Being fat is not a sin

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This morning I ran across this article on Instagram: Everything you know about obesity is wrong, by Michael Hobbes and his team. Hobbes makes a startling point: that the blame for fatness – and it is very much blame – is still laid at the feet of the wrong things, like willpower and self-control, rather than increasingly unhealthy food systems and proven research that for most people, weight loss diets just don’t work.

It’s a fascinating article, and I encourage you to read it in full. Hobbes writes about the  culture of fat shaming in our society and touches on how many larger people have internalised this fat shaming, leaving most of us feeling lonely and dejected.

I want to add something to this discussion from a religious – specifically a Christian – standpoint. It’s pretty much encapsulated in the title of this post: being fat is not a sin.

Now, I’m sure if you asked most people, they’d say that no, they don’t think being fat is a sin. But is that how they act? From my own experiences in and around churches and Christians, the answer to that is “no”. A resounding no, even. At best, being fat is disapproved of – quietly and behind your back (although never so much behind your back that you could remain blissfully unaware of it). At worst, it’s seen as a slippery slope, because if you can’t muster self-control over your eating habits, it must follow that for you, it’s open season on other sins.

This attitude was brought painfully home in a book my Bible Study group started a few weeks ago (we stopped when I told them the book made me uncomfortable). In Priscilla Shirer’s A Jewel in His Crown (Moody Publishing), she writes the following:

Weight is a big problem, and many women are plagued by it. However, the Lord is showing me, slowly but surely, that my weight worries are really not only a physical problem. At least part of the problem is spiritual. My struggle with weight has taught me two very important things about my relationship with the Lord.

First, a continued struggle with weight, if it is not the result of some medical condition, is a direct sign that we have not submitted ourselves completely to the Lord. A woman who struggles continually with weight due to lack of self-control eating will also struggle with other self-control issues, such as immorality and anger. It’s not about our weight. It is about not allowing the Lord to be the Lord of our body.

For this reason, our bodies can become a very negative reflection of the power of God to do magnificent things in the lives of His daughters. How can we minister to drug addicts and tell them to be rid of the disease of drugs when we cannot rid ourselves of our addiction to food? It is so important for us to allow God to gain control of us in this area, and we can only begin this process by praying. We must ask God to forgive us our arrogance in assuming that he can’t handle our weight.

In her next point, she talks about how weight is tied to low self-esteem, and how we can’t have faithful sisters believing the lie of low self-esteem. But again, the blame – and it’s very much blame, with an added dose of self-righteousness – is laid at the feet of these fat women, and not the culture body shaming them into low self-esteem in the first place!

In essence, Shirer’s brand of Christianity (and she’s far from alone; see, for example, how popular Saddleback Church’s “Daniel diet” is) has adopted the body shaming culture around it – a culture steeped in capitalism, exploitation, superficiality, fads and discrimination – and justifies it by falling back on an attitude of quasi-asceticism that applies only to body weight and not, for instance, fair and just use of money, to name the most obvious shortcoming of this particular hive-mind. To Shirer and her ilk, fatness is a symptom of a deeper malaise of sinfulness. What she doesn’t say, but which is nevertheless heavily implied, is that it’s because it’s such a visible sin that it’s a problem.

I fear, at the heart of her writing is the very simple belief that fat equals ugly, and that ugly is bad for the church’s image.


I have a bit of a history with the concept of “visible sin”.

A church I attended, notable for its yearly Daniel fast, had an obsession with what I term “visible sin”.

To this church’s way of thinking, visible sins were things like drinking, smoking, foul language and living together before marriage. The church policed people’s Facebook accounts and shamed them from the pulpit for their “visible sins”. But by all accounts, invisible sins – asking for disproportionate amounts of money for ego projects, for instance, or being deeply controlling, judgmental, and narcissistic, or even adultery, domestic violence, pedophilia and misogyny, were smoothed over. The facade was what mattered.

