ASHAMED of your body? Overweight? (Millions of us are.) Not attractive? Not athletic? Addicted to chocolate or cigarettes or worse? Are you wondering: Who could love such a body—including you yourself?
If so—then here’s good news. Ragan Sutterfield has written a book just for us: This Is My Body—From Obesity to Ironman, My Journey into the True Meaning of Flesh, Spirit, and Deeper Faith. And to answer your first two questions: Yes, Ragan’s spiritual journey led him from disgust with his overweight body, his addiction to cigarettes and his problems with physical intimacy to a healthy life. But, no, he’s not expecting readers to compete in extreme sports. This is a book for—well for us, if we find ourselves drawn toward religious life, yet we forget to tend to our bodies.
There’s clearly something wrong in the mind-body-spirit culture within American congregations, Ragan argues persuasively. In many communities, what’s wrong is evangelical preaching that our bodies are wicked and we should only worry about getting our souls into heaven.
He’s not alone in confronting this kind of preaching. Another group of religious leaders trying to counter this “our-bodies-are-wicked” theology are the writers producing www.ThirdWayNewsletter.com where they point out that many body-related issues wind up painfully excluding individuals, and their families, from congregational life. Or, those Third Way writers point out, churchgoers feel pressure to hide their true physical identities.
Ragan’s book zeroes in on one particular issue: the way our understanding of faith shapes our approach to health and to physical contact with those we love. Millions of Americans are caught in patterns of shame, addictive behaviors and a tragic inability to take seriously the physical meaning of our marriage vows. In that last realm, Ragan writes about his own struggles with marriage and the spiritual pathway that led him to loving and caring for his wife Emily in sickness and in health and in all physical conditions.
He opens the book with some startling research data—a 2011 Northwestern University study that shows frequent involvement in congregational life, when young, is linked to greater likelihood of obesity in middle age. When it first appeared, that study sparked headlines nationwide. (Care to read more about the study? Here are a Northwestern summary, a Chicago Tribune story, a US News story, and a report from Science Daily.)
But, this book isn’t only about getting into better physical shape. At an even deeper level, Ragan argues, the way we think about our bodies rests on the foundation of how we think about the world God has created. Is the totality of God’s Creation—this world, our environment, plants and animals and our bodies—fundamentally good? Or is this world an evil place where our wicked bodies lead us astray? Ragan argues passionately that what God has made in this world is good. Grounding our faith in that belief immediately begins to move us away from shame and a spiritual separation from our bodies, he argues. In short: Recognizing that God’s Creation is good is a pathway to spiritual and physical health.
And, this book isn’t just about our own physical health. If we are evangelically focused on abandoning an evil physical world for the paradise that may await us after death, then we also won’t care much about global warming, sustainable farming or the fate of non-human animals who live on our planet. Before writing this book, Ragan was best known as an author and activist promoting sustainable agriculture and care of the earth. Now, in 2015, he is working his way through Episcopal seminary and will emerge in a year or so as a priest serving congregations in his native Arkansas.
Finally, don’t let fear keep you from reading this book. Ragan won’t make you feel even guiltier than you perhaps feel right now. His approach is humble and completely honest about his own rocky journey. “I ask others to join with me in listening to what God is saying about this,” he tells readers. He’s an honest companion, not a task master pushing guilt.
This is a book you’ll find both inspiring and personally challenging—and that is sure to spark spirited discussion in your class or small group.
ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed the author. Here are …
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH RAGAN SUTTERFIELD ON
‘THIS IS MY BODY’
DAVID: I was struck by the Northwestern study you describe in the opening of your book. There’s a lot of research showing that involvement in congregations is actually quite healthy—especially for older adults. And the Northwestern study still leaves a lot of questions unanswered—but it really is an ominous report. You also include some other research to back it up. Let’s share just a couple of lines with readers. You write:
“Theology has consequences. A church where the soul alone and not the body is saved becomes a place where the body is left to other stories or no story at all. Because the body doesn’t matter to our eternal salvation in this view, Christians tend to adopt secular views of the body or simply ignore it and its health altogether. Research has borne this out. According to a Northwestern University study that tracked over 2,000 participants for 18 years, adults like me, who attended evangelical churches as youth, are 50 percent more likely to be obese than our unchurched counterparts. Other research based on census data has shown that Southern Baptists and other, more evangelical denominations, are the heaviest of all religious groups.”
When I read it, I bookmarked that page. I thought: Wow, 50 percent more likely to be obese!
