Is the Bible merely a holy book to be read during worship services and for personal devotion? Or can the Scriptures offer clues to better living?
Those questions came to the fore this week as Rick Warren, senior pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., released “The Daniel Plan,” a book that links diet, health and spirituality. The name comes from the Old Testament story of Daniel, whose eponymous book details the life he and his friends lived in ancient Babylon after being taken into captivity.
Daniel, the Bible records, refused the presumably “unclean” (for Hebrews) food and wine of King Nebuchadnezzar, asking for a 10-day dietary test where vegetables and water would be on the menu. “At the end of ten days it was seen that they were better in appearance and fatter in flesh than all the youths who ate the king’s food,” reads Daniel 1:15 in the English Standard Version.
Mr. Warren, who at one point said he’d gained a good 90 pounds over a 30-year period of ministerial work, decided the Daniel template was a good idea. In 2011, he and many of his congregants went on a diet — albeit not as strict as the Old Testament account — and collectively lost a reported 250,000 pounds, 65 pounds of which were Mr. Warren‘s.
The suicide in April of his son Michael caused Mr. Warren to engage in what he called “comfort eating,” according to several media accounts, and he’s working to lose some of the 35 pounds he’s gained this year. He said he’s lost 25 pounds so far.
While many critics commend the health results, bloggers and others are pouncing on Mr. Warren for both using the Bible as a health text and even for selling “The Daniel Plan” book and related items.
Kristina Robb-Dover, a Beliefnet.com blogger, attacked the Saddleback pastor for a “selfish” reading of Scripture, asking, “Is the story of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego really about what to eat in order to lose a few pounds and squeeze into that size 4 dress hanging in the closet?”
“Religion Dispatches” contributor Rob Goodman, writing in 2012 about Saddleback’s congregational dieting experience, blasts Mr. Warren for thundering past the main themes of Daniel: “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!”
Both Ms. Robb-Dover and Mr. Goodman ignore, it seems, some basic truths of Scripture. One is that it can be read on many levels, and there are many layers of application. This variety has been appreciated by thinkers and theologians going all the way back to Martin Luther and beyond, moving down to our day in people as diverse as Albert Schweitzer and Joel Osteen.
Many faith communities have drawn health inspiration from the Bible: Orthodox Jews — and other observant Jews — have long relied on the dietary rules found in Leviticus to order their lives. The Seventh-day Adventist Church, of which I am a member, promotes a healthy lifestyle for its members, advocating a vegetarian diet, proper rest, exercise and other good habits. And the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is widely noted for its “Word of Wisdom” that steers members away from coffee and tea and toward other choices.
To suggest, as some critics do, that there is no value in biblical examples of healthy living, or that other readings far outstrip a health message, is a lot to ask. For millennia, people have turned to the “good book” as a source of guidance in every aspect of their lives, from interpersonal relationships, to business, to education and, yes, to health decisions.
If anything, I believe Mr. Warren should be commended, and not condemned, for using his considerable celebrity and access to national exposure to not only draw attention to the American epidemic of overweight, but also to offer a workable solution.
• Mark A. Kellner can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.