Monday, January 16, 2012

REVIEW: Take a Pass on "The Daniel Fast"

Review of The Daniel Fast, Susan Gregory (Tyndale, 2010)
I requested The Daniel Fast because I’d been interested in the topic of fasting. The concept of a partial fast was intriguing, particularly since author Susan Gregory offered a “how to” that seemed more in-depth and extensive than anything I’d previously come across. (In hindsight, I realize this is probably because very little instruction is required for a “no food” plan, which is typically how fasting is discussed, while Susan’s book is largely about food preparation.)

But The Daniel Fast plan is not a Scripturally-based model for fasting. Rather, it’s a nutritional plan with the potential to have a spiritual component—I will further explain why that potential isn’t reached—catering to those who would like to adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet.

The majority of Susan’s book is about food preparation, with 100 of its 262 pages dedicated to recipes. Additionally, there are menu plans, lists of what to eat and what to avoid, and basic information on nutrition topics such as the benefits of fiber and water. Susan also lists potential health hazards associated with obesity. It’s standard information that can be found on most diet websites.

Susan repeatedly notes that without a spiritual component, her plan indeed would be “just a diet” (p.12) rather than a type of fasting. She says her concept of a “partial fast” is based on Daniel 1. But does her concept reflect the intent of this Scripture passage?

Let’s compare Daniel’s purpose for abstaining from certain foods with Susan’s purpose for this diet plan. Daniel’s decision to eat only vegetables (pulse) and drink only water isn’t to become healthier. He is already young, without any physical defect, and handsome and smart to boot (Daniel 1:4). He isn’t frail or overweight or ill, or otherwise in need of a superior nutritional regimen.

Daniel is offered the king’s food. This wasn’t slop—the king’s own food would have been the very best food and drink available in the land, reserved for only the king and whoever he chose to share it with. Yet Daniel has resolved not to defile (ruin/pollute/damage) himself by consuming the king’s food and wine. Why would the best food available cause Daniel to be defiled? There had to be something wrong, from Daniel’s perspective, with eating the king’s food. The passage doesn’t specify Daniel’s objection, nor does it state that this objection was shared by God—only that, for some unstated reason, Daniel determined he couldn’t eat the king’s food. This conviction was either shared by Daniel’s friends, or he convinced them that it was important for them to do likewise. The passage doesn’t indicate which. In either case, these four men had decided to not eat the king’s food.

Commentators have speculated about Daniel’s motivation: How would the king’s food have defiled Daniel? So has Susan. Susan notes that Daniel “didn’t want to defile his body” (p.25, emphasis mine). Like some commentators, Susan speculates that the king’s food wasn’t up to the standard presented in the Mosaic law, that it was incorrectly prepared or had been offered to idols. (Other commentators suggest this was more an issue of the mind and heart for Daniel: He didn’t want to be seduced by food and drink into forgetting that he was an Israelite.)

I won’t speculate because I don’t think it’s necessary for us to know. Attempting to “fill in the blanks” of the Bible is dangerous: We cannot add to God’s Word, and we don’t want our assumptions to replace what’s there or otherwise conceal what God is trying to show us. I think Susan’s assumption about Daniel’s motivation leads her to believe that Daniel’s diet is very important—that it’s a biblical model for healthy eating. Let’s consider how Daniel viewed his proposed diet.

There is no indication that Daniel had objected to the food he was given by his captors while he was en route from Jerusalem to Babylon. Daniel’s concern begins when he is offered the king’s food in Babylon.

On being told that he must eat the king’s food, Daniel offers an alternative dietary plan. Daniel’s proposed diet is immediately deemed an unhealthful option by the king’s chief eunuch. The chief is certain that if he fed only vegetables and water to Daniel and his friends, it would be evident that Daniel was malnourished, particularly in comparison to the other young men who were eating the very best food from the king’s table.

Even Daniel does not promise that his diet will be superior. He has only proposed an alternative, and not stated that it will be healthier or better for him: “Test your servants for ten days; let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then let our appearance and the appearance of the youths who eat the king’s food be observed by you, and deal with your servants according to what you see” (1:12-13). There is no evidence in Scripture that Daniel had any faith in this diet—his faith, seen more clearly throughout the remainder of the book, is in God alone.

