Material History of American Religion Project

R. Marie Griffith

Discipline, Diet, and Devotion:
Christianity and the Body in American Culture

Christians, long concerned with the predicaments of bodily existence, have endeavored in countless ways to discipline the flesh. From the colonial period onward, Americans have wrestled with such disciplines in ways that would, to all appearances, feel increasingly unfamiliar to their patristic and medieval forebears. While the religious critiques of abundance, from Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards to Sylvester Graham and John Harvey Kellogg, recall themes expressed by early and medieval Christian ascetics, the evolving fixation on bodily health and perfection represents a stark departure from the older emphasis on corporeal acts of penitence aimed at achieving mystical union with God. Even more discordantly, the twentieth-century obsession with slender, taut bodies and the equation of gauntness with sensual beauty bear only a distorted resemblance to the severe rituals of purification and self-denial that occupied Christians in earlier periods. Along the way, the kinship between body and soul has become drastically reconceptualized, with significant help from men and women professing Christianity but focusing as much on the "promised land of weight-loss" as on the eternal Kingdom of God. How have such mutations occurred? What does it mean that the body-soul preoccupations of believers have metamorphosed into a multimillion-dollar Christian fitness industry? How can reflective Christians understand this phenomenon, and what might a response to it be?

Griffith's work traces the history of Christian dieting back through American history, seeking a framework for explaining the theological and cultural roots of this phenomenon and the upsurge in these programs since the late 1950s and beyond. Practices pertaining to fasting, under religious as well as medical justification, will be explored in such thinkers as John Wesley, the physicians George Cheyne and Dio Lewis, and the popular physical culture writer Bernarr Macfadden in order to investigate shifts in the meaning of fasting over time, particularly its loss of devotional significance. In this way the project will tease out the complicated relationship between Christian piety and American culture in terms of diet and related bodily obsessions, analyzing such later occurrences as the rise of aerobics out of the clinic of a devoted Southern Baptist physician, Kenneth Cooper, and the pervasive religious undertones of American exercise practices. Plainly, Christian diet writers have not simply piggybacked on the wider culture of obsessive weight-watching but have contributed significantly to that culture in ways that have yet to be noted or explored. Thus the project seeks to flesh out a story about bodily discipline in the history of ideas while tracing the material enactment of these ideas in specific practices and communities of faith.

With a Ph.D. in religion from Harvard University, R. Marie Griffith is a Lecturer in the Department of Religion and Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University. The University of California Press published her God's Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission in 1997, and will publish the book discussed above in 2001. She has had essays appear in several books, including Lived Religion in America: Toward a History of Practice, published by Princeton University Press (1997). An example of Griffith's reflection on Pentecostal devotion is in an interview about the devotional use of prayer handkerchiefs. She has presented papers at numerous academic conferences.

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