Faith that Heals, Faith that Hurts

How Different Interpretations of Christianity Can Impact Disordered Eating

Don't let food or your bodily desires tempt you away from God. Self-control is a sign of faithfulness. God alone can satisfy your hunger.

When I first began exploring the connection between Christianity and food, these were the sorts of messages I discovered. I had begun struggling with body image issues and disordered eating during my freshman year of college. During that year, I had also become Christian, and I soon started to wonder what my newfound faith said about my pursuit of thinness. The first few Christian resources I found seemed to support and even encourage this pursuit. According to these sources, food not only acted as a barrier to thinness, it also acted as a barrier to God. Armed with this new knowledge, I could now justify my attempts to control my eating and discipline my body under the guise of Christianity.

As I grew increasingly miserable in the pursuit of thinness, I began to question if this pursuit actually aligned with the God whom I had come to know. In every other area of my life, my relationship with God had brought tremendous freedom and joy. But in this area, my Christian faith seemed to be doing the opposite. In the midst of my confusion, I discovered Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating by Norman Wirzba, a professor at Duke Divinity School. Wirzba provided an alternative Christian vision of food and the body that understood these things as good gifts from God to be delighted in and cherished. This vision challenged the notions I had previously gleaned from both society at large and from Christianity, namely that my body’s worth was defined by its size and that food should be judged solely by its caloric content and grams of sugar. Eventually, Wirzba’s Christian vision became my own, and I stopped pursuing thinness and control. I embraced my body as good independent of its size. And, eating, which was once a source of immense stress and shame, evolved into a joyous activity.

During my senior year at Princeton University, I wrote a thesis contrasting these two Christian views of food and the body. While it initially seemed odd that two opposing views could emerge from the same religion, I realized that this distinction was the result of two different Christian narratives about the world and God’s activity within it. In this blog, I will briefly outline these two narratives and their ensuing implications for understanding food and the body. While these two narratives are not representative of every Christian tradition, they are common expressions of Christianity in contemporary America. As such, they help demonstrate how Christianity can participate in either the intensification or diminishment of disordered eating and body image issues.

I will describe these two narratives using the Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consummation (C-F-R-C) framework vs. the Fall-Redemption (F-R) framework. The frameworks name the stages each Christian narrative emphasizes in its understanding of the world and God’s activity within it. Crucial to the overall distinction between these narratives is the difference between the respective beginnings of these stories, which then informs how each story unfolds and also, for our sake, the implications each story has on food and the body. The C-F-R-C narrative begins with creation, a narratival stage which the F-R story diminishes. Importantly, the notion of “creation” here does not refer to a scientific explanation of how the world began, but rather the sort of intimate relationship the world has to God (1). Understood as God’s creation, the world belongs to God, depends on God, and looks to God for what it ought to be. Thus, God does not look upon God’s creation with indifference or opposition, but rather with love and delight, declaring creation to be “very good” (Genesis 1:31).

 

Fall-Redemption (F-R) Narrative

The Fall-Redemption narrative does not begin with this emphasis on the world as God’s creation, let alone God’s good creation. The result of this omission is that throughout this narrative, the material world is understood as opposing God and our immaterial souls. In contrast to the notion of creation, which understands God and the material world to be intimately intertwined, this narrative constructs a false dichotomy between the evil material world and the good spiritual world. The F-R story begins with the Fall, i.e. humanity’s Fall from obedience to God into rebellion. Here, the Fall is understood as the material things of the world tempting humanity away from God’s will. The story then moves into redemption, or Jesus’ saving work. In the F-R story, the material world constitutes much of the problem that Jesus must save humanity from. Therefore, in this version, Jesus saves us from the material world by giving humans entrance into heaven, which is understood here as a purely spiritual realm to which our disembodied souls will one day escape. It is in this immaterial heaven where the story ends, and thus where the present hope of Christians ought to be directed.

This worldview, in which materiality stands at odds with God from beginning to end, casts food and the body in an extremely negative light. Food and our bodies, which desire food, are understood as sources of temptation that prevent our souls from finding satisfaction and joy in God alone. Therefore, these material things pose potential threats to the purity of our souls and even our ability to enter into heaven, where bodies and food will be no more. In order to prevent food and our bodies from threatening our faithfulness and our entrance into heaven, we must control our food consumption and restrain our bodily desires.

This Christian approach to food and the body closely resembles the practices of dieting and the mentality of pursuing thinness, insofar as it treats food as an enemy, distrusts and restrains bodily desires, and encourages control over what and how much one eats. This version of Christianity can justify and even strengthen one’s pursuit of thinness under the guise of faithfulness. Given that the pursuit of thinness is often linked with disordered eating and body image issues, this religious justification can yield serious consequences.

