Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Cultural Obsession #2: Our Bodies

If we're going to talk about things our culture is obsessed with, we've got to talk about our bodies.

It is a sad but true fact that more Americans are obese than ever before. This has happened at a very odd time. There are more low-calorie food options now. There are more places to work out. We know more about diet and exercise. We hear more reports about the long-term risks of being overweight. We are more aware of causes and triggers and solutions.

And we still can't stop ourselves from eating too much and exercising too little.

Then there is the other extreme. One cursory glance at prime time television or a magazine rack at your local Barnes & Noble will clue you in to how obsessed we are with "the beautiful people". This has prompted what one writer has called "Beautiful People Syndrome" -- the idea that if you don't look like one of the cast members of Desperate Housewives, something must be wrong with you.

Neil Postman has written about this in his book AMUSING OURSELVES TO DEATH. He laments how little a person's body has to do with his or her ideas. Television is a visual medium, though, and if the image on the screen is lackluster, the ideas portrayed will be diminished. He suggests that someone like William Henry Taft, America's 27th President, would never even be offered as a candidate in today's world. He goes so far as to suggest that television has impacted our epistemology -- our ability to distinguish between a justified belief and an opinion. If something is presented to us in an aesthetically appealing package, we are more likely to believe it true.

Now, of all the things we could say about this trend (and there are lots of things that could and should be said), I want to focus our discussion here on how we can take this cultural obsession and use it as a bridge for presenting the gospel.

What if Christians made a commitment to being more physically fit?

You could argue in favor of doing so as a proper understanding of our bodies as God's temple (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). You could argue in favor of doing so as a means of good stewardship (1 Corinthians 4:2). But what if we thought of physical fitness as an apologetic?

What if Christians maintained a balance between feasting and fasting, protected their diets, got plenty of exercise but refused to fall prey to Beautiful People Syndrome and its unrealistic ideals of physical perfection? What if we recognized that what Postman says is true, whether we agree with it or not, that our appearance often negates our message? Are we willing to compromise our ability to communicate just to prove a point about how shallow society has become?

If so, who's really being shallow here?