How E! Entertainment infiltrates the church

So I made a trip to the gym this morning.

I lifted weights and then headed upstairs to make friends with an elliptical trainer for 30 minutes.

I put in the ear buds, got the digital data loaded into the elliptical machine. Off I went, striding oddly off to nowhere.

Muted flat screen televisions line the high ceiling of the gym, the close caption scrolling as steadily as the feet pounding on the treadmills. The screens are tuned to different networks – Fox News, CNN, HLN and plenty of sports channels.

I’d chosen the treadmill closest to the television broadcasting the latest froth from E! Yes, that’s the network that actually spends money to follow Hugh Hefner’s boring “girlfriends” from spa to boutique, from the mansion to an appointment to have their vulvas molded into chocolate treats. Nice.

I’m hustling away on the elliptical, huffing perhaps a little too loudly for the trim woman on the elliptical next to me. I’m on autopilot, reading the captions on E! while Kanye West is singing “Love Lockdown” on my nano.

E! was devoting it’s coffee hour programming to — are you ready for this? — STARS WITHOUT MAKEUP. They’d assembled a panel — two guys (one gay and wearing more makeup than I own) and two women — to dissect photographs of female celebrities who commit the sin of wearing bare faces to the airport, the market or at the starting line of a 10K race. (Really, E!? Female celebrities owe it to their adoring public to slather on makeup before sweating through a 10K race for charity? Felicity Huffman should damn well be ashamed for not being ready for her close-up before RUNNING?)

The mocking take-down of these women (and Nick Nolte, the only lad who was made an example of for not being pretty while flat-ass drunk) was a romp of clever quips and jokes.

E! doesn’t pretend to be anything other than cotton candy, but when so much time and money (a full hour; we were in the second half of the show) is devoted to critiquing moneyed, powerful women for daring to go without concealer, what are we really selling ourselves?

Well, for one thing, we’re continuing the trope of starlet as commodity, which is unsettling enough when one considers that there are more women and girls being bought and sold for sex trafficking than ever before. But we’re also telling ourselves that, even off camera, our female celebrities are public property, and they’re open to ridicule and snarks when they are doing the shopping or raising money by running without maintaining the sexual allure we pay for when the opening credits roll.

And what is the expectation of mortal women who aren’t in front of the camera, ever?

They don’t call the faces and figures of starlets aspirational for nothing. While mortal women aren’t expected to schlep the kids to soccer practice dressed for the red carpet, the images used to sell everything from toothpicks to tailpipes are powerful. Cosmetic surgery is a brisk business, and its clientele is mostly female.

E! programming is heavy on the fluff. Which makes it different from the American culture how? And what was the connection between the scrutiny on the small screen and those of us on the cardio equipment? Without a doubt, some of us were there to be a little more like the stars under the microscope. Some of us were there to test our body’s abilities, to put ourselves through a time of willful stress.

In the meantime, we were all pelted with image after image of the ideal physique. It looked like this: thin (well, fat free); with slender muscles; young and mostly white.

It would be wrong to  assume this isn’t filtering into messages from the pulpit.

Part of my job is managing a stable of religion columnists. I respect the clergy, and generally refrain from challenging clergy on their perspective. Just last year, I did challenge a minister. This pastor leads the largest Baptist congregation in town, and I like and respect him. He submitted a column called “The God Bod.”

I started to read with trepidation. The God Bod? Wasn’t that a touch glib? Wasn’t there a whiff of sexism and commercialization in there? But I shook it off and dove in.

The columnist began with a thesis that any person of any faith could affirm: our bodies are sacred and temporal, and deserve care that honors that. Amen, brother! Sexual behavior should reflect the reconciliation of human and holy. Hear, hear!

Then his column wandered into territory that, to me, felt dangerous and heretical. It seemed to me that the pastor’s assertions about weight and disease were condemnations. I believe he was saying that the only body fit to serve Christ is a body that is thin, young and disease-free.

Wow. I’d hate to be a fat, 50-year-old cancer patient in his congregation. I’d hate to have juvenile diabetes, arthritis or a binge eating disorder.

It’s certainly laudable to affirm the blessings of health  — and believe me, health is not always earned or deserved, if ever — with temperance, good exercise and rest.

But do we really imagine that the Kingdom of heaven — be it in the here and now or in a time beyond our own — is cordoned off from the lame, the blind, the fat, the infirmed?   Does heaven belong to trim young men with body fat percentages in the single digits?

When Christian pastors talk about the Body of Christ, they are referring to the church. It’s people. Those people come to the altar as they are – fat, thin, old, energetic, exhausted. They come because their souls yearn for the reconciliation that blesses their humanity and makes it’s “baggage” a neutral thing in the presence of The Holy. No Christian pastor should confer status on the bodily conditions of his or her flock. He or she can and should intervene if a member is self-mutilating. But those dealing with physical and mental afflictions deserve prayer and welcome, especially if they are abiding with congregational polity. A pastor’s job is to bring the faithful into a relationship based on hope and a rejection of sin. Rejecting bodies based on how well they’re  functioning isn’t part of the job description.

The tyranny of beauty — which is now thoroughly integrated into the Western obesity panic and shady signifiers of “health” — can surely be felt in religious culture. The notion of a “God Bod” is but one piece of evidence.

This tyranny is as misplaced in the pulpit as it is in the secular world.

I challenged the pastor on his column, and he politely chose not to change it. So I didn’t publish it.  It clashed with my conscience and I worried that the overweight, arthritic and diabetic members of his church might take his inartful remarks at face value.

I thought they — and our readers — deserved better

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One comment on “How E! Entertainment infiltrates the church

  1. JohnFranc
    June 23, 2010 at 1:51 am #

    You may remember I used to run. A few years ago I turned out in Fort Worth early one morning for a 10K and did a double-take when I saw a 30-something woman getting ready to race, wearing a lot of makeup. I wondered what it looked like after she finished, but I didn’t care enough to hang around and find out.

    There is a balance to be struck between accepting people as they are and inspiring them to be as good as they can be. But being as good as you can be has very little to do with conforming to the mainstream culture’s idea of “proper” body shape, size and appearance. A minister who I feel safe in assuming preaches “be in the world but not of it” should know better.

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