The Bible Is Not a Diet Plan

This is a story about weight loss. Four young men are kidnapped by an invading army, forced against their will to their enemy’s teeming capital, into the heart of the palace of the enemy king. Their old names are taken away. Their clothing is stripped off, and they are dressed up in the stiff, stifling robes of the foreign court. They are kept under watch, instructed in a new language, forbidden the worship of their fathers’ god. They are offered riches and power in the king’s service, if only they give themselves over to the life of the court, sit at the king’s banquet table and eat his rich, strange food, answer to new names in a new language—if only they forget who they were. 

Did I say this is a story about weight loss? Excuse me: Pastor Rick Warren says this is a story about weight loss. The story is the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Daniel, and out of the wealth of details in this two-and-a-half-millennia-old book, Pastor Warren has plucked one in particular as the centerpiece of his church-sanctioned diet.

Daniel, one of the four kidnapped Jewish youths, “resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine,” and chose to subsist on vegetables instead, ending up as healthy as anyone in his captors’ court. So, as Time magazine recently reported, Warren has “launched the Daniel Plan, a comprehensive health-and-fitness program.”

I can’t begrudge anyone whatever motivation they need to live a healthier life, and Warren deserves respect for using some of his enormous cultural capital to fight obesity—especially now that biblical values are suddenly synonymous with consuming fried chicken sandwiches and waffle fries. But I am in awe at the superhuman degree of willful blindness it must take to read a profound story of conquest and resistance, of identity and assimilation, and discover, at the bottom of it all… a diet plan!

A story, sacred or secular, is a test of our empathy: an invitation to enter into the trials and hopes of a stranger. And it takes a remarkable self-centeredness to deliberately reject that invitation, to mine that story for anything that helps us grow our portfolios or shrink our waistlines, and throw away the husk of the human at its heart once we’ve sucked out all we can use. We can read selfishly just as we can act selfishly.

So Pastor Warren’s Daniel Plan, and the ugly religious thinking it represents, ought to matter whether you see the Bible as sacred writ or human literature. Warren and his fellow apostles of self-help Christianity have a bible of their own: one in which the strange and foreign—and human—are stripped away, and the shallowly motivational is exalted; one in which the demands of 21st-century America are made the measure of these ancient texts.

To be sure, there’s nothing new about that kind of egocentric, present-centric reading. Maybe you’ve seen a painting like The Procession of the Magi, one where the biblical kings are decked out in the embroidered tunics, knee stockings, and flamboyant caps of the 15th century, the painter’s own time (as if it were inconceivable that these ancient figures could have dressed and acted differently than the world the artist saw around him, as if that world projected back deep into the past, or as if there were no past to speak of). At its best, that kind of willful distortion can actually be a tool for empathy. It can strip away the accidents of custom to get at a story’s essence; it can remind us that, underneath their odd names and outworn habits, the men and women who populate the story have fears and aspirations like ours. We can learn from them.

So readings, of the Bible or any other book from another age, can distort in the name of understanding. And then, worlds away, is the violence practiced by Warren. Rather than approach stories on their own uncomfortable terms, Warren pulls exiled, bewildered Daniel away from the king’s table and demands, “Tell me the secret to controlling your carb intake!”

Warren reads the story of Daniel turning away from the king’s sumptuous table and sees a diet. I see a young man turning his back on poisoned luxury in order to save his soul; holding himself aloof from a feasting court and eating a poor man’s food alone in order to let it be known that he and his god will not be compromised.

I see in his story the Indians forced into boarding schools in the American West, renamed, forbidden from speaking their language by teachers who vowed to “kill the Indian and save the man”; or Australia’s “Stolen Generation,” Aboriginal children taken from their parents and raised to regard themselves as white. I see generations of my European Jewish ancestors reading the Book of Daniel and weighing the equivocal rewards of assimilation, just as the book’s authors weighed them in another age, on the other side of the world. I see my great-grandfather, who prospered in this country but lost his name on Ellis Island; my family has lost even the memory of his real name.

Do Not Think About Job!

Of course, Bibles don’t come with answer keys. Warren can claim that reading the Book of Daniel for diet tips is no less justified than reading it as a moving human drama. And doesn’t Warren have a right to focus on Daniel’s food choices, especially as a way to motivate his flock? Of course he does. But when different approaches to a book are available to us, I’d suggest that we use the following standard: to practice the same virtues as readers that we strive to practice in the rest of life.

