OK, I’m going to break my normal blogging rules and respond to a comment. Phil may think my last post was the rantings of a grumpy old man (while I prefer to think of them as the reasonable musings of a concerned middle-aged man!), but as he is a friend and was nice enough to post a link to my post on his own estimable blog I will make a more considered response, which I’m afraid means this post will be unusually long…
Phil comments “You're right to bemoan our society when it calls evil good, but maybe not when it does actually call sin, sin?” Let’s tease that out a bit.
As a starting point, lets try to make a biblical argument for calling being fat a sin. While I think it can be done, I don’t think its that easy. I know – I’ve tried. Long, long ago, before knowing better, I tried to construct a biblical argument to preach against fatness, basically (full disclosure here) because I wanted to take a pop at some of the fatties in the congregation, and highlight the waistline deficiencies of some of my more mature colleagues. This wasn’t all sin on my part as I had a genuine concern for their health, but in reality I was reflecting my culture more than my bible.
‘Gluttony’ only appears in the bible in Proverbs, and there it is in the context of how to behave when in the presence of your boss, in order to keep in his good books. Gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins but while this is a helpful concept (which makes a great preaching series) it is not a list the bible provides. The bible does have rather more to say about greed, but this normally appears to be in the context of greed for material goods or power.
Another exegetical line of attack might be over the frequent biblical exhortations to be self-controlled. This indeed is a reasonable line to pursue, but it doesn’t do very much to help us in deciding when someone is too fat, due to an absence of self-control, or merely pleasantly chubby, for some other good reason.
Our culture regards fat as ugly and sinful, but many other cultures – including biblical ones – have perceived it as attractive and a sign of blessing. So we need to be careful not to allow our cultural norms to condition our exegesis.
Prove to me from the bible that to be fat is to sin and I’ll swallow it hook, line and sinker. Not sure you’re going to be able to do it though…
Turning from biblical exegesis to the cultural sort, I would suggest that we are living in a society that has a quasi-Gnostic attitude to the body.
Firstly, we view the body as evil, because ultimately it is going to kill us! Therefore the body needs to be controlled, and to an extent rejected. Our problem – we are told – is our bodies. So fat becomes sinful because it is a sign of our problem, and hence the exaggerated claims (I would argue) as to the impact of obesity upon health. It is this rejection of the body that is also reflected in self-harm, and gender disorder (check out this story for an interesting example of this).
And then, secondly, the body is at the same time worshipped, as the only thing that has potential to save us: “If I only looked like Angelina/Brad / lost 20 pounds / was six inches taller / had a bigger/smaller chest / Etc. then my life would be complete. Therefore I must spend far more on primping and toning myself than I give away to help the poor.” Where’s the sin problem in that equation?
The problem with Gnosticism is that it is idolatry. However it manifests itself, the body becomes the overwhelming object of our attention – it becomes our god. And that, indisputably, is sin.
In calling fat “sin” there are also a considerable number of pastoral pitfalls to avoid. Again, how do we define when fat is too fat? Do we have scales at the front of church buildings and test peoples body mass index, condemning as “sinful” any who measure over a certain point?
And how do we determine when someone is a sinful glutton rather than their weight simply being the result of some other issue? I have limited truck with those who claim their fat is just down to a slow metabolism – after all, no-one came out of Belsen overweight – but the reality is that post age thirty you are going to gain a pound in weight every year due to slowing metabolism unless you deliberately eat less or exercise more than you did in your twenties. So is a 55-year-old who is 25 pounds too heavy sinfully fat, or simply revealing their age?
Here’s another one – in my experience very few seriously overweight people are happy with how they look, so is calling them a sinner going to help? The question really is as to why they are the size they are. Again, in my experience its rarely due to gluttony, but more often reflects some other underlying issue – her husband doesn’t show sufficient love and leadership; he’s terribly insecure; she’s bored to death – which results in too much eating and not enough exercising. In these kind of circumstances it is difficult to claim the fat is sin, more that there is a need for redemption in other areas of their life.
Then there is the question of Christian freedom. For example, in my household we choose to eat butter rather than margarine, and have full fat milk rather than the water people call semi-skimmed. Give me a decent bit of meat and it’s the fat I want to eat – the crackling from a piece of pork, or the meltingly soft fat from a rib of beef. Why? Because the fat tastes good, and good taste is important to me. Also, I’d rather eat – say – butter, which the human body is designed to be able to digest, than some dreadful trans-fat spread which our metabolisms cannot really handle.
Because ‘fat = sin’ guests sometimes want to judge our eating choices, but that is itself a more sinful action than what I am eating! As a Christian I am free to eat whatever I like, without any sense of condemnation (Rom 8:1). Moreover, I am to do so with thankfulness (1 Cor 10:30).
And a final observation – it tends to be better educated, more affluent people who are thin, and while espousing tolerance as the highest virtue we all really want someone to condemn, in order to feel more righteous about ourselves. So the thin get to be patronising towards the fat, who tend to be poorer and worse educated, and feel good about doing so. Having a decent excuse for us Southern Englanders to look down our noses at Glaswegians might make us feel better, but I’m not sure its what Jesus would do.
What do you say Phil?!
BTW, for those with the stomach for it, I would heartily recommend a series of posts running on the subject of food on Douglas Wilson’s blog – its much stronger meat than anything I produce!
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