Seeking the Straight and Narrow: Weight Loss and Sexual Reorientation in Evangelical America

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Losing weight and changing your sexual orientation are both notoriously difficult to do successfully. Yet many faithful evangelical Christians believe that thinness and heterosexuality are godly ideals—and that God will provide reliable paths toward them for those who fall short. Seeking the Straight and Narrow is a fascinating account of the world of evangelical efforts to alter our strongest bodily desires.
Drawing on fieldwork at First Place, a popular Christian weight-loss program, and Exodus International, a network of ex-gay ministries, Lynne Gerber explores why some Christians feel that being fat or gay offends God, what exactly they do to lose weight or go straight, and how they make sense of the program’s results—or, frequently, their lack. Gerber notes the differences and striking parallels between the two programs, and, more broadly, she traces the ways that other social institutions have attempted to contain the excesses associated with fatness and homosexuality. Challenging narratives that place evangelicals in constant opposition to dominant American values, Gerber shows that these programs reflect the often overlooked connection between American cultural obsessions and Christian ones.

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Editorial Reviews

Harvard Divinity School
In this vivid and often moving study, Gerber juxtaposes two Christian groups that proclaim promises of bodily change. She shows how they borrow models and techniques from their secular competitors while concealing their debts. More poignantly, she narrates the ministries’ inevitable failures—and their awkward efforts to explain them away. Gerber’s book is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand Christianity’s loss of control over the appetites that were once considered its specialty.”

— Mark D. Jordan

Harvard Divinity School - Mark D. Jordan
“In this vivid and often moving study, Gerber juxtaposes two Christian groups that proclaim promises of bodily change. She shows how they borrow models and techniques from their secular competitors while concealing their debts. More poignantly, she narrates the ministries’ inevitable failures—and their awkward efforts to explain them away. Gerber’s book is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand Christianity’s loss of control over the appetites that were once considered its specialty.”
Dickinson College - Amy Farrell
“Looking in depth at two major evangelical Christian projects, Seeking the Straight and Narrow explores with sensitivity, respect, and nuance the ways participants focus on the problems of the body and its unruly desires. Gerber points out that the people she observes and talks to enjoy their new bodily and spiritual disciplines—not masochistically, but by taking pleasure in ordering their lives, finding a community to support them, and tempering what they had experienced as out of control yearnings. She also makes the fascinating point that through their complex dealings with the body, evangelical Christianity is in tension with as well as in cahoots with secular American culture. A thoroughly original book, it absolutely enriches our understanding of the significance of the straight body—in both senses of that term—in American Christian culture.”
University of California, Los Angeles - Abigail Saguy
“This is an engaging, informative, and beautifully written book. Drawing on participant observation, textual analysis, and scores of interviews, Gerber richly describes two different evangelical ministries—ex-gay and weight-loss—that each seek to help their members overcome what they perceive as excessive desires. Seeking the Straight and Narrow sheds new light on the evangelical movement, homophobia, fat bias, and the relative success of political movements that challenge these different, yet in many ways similar, stigmas.”
Books & Culture: A Christian Review - Matthew Lee Anderson
"Lynn Gerber is fastidious in her suspension of judgment, spending most of the book reporting and recounting. Seeking the Straight and Narrow is better than a merely sympathetic account: it is fair and charitable."
Gay & Lesbian Review - Heather Seggel
Seeking the Straight and Narrow is unique in its focus, treats its subjects with respect, and brings us closer to a world that most of us (thankfully) will never observe firsthand.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226288123
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 12/5/2011
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 296
  • Sales rank: 1,275,448
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Lynne Gerber is a lecturer in the religious studies department and research fellow in the Religion, Politics, and Globalization Program at the University of California, Berkeley.

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Read an Excerpt

Seeking the Straight and Narrow

Weight Loss and Sexual Reorientation in Evangelical America

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-28812-3

Chapter One


Every new speech about Christian sexual ethics comes out of a library of older speeches. MARK D. JORDAN, THE ETHICS OF SEX


Homosexuality and body size: members of both First Place and Exodus International were intrigued that my project studied both. For some, the two seemed worlds apart and putting them into conversation was meaningless. Others thought a great deal about the connections between the two—some because they struggled with both—and had personal theories about how they might be related. But for most, discussing their ministry involvement in the light of my project made them start thinking about the relationship between these issues that share so much in terms of feeling yet have such different relationships to historic Christian concerns and contemporary Christian realities.

