Monday, August 30, 2010

When will fat become a matter of theology?

Science gets in the way of the Baptists'* favourite whipping boy:
One of the most contentious issues in the vast literature about alcohol consumption has been the consistent finding that those who don't drink actually tend to die sooner than those who do. The standard Alcoholics Anonymous explanation for this finding is that many of those who show up as abstainers in such research are actually former hard-core drunks who had already incurred health problems associated with drinking.

But a new paper in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research suggests that - for reasons that aren't entirely clear - abstaining from alcohol does actually tend to increase one's risk of dying even when you exclude former drinkers. The most shocking part? Abstainers' mortality rates are higher than those of heavy drinkers.
The interesting thing to note in the above is not that heavy drinkers outlive non-drinkers, but the AA explanation: those abstainers used to be drinkers. To err is human, but so is to make data conform to your own prejudices. AA is no more guilty than Christians are in this respect.

To understand the point it is not even necessary*** to go to the Bible; all that is necessary is to ask why it is that the American Christians' opposition to any drinking stands in such stark contrast to a) the rest of Christendom, and b) historical Christianity. The answer is that for much of America's early history, pretty much everyone was drunk pretty much all the time. It has been alleged (based on a still-existing bar tab) that the 55 delegates to the Constitutional convention drank "54 bottles of Madeira, 60 bottles of claret, eight of whiskey, 22 of porter, eight of hard cider, 12 of beer and seven bowls of alcoholic punch" in a single evening, two days before they signed off on the Constitution. The amount of liquor they drank in colonial times was phenomenal, far more than we drink today. They drank at pretty much every meal, including breakfast. They probably drank (gasp) too much.  And that has consequences, in family, in health, and in society.  The result was that during the Second Great Awakening, the ascendant Baptists, Methodists, and other reformers formulated a theology that fit hand in glove with the reforms they wanted.  One reform was to deal with the societal wreck that alcohol was making; an easy solution was to emphasize the biblical admonition against drunkenness to the point where you get the 18th Amendment. In order to stop the damage of heavy drinking, they promoted abstention, which kills you even faster.

Which makes me wonder****, how long it will be until we formulate a theology of thin?  I'm quite serious. America is a fatassed nation, and the damage wrought to personal health by obesity is everything alcohol was and more. There are biblical admonitions that compare gluttony and drunkenness. At some point, there is going to be a severe and broad based***** societal reaction against fat, and I will not be surprised - in fact I fully expect - that just as preachers harp on demon rum, they'll harp on demon french fries. It's a simple matter of logic and time. Logical consequences eventually arrive.

No, this is not to say I think we ought to develop such a theology: the last reason to change your theology is because of society. But it's also the easiest. Almost as easy as making up reasons for why it's not your fault that people who follow your advice die early.

* This is not to single out the Baptists**, they have just been the loudest for the longest over this.
** some of my best friends are Baptists
*** or at this point helpful. I mean, it's not like Americans are the only people who have bibles or know how to read them.
**** since I do not believe that people, as a whole, learn from mistakes.
***** Prohibition was not the result of a few sourpussed Baptists tricking a nation, the consensus for it was broad, deep, and built over a period of 7 decades or more.

11 comments:

CJ said...

how long it will be until we formulate a theology of thin?

You clearly don't know enough Seventh-Day Adventists. Our "health message" is pretty comprehensive; teetotaling, vegetarianism, you name it. I've been preached at more than once that fat people are going to hell. Some won't take a fat pastor seriously.

When science seems to validate some aspect of the "health message" you hear "Ellen White was 100 years ahead of science! She must be a prophet!" On the other hand, when you hear of studies like this one "I bet the liquor companies funded it! I don't need science to prove my faith."

Heads I win, tails you lose.

El Borak said...

You clearly don't know enough Seventh-Day Adventists.

You are correct, I know hardly any. I did take one of their "free bible courses" a few years ago*, which was followed by a visit from a creepy older couple ("to answer any questions you may have"). That ended amicably enough, but was enough introduction for me for me to know I needed go no further down that particular road.

* along with those of the Catholics and everyone else I could find

Stormhound said...

So my being a non-drinker will shorten my life?

I suspect I can live with that...

Zion's Paladin said...

The 18th Amendment may have had a pretty good head of steam built up, but given that it was followed by the 21st Amendment roughly fourteen years after the 18th was ratified, they figured out pretty quickly that whatever problems the legal sale and traffic of alcohol had was nothing compared to the problems trying to restrict it presented.

Besides which, I've already seen the other side of the spectrum both personally and professionally *cough*stick-thin super models*cough*.

While you may be correct about a societal backlash against obesity, I don't think it will veer into the other end of the spectrum, given that there has already been public recognition of the dangers of being too thin. Or if there is, it will end faster than Prohibition did.

El Borak said...

So my being a non-drinker will shorten my life?

I suspect I can live with that...


This is the irony police. Please step away from the computer with your hands in the air...

Anonymous said...

I actually wish more pastors would preach about the sin of being fat. The Bible is really clear that gluttony is a sin (right up there with "drunkenness"), yet pastors are surprisingly silent on the topic. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that Christians love to serve donuts between Sunday services during "fellowship time."

CJ said...

The Bible is really clear that gluttony is a sin

This is 100% true. But being fat
!= gluttony. You cannot look at a fat person and tell whether they are a glutton, a repentant glutton who hasn't lost weight, or on steroids to treat a serious medical condition.

The Bible also says something about man looking on the outward appearance but God looking on the heart.

CJ said...

And of course, there are skinny gluttons.

El Borak said...

If I remember correctly*, the volume of food one ate only made up one of the five or six parts of the venial sin of gluttony. There was the delicacy of the food, its cost, how much the person looked forward to it, how fast they ate it... I'm not saying I agree with that Catholic definition**, but I do agree that gluttony is far more complicated than "fat."

* It's a sad commentary on me that I don't care about it enough to look it up.
** In fact, I don't.

Professor Hale said...

The Bible is really clear that gluttony is a sin

And yet is it surprisingly unclear on what Gluttony is. How much is "too much"? It is no wonder why most preachers would stay away from this. You will definitely not hear this in a Black church.

Which arbitrary definition will we use to measure your sinfulness?

Yet I have also heard the admonition from the pulpet about eating healthy, body is a temple, blah, blah. blah.

I believe there are enough real sins to work on without making up new ones

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