If you’re someone who equates fatness with sinfulness, then yes, fat people must make you uncomfortable. Fat people and other visible “flaws” (flaws in this way of thinking) inevitably end up taking the congregational or societal flack so that people don’t have to confront the darker, deeper, invisible sins people can’t see (read: judge) in passing. The truly troubling spheres of behaviour.

I think, in their heart of hearts, the people who think fatness = sinfulness and belabor the idea that what matters in weight loss is strength of will (and therefore, strength of character), do so because it makes them feel better about their own perceived strength of will. At the end of the day, no matter what else is going on in their lives, no matter how deeply they sin, at least they’re not fat, right?


“It feels like the worst kind of weakness,” says one of Hobbes’ interviewees. In Christian culture, that weakness – the idea that you’re just not trying hard enough, that you’re being greedy or selfish or entitled or lazy – is made out to be a moral failing.

Although fat shaming has been a constant throughout my time in church, before this article, I’d never thought to connect it to my present alienation from institutional religion.

Has my fatness become the metaphor for all the things “wrong” with me, in a Christian sense? Has my fatness been connected to my character, to my character’s disparagement?

Have I been found fat, and wanting?


I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that if being fat is a sin, then being fat and female is even more so.

Fat shaming has a uniquely misogynistic element to it that goes all the way to its roots.

Culturally, fat shaming is shaming someone for the “crime” of being fat. All things being equal, fatness is only a crime because our current society equates fatness with unattractiveness, and what’s attractive or not is primarily defined and determined by men. One could therefore argue that fat shaming is shaming someone for being visible in an unapproved-of-by-men way.

Now, add to this already ugly cocktail the institutionalised misogyny of your average church.

In terms of Christian culture, if fatness equals sin, then fat shaming is merely sin correction; and if the offending fatty is female, then fat shaming her attains a gendered prerogative to also subdue her. Being fat, female and Christian in a mainstream, conservative church must therefore equal being in rebellion.

It’s hard for me not to wonder how many people have seen me as being “rebellious” simply because I was there, and I was female, and I was fat, and I was not sorry enough by their standards for any of it.


“[T]here is no magical cure. There is no time machine. There is only the revolutionary act of being fat and happy in a world that tells you that’s impossible. We all have to do our best with the body that we have,” dietician Ginette Lenham told Hobbes. “And leave everyone else’s alone.”

If we want to go around calling ourselves Christian, then Lenham’s advice must strike a deeper chord with us. The church has fallen into the trap of buying into the pervasive “beauty culture” of which fat shaming – a layered shaming in the church, as we’ve seen – is an integral part. It’s endlessly ironic to me that the same churches who would warn their congregations against the dangers of worldliness probably don’t realise that their conscious and unconscious prejudice against “visible sinners”, like fat people, are rooted in the very worldliness they preach against.

Because let me tell you, it isn’t rooted in God.

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Working theory: if you can sit through an entire meeting of Presbytery and come out of it still liking people, the work of the Holy Spirit is nearing its completion in you, my friend.

As an aside, I’m still thoroughly under construction.

 

Book review: Questions of Life by Nicky Gumbel

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Chances are that if you’re of the Protestant persuasion you’ve come across Alpha. Alpha is a course refined by attorney turned pastor Nicky Gumbel as an introduction to the basics of Christian faith. It’s presented through weekly workshops structured around small groups, Bible study and video lectures.

I’ve never attended Alpha myself so when I got a chance to read Gumbel’s primer on it I thought why not? It’s a dense, inexpensive book, aimed at those already considering or involved in Christianity rather than trying to win over unbelievers. As far as introductions go it does a good job: it covers all the basics, though inevitably some people will take issue with its slightly charismatic slant. Gumbel’s train of thought is easy to follow and he refers back to Scripture often. The book is peppered with his own experiences as he went from atheist to believer, which lends it some credence.

