I have just endured my very first diet. I hardly qualified as overweight, but an unauthorized 13 pounds suddenly appeared on my body and I determined to do something about it.

My friends, especially those truly overweight, showed no sympathy whatever: “A diet, huh? Are you trying to lose or gain weight?” Very funny. As for me, I felt offended that my body would take it upon itself to enlarge without prior consultation.

The diet worked, I’m happy to say, and now that my proper physical shape has reasserted itself I can reflect on what I learned. Mainly, I realized that I had long borne a ponderous prejudice against fat people. Never having had to battle weight problems, I felt little compassion for those who do. (It seems odd that in this era of protest against racism, ageism, and sexism, no movement against “fattism” has sprung up.)

A Jolly, Fat Saint

During my diet, I sometimes found myself thinking about G. K. Chesterton. As far as I know, that extraordinary English gentleman never attempted a diet, and as a result, his weight usually hovered just under the 300-pound mark. His girth and general poor health disqualified him from military service, a fact that led to a rather brusque encounter with a patriot during World War I. “Why aren’t you out at the front?” demanded the indignant young lady when she spied Chesterton on the streets of London. He coolly replied, “My dear madam, if you will step round this way a little, you will see that I am.”

That distinctive shape made Chesterton a favorite of London caricaturists. It took only a few strokes for a skilled cartoonist to capture his essence: from the side he looked like a giant capital P. Chesterton rounded out his reputation with other eccentricities, which, taken together, perfectly fulfilled the stereotype of a slovenly, absent-minded professor. For example, here is a biographer’s account of a public debate with George Bernard Shaw:

In all their debates Chesterton never did become the smooth and polished orator that Shaw was. He usually arrived late, made comments about his size (by 1911 he weighed 270 pounds), and carried a bunch of scribbled notes on odd bits of paper, at which he would peer nearsightedly. Bending his head to look at them, he muffled his high-pitched voice and his pince-nez fell off. He blew through his moustache and chuckled amiably at his own wit. By contrast, Shaw was punctual and well-organized, a lean, dapper man with a gorgeous Irish voice and the gestures of an accomplished actor (from The Outline of Sanity, by Alzina Stone Dale).

We miss him today, I think. For all his personal quirkiness, Chesterton managed to propound the Christian faith with as much wit, good humor, and sheer intellectual force as anyone in this century. With the zeal of a knight defending the last redoubt, he took on, in person and in print, Shaw, H. G. Wells, Sigmund Freud, and anyone else who dared interpret the world apart from God and Incarnation.

In his day, sober-minded modernists were seeking new theories to explain the past and give hope to the future. Shaw, seeing history as a struggle between the classes, proposed a remedy of socialist utopianism. Wells interpreted the past as an evolutionary march toward progress and enlightenment (a view the rest of the century would do much to refute). And Freud held up a vision of humanity free of repression and the bondage of the subconscious.

Ironically, all three of these progressives had in common a rather stern countenance. With furrowed brows and dark, haunted eyes, they would expostulate on their optimistic visions of the future. Meanwhile, with a twinkle in his eye, laughing at his own jokes, Chesterton would cheerfully defend such “reactionary” concepts as original sin and the Last Judgment. In public debates, typically he would charm the audience over to his side, then celebrate by hosting his chastened opponent at the nearest pub.

Thin And Cold

Chesterton claimed to distrust “hard, cold, thin people”—and perhaps that’s why I kept thinking of the jolly, fat apologist during my diet. It seems the personality types have reversed. Nowadays in the church, sober-mindedness has won the day. Theologians with long faces lecture us on “the imperatives of the faith.” Political activists scare us with doomsday predictions of holocausts, nuclear and environmental. Heads of Christian relief agencies (a surprising number of whom, oddly, are overweight) report somberly on world hunger and overpopulation.

And I, columnist for an evangelical magazine writing in isolation from my basement, go on a crash diet to shed 13 pounds. Thirteen! Chesterton could gain that much from one meal.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting a churchwide eating binge. I know that gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins, and that obesity involves health risks comparable to those from smoking and drinking. What troubles me, though, is whether we have unconsciously accepted the model of “hard, cold, thin people” as the ideal Christian personality.

I sometimes wish the Bible had included more physical descriptions of its characters. I envision the apostle Paul as thin (too much prison gruel). But what of Jeremiah? Have we reason to believe that a prophet who exercised so little emotional control would strictly regulate his appetite? Or what of King Solomon, who spread his table with foreign delicacies? I imagine that the people in the Bible manifested the same range of personality types and physical shapes as one might find in the average airport terminal today.

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I don’t regret going on my first diet. But I did discover that, like sports, scholarship, and anything else requiring discipline and self-control, dieting offers temptations toward a spirit of pride, superiority, and self-righteousness. G. K. Chesterton has reminded me there is more to life than being thin. “Despair,” he once said, “does not lie in being weary of suffering, but in being weary of joy.” Chesterton, with all his excess, never wearied of joy.

My diet goals successfully met, I’m left with one nagging question: Is it possible to be a soft, warm, thin person?

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Philip Yancey
Philip Yancey is editor at large of Christianity Today and cochair of the editorial board for Books and Culture. Yancey's most recent book is What Good Is God?: In Search of a Faith That Matters. His other books include Prayer (2006), Rumors of Another World (2003), Reaching for the Invisible God (2000), The Bible Jesus Read (1999), What's So Amazing About Grace? (1998), The Jesus I Never Knew (1995), Where is God When It Hurts (1990), and many others. His Christianity Today column ran from 1985 to 2009.
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