Recently Newsweek documented a phenomenon that Sarah Ball entitled, "Working Out With Jesus." Folks can exercise while praising God, so they work on spiritual and material bodies at the same time:
When Dawn Harvey leans back on her elbows, legs outstretched, rapidly pedaling, she's not just toning her abs—she's kicking Satan in the head. And when she and her Camp Springs, Md., aerobics class of 12 women stretch their palms to the sky, pumping them upward in cadence, it's not just for their triceps' benefit—it's a come-hither to their celestial inheritance. "Don't think about the pain—think about how much you love him!" screams instructor Melanie Kelly, over organ-trilling gospel music. "Y'all better praise!" This is gospel aerobics, the answer to your prayers if you're feeling feeble in body or flimsy in soul. It's hymn-singing, shoulder-bobbing, one heck of a workout—and it's happening in a musty church basement near you.
This focus on nurturing the physical as a method to bolster the spiritual is nothing new, and Marie Griffith's Born Again Bodies (2004) aptly tackles the place of the body and fitness in American religious history. Griffith's work traces America's body obsession to its religious origins and uncovers how the corporeal functions as a medium to interpret the soul. For those who haven't read it, get this book. Griffith's cultural history of religion, dieting, and fitness demonstrates the centrality of the bodies to religious people and how they, sometimes painfully, molded themselves to fit a celestial ideal of comportment. Here's my review of Born Again Bodies from the now defunct American Religious Experience website (which has many terrific reviews and now directs folks to our blog):
Americans are body-obsessed, which is increasingly clear from the prominence of billboards, television ads, and magazines proclaiming the benefits of a multitude of diets. In her Born Again Bodies, R. Marie Griffith wants to get to the bottom of this body obsession in American culture and its relationship, if any, to American Christianity. Rather than argue that fitness somehow has spiritual connotations, Griffith explores the connection between body and spirit in religious history to see how this emphasis on fitness might have a religious history. What she uncovers is that religion has been central to the cultural creation of bodies in America. Both Protestantism and New Thought placed an emphasis on dieting and the importance of the flesh for portraying the spiritual. Griffith writes, "devotional dieters," from both New Thought and Protestantism, "deeply care about food intake and physical health because they sense that the able-bodies-those who restrain their bodily desires and seek some degree of health-may more easily establish familiar, loving relationships with the divine powers controlling the world" (5). In other words, the body becomes the mirror for the spirit.
Her work, thus, traces the importance of the body in American Christianity from Puritans to the Oneida Community to Shakers to Christian Scientists to Father Divine and the Peace Mission movement to Elijah Muhammed and Nation of Islam to evangelicals. In each of these groups, both food and sex are central to their religious thought and practice. The body becomes the "text," which can be read to analyze the state of the soul. The importance of restrictions on sex as well as particular body types emerge. Despite their different views on sexuality, Puritans, Oneida, and the Shakers all believed in the importance of bodily discipline, not just as act of moderation, but as evidence of the soul's power to curb "somatic functions" (57). Christian Scientists used the body as a mirror for the soul despite their anti-material approach to the world because illness manifested on the body suggested spiritual problems. For New Thought and many evangelicals, thinness signaled spiritual purity often because the sin of gluttony was avoided. On the other hand, Father Divine and the Peace Mission believed that fat signaled spiritual abundance because these people often lacked food. In the twentieth century, African American evangelicals would emphasis thinness for spiritual as well as physical health. The theologies of these religious groups and movements became evident on the bodies of believers. What Griffith uncovers is clearly something that American religious historians dance around or possibly ignore: the body is battle-worn territory in American Christianity. Religious groups place restrictions and expectations on bodies, and sin and salvation are approached in somatic terms.
Griffith, however, finds something more nefarious in the emphasis on believers' bodies. She argues persuasively that the emphasis on slimness also contains a racial categorization in which American and Protestant ideals of beauty and salvation are wed to thin white bodies. Christian diet writers have ignored the socioeconomic reasons for obesity as well as the racial implications. She writes, "The purity of the ethereal spirit, so celebrated in Christian theology and practice, has persistently been constructed against the filth of the corporeal body, an opposition upon which the categories of race (as well as those of gender) have been assembled" (234). Other bodies bear the weight of "sin" because of the American Protestant dualism between salvation and damnation, the difference between white and black. Fat bodies, then, have become the symbols of filth and sin. With this evidence, the focus of secular American culture on "perfect" bodies has developed from the emphasis on the body as referent for the soul. Fitness culture is not merely quasi-religious devotion, but has religious roots in the Protestant quest for born-again bodies. Griffith's work demonstrates that by focusing on the body in American Christianity, issues of gender and race fit easily into the narrative. Yet the third arm of the "holy trinity" of American studies, class, appears to be missing. Attention to class dynamics of the movement, I think, would have complicated issues of gender and race that Griffith examines. To give Griffith credit, she does mention issues of poverty in relation to the focus on the body as well as the expense of dieting. A focus on class would have brought to the foreground discussion of the relevance of Father Divine's impoverished background for understanding his approach to the body. His movement focused on the sacralization of fat because his followers often lacked food while Christian Scientists, generally middle to upper class, had the luxury of food as well as the luxury of dieting. Class, I think, as well as race and gender is implicated in issues of salvation because slimness comes at a high price. If dieting (thus, the ability to stay slim) requires money, then salvation is bound along class lines as well. To be poor also affected the bodies of believers. For Father Divine, fat had currency for those who go unfed. Slim or stout, bodies, and the salvation they signaled, were impacted by different class backgrounds.
Overall, this book is a delightful addition to American religious historiography because it presents the centrality of the body in American religious life as well as the importance of gendered and racial presentations of the body. The body becomes the ground for interpreting these religious groups and showing how similar their stances were rather than highlighting the already obvious differences. Her mastery of the history also serves as intriguing way to present American religious history to students or to reflect on this history myself. How different would a grand narrative of American religious history appear if corporeality was the starting point? Moreover, studies of the body allow for both the study of the theology of religious groups as well as lived praxis. Born Again Bodies proves to be an insightful study about the impact of the American religious scene on secular culture, the importance of somatic functions for salvation, and the problems that arise when salvation and damnation are wed to certain body types.