Man Up, Christians
Most of us who like to rag on the absurdity of the health and wealth gospel are, I dare say, devout adherents of a sister faith: the health gospel. Take out wealth, and we're okay with being materialists. And I speak autobiographically.
Tuesday's Washington Post announced, "Daily Red Meat Raises Chances of Dying Early." That got this steak lover's attention. Apparently the National Institutes of Health got together with the AARP and conducted a Diet and Health Study. They started in 1995, and began following over half a million predominantly white people from the ages of 50 to 71. Not surprisingly, nearly 48,000 men and over 23,000 women died in the following 10 years.
What did surprise some was the finding that, taking into account smoking and physical activity, those who ate the most red meat—a quarter of a pound a day—were more likely to die during the study, and most of these died from heart disease and cancer.
Even an amateur scientist can question some of the methods and conclusions of the study (e.g., one can assume that diet and habits and genetics may offer more insight as to why red meat eaters in their later years are susceptible to heart disease). But despite my skepticism, I'll probably eat less red meat than ever (after already cutting back!). Because now every time I sit down to a polish sausage or hamburger, I will not be able to count it as joy. The New York steak sitting gloriously before me will not signal a gift of God but a temptation of the Health Devil and the Grim Reaper.
This latest study is one of many that have bombarded us for decades. The bottom line is that food of all sorts—but especially food that we have traditionally enjoyed the most, the lusty foods dripping with sweetness and fat—is now seen as a threat.
A threat to what? Well, longevity. Most of these studies are about discovering the relationship of a food or nutrient to death. Yes, concerns about disease and health are part of the package, but the ultimate concern is about extending our days. The goal of the scientific health community seems to be to flag foods that cut life short, because, as we all know, the idea is to live as long as possible.
Now, as soon as we put it that way, we begin to suspect this might not be a completely noble idea. That suspicion is heightened when we realize that what we do not see proclaimed in newspaper headlines are studies that show the relationship of food to happiness: "Study shows that people who eat red meat daily, followed by a dish of ice cream, tend to be more mellow hours afterward."
This fixation on food's relationship to death is but another sign of our culture's deep fear of death. The subtext of these studies is "Eat and exercise like a Spartan now, and be active and alert into your 90s—and with Viagra, anything is possible!"
This addiction to longevity is especially evident in the area of medical care—and not just among those who have no faith, but especially among the most devout.
A week ago, the Los Angeles Times reported that a new study shows that "terminally ill cancer patients were nearly three times more likely to go on breathing machines or receive other invasive treatments if religion was an important part of their decision-making process." This was true even though such treatments didn't improve a person's long-term chances.
In other words, it was the most religious who seemed to want to hang on to life the hardest, no matter the prospects. The writer, Karen Kaplan, bent over backwards to be charitable about it, saying, "And for some, extending life by days or even hours buys precious time for prayers to be answered." She then quoted the Rev. Percy McCray Jr., director of pastoral care and social services at Midwestern Regional Medical Center: "They're giving God every opportunity to operate as they believe that he can or will, which obviously leaves the door open for miracles."
In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
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