the Spirit Watch
Slim for Him: God Is Watching What You're Eating
By Rebecca Meade - from Rebecca Meade Dot Com ~ January 15, 2001
For a best-selling diet author, Gwen Shamblin has some unusual ideas. She encourages the consumption of brownies with whipped cream, claims that too many vegetables will make you sick, and thinks that having to drink eight glasses of water a day is absurd. She scorns exercise and forbids the counting of calories or fat grams. Another significant difference between her program and those offered by people like Suzanne Somers and Dean Ornish is that Shamblin promises followers of her diet that, in addition to losing weight, they will be granted eternal life.
Shamblin is the author of "The Weigh Down Diet," which has sold more than a million copies since its publication, in 1997, and of "Rise Above," a sequel, which appeared early last year. She is the creator of the Weigh Down Workshop, an eight-year-old diet program in which participants attend a twelve-week series of classes led by volunteers. Currently, there are nearly thirty thousand Weigh Down Workshop groups nationwide, most of them offered through churches and held in basements or back rooms on weekday evenings. Shamblin's core contention is that the fatness of America is the symptom of a spiritual crisis: overweight people have mistaken a spiritual emptiness for a hunger for food. There are no forbidden foods on the Weigh Down Diet. Rather, Shamblin, who is forty-five and trained as a dietician, teaches adherents to identify feelings of true physiological hunger, and she instructs them in what she calls "thin eating": picking at a steak and eating only the tenderest parts; stopping after two bites of pie.
The Weigh Down Workshop, which is based in Franklin, Tennessee, is now a multimillion-dollar business, and Shamblin has taken the controversial step of broadening her message beyond her weight-loss base. She argues that her method of renunciation can be applied to all manner of other sins, such as alcohol abuse or dependence on prescription drugs or homosexuality or the claims of wives
to be on equal footing with their husbands. Having criticized the diet industry for encouraging an impious obsession with food,
Shamblin has now unleashed her wrath on the church, which she views as overly permissive. In 1999, she and a small group of
like-minded believers established their own church, the Remnant Fellowship, at which they sing songs of praise and read Scripture
and testify about their passionate submission to the will of God.
Franklin is an affluent town nineteen miles south of Nashville. It has a graceful downtown district where the churches are outnumbered only by gift shops selling ceramics and candles and scenting Main Street with potpourri. The Weigh Down Workshop is headquartered in a neoclassical building that Shamblin put up four years ago. Her office has the air of a comfortable living room--a soft couch, an Oriental rug, and, on the wall, a painting of the adolescent Jesus preaching. Shamblin is a petite and pretty woman with shoulder-length blond hair swept into a two-inch bouffant in a manner that passes for subtle among Southern ladies. She is given to wearing tight cashmere sweaters cinched at the waist, and slim black skirts that hide the skinny legs about which she professes embarrassment. When she speaks, she sounds like Dolly Parton channelling Dr. Laura.
"There is no restraint in this country--somewhere along the line, Americans forgot to behave," Shamblin told me in the first minutes
of our acquaintance, one morning last October. "People in this country have gone to great depths to make everything change
but themselves: they will suck their fat out with lipectomies; they will take pills that make their hearts race; they will make the
airplanes change the seat sizes. You have whole industries creating diet food. But my message is drawing people back in
to examine themselves. Instead of running to the refrigerator, I want you to run to God in any way that you can, so that now
your food is to do the will of the Father."
Shamblin showed me around her offices: the editing room, wherea team cuts the videos that she makes; outreach cubicles, in which
a dozen women sat wearing telephone headsets. She hugged an employee, and patted one or two others on the back as they worked
the phones, Bibles open on their desks. Then we headed out to J. Alexander's restaurant, nearby. Shamblin ordered a Diet Coke and
an appetizer of chips and salsa.
In her books, Shamblin describes her method of eating chips--she sorts through the pile, looking for ones with the most salt on
them--and this was how she proceeded, eating a chip or two while waiting for her main course of grilled-chicken salad and a basket
of fries with horseradish sauce. When the salad arrived, Shamblin picked at the iceberg lettuce and slivers of meat, and dunked
a few French fries in the sauce. During the course of lunch, she ate perhaps twenty bites of salad and six fries. Shamblin doesn't
believe that it's a sin to leave food on your plate, and she points to a passage from Exodus--in which God prevents the Israelites
from hoarding manna by turning it into maggots--as evidence that saving leftovers indicates an insufficient trust that the Lord
will provide all things. In "The Weigh Down Diet," she writes, "If it rots or is wasted--so what! He has more for you." (Even so,
an assistant, who had accompanied us, shovelled the leftovers into a Styrofoam container for one of Shamblin's colleagues to
take home for dinner.)
