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."
Nice try, but the reason we seek invasive, risky treatments is to get our miracle—so we can live a few years longer.
Some of the devout argue that we have a responsibility to be good stewards of our bodies. Yes, up to a point. But it seems clear that the height of discipleship is to put our bodies at risk for the gospel, no? If Paul's priority was to steward his body, I don't think he would have put himself in situations in which shipwrecks, beatings, and hunger were a regular part of the regimen. And throughout the church's history, saints (the exemplars of faith) end up sickly, thin, ragged, and exhausted, and die prematurely precisely because they "left nothing on the floor" when serving God and others.
I wonder sometimes if stewardship of our bodies—from keeping fit to living long—has become another way of trimming the hard edges off discipleship. So tonight, do I work out and burn some calories and lower my stress levels, or volunteer at the homeless shelter? Given our busy schedules, that is often the real choice we face, and sadly many today think of them as equal and worthy obligations.
Some of us alter diets and endure invasive surgery because loved ones have pleaded with us, saying they love us and want us to be around for a long time. But what love do these loved ones practice if they badger us to forgo that which would bring us joy unparalleled:
For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.
So said the apostle Paul, but his line of thinking is increasingly foreign to us.
John Foxe, in his classic Acts and Monuments, said that when Protestants Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley were being marched to their deaths under the persecution of Queen Mary ("Bloody Mary"), Latimer encouraged his martyr mate, "Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man."
Today he'd say "man up." And he'd remind Latimer that the point of our sojourn on this planet is not to live long but to live well.
Update: For more information about the study mentioned in this column, see Michael Balboni's comments at the Christianity Today Liveblog.An earlier version of this column referred to the wrong queen of England. Under the persecution of Queen Mary ("Bloody Mary") Latimer encouraged his martyr mate, "Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man."
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. He is the author of the just released A Great and Terrible Love: A Spiritual Journey into the Attributes of God (Baker). This column is cross-posted on his blog.
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