RAGAN: I found that statistic really interesting because as I was growing up in a conservative evangelical context, we knew that our bodies were held in low esteem. Yes, we used to hear, “Your body is a temple,” but that mostly was the way adults warned us against smoking, drinking and sex. The real message was that these bodies we’re living in aren’t important—and we really need to pay attention to our souls. When you’re sharing those assumptions, it’s hard to take care of your body in a proper way.
DAVID: Your book is mainly a real-life story of how you—and some of the people around you—struggled along this spiritual journey to find a healthier, more integrated understanding of your life. It’s a true story with lots of interesting anecdotes, but you do pause in the narrative to teach us things along the way. And one of those lessons you teach early in the book is that the Bible’s Hebrew and Jewish roots don’t regard the body as some wicked, throw-away husk of life.
In the book, you sum it up at one point this way: “In Hebrew thought that most formed the imaginations of the writers of the New Testament, the body and the soul were inseparable.” And, you write, none of the early Jewish followers of Jesus “would have imagined a disembodied soul in the Greek sense. If there would be eternal life, it would have to come from the resurrection of the person, the whole package: body and spirit.”
You wrap up that section by telling readers in a 4-word paragraph: “We are our bodies.”
‘PART OF THE GOODNESS OF GOD’S CREATION’
RAGAN: I think my biggest hope for this book is that readers will walk away with a greater sense of the gift of our bodies. I want people to understand that our bodies are a part of the goodness of God’s creation.
DAVID: Let’s go back and fill in a bit of the timeline for readers.
RAGAN: I was born in Arkansas in 1980 and I’m moving into my 35th year. Right now, I’m about half way through Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia, and in 2016 I hope to be returning to Arkansas with my wife Emily and Lillian who is now 3 and in January we welcomed our second daughter Lucia.
DAVID: Some readers may know you from farming. You wrote Cultivating Reality: How the Soil Might Save Us. And you’ve been active nationally—and internationally, too—in organizations that promote sustainable farming and a concern for the environment. In this new book, there are some sections where you talk about your time as a farmer. So, give us a little update about your departure from agriculture.
RAGAN: I left farming, first of all, to work for Heifer International for a time, mainly working on their websites. Then, eventually I came to seminary.
DAVID: There’s no family farm in Arkansas to which you’ll be returning?
RAGAN: No, and the time I was farming was the time my body was heaviest and I got into some unhealthy habits. Someday, I might like to do a little small farming again, but I came to realize that full-time farming is very hard.
DAVID: I’ve been a fan of Wendell Barry myself and, in this book, you talk about Barry and also Henry David Thoreau.
RAGAN: Yes, I was inspired by Wendel Berry and other writers so much that I wanted to farm, too. So, I began an apprenticeship with a farmer in Arkansas and worked in varying capacities for several years. At one point, I was leasing land myself.
I had this idea that I would work hard to provide healthy food for others—but I discovered the life is much harder than I had realized.
DAVID: You weren’t overweight as a child, but you’ve had issues with weight since your youth, right? For example, by high school, your weight prompted some teasing. We’re very involved in anti-bullying efforts, as an online magazine. Overweight teens face some tough challenges. That’s been a running theme, this season, on the TV show Glee, for example.
RAGAN: I was heavy enough in high school that I would get comments on it, yes. But it really was while I was farming that I gained the most weight.
DAVID: How big did you get?
RAGAN: I was so ashamed of my weight that I didn’t want to step on the scales, but I was upwards of 260. I was working so hard at this goal of healthy farming that I wound up eating convenience foods and drinking sugar-filled drinks. I’d even drink Red Bull to keep myself going.
DAVID: And now?
RAGAN: Well, I’m 5-foot-9 and now I stay under 180. I finally quit smoking a couple of years before Emily and I were married in 2011. I go up and down a little, but I’m able to stay at a healthy weight.
‘FITNESS IS A FAMILY PROJECT’
DAVID: At one point as you were getting back into shape, you did some pretty extreme training to get ready for big physical challenges—races and other competitions. Toward the end of your book, however, you make it clear that part of your awareness of health and spiritual balance means that, today, you’re making sure to spend plenty of time with your family. In other words, you enjoy a balanced approach to fitness.
How about this year? What’s on the horizon for you?
RAGAN: This past fall I completed my first 50-mile ultramarathon, which is something I had wanted to do for a long time. But I’m not a racer per se. I don’t ever expect to be standing on the podium at the end of an event. My aim is to complete them and complete them well. This spring, I’m going to be in the North Face Endurance Challenge in Washington D.C. In the fall, I’m planning on doing a half ironman—basically doing half of all the ironman distances, a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and 13.1-mile run.
