Will the Daniel Plan make you fat?

41pSLPuw0ZLThe Daniel Plan is the latest best-selling 40-day plan from the spiritual guru and one-man publishing phenomenon that is Rick Warren. Naturally, it comes with a book, a journal and of course a website.

Without getting too cynical about the juggernaut of the US Christian publishing industry, I have to say that there are some really encouraging things about this enterprise.

For a start, it is great seeing a conservative evangelical leader tackling the question of obesity, which an issue of epidemic proportions in the US, and is becoming an increasing problem here in the UK too. As Warren observes in Chapter 1:

Wow! Everbody’s FAT! That shocking thought kept reverberating through my mind one bright spring day as I was baptising 827 adults. I’ll admit it wasn’t a very spiritual thought for a pastor to have, especially while baptizing! But I was getting tired, since our church baptizes the way Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River—by lowering people under the water, then lifting them back up. That day, based on the average weight of Americans, I lifted more than 145,000 pounds!

(I love that opening sentence: only Rick Warren could write an opening like that.)

Warren goes on to admit that he, too, was fat, and locates that in the context of the health challenge facing his country:

That baptism was my wake-up call to the health issues in my life and in the lives of those in our congregation. I knew drastic changes were needed, so I began educating myself about preventative health. What I learned shocked me:

• For the first time in history, as many people are suffering from the result of too much food as malnutrition. While millions of people suffer from not having enough to eat, millions are struggling with the effects of being overweight.
• Seven in ten Americans are overweight.
• Diabetes, heart disease, and other “lifestyle-based diseases” now kill more people than infectious diseases worldwide.

It is perhaps not easy to grasp the significance of this in a culture where religion and social reality don’t meet as often as we might think. And this connection is particularly important for American Christianity; according to The Atlanticsocial issues are often not connected with belief…

The majority of America’s most-obese metropolitan areas are located in the Bible belt. At least one study has shown that young adults who frequently attend religious services are 50 percent more likely than their non-religious peers to become obese by middle age. Women who are Baptist and regularly read religious materials are also more likely to have unhealthy BMIs, another study found.

For example, if nothing changes in Mississippi, the state with the most churchgoers, in 20 years more than two-thirds of its population will be obese.

…and where they are, a common response amongst US evangelicals is actually to oppose social engagement:

More than half of white evangelicals say the government should not attempt to curb obesity.

rick-warren3So Rick Warren’s initiative here could be of enormous social and spiritual significance. More than that, I was encouraged to see (from the book) that there are some interesting spiritual points of focus. First is a recognition of the importance of the body in spirituality, an issue of real significance in the internet age where bodilyness is increasingly seen of marginal ethical importance. Second is the focus on discipleship done in community. Warren believes that this is such a challenging issue of discipleship that it cannot be tackled by individuals on their own, but needs the support of a group. (This is no great surprise to any who has come across the AA programme or, er, read the Acts of the Apostles—but it seems significant to me.) Third is the sense of a holistic life-focus; discipleship is part of all of life. I don’t know Warren’s previous writings to know whether this is typical or novel, but it is certainly healthy (in every sense of that term!).

But here is the odd thing about the whole programme: it is based on a mistake. Warren comments briefly:

Since I was preaching that day about a man in the Bible named Daniel who refused to eat junk food and challenged a king to a health contest, I named the program The Daniel Plan.

But as Lois Tverberg amusingly points out, the food Daniel rejected wasn’t ‘junk food’ and it didn’t make him ‘healthier’ but fatter!

You may not catch this in the NIV translation, which says that after ten days they were “better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food” (Daniel 1:15). But the Hebrew word that is used where you see “better nourished” is actually bari, which means “fat.”  The more literal ESV spells this out, that Daniel and his friends had become “…fatter in flesh than all the youths who ate the king’s food.” They hadn’t lost weight, they had gained it on his diet plan!

There is something fascinating going on here. For one, it looks like Warren hasn’t read the story of Daniel very attentively (and to be honest I am rather surprised that no-one on his team has pointed this out). More than that, the idea that being ‘healthier’ is shown in being slimmer represents the imposing of our own (Western) cultural categories on the biblical story. I would translate the phrase in Dan 1.15 as ‘good and fat of flesh’ in the sense of ‘good, that is to say fat’; as Tverberg notes:

A person wanted to weigh more, not less in biblical times! It was only too common for people to be bony and malnourished — hunger was a common occurrence. Being well-fed was a sign of good health…The biblical world, like the most of the world throughout history, struggled against hunger, not flab. To search the Bible for secrets for slimming down is to utterly misunderstand its reality.

And this springs from a mistaken approach to what the Bible is trying to do.

“If you take the Bible as an owner’s manual for how to live, we want to be sure we’re living at our top-notch best,” said Karen Quinn, a spokeswoman for the Saddleback Daniel Plan.

Of course it contains wisdom for living, but to treat the Bible as ‘an owner’s manual for how to live’, rather than a historically-formed testimony to God’s dealings with his people, is to make a category mistake. Tverberg again:

Of course God wants us to be healthy, and would be pleased if some of us went on a fast of vegetables to take off a few excess pounds. But it’s important to not to ignore what Daniel’s story actually meant originally, and extract lessons that it never intended to teach.

