“The Bible Is Not a Self-Help Book” or “Please Stop…”

Rob Goodman recently wrote an excellent article critiquing Rick Warren, “Smiley” Osteen, and the like for their “self-help” theology.  The main instigation for the article was Rick Warren’s new “Daniel diet” based off of the Daniel story from the Older Testament.

Yeah, that guy who fell into the lion’s den.

Warren supposedly mined the depths of scripture to come up with this plan loosely taken from the section of Daniel where the book’s title character refuses to eat the king’s food in their place of captivity (thereby avoiding the appearance of consenting to the godless ways of his captors).

It’s a good story.  And it may actually hold some diet advice…for lions.

But, as Goodman points out, it’s a story about identity and resistance and trust.  Not about dieting.

So why is Warren using it as a diet guide?

Warren plays into what I think is one of the most dangerous trends in Christianity that has still, inexplicably, continued since the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment did wonderful things for humanity in many ways.  It also has some negative consequences, one of the chief ones being that we now only see something as “truth” if it correlates to “fact.”

I’ll go out on a rhetorical limb here and say that the statement, ” ‘Truth’ and ‘fact’ are always synonymous,” is simply…not true.

But, in Warren’s view the two must be the same, which means that the Bible must be “fact” and the home of all fact, or else the authority of the Bible is laid to waste.  Basically, it’s a story of the Christian who rails against the Enlightenment because of what it has done to the authority of the religious community thereby perpetuating Enlightenment thinking by buying the primary premise.

Yeah, it’s that age-old story, that old chestnut, where, as Paul rightly says, someone (in this case Warren) “does not do what (they) want, and only does what (they) do not want to do.”

And so for Warren, the Bible is not only the authority on how the world was created (Genesis 1-2), why there are different languages (Genesis 11), what you should think about social issues (scan Leviticus and the Epistles and pick one), and how you should vote (wait…that’s not in there), it also must be the authority on everything else including dieting.*

Because if the Bible is reliable, it must be infallible and inerrant and the home and locus of all that is necessary for knowledge as a primary document.

And you spent your money on those Encyclopedia Britannica books…

I’ll cut right to the chase: the Bible wasn’t written to give you a diet plan, to save your marriage, or to help you make money.  In fact, if you go to certain places of scripture you might find that you’re given permission to eat anything (Acts 10), or that you can hate your family (Luke 14), or that God intends for you to be penniless and poor (Matthew 19).

Like that advice?  It’s probably not good for the purposes that I intended to use it for.  But it has about as much merit as the basis for Warren’s diet plan.

That little move, where you take a section of Scripture and use it to proof-text a point or position is actually just taking it out of context.  It’s a popular move, to be sure.  I mean, what adds weight to a cause more than the very voice of God?!

But it’s not honest.  And, dare I say, it might be breaking the second Commandment (from the Protestant Decalogue).  “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain,” has little to do with cursing (although, from a previous post you’d think that that’s all it means).

It actually means that you shouldn’t take God’s name “uselessly.”  You shouldn’t associate God with things that God has no association with.  And so, if you believe that the Bible was more dictation than experiential writing, or if you think the infallibility and inerrancy of the text come from the very will of the Divine, I’d tremble in my boots before I use the Bible as back-up to most anything, let alone a diet plan.

I tremble doing it myself, and I don’t think the Bible is inerrant and infallible!

I tremble because, well, scripture is important to me.  It is sacred.  And as something sacred I hate seeing it belittled to the point of Jenny Craig and Seattle Sutton.

I do think that what we eat and how we care for our bodies is important, and Godly work, and I believe it can say something about our core convictions (hence why Chick-fil-a won’t be getting a dime from this pastor’s pocket anymore).

There are times when I can get insight into an issue from the Bible.  Many a sermon is based on this.  But that’s taking the Bible into my context.  Warren, and those who routinely do this, mistakenly assumes the Biblical context is this context.