Just as we can shop or eat ethically, we can read ethically. And selfish reading is training for selfish action, because it teaches us to use others as means to our own ends. For all his good works, Warren is also using his huge authority to promote a culture of selfishness—and he is in good company among America’s most popular religious leaders. I’ve focused on his abuse of Daniel not because it’s unique, but because it’s typical of a dominant strand of thought in American religious life.

Do you remember The Prayer of Jabez, the Christian motivational book that sold nine million copies a decade ago? Its author, Bruce Wilkinson, urged readers to “enlarge their territory” by repeating word-for-word the prayer for success attributed to Jabez in the Book of Chronicles. Here’s how Wilkinson dispenses with all of the context around those magic words of prosperity:

“You’ll find [Jabez] hiding in the least read section of one of the least-read books of the Bible. The first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles are taken up with the official family tree of the Hebrew tribes… Talk about boring! The long lists of unfamiliar and difficult names—more than five hundred of them—are likely to make even the bravest Bible student turn back.”

Genealogies are “boring” and “difficult”—because we can’t use them. But they were recorded and preserved with such care because the strangers who wrote that book could use them. For the huge majority of human history, they were the measure of a man’s life. They bound you to your history and your land; they gave you a place among cousins, grandparents, sprawling generations of ancestors, in a rooted institution radically different from what passes for a family today. From Israel to China, generations of our ancestors memorized the names of their fathers’ fathers, chanted them, worked them into poems. Genealogies are a window into the alien minds of our forebears. But we cannot use them to get rich or thin. Wilkinson’s verdict: “boring!”

Or consider the words of another megapastor, Joel Osteen, in his bestselling Your Best Life Now:

“If you are struggling financially, say something such as, ‘Father, I thank You that You’re causing me to be at the right place at the right time. You are bringing wonderful financial opportunities my way.’ If you will live with an attitude of faith, then, like the saints of old, before long God’s favor is going to show up, and that situation will turn around to your benefit. Think about Job.”

No! Do not think about Job! Don’t even dare to think that your “financial opportunities” belong in the same breath with that towering work of tragedy in which God challenges a sick and broken man out of the whirlwind, saying, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth… while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” Yet Pastor Osteen wants you to read those terrible words and think about your “financial opportunities.”

So what, then, could we think about instead? I understand that the kind of empathetic and contextual reading I’m defending can also be dismissed as irrelevant reading. Warren or Wilkinson or Osteen might argue that treating stories first and foremost as stories means denying their relevance altogether. But the kind of relevance that matters here is a deeper one—and storytelling itself is an ethical act. It’s remarkable that each week, as part of religious observance, millions of us are called to engage through story with the unfamiliar past. The kind of stories that form so much of the Jewish and Christian writings are also our readiest means of human connection. Telling and hearing them is practice for that connection, and such practice is especially rewarding when we’re asked to connect with the unfamiliar.

Through these writings, a Jewish vegetarian can spend time with ancestors whose highest expression of love for God was to slaughter an animal. A feminist can spend time with families who saw tragedy in a failure to produce male children. A rationalist can spend time with generations who believed devoutly in the predictive power of dreams. A rich man can spend time with any number of prophets who happily owned nothing. A devoted father can spend time with a man who said, “If anyone comes to me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” 

Entering into those lives does not mean endorsing them or turning our backs on our own. But how can we even know ourselves if we look at the lives of others and see only a diet plan? As C.S. Lewis wrote, we are free to reject the past; but the difference between doing it humbly and doing it glibly “is like the difference between a mature and travelled man’s love for his own country and the cocksure conviction of an ignorant adolescent that his own village (which is the only one he knows) is the hub of the universe and does everything in the Only Right Way. For our own age, with all its accepted ideas, stands to the vast extent of historical time much as one village stands to the whole world.”

The books that Warren and his ilk want to expound for us have a simpler way of putting it: they tell us to “love the stranger.” But how can we begin to love flesh-and-blood strangers if we systematically reject and suppress everything in our reading that strikes us as strange? We might start, instead, by trying to love the strangers in these pages.

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Rob Goodman is a former congressional speechwriter, PhD student in political theory, and co-author of an upcoming book on the Roman Republic. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic online, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Millions, and others.