Theological Seminary, gave a Holy Week sermon in a large St. Louis church. Her message focused on Jesus washing his disciples' feet, and she likened Jesus's words, "unless I wash you" (John 13:8), to new lovers bathing together. "When I used the word 'lover' from the pulpit," she tells me, "you could have heard a pin drop." She thought this comparison would drive church members to the exits, but the exact opposite happened -- they remained glued to their seats, and many were so moved that they began to weep. "Folks had never thought of Jesus physically touching their bodies," she says. "I'm still getting e-mail about it."
It would be wrong, however, to ignore the dangers that can arise from an excessive focus on the flesh. Integrity of body and spirit is healthy, but idolatry of the body is not. My colleague Gene McAfee, a United Church of Christ pastor in Ohio, observes that "body consciousness is very much media-driven, for males as well as for females." He told me about his recent conversation with a young evangelical friend who talked about the shopping trip he'd made that day to restock his bathroom with all sorts of hair and body gels, rubs, lotions, facials, toners and the like.
This raises the question of what really motivates participation in Christian Yoga, Jesus Is the Weigh and the New York City Marathon. Is it a desire to honor God, or a hunger to look hot? Even the most honorable religious movements can become corrupted by the narcissism prevalent in our culture. "Diet and exercise should glorify God through good stewardship of the physical gifts he has given us," says Bill Parent. "The danger is that they can become self-centered, self-serving ways of glorifying ourselves." There is always a risk, in church exercise programs, that the focus will shift from worship of God to worship of the "perfect bodies" presented by the entertainment, dieting and advertising industries.
Moreover, as Gene McAfee points out with concern, it's chiefly only one level of our society -- the relatively affluent and well-educated part -- that is focused on diet and exercise (not to mention cosmetic surgery and gastric stapling), while the poor and less-educated part is sliding deeper into physical neglect. Bad food, tobacco, alcohol, drugs, disease and violence are taking a serious toll on lower-class white, black and Hispanic bodies. Fortunately, there is a movement underway to incorporate health ministries into many African American churches. John K. Jenkins Sr., pastor of First Baptist Church of Glenarden in Landover, tells me that his church's "Health and Wellness" group is promoting health fairs, monthly blood-pressure screenings, eye tests, nutrition classes, sickle-cell screening and exercise classes, including the Weigh Down program.
I must admit that my own motivations for exercising are mixed, as I enjoy both the spiritual and physical benefits it confers. Sure, I am grateful for the religious insights I have gained on the running trail, but I also have to confess that I take pleaure in keeping my weight down and shaving a few minutes off my marathon time each year. God vs. self, integrity vs. idolatry -- it's a constant struggle. But on balance, I believe the incorporation of the body into spirituality is a positive development, and I hope that it continues to spread throughout our communities of faith.
So my running, with its physical and spiritual benefits, will continue, and I will try to keep my narcissism under control. The body is simply too important to ignore as I try to figure out what it means to live with integrity. While worship on Sunday mornings is important to spiritual growth, so is exercise on Wednesday mornings.
Maybe you'll see me on the W&OD trail, offering up a prayer or two to Saint Endorphin.
Author's e-mail: HGBrinton@aol.com