Suffice to say, I don’t think the Bible has a diet plan for me.  And I don’t think it has a plan to get me rich.  And I don’t think it has a plan to get me buff (Sampson comes to mind here…and I can’t grow much hair on my head).  And I certainly don’t think that Solomon is a good example of a successful marriage.

The Bible doesn’t do that.

I do think it contains stories of people who have had experiences with God powerful enough to talk about them.  I think it contains glimpses of my faith heritage.  And I think it contains the best, most beautifully engaging story I’ve ever read in the person of Jesus.  I think it’s instructive for devotion and faith.

Really, the only thing close to a diet plan I hear from the scriptures is from the book of  John in chapter 6 where the Gospel writer has Jesus talking about him being the “true bread from heaven” that the world lives on.

But, as a Christian who takes Scripture seriously, I’m entreating the Christian world to stop with this nonsense of looking to the Bible like one might look to an encyclopedia.

The Bible wasn’t written to be your self-help book.

But, it does have beautiful stories, letters, poetry, and history that just may change your life.  So please, do help yourself to it.

*If, perhaps, Warren does not believe that the Bible holds dieting advice, but is just using it as a basis to help sell the product, that would be the definition of the word “despicable.”

17 thoughts on ““The Bible Is Not a Self-Help Book” or “Please Stop…”

  1. Yes! And couldn’t agree more with the point on the second commandment. ‘Tread carefully, don’t use ME to justify YOUR behaviour’ – one of the most overlooked and wronged commandments by Christians through history.

  2. I agree with you that folks today will not believe something to be true if it is not a “fact.” We have let our humanistic theory, our Enlightenment thought, and our reliance on the scientific method, to make our rational mind our “king” at the expense of our entire being. The three-dimensional, material world made up of matter will fall away, but our true selves, our spirits will remain, because we are made in God’s image and God is spirit. God is not defined by “facts” that our rational mind can understand. Our relationship to God is a journey of faith, not facts that can be “proven.”

  3. Have been enjoying your views for a few months – you remind me of my favorite minister from my youth. He made me think too.

    Have you looked into the adoption movement Warren is part of?

    I have thoroughly enjoyed the articles and debates about it by Prof. David Smolin you can find the links here to the papers as well as posts on the latest “adoption conference”:


    • Hi TAO,

      Thanks for the comment! I haven’t heard about this adoption movement, but I’ll check it out.

      I will say that I think that Warren has been very good at many things, including building poverty awareness within the evangelical movement. He and I obviously don’t agree on many social issues, but I don’t mean to denigrate his ministry entirely.

      I do think, though, that sometimes mega-pastors run the risk of putting out “religious” material just for the sake of selling…

  4. I don’t understand the difference between what Warren has done here and what I see “seriously, not literally” types do with the Bible all the time. He uses Daniel to extrapolate a diet plan, you e.g. use loaves and fishes to extrapolate lessons about community-building; the only difference I can see is that you have much loftier concerns than he does (though someone with serious weight issues might see that differently).

    Goodman says finding a diet plan in the Bible is indicative of a selfish reader. Is it selfish to read the Bible to gain hope that one can be a healthy and attractive? I guess so. Is it selfish to read to gain hope that our final breath is not the final say? I guess so?

    I also don’t understand how Enlightenment values can be behind this one. I get it for your other examples, but not this one. I thought the Enlightenment-confusion that you talk about was when people assumed the Bible was infallible and read it literally like one might read a science book e.g. Creationism?

    But Warren’s not approaching this like Ken Ham approaches Genesis: Daniel, read plainly and literally, is not a diet plan. Warren is extrapolating, and in doing so he looks to me closer on the spectrum to, say, an LGBT-affirming reading of the Bible than to ‘Answers in Genesis’. Both fail the plain-words literalist reading, but both still have that big-picture truthiness to them: the body is the temple of the holy spirit and one should use their talents wisely, love one another and don’t judge.

