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What Jerry Falwell, Zizek and Obesity Can Teach us About Our Evangelical Holiness Codes

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A couple of days ago (Aug 25, 2006), Chicago Sun Times religion columnist Cathleen Falsani wrote a piece entitled “Weighty Matter: Is religion making us fat?” In the piece, she recited Adam Ant’s lyrics in the 80’s “Don’t drink, don’t smoke, what do ya do?” She raised the question whether those Christian denominations that prohibit drinking and smoking were not in fact doing what was left to do: abusing food as substitute for these other prohibited pleasures. In support of this, Falsani quotes Ken Ferraro’s study from Purdue University that studied churches as the potential feeding ground for the problem of obesity and gluttony in North America. Published in the June issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, this study concluded (after accounting for several other factors) that some kinds of churches seem to encourage the problem of obesity. Ferraro in fact states that churches where drinking alcohol, smoking anything and even dancing are vices, “overeating has become the accepted vice.”
Now I come from one of those denominations. I minister under restrictions of no alcohol and tobacco. My denomination, along with others rooted in the old holiness movements of the turn of the century, still hangs on to the holiness codes that prohibit alcohol and tobacco for its clergy. I consider this to be “an adventure in missing the point,” to quote Brian McLaren, and I believe Falsani helps us see why. Let me explain.

If we prohibit certain behaviors as conditions of fitness for pastoral ministry, are we not really revealing the fear that we lack the character (or fitness) in the first place? If drunkenness and addictions that seek ultimacy other than in Christ is what we fear, why not name drunkenness and addiction as the symptoms that require discernment. Instead we prohibit all use as if to suggest we are hiding something. The total prohibition is a sign that we suspect we don’t actually have character formed in this direction in the first place. If this is true, we are we not really dealing with the issue of whether our clergy has fitness. We are just providing conditions to displace the lack of character (if it exists) to some other object that is safer, i.e. from tobacco, alcohol to food. We really do not have a test of fitness for ministry, just the means to obfuscate that the character may not be there at all.

Cathleen Falsani points to Jerry Falwell as exhibit A. in her Sun Times article. She says he exhibits the typical Baptist characteristic of shunning alcohol and tobacco yet overdoing on the food. The result has been numerous health issues for Rev Falwell. I have no desire to beat up on Rev Falwell. I want to be careful here about painting a broad-brush stroke across all of us who have struggled with weight. Please hear me. That’s not my point. I am someone who’s had food and weight problems. And I’ve had my own recent crisis with diabetes as a result. Rather, what I am trying to show here is how the holiness codes of my denomination and others do not address the issue, they merely reveal the symptom of the Real, what lies underneath.

Slavoj Zizek, post postmodernist (if there is such a thing) cultural critic, is famous for his use of Lacanian (post Freudian) analysis to help us see the ways cultures can manifest symptoms of the Real in ways that surprise and confound their own symbolic networks. I might just suggest a Zizekian move here and suggest, that in relation to our denominational holiness codes, Jerry Falwell is the symptom of the Real. That in the zeal of evangelicals to be different than culture, they have in essence revealed that nothing is really different. Instead the “hard kernel of the Real” has irrupted in the body of Jerry Falwell and the obesity epidemic in our holiness coded churches. As a result, the holiness codes and Falwell reveal the Truth. In Zizek’s words, “we overlook the way our act is already part of the state of things we are looking at, the way our error is part of the Truth itself.” (The Sublime Object of Ideology p. 59).

In the end, character is about the ordering of one’s appetites towards God’s purposes in creation through a purified vision of Christ and His glory. It is an orientation given through practices of worship in Scripture infused by the Holy Spirit. To have character as James McClendon says, “is to enter at a new level of morality, the level at which one’s person, with its continuities, its interconnections, its integrity, is intimately involved in one’s deeds. By being the persons we are (in Christ – my words) able to do what we do … “. (Biography as Theology p.30). If such desires are not ordered, if such desires are not integrated, holiness codes can only cover up the existing problem. The holiness codes then become a case of misrecognition. And as Zizek states, “the Truth arises from misrecognition.” (p.57). Thus we have obesity as an epidemic in our churches. .

More and more, the new generations cannot stomach these holiness codes. I have regularly met with outstanding candidates for ministry but who raise their eyebrow at my denomination’s persistence on its holiness codes for clergy. This is because these codes are not holiness. Instead, they trivialize holiness. They speak of a lack of character and virtue instead of one who does possess it. And so the lack of character may be subdued by the ideologies of holiness codes, but the “kernel of the Real” exposes its ugly head in our obesity.

The real question for us holiness denominations if we would ever be taken seriously by the postmodern generations (and our credibility slips everyday we hold onto to these “legalistic, and unbiblical” codes of behavior – e.g. there is no Bible verse prohibiting drinking alcohol, quite the contrary)… is whether we have the wherewithal within our doctrine and practice of following Christ so as to be sanctified in such a way as to be trusted with a drink or a stogie. The real issue that our denominational leaders should then turn to, concerning the fitness of its clergy, is the commitment to a holy life and what that would look like as worked out in a community. Obviously this refers to issues of so-called “personal holiness” (is any holiness personal?) like drunkenness, addictions that reveal our lack of dependence and prayer upon God including tobacco, pornography, gambling and food! But this should also include how we handle money, how we engage the poor, how we speak to our neighbors, whether we engage in conflict in holy and Christ like ways. We should not resort to legalism! To the postmodern generations, “no alcohol, no tobacco” speaks only to a religion of rules meaning people who don’t really believe what they say enough to live it.

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