 

Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consummation (C-F-R-C) Narrative

The Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consummation narrative offers a Christian vision of food and the body quite different from the Fall-Redemption framework. As previously mentioned, the C-F-R-C narrative begins with naming the world as God’s good creation. With God as the “world’s source, sustenance, and end," the world does not exist as a threat or enemy to God (2). Rather, from this Christian perspective, the world exists as an expression of God’s love, of God freely choosing to create and sustain that which did not have to be. The members of the world, human and non-human alike, are intended to reflect this divine love through their own relationships with one another. The Fall in this framework is not understood as the material world pulling humanity away from God, but rather as humanity no longer perceiving or navigating the world as God does, i.e. as God’s good and beloved creation. While Jesus is the agent of redemption in this framework as well, his saving work is of an entirely different nature. This version emphasizes Jesus entering into the world, taking on flesh, and living an embodied life—thus Jesus does not reveal God’s attempt to separate us from the world, but rather God’s desire to be united with creation and to unite the various parts of creation with each other. In this framework, Jesus’ saving work consummates in the reconciliation, rather than the separation, of God and the world. And likewise, this story does not end in an immaterial, faraway heaven, populated by our disembodied souls. Instead, the C-F-R-C story ends on a renewed earth, populated by resurrected bodies that will dwell in perfect communion with God and one another.

This narration of the world as belonging to God, sustained by God, and loved by God offers a very different theology of food and the body than the F-R story. From beginning to end of the C-F-R-C story, food and our bodies are part of God’s very good, beloved creation. Wirzba writes, “Food is a gift of God given to all creatures for the purposes of life’s nurture, sharing, and celebration" (3). This view of food challenges the pursuit of thinness and control in several ways. From this perspective, we are invited to eat and to see food as a good gift intended for our nourishment and delight, instead of as an enemy to be controlled and avoided.

Wirzba also discusses how food connects us to God the Creator and to the rest of creation. In the act of eating, we move through the relationships that constitute the world, e.g. relationships to the land, to animals, to the hands that harvested the food, and to the people with whom we eat (4). Eating thus reminds us that we exist in dependence upon God and the rest of creation. This reminder of our necessary and good dependence upon the world can further challenge conceptions of food as a temptation to be resisted, rather than a necessity. Perceiving the various ways food connects us to the world and to God can also help us move beyond our notion of food as mere numbers, such as calories or grams of fat. Far more than a bundle of nutrients or even a combination of ingredients, food is an expression of God’s love, an offering from the world, and an avenue for communion, joy, and creativity.

Finally, this Christian story that narrates the world as God’s creation can cultivate a deep love for our bodies, regardless of their size or shape. In the C-F-R-C narrative, God creates and sustains our bodies, God affirms the goodness of bodies by taking on a body in Jesus, and God promises to resurrect our bodies in heaven. From start to finish, this narrative maintains God’s perception of the world and the bodies within it as “very good.” The goodness of our bodies is not defined by how much we weigh or how well we fit into society’s beauty standards. God declares our bodies good, and this declaration is unchanging. This divine declaration can not only help us love our bodies as they are, but it can also help us trust our bodies. Made and loved by God, our bodies and their desires for food can be trusted and honored. This sort of trust encourages eating in an intuitive manner, whereby one honors signs of hunger and fullness and eats with joy and freedom instead of guilt and shame. Intuitive eating rejects diet mentality and encourages people to eat based upon bodily signals rather than numbers or rules.

 

Conclusion

Christianity can function as an agent of healing or destruction in regards to disordered eating and body image issues. A Christian framework, in which the material world opposes God and our souls, casts food and the body as negative temptations to be avoided or contained. This negative Christian portrayal of food and the body can intiate or feed into disordered eating and justify it as faithfulness. However, a version of Christianity that narrates the world as God’s beloved creation depicts food and the body as good gifts from God, to be received with gratitude and delight. This latter Christian narrative can cultivate a deep love for food and our bodies that can challenge society’s idealization of thinness and and enable us to eat with freedom and joy. When Christianity frames food and our bodies as expressions of God’s love, it can serve as a powerful aid towards the prevention and diminishment of disordered eating and body image issues.

 

by Megan Soun Thomsen

The author of this blog post hosts a podcast containing further information on the connection between Christianity, food, and body image. It can be accessed via this link: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/creature-life/id1436450021

 

References

1. Wirzba, N. (2015). From Nature to Creation: A Christian Vision for Understanding and Loving Our World, 20-21.

2. Wirzba, N. (2011). Food & Faith: A Theology of Eating, 7.

3. Ibid., xiv.

4. Ibid., 4.