My conversation with Sheila was an example. An administrative worker in a nearby school, Sheila was one of the largest, and one of the oldest, women in the First Place group I attended. Body size had been a concern all her life, and her internal struggle was compounded by a history of harassment that began in childhood and continued into her current workplace. Church was a place of refuge from this and other painful issues. A convert from Catholicism to evangelicalism, she deeply valued her faith community's acceptance of her without reference to size. She participated in other small groups in the church and felt that bringing God into her relationship with food might make the difference in her ability to lose weight and keep it off.

As much as questions of body size and eating caused her pain, and despite the ways her body made her a target for fat-related cruelty, Sheila felt that her experience was not especially difficult in comparison to what gays and lesbians experience, especially in church.

Sheila: In the Christian church homosexuality is such a huge issue. and I don't see them side by side.

Lynne: the church and homosexuality?

Sheila: the gluttony and homosexuality. I think they're two very separate kinds of things. But we certainly aren't condemned or ostracized like homosexuals are.

Lynne: What do you see as the difference?

Sheila: I don't know if gluttony would be considered a weakness and homosexuality is a whole kind of different issue, against the laws of nature and man and blah blah blah, you know. and I think people aren't fearful of gluttony, but they're very fearful of homosexuality issues. I just think there's a real big difference.

When I asked further, she told me of an experience she had in a church retreat.

Sheila: Well, you know, I did go to a conference once before this church began.... We were supposed to walk up to somebody and tell them what our biggest fear was. and the person that walked up to me says, "My biggest fear is ever being overweight." and I thought, "Well, why are you telling me?" You know, it's like these comments come and sometimes I'm just amazed. It's like, are you really that insensitive? I was just speechless and then I just walked away.

In this exchange Sheila recognized that sexuality and body size are seen as categorically different in the Christian context within which she attempts to lose weight, with fatness considered relatively mild in comparison. Yet her experience at the retreat reveals the felt potency of everyday fat phobia, where fear of fat is both so salient and presumed to be so widely shared that expressing that fear directly to a fat person is done without thought.

This reflects a critical difference in the religious moralization of body size and sexuality in these ministries. On the one hand, homosexuality is more widely recognized as a sin in American Christianity, even if the Christian tradition itself has been ambiguous about it. Yet, on the other hand, although that tradition has always had categories for sinful behavior in relationship to food, the question of what food issues are properly considered sinful is less clear in the contemporary context. The focus on body size itself as an indicator of sin, for example, is a modern invention and a contested one. The history of homosexuality, in contrast, has been formatively shaped by sodomy, a category of sin that has both generated and contained the moral feeling traditionally associated with same-sex eroticism. Thus, homosexuality is often understood to be a far graver moral failing than fatness.

Yet despite this formal difference, everyday moral feeling in the contemporary United States can rank these two issues quite differently. While many conservative Christians are concerned about homosexuality, it tends to be a daily moral struggle only for Christian gays and lesbians or their loved ones. In contrast, alimentary desire and food consumption, body size and weight loss, and their ongoing personal and social monitoring are more widely experienced struggles. Many, if not most, Americans monitor their eating, experience feelings of goodness and badness, virtue and vice—even sinfulness and redemption—in relation to their food practices and infer moral characteristics on the basis of body size and eating habits. Whereas moral approbation regarding homosexuality has been widely challenged and seems to be changing, the salience of diet, weight loss, and fear of fat is high in both American culture and its evangelical subculture. Thus, ministry members encounter challenges to their moral feelings about homosexuality, whereas feelings about food and body size are largely reinforced, or even cultivated, by those interactions.