    • Hey Nerdiah,

      In truth, I don’t think Warren thinks Daniel contains a diet plan. His worldview might allow it, but I don’t think that he actually does. I think, instead, that he’s using the Bible to sell his plan.

      And I think that’s wrong. I think it’s wrong not only because it perpetuates this myth that the Bible can be used as a self-help book, or a book that contains “secrets” to what this world calls “success,” but I also think it’s wrong because it totally disregards the type of writing that it is.

      And I would say it’s wrong to read the Bible to think that you might be healthy or successful.

      Enlightenment thinking might make a person look to the Bible for a diet plan. I think Warren is capitalizing on that, whether he believes it or not. I think that’s different than learning a lesson from a text because one assumes that the text is their context, and the other is using the text to inform their context. If the Bible is inerrant and infallible, it is every context. With that thinking, you might find a diet plan in there…because it contains all that is necessary for “life” (whatever that means).

      In short: I think Warren is being despicable with this. Although I think his worldview allows for it, my hunch is that he’s using it to sell books.

      • “If the Bible is inerrant and infallible, it is every context. With that thinking, you might find a diet plan in there … because it contains all that is necessary for “life” (whatever that means).”

        So what you’re saying is that, even though a careful enlightenment-type reader probably wouldn’t interpret Daniel as a diet plan, a person like that might not be surprised to find a diet plan in there somewhere?

        That reminds me a little of a fundamentalist friend I had, who pointed out that the performance of circumcision was prescribed for the same day that the baby’s vitamin K levels were highest. He considered that evidence that the Bible was divinely inspired. Is this the kind of thing you’re talking about? I’m guessing that you wouldn’t consider this valid reasoning, even assuming those facts were correct.

        “I think [the above approach is] different than learning a lesson from a text because one assumes that the text is their context, and the other is using the text to inform their context.” And “There are times when I can get insight into an issue from the Bible. Many a sermon is based on this. But that’s taking the Bible into my context. Warren, and those who routinely do this, mistakenly assumes the Biblical context _is_ this context.”

        So you’re saying that when one does use a Biblical scripture to extrapolate some life lesson, what matters is remembering that you’ve brought the scripture into your own context, rather than assuming that’s it’s literally about the thing that you’re applying it to?

      • I think you are correct on both of these points.

        I think it’s interesting that, when you open up the Scriptures in a Protestant Bible, you end up at the Psalm that speaks about peace and comfort.

        But I don’t think that’s by design. That’s just by happenstance.

        Likewise, Vitamin K might be deficient in infants at the point of circumcision (I don’t know, I’d have to ask a peds doctor), but I don’t think that’s the mark of Divine influence.

        I think you’re understanding me correctly here.

    • I want to clarify quickly: it is wrong to look to scripture hoping that you might find within it a secret to be healthy and attractive because that isn’t the central message. I don’t think it’s wrong to look for hope that your last breathe may not be the end because that seems to be a central message of Jesus (and, while even that is debatable, I would contend it’s important).

      • I think I understand the difference between experiential truths and factual truths. A factual truth might be that Jesus literally blessed 5 loaves and 2 fish which then multiplied to feed 5000. An experiential truth might be that work done in grace multiplies people’s efforts to feed the homeless. But I don’t understand why a statement about the continuation of consciousness after death wouldn’t fall into the former “factual” camp. Or if scripture is to be understood experientially, why such a statement wouldn’t be regarded, like the others, as a kind of metaphor.

      • Hey Nerdiah,

        I actually think that you’re mistaken regarding the “factual” vs. “experiential” truth argument. Or, I might suggest you think about it a different way.

        Factually, I might suggest, Jesus blessed five loaves and two fishes, and then 5000 people were fed. Now, were they fed because the loaves multiplied? Were they fed because people grabbed bread and fish from their pockets to share with others? Was this story a myth meant to teach the early church something?

        Any of those cases is True. But they may not all be factually true.