Shamblin claims that millions of Americans have learned to eat according to her methods, though she keeps no statistical
records of Weigh Down participants and has no figures about the effectiveness of her program which would stand up to scientific
scrutiny. She does try to keep tabs on a number of high achievers who have lost more than a hundred pounds, one of whom was
brought in to meet me while I was in Franklin. Charlie Crosslin, who had recently been laid off from his job at Stanley Tools, had, in
two years, dropped from five hundred and ten pounds to a hundred and ninety; he said that he had also entered into a far deeper
relationship with God. Crosslin, who was thirty-three, looked somewhat haggard. He rolled back the sleeve of his shirt to reveal
an upper arm that looked like a chicken bone wrapped in a deflated balloon. "Some say that the skin will tighten up over time," he
said. "I am happy either way. This is how God made me, and knows me. I am pleased, and I hope he is, too."
In the evening, I went to a Weigh Down meeting in the Hendersonville Chapel, in a suburb of Nashville. I was accompanied
by Lee Suddeath, one of Shamblin's chief lieutenants. Suddeath looked like the kind of guy who'd never stopped buying his pants
from the boys' department, but he told me that six years ago he was sixty or seventy pounds heavier. He'd lost weight not by giving
up foods but by eating less of everything, and when I asked him what he'd eaten that day he listed a menu that sounded like a
weight watcher's fantasy binge. "I got up and had a chocolate Pop Tart," he said. "I was feeling some hunger around eight or
nine this morning, so I got one of those fun-sized candy bars. For lunch, I had lasagna with some corn, with butter and salt. Then
for dinner I went to Taco Bell and had a chalupa--that's like a bready soft taco that is deep fried, with pintos and cheese.
And I had a couple of bites of chocolate taco and ice cream." Pride is a sin, but it sounded suspiciously as if Suddeath were
bragging about his chocolate intake. "This is a lifelong program," he said. "Who couldn't live with having some of those little candy
bars every day for the rest of their life?"
The Weigh Down meeting took place in a kindergarten classroom at the church, and drew about a dozen attendees, including several
expressionless teen-age girls, a stout gray-haired lady, and one man, a local pastor. After a few introductory remarks by the
co÷rdinator, Kyla Rivera, who was svelte in an iridescent blouse and black pants, the group settled in for a screening of that night's
video, entitled "Love the Lord with All Your Mind." It showed Shamblin, swathed in a becoming head scarf, in Egypt, sitting
in the dust in front of the Pyramids and reading from a teleprompter about the necessity of submitting to God's will and casting off
enslavement to food, just as the Israelites cast off their enslavement to Pharaoh. Another segment showed Shamblin sitting in a mockup
of a Mexican restaurant, ordering food from a Caucasian-looking waiter whom she addressed as JosÚ. (JosÚ turned out to be
Shamblin's brother, Walt, who used to work for Weigh Down.) Then we saw Shamblin, Oprah-like, interviewing dieters in front of a studio audience; there were hugs and pats and smiles.
Afterward, a Weigh Down veteran got up to speak. She had lost more than a hundred pounds on the program, and had also given
up smoking and soap operas. "I listened to the tapes of Gwen constantly," she told the group. "When I began, I thought,
If I have to listen to sixteen weeks of that woman, I don't thinkI can take it. But her voice became sweet, angelic music to my
ears." Rivera closed the meeting by passing around a basket containing miniature packs of M & M's, to which had been affixed
a label bearing a quotation from Psalm 145: "The eyes of all look to you, Lord, and you give them their food at the proper
time. You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing."
The inspiration for Shamblin's weight-loss-and-salvation package was delivered to her gradually, rather than in a lightning bolt
of revelation. Although she was never obese, she did become twenty pounds overweight from binging in the cafeteria at the University
of Tennessee, where she studied in the seventies, and she tried many weight-loss programs without success. "I ate so many
raw vegetables that it was the beginning of a spastic colon for me," she wrote in "Rise Above." By observing and emulating the
eating habits of a friend who was thin, she discovered that she could be satisfied by eating only half the food on her plate. She
began teaching the technique to weight-loss patients, but found that they were not motivated to stick with it. Shamblin says that
she prayed for guidance, and incrementally added more devotion and spirituality to her methods. By the early nineties, the Weigh
Down philosophy was complete, and gradually spread to churches nationwide. Participants pay a hundred and three dollars for the
first twelve classes they attend; included in that price is an "Exodus: Out of Egypt" workbook and a set of audiocassettes.
A second twelve weeks costs fifty-five dollars; if participants still need to lose weight after that, additional classes are free.
In the peak dieting periods, September and January, the Weigh Down warehouse sends out co÷rdinator packages for thirty
new classes every day. (In addition, the company Web site sells bookmarks, leather coasters, and silver jewelry bearing the Weigh
Down logo, as well as Christian pop CDs by Shamblin's son, Michael.)