DAVID: Fitness is a family activity, right? Your wife Emily is a swimmer.
RAGAN: She doesn’t compete in biking or running but she’s an avid swimmer. She teaches swimming and coaches swimming for adults. She has worked with triathletes.
‘WHAT IT MEANS TO BE CREATED BY GOD’
DAVID: As readers get into your book, they’ll discover that you’re a humble storyteller. You’re not glorifying your own accomplishments like some of the celebrity trainers these days. Your real goal is to convince readers that caring for our bodies is an important part of caring for God’s entire creation, right? You drop reminders of this idea throughout the book.
RAGAN: I’m glad you picked up on that. Our sense of embodiment and our sense of ourselves as beings created by God go hand in hand. In the kind of Christian church where I grew up, we tended to reject the goodness of creation and to reject the human body along with that. The problem is: If we regard our bodies as just something that will burn up or slough off on our way to heaven—then we lose a proper sense of what it means to be created by God. To be a healthy person, we need to realize that we are wrapped up in a whole ecology of other living beings. There are organisms all around us and even inside of us—healthy organisms in our digestive tract that help us to digest foods—that are a part of our lives.
DAVID: Given your past work—your writing and activism—I would call you an environmentalist.
RAGAN: Yes, certainly. I’m a long-time environmentalist. I was interested from a very early age in exploring the creation all around me. In college, I got very interested in how working landscapes fit into that—not just preserving pristine environments, but exploring how working landscapes like farms are a part of our relationship with creation. I wanted to be part of the effort to encourage both the flourishing of human beings and creation, as well. That’s the way Wendell Barry influenced me and a lot of other people in my generation.
DAVID: In our online magazine, we are publishing a number of interviews with authors who are part of emerging religious movements. Last week, our cover story featured Doug Pagitt, who is connected with a couple of those new networks. So, I want to ask you about a group in which you’ve been active: The Ekklesia Project.
RAGAN: Yes, I’m an endorser of the Ekklesia Project and I’ve been involved in their conferences for several years, although my schedule prevents me from being involved in their gathering this summer in Chicago. I’m going to be doing clinical pastoral education this summer, as part of my seminary work, so I can’t go this time.
I would describe Ekklesia as a place where clergy, lay people and academics can come together with a common commitment to living out the faith in a really concrete way in the world. People involved in this project are very committed to justice and peace issues and creation care. We want to help Christians maintain an allegiance to their faith over against the competing ideologies of our world today: things like consumerism or nationalism.
DAVID: I want to close our interview by pointing out, once again, that your new book has a compassionate voice. You’re not here to bully us and you’re also well aware that our bodies can’t all wind up running marathons. Our online magazine does a lot of work with the many caregivers living among us.
RAGAN: I realize that we live in a world that is filled with a lot of brokenness and that sometimes includes our bodies. I’ve had health issues myself. I know people who live in deep chronic pain. This summer, my pastoral work will be in a retirement facility. I’m well aware that lots of people have a hard time accepting the idea that our bodies are a good gift from God.
But I do hope readers will walk away from reading this book with a sense of our bodies as part of the creation that God called very good—and that, even with the current brokenness we may feel in our bodies and in our world, there still is hope.
I hope that readers will leave this book encouraged to embrace our bodies and our world in a new way.
ReadTheSpirit online magazine is the place to watch diverse new religious ideas and movements emerging. In Spring 2015, we will be featuring interviews with many writers who are exploring new spiritual directions, including:
- Eileen Flanagan on her new book Renewable: One Woman’s Search for Simplicity, Faithfulness, and Hope;
- Rachel Held Evans on her new book Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church;
- Reba Riley on Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome: A Memoir of Humor and Healing in 30 Religions;
- Carl Kell on The Exiled Generations: Legacies of the Southern Baptist Convention Holy Wars;
- Ken Wilson and Emily Swan on The Third Way Newsletter;
- Charles Honey on Faith On First: Thoughts on God, Nature and Sacrifice Bunts;
- Adam Hamilton on Revival: Faith as Wesley Lived It;
- And Lauren Winner on Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God.
Look for these “Cover Story” author interviews on Mondays in March, April and May 2015. Make sure you get all of our upcoming stories: Sign up for our free email updates as new stories are published by clicking on the “Get FREE Updates by Email” link at the top of this page. Or, visit us anytime via our new Facebook page.
SHARE THIS WITH FRIENDS …
You are free to repost or to print out this interview to share with friends. We only ask that you include this credit line: “Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.”