From the cover of The Daniel Fast through the last page, Susan promotes her program as healthful, and a kick-start to a healthier lifestyle: “Your body will benefit from the healthy eating plan” (p.20). Were the meals Daniel ate healthier than the king’s food? Was he getting the perfect amounts of protein, fiber, healthy fat, vitamins, minerals, and calories? We don’t know. In modern day thinking, a vegetarian diet might sound healthier than what we might assume a king would eat. But there is no reason to believe that Daniel was eating balanced meals comparable to what we might pick up at Whole Foods rather than platters full of gravy-laden prime rib and roast pork. More importantly, the specifics of Daniel’s diet are not the focus of this passage.

Here’s the point that Scripture is making: Although Daniel and his friends only ate vegetables (pulse), they were supernaturally “better in appearance and fatter in flesh than all the youths who ate the king’s food” (1:15). The result was God-given. This passage should cause the Christian to marvel, “God is in control of life and health! Look how God honored Daniel because of his obedience and reverence for Him.” Similarly, we don’t focus on possible natural reasons that the lions didn’t eat Daniel (Daniel 3), or why the fire didn’t consume Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (Daniel 6) because we know that’s not the point—it is apparent that these Scripture passages are examples of God's power, and these show us that God is in control of human life.

Whenever we read Scripture, we need to think, “This is God’s story. What is this telling me about God?” By using this passage to promote Daniel’s diet as a healthy model, I think Susan inadvertently focuses readers on their own health, which takes away the praise that God is due here. This passage is not a model for fasting; it’s a reminder that God is ultimately in control of our bodies—He is the one who gives us health and life.

I give Susan credit for attempting to demonstrate how a diet can include a spiritual component and be a means for offering praise and gratitude to God. Eating should be an act of worship for Christians: We can thank God for the food and for our health, and commit to choosing foods that we know are healthy out of respect for God’s design of the human body.

A poor diet usually reflects a sinful attitude: When we have the means to meet our body’s nutritional needs but chose to not do so, we are in essence telling God, “I don’t care how you created the human body to function. I’m going to put whatever I want, however much I want, into my body, because it’s mine.” Similarly, we sin when we obsess over diet and exercise. Focusing on perfecting the body can lead us to falsely believe that our efforts bring good health, rather than recognizing health as a gift from God. In both cases, food becomes an idol that’s more important than God.

As a dance and fitness instructor, I’m cautious about what I put into my mouth because I expect a lot out of my body. As a Christian, I need to constantly testify that good health—and good food—are gifts from God. My diet can either become “just a diet,” where I’m focused on physical performance, looking good, or feeling in control of my health. Or it can be a daily spiritual exercise and an act of worship, where I make every food choice with the thought, “My body is a gift from God. Thank you, God, for my body, for my health today, and for the strength that I have today. Thank you for providing good food for me to eat. Every good and perfect gift comes from You.”

Back to the book: I liked the recipes—it’s a nice collection of vegetarian meals and snacks with diverse flavors. The meal plans are helpful to readers who are interested in dieting. This could have been a pretty nice diet book.

I didn’t find useful spiritual material in The Daniel Fast. The devotional section was quite troubling to me: Susan inappropriately uses allegory for some of the lessons (e.g. five smooth stones, p. 219-221), and her focus is on her experiences and observations rather than on Scripture itself. It reads as if these are entries from her personal journal, with the Scripture verses serving merely as “proof texts” for her own thoughts. While there’s nothing wrong with having tangential thoughts after reading Scripture, or thinking about how a Scripture passage made you feel, the Christian should never suggest that personal observations are an appropriate interpretation of Scripture. Too many churches have replaced the reading and teaching of Scripture with personal reflection, and placed a higher value on personal experience (often in the form of personal testimonies) than the gospel story itself. Susan’s devotions are an example of that bad trend.

At the beginning of the book, Susan explains that she is not a preacher or teacher—yet she is indeed taking on the role of a teacher of Scripture in this book. I don’t fault her for not being a theologian (neither am I), but I do expect authors who write about Scripture to either make certain their examples are extremely pertinent and limited, or to only write about Scripture, without inserting personal anecdotes. When Christian authors pump Scripture full of their personal takeaway, it perpetuates that bad habit in the church. We can’t see what Scripture is telling us about God when we’re occupied with thinking about how it makes us feel or trying to find a personal application.


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