Altogether it’s a solid book. What it lacks in depth it more than compensates for with practicality, and I suspect this has more to do with the book’s target audience than Gumbel’s writing ability or own depth of faith. It’s a great book to be able to give to seeking friends or family members, and one I’m more than a little sad I didn’t have access to myself when I first found Christ. This is not to say that it doesn’t offer something to people who’ve been Christians for a while. Gumbel was the first Christian who convinced me to give “speaking in tongues” a shot, so I really can say that taking a “refresher course” was beneficial for me and my faith.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: Questions of Life
Author: Nicky Gumbel
Publisher: Kingsway Communication Ltd (1993).
Rating: 4/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 3.92/5)
The best feature of the book: It’s down to earth and practical.
The worst feature of the book: It’s a little dense at times.
Trigger warnings: None.
You’ll like this if… If you’re considering going to church, have questions about the Christian faith, if you’re a total newbie to the Christian faith or want to get in touch with your Christian roots.

Looking Lectionary: Proper 27A/Ordinary 32A/Pentecost +23

A look at the narrative lectionary reading from a prophetic perspective.


Reading: Matthew 25:1-13

“‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ Matthew 25:9 NIV

“There may not be enough.” We usually read this parable as an indictment of the unprepared virgins. They had more than enough time; they knew the Bridegroom was on his way; and as they hurried off to buy more oil, we see a lack of resources wasn’t to blame for their situation, merely unpreparedness. But Jesus loved telling stories inside of stories, and I think we find a deeper, more complex message here than “just” “you know the day and the hour”. This parable isn’t just about the five unprepared maidens, but about the five “prepared” ones too.

In the months leading up to the 2016 US presidential election, I was “friended” to a popular prophetic account on Facebook. I’d say that 95% of the people on that page were pro-Trump, and one of the reasons they gave was that Trump would be God’s “trumpet” – that he’d herald the beginning of the end, bring on the glory of the Lord and the final judgment. Quite a few of these people seemed to understand that Trump would be a terrible president, but – to their way of thinking – that would only hark on the end of the world all the more quickly.

I’ve never understood this obsession Christians have with the end times. Some people are literally excited that Jesus is coming to judge and cast all unbelievers into fiery damnation. This has got to be the epitome of insider mentality. I mean, whose fault is it that so many people are unsaved? We love to lay all the blame at the door of unbelievers. “We brought enough oil,” we say. But would we still be so excited about the day and the hour if we admitted our culpability in the decline of the Christian religion? If we faced the fact that people leaving the faith or not wanting to join in the first place isn’t God’s fault, or their fault, but ours?

We’re such schmucks, Christians. You just have to cast an eye over the news to see the often viral evidence of our failings, not just as Christians, but as human beings. In the parable of the ten virgins, can we really say that the five “prepared” maidens acted in a Christ-like way? If our salvation is secured (and it is, when we believe); if we are new creations in Christ (which we are, whether it feels like it or not); if we are living in a state of grace, mercy and love (check, check and check) just what are we so afraid of losing if others, lost as we ourselves once were (and often still are) get to experience the saving grace that we do? Why so afraid, Christians?

I do believe that the day and hour will come. I don’t look forward to it, because – graced as I am – I know I’m guilty of others’ loss. But maybe if I’m more willing to share my most undeserved “oil” with others (by giving them the benefit of grace, for instance), on some day, at some moment, someone will share their undeserved “oil” with me in turn, and we can go into the Feast together.

Looking Lectionary: Reformation Day

 

 

Reading: John 8:31-36

I won’t lie, despite being a Presbyterian, historical Reformation stuff doesn’t exactly set my very soul on fire, and I don’t feel I know enough to write a big old post about it. But I did have a thought – just the one, and just as well! It’s not particularly novel. It’s simply this: today’s Christian religion is as much in need of Reformation as the church in the sixteenth century. 