This chapter examines this difference through one of the central categories the ministries use to moralize the issues they contend with: sin. The use of sin is freighted in the evangelical world. A deeply meaningful, highly charged category, it is useful for organizing moral feeling and directing efforts at change for people within the subculture. In the culture at large it is more complicated. The idea of sin has been foundational in the symbolic economy of the West in general and the United States specifically. But over the last century and a half, with the rise of modernization and attendant efforts to have secular categories supplant religious ones in the public sphere, the meaning and relevance of sin have been challenged and its affective power has been somewhat drained. Indeed, designating something as sinful exposes one to charges of moralization and judgment, which have little place outside the realm of religion. Thus, the meaning and use of sin in these ministries are complicated and filled with tension.

I begin with an inquiry into how homosexuality and fatness have historically been depicted in relation to sin in the Christian tradition. I then look at whether and how each ministry understands its issue as sin. This exploration focuses on ambiguities in each group's rendering of the sinfulness of its issue: in the case of fatness I look at whether or not it is a sin, whereas in the case of homosexuality I turn to what, precisely, the sin in homosexuality is. Having explored these contours, I then turn to the question of what it means for these groups to designate something a sin. Doing so, I argue, introduces the issue, and the person who struggles with it, into a discursive trope I call the "democratic economy of sins," which is structured by the oft-repeated principle "a sin is a sin." Comparing these cases provides a productive opportunity to examine how this rhetorical formation operates, serving different purposes and achieving different ends for each ministry and its members. The chapter concludes by looking at another sin that concerns the ministries: the sin of judgment. I argue that the democratic economy of sins enables judgment to play a significant role in mitigating the perceived harshness that accompanies designating an issue as sin.

Disordered Desires

Disordered desire has been a central concern in Christian thought and practice, generating efforts to redirect desire away from the body and toward the divine. The regulation of eating and of sexuality and the closely related issues of body size and same-sex eroticism have been two ongoing foci of that concern. The apostle Paul wrote on both issues when instructing the fledgling Christian community at Corinth on right Christian living, warning them of the dangers of eating food consecrated to idols and instructing them on the sexual compromise of Christian marriage. According to scholars, because of the bodily interface with the outside world inherent in eating and sex, both were seen as potential sites for boundary transgression and thus important sites for regulation.

Augustine's conversion to Christianity famously centered on his renunciation of sexual practices. A certain weight, he writes, tore him from God, and that "weight was [his] sexual habit." As theologian Mark D. Jordan notes, "Augustine's conversion is centrally a conversion to celibacy." In making confession of his journey since his conversion, Augustine writes of a struggle in which he was not so successful: eating. Food is necessary for health, he writes, and its intake should be limited to that which health requires. Food's threat is found in pleasure, eating's dangerous companion. "It is not the impurity of food I fear," he writes, "but that of uncontrolled desire." The only way to ensure moral safety in eating is to patrol the line between health and pleasure.

Ascetic practices involving food and sexuality were incorporated into Christian life by a range of mystics and monastics. While the meanings of these practices to their practitioners were (and are) varied, eating and sexuality were (and are) common sites of bodily discipline for the purposes of spiritual realization. Yet as Christian moral thought became increasingly systematized, sins associated with eating (gula) and those associated with sexuality (luxuria), despite their common categorization as capital vices or "deadly sins," came to assume different moral weights and invoke different penalties.

Gluttony has had a range of meanings and moral valuations in Christian thought. Gregory the Great, an early codifier of its varieties, identified five types: eating too soon, too expensively, too much, too eagerly, or with too much attention. Additional food-related concerns expressed in penitentials and other regulatory literature included food consumption and hygiene and the use of food to transgress social boundaries. Aquinas, known to be a large man, was concerned with food practices when they threatened to eclipse the love of God. "Lack of moderation" was his spiritual concern, and he saw it in both excessive eating and excessive fasting. Luther's depiction of gluttony focused on the body itself, distinguishing between two kinds of large bodies: the solid and the bloated. Earthly bodies, by virtue of being earthly, bore a weight that heavenly bodies would not have, but he thought that the fat body could be reflective of health and Christian virtue insofar as it represented believers' passive acceptance of both Satan's toxic feeding of all people in advance of death and the nourishing antidote of God's word. The bloated body of the glutton, by contrast, reflected pride, which puffed him past health and into sin. These versions of gluttony differed in their emphases on the fat body itself, with sin often signifying a manner of consumption rather than a body's size or shape. When bodily form was associated with gluttony, it was not uniformly large. The association of gluttony with fatness per se was effected by a range of cultural forces much closer to our own era.

