The 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 Atlantic, social 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.
…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.
So 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.
In 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.