I know, I know, I write about this a lot; it’s the whole point of departure for my Looking Lectionary series. I believe the church is called to better the world, to be Christ’s hands, feet and heart, and that’s a hard feat to accomplish when we’re generally so compromised on the institutional level. We sell our indulgences as freely and happily as the Catholic church in Luther’s day did, trading our support, approval and censure for power, influence and wealth. Sure, the evangelicals who supported Trump are the easiest example to cite, and I often do! But all of us bear some responsibility in some way. If there’s a problem in the institutional and ecumenical church, it’s because we – the folks in the pews, or not in the pews – have accepted, cultured or allowed it. 

We often talk about needing a revival, but I sometimes wonder just what it is we want to revive. The general trend of Westen Christianity the last few decades has been down, not up, and that’s rooted in its own subset of symptoms. Luther didn’t set out to reform; he set out to revive and considered himself in line with Catholic church polity. But you can’t revive something so troubled, and his beliefs and teachings eventually led to a schism: a reformation for both Protestants and Catholics.

I’m reminded of a scene in one of the first few episodes of Preacher. Jesse, imbued with unnatural power, commands a brain-dead girl to open her eyes. She does so, but there’s no life in them, and she’s as vegetative as ever. I think we’re a lot like Jesse in this sense. We try to “revive” our churches, which is really just a way to try to attract new people to old traditions we’re reluctant to part with. The idea of revival is closely tied to the idea of resurrection, but resurrection and revival are not the same things. Jesus wasn’t revived as human/Son of God, he was resurrected to the Son ascendent. Perhaps the reason revival has been so thin on the ground in most places is exactly because we don’t need revival, but reformation and resurrection.

I couldn’t say what this would look like on an ecumenical level, but maybe we can think about some ways to do it on the personal level. My first thought is that we’ve become much too church-centred. We still see “church” as the building we go to, and we separate it from fellowship and the rest of our lives. We know on some level that believers are Christ’s church. Trying to figure out how to live this should be a priority. I can’t help but think that recognising God’s grace as Luther did on an individual level will reform how we think of grace in a communal sense. If we find ourselves in God’s grace, we’ll be emboldened to live that grace out wherever we go. That is church.

It’s only once we centre the locus of control on God and his grace that we’ll be able to reform the institutional church. How could we possibly reform the institutional church when we use it to anchor our faith, rather than building a personal relationship with Jesus and living that relationship relationally with others? Church used in this way becomes a golden calf we’re willing to compromise for and to defend even when it breaks from the heart of grace.

My second thought is that, counterintuitive as all this may seem, it’s only once we’ve claimed back responsibility and agency and individual faith that we’ll be able to reform our churches. Reformation begins with Jesus: who he is and what he has done. Reformation then asks us what we believe about Jesus, how we relate to the Godhead and how that relationship changes us and the world. It begins with our own resurrected/reformed lives. Believers preceded the institutional church by decades, but especially lately there’s been an antagonism towards individualistic faith. The fear is probably that left to our devices and without doctrinal standards and bodies of authority to castigate us, we’ll run amok. But it’d be foolish not to recognise that much of this kind of attitude could also be construed as the institutional church trying desperately to remain relevant and powerful, rather than the more benign motives usually attributed.

I believe we have a very real responsibility to take back “church” from the institutional church. It’s what Luther did in his day, and his task remains: as long as there’s an institutional element to the Christian religion, it will be in need of reformation. We love to say that “church is a hospital for sick people”. By virtue of what it is, the church is most susceptible to “catch” the disease of sin. We need Luthers who through love for the Lord, dedication to a relationship with him and neighbour have faith lives strong enough to diagnose and withstand those diseases when they pop up in the power structures around our churches.

As I wrote earlier, reformation begins with Jesus, and it continues when we become active participants in responding to his call to resurrection and reformation. This is not an easy journey or a short one. It’s the day-to-day faithfulness of individual believers that leads to the 500th anniversary of an event that changed the world, the church and all believers forever, and for the better.

Have a good Reformation Day!