Sins related to sexuality, including those involving same-sex eroticism, have a more complicated history and carried much heavier weight in terms of moral approbation and ecclesial and civic punishment. Luxuria was one of the earliest categories to contain homosexual sin. Used in early Latin translations of the Bible to indicate excesses of food, drink, and sexual pleasure, by the medieval era it was more closely associated with "venereal things." Aquinas cataloged sexual transgression with members of one's own sex under this category, its placement in his text and moderate level of attention making it seem a minor problem. Yet in commenting on luxuria, he stated that "sins against nature"—theoretically any sin but rhetorically linked to "Sodomitic vice"—are "an injury done to God himself," and thus, luxuria was a transgression of a greater magnitude than its location in his catalog would suggest. Despite the ambiguity in Aquinas's own thinking, the linking of a "sin against nature" and homoerotic activity gained considerable power in Christian thought.

One of the most important modern rivals to religion in terms of cultural authority is consumer capitalism. A consumption-based economy requires indulgence to thrive, and the burgeoning capitalist marketplace of the modern era gave Americans a plethora of opportunities to do so. The traditional religious virtues of restraint, self-reliance, and hard work were increasingly confronted with competing cultural messages urging indulgence, self-creation, and expression via consumption. This confrontation generated anxieties over the moral meaning of the market's pleasures, anxieties that could not be engaged directly if that market was to grow. Historian Peter Stearns writes that until the mid-nineteenth century, religion and religious jeremiads provided a cultural means to temper fears raised by mandates for consumption. But by the 1870s Protestant culture began taking a more permissive approach toward consumption, and other restraints were called on to contain modern excesses. Diet and homosexual sex, he argues, were two foci for such restraints.

The moralization of homosexuality has been a major stake in symbolic struggles both within religious traditions and between religion and secular society. Within Protestant Christianity, the question of whether and how homosexuality should be understood in moral terms has been deeply fraught, leading to divisions in many Protestant denominations. Those taking a more liberal position argue that homosexuality is not a sin and that the ethics of homosexual relationships are best thought within existing frameworks of Christian sexual ethics. Some even suggest that homosexuality gives Christians a valuable opportunity to test those frameworks and rethink aspects of Christian sexual teachings that cannot encompass ethical homosexuality. More conservative Christians insist on homosexuality's sinfulness on both biblical and traditional grounds. Identifying authentic Christian faith with a literalist biblical hermeneutic, they argue that biblical passages condemning homosexuality cannot be ignored, and compassion for those struggling with homosexuality, while possibly laudable, cannot be extended to the point of condoning sin.

Religious conservatives' conversation about the moral status of homosexuality is not limited to intrachurch conversations. Homosexuality has been an important point of distinction for them in their engagement with American culture writ large. For evangelicals in particular, insistence on the sinfulness of homosexuality has allowed religious leaders to depict themselves as guardians of and warriors for vital moral truths, fighting the licentious secularism that, in their view, eschews moral truth for bodily pleasure. Some with political interests have used popular discomfort with homosexuality to formulate a Christian social politics defined largely by opposition to it. Indeed, opposition to homosexuality has become a core component of identity for many evangelical individuals and institutions—an example of evangelicals engaging with salient cultural issues and developing an increasingly distinctive subcultural identity.

In the case of food and diet, the search for constraints that could compensate for the indulgences of the modern marketplace fueled the growing obsession with weight loss and food regulation and the stigmatization of the fat body and fat people. By the turn of the twentieth century, gluttony became synonymous with fat. With the decline of religious resistance to consumer capitalism, issues of food and diet took on quasi-religious dimensions, with body size serving as an indicator of character. "Fat became a secular sin," writes Stearns, "and an obvious one at that."


Excerpted from Seeking the Straight and Narrow by LYNNE GERBER Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Fat, Gay, Christian

Part One Framing Right and Wrong
1 Sin 
2: Health 

Part Two Making Christian Bodies
3 Change, in Theory  
4 Change, in Practice  

Part Three Accountings
5 Success/Failure 
6 Breaking  

Conclusion: Judgment—Religious and Secular

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