41A5J3M284LIn relation to Daniel, the interesting thing is that the lesson extracted here is just about the opposite of the lesson that Daniel appears to be teaching. The diet of vegetables and water could never, of themselves, make Daniel and his friends ‘fatter in the flesh’; this must have been due to God’s sovereign and miraculous intervention. This notion emerges as a central truth in the book; God miraculously intervenes not just in Daniel’s physical health, but also in protecting both his friends from the fiery furnace and Daniel himself from the lions in their den. These stories are then retold, in the second half of the book, in the form of (so-called) ‘apocalyptic’ visions—which again tell the same story. God’s people will be kept safe from the crushing power of foreign empires not by following the common-sense wisdom of the day, but only by God’s miraculous intervention. (The best and clearest guide to the visions, and their relation to the earlier stories, that I have found is in John Goldingay’s How to Read the Bible, though he declines to give this explanation in his longer Word commentary on Daniel.)

Perhaps it is not surprising that Western Christianity finds it so hard to read the anti-imperialist message of Daniel, and it is good to see the issue of health and diet being addressed at a popular level. But in fact there are plenty of resources in Scripture to help us with this—themes of satisfaction, justice and the rejection of greed, and even Paul’s drawing on the significance of the resurrection for our ethic of the body (1 Cor 6.14). I wonder if it is these sections of Scripture we need to listen to more carefully.

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10 thoughts on “Will the Daniel Plan make you fat?”

  1. The thing that strikes me from Daniel is his seriousness about purity and not compromising – 1:8 he resolved that he would not defile himself. And to me this is the key to the way he lived his life, demonstrated over and again through the book. A seriousness about living faithfully as one of God’s people amongst people with alien practices. It does seem odd to interpret it as a health contest about junk food. Having said that, I think Rick Warren is amongst the most inspiring church leaders in the world! Huge respect for the man!

  2. That’s really interesting, and to a large extent I agree. But the thing I take from your comment is the question of whether Daniel is actually about Daniel (and his example) at all! It seems to me that in the first place it is about God, and what he can do to save his people.

    The key verse in many ways is 3.18 ‘But even if he does not…’ God’s faithfulness is the key thing which should shape our response, even if we do not yet see it. This is much more important than anyone’s example.

    (Planning a blog post on this whole question in relation to preaching: do we preach on what we *ought* to do, or on what God has done and will do again…)

  3. A fascinating examination of how our desire for all things to be “biblical” can lead to superficial eisegesis.

    On an unrelated note: do you by any chance know why Goldingay didn’t include the material from “How to Read the Bible” in his Word commentary?

  4. Stephen, I have deleted your comment. I don’t have any problem with different points of view, even on fundamental issues, and this blog is open to all.

    But personal abuse has no place in Christian discussion, so please make sure you avoid this in future comments.


  5. David, Goldingay’s reason I think is that he wanted people to engage with the text on its own terms, and I think he saw the attempt to match the visions to (second century) imperial histories as historical reductionism.

    I don’t think I agree with him on this, as I don’t think that reading texts historically need necessarily take away from their metaphorical power. In fact, I argue in my thesis (which I am hoping to have published, finally, next year) that historically-situated metaphors actually need to be read in their historical context if we are to understand them.

  6. Well, as my previous comment was deemed to be abusive, how about this?

    Seems to me that Warren absolves himself and other overweight people of all responsibility for their obesity by positioning it not as a sin indulged but rather as a “health problem”.

    Medicalizing obesity suddenly turns it from a self-inflicted condition caused by greed and overindulgence into a disease. The emphasis shifts from “my fault, I shouldn’t have eaten so much, should I?” to “I’m sick, it isn’t my fault, please cure me…”

    At a stroke Warren eliminates every notion of personal responsibility and shifts the blame onto the shoulders of an illness that needs to be treated and which is, like all illnesses, “nobody’s fault”.

    Whatever happened to Christian notions of culpability, repentance and atonement? Does Warren bear no personal responsibility for weight gain that could never have happened had he not, of his own free will, absorbed calories far in excess of his daily energy requirements? Or is food not covered by God’s promise never to tempt us beyond our capacity to resist?

    Treating obesity as a disease instead of a self-inflicted condition turns the obese person from an active decision maker with the autonomy to do something about his problem into a passive sufferer who can only hope for a cure via the intervention of a third party. Enter Mr Warren and his “Daniel Plan”. Read three times a day for six months and the pounds will just melt away … and rematerialize as dollars in the good pastor’s bank account.

    Want to lose weight? Take responsibility for your own actions, repent of them and then atone for them. And by “atone” I mean eat less food and exercise more. Feel hunger and feel the burn. And then sin no more.

  7. Stephen, thanks for putting this in a more respectful way.

    I think you raise an interesting point, and make some important connections. I am just not sure that these are as absent as you suppose, either in Rick Warren’s work or more broadly within evangelical theology. He is certainly happy to use the language of repentance generally, and although I don’t think I use this language explicitly, I make some similar points to you in one of my posts on fasting here: http://www.psephizo.com/life-ministry/nine-reasons-why-you-should-fast/

    I think you would actually have to go and read the book to see whether he does in fact fail to make the connection you do. But there is an interesting connection between the sin of over-eating and sexual sins, which is that the solution is not to be more ‘earnest’ or ‘sincere’ in our repentance, but to learn to live by corporate, health-giving, patterns of behaviour. The importance of this for me is expressed in my having a Rule of Life which I periodically review, and which I aim to live by.

  8. (By the way, there is an issue in connecting the term ‘evangelical’ in relation to theology and constituency across the pond; I think I would find it hard to identify with quite a big section of what goes under the term in North America.)


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