        Indeed, there are some who believes that Resurrection is True, but is seen in the present tense, and not after death. I believe there is resurrection after death. Either way, it’s True.

        See what I mean?

  5. To add my, rather late, two-penn’orth on the Enlightenment bit: one of the things Enlightenment thinking emphasised was the idea that there is an objective reality, and that this is inherently more truthful than other approaches. Thus if the Bible is assumed to be Truth in all its aspects, then it must be objectively true in everything it says.

    Add to that the Reformation view (in response to abuses by religious authorities) that Scripture speaks plainly, not in obscure allegories, and it is not unreasonable to expect that we could learn from the many scriptures on the subject of food. Except that they are remarkably inconsistent, so you need some sort of systematising approach just as convoluted as the allegorical interpretations of the medieval church … or you just ignore the inconsistencies and pick a single passage to work from, like Daniel 1.

    All of this falls down on the story of the Good Samaritan: is this an objective report about a real mugging on the road to Jericho, or is it teaching truth about how we are to treat other people?

  6. I’m a Witch, not a Christian, but I’ve frequently found ideas in your blog that I enjoy and savor for their intellectual and spiritual value.

    I think diet guides that are “Biblically proven” are offensive because they come from a source that was not intended for such purposes. The Bible contradicts itself because sound philosophy contradicts itself–it’s a time-tested method for making a truly engaged student think. Unfortunately, too many people look at their scriptures (in any faith) and refuse to do the work of thinking themselves. Thus some people cite only passages condeming others while ignoring others exhorting us to love our fellow humans. Gleaning “diet information” from a source that advocates fasting, feasting and an assortment of contradictory things possibly as PLOT DEVICES is medically unsound. That fact alone is reprehensible.

    My diet advice from this perspective? Return this man’s book, buy some sandals, and take a nice walk.

  7. “I think you’re understanding me correctly here.”

    Yay. Except:

    “… were they fed because the loaves multiplied? Were they fed because people grabbed bread and fish from their pockets to share with others? … Either way, it’s True.”

    I’m narrowing my eyes at you as we speak 🙂

    I like the idea that they are stories of people who have had experiences powerful enough to talk about them. And useful enough to others that they would retell the story to others. It puts the Truth of the story within the context of their understanding, purpose and intent.

    You wrote earlier about the type of writing that something is. The circumcision rules aren’t medical writing, so Vit K levels probably aren’t the Truth that they are pointing to; that probably wasn’t the intent of the story.

    With the loaves and fishes, I guess all we really know is that someone told this story about Jesus, and a bunch of people saw fit to transmit this story to us. Maybe the purpose of the story isn’t about loaves and fishes at all, but to show that Jesus was Divine, as evidenced by his ability to perform such a miracle?

    I did a Google for the Vit K and circumcision timing thing, and there are a bunch of website repeating the claim that my friend had made. He considered it evidence that the Bible was Divinely inspired, and these websites repeat the claim for much the same reasons.

    I guess the story-telling continues.

    • It could be true that this story was meant to point to the Divinity of the Christ, although if you read Mark from cover to cover you’ll find that there is no such inclination. In fact, you could read all of Mark and get one instance of Jesus being the “Son of God”…but that doesn’t necessarily mean he was Divine. David was called a similar name.

      But your hypothesis is, I think, largely true. It could be that was the point of the story.

      As for the vitamin K thing…I have a mug on my desk that keeps away tigers. I know it keeps away tigers because it’s here, and there are no tigers.

      To link the medical to the Divine in this instance is too big of a jump. It just happens to be that. It does not mean that God ordained it for that purpose, or that scripture is infallible because it’s there.

      The opposite argument might posit it like this: The sun stands still in Joshua 10. I know that the sun can’t do that by the laws of nature. Therefore the Bible is not true because it reports something not naturally possible.

      You see, story has a way for us to see with different eyes! Eyes that aren’t looking through enlightenment lenses.

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