Bringing people into churches to teach them how to give up food is a historical reversal; the church in America has always
used food to lure potential worshippers, with suppers and soup kitchens, and, in some larger modern churches, food courts serving
pizza. A study conducted by a professor at Purdue University in 1998 suggested that Christians are typically fatter than other
Americans, perhaps because the sin of gluttony has come to be considered trivial. According to Daniel Sack, the author of
"Whitebread Protestants: Food and Religion in American Culture," the American church has always been troubled by how to manage the
abundance that was found on this continent. For most of this country's history, Christian thinkers have advocated a bland diet. In the
eighteen-thirties, Sylvester Graham, a Presbyterian minister and the inventor of graham flour, discouraged the consumption of meat
because it excited the animal passions. Graham's theories informed the invention of the Kellogg cornflake, half a century later; and, in
the twentieth century, left-leaning priests argued that the American demand for meat was contributing to starvation elsewhere in the
world, since the grain it takes to feed a cow could feed many more mouths than the steak would.
A Christian weight-loss industry that stressed slimming the self rather than saving the world began to emerge in 1957, with
the publication of "Pray Your Weight Away," by Charlie W. Shedd. The genre--which has been thoroughly charted by Marie Griffith,
a Princeton professor and the author of "God's Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission"--expanded
in subsequent decades, with such titles as "Help Lord--The Devil Wants Me Fat!," "Slim for Him," and "More of Jesus, Less
of Me." In 1972, a pastor's wife named Carol Showalter founded the first Christian diet program, 3D (diet, discipline, and
discipleship), which was based on the American Dietetic Association's recommended diet with a religious overlay; other
programs followed, including First Place, which has groups in nearly five thousand churches nationally, and Jesus Is the Weigh.
Christian weight-loss programs generally hold that fat is undesirable not because God cares about how you look but
because a thin, fit body is a more efficient tool with which to do God's will. Looking good is a significant side benefit, however.
The authors of the book "The All-New Free to Be Thin" wrote that Christianity in itself amounts to an instant makeover: "When a person
becomes a Christian he or she usually gains a new attractiveness and vibrancy." And, just as the food industry has coded certain
foods as sinful--Daniel Sack points to Devil Dogs as an example of oblique Christian symbolism--the Christian weight-loss programs
have tended to make an easy equation between eating "unhealthy" foods and engaging in unholy indulgence.
Shamblin's alimentary theology is quite different. "I believe God loves a chocolate brownie with extra nuts and whipped
cream," she told me. She argues that diets that encourage careful planning of menus or counting of calories are actually
the work of the Devil. "Look at what Satan has done with the weight-loss world," she writes in "The Weigh Down Diet." "He
has encouraged dieting, and our flesh has loved it because we did not have to take our heart off food, repent, change, or obey God."
Shamblin seems to be suggesting that slenderness is next to godliness, but she is careful to say that God himself doesn't
care what you look like. "I think God programmed you to care what you look like," she said. God is with her, she says, when
she goes shopping for clothes. "Look at the colors in the fall," she told me, gesturing through her office window. "He is so
good at colors." Shamblin, who is a former cheerleader, describes herself as having a crush on God. "I think he is
fabulously, wonderfully good-looking," she told me. "I think he is a lot more normal than we think. I think he is delightful
and has got a great sense of humor. He is so powerful, so rich, so famous. He has got on designer clothes."
Shamblin's depiction of God as the cutest guy on the football team appears to make sense to her audience, which is largely female.
In October, she went to Toronto to make a rare public appearance, at a vast, modern Pentecostal church, and before she took to the
stage people in the audience were invited to speak. A hefty, middle-aged woman in a pink shirt sobbed as she said, "The Lord has delivered me from Little Debbie cakes." A chunky woman in a fuzzy orange sweater said dryly, "God has freed me from my addiction to
salads. I can go into a restaurant and have a cheeseburger. And he has freed me from exercise addiction." At this, the members
of the audience--there were about seven hundred of them--burst into applause. A blond woman wearing a tight turtleneck and narrow
pants was bubbling over with excitement as she spoke. "God has set me free from the love of food," she said. "I was fat
because I didn't want men looking at me. But now I can stand up and wear clothes like this, because God says it's O.K.
to look cool. Chocolate is wonderful, but Jesus is so much sweeter." The crowd--all women except for a handful of men--cheered and
sighed. It was the kind of audience you might find at a Tony Bennett concert, but these women were swooning for the Lord.
Shamblin takes every word of the Bible as divinely inspired, but she interprets it as if it were a contemporary diet manual.
Thus the fatted calf that was prepared for the Prodigal Son is evidence that God approves of filet mignon. Other dietary directives
from God that are found in the Good Book begin with original sin--the cardinal instance of overeating--and extend to divine refutations
of low-carbohydrate diets. "It is sad to see that so many professional dieters have gone against the body's need for bread,"
Shamblin writes. "Jesus said, `I am the bread of life.'" She cites the second chapter of Leviticus, in which there is an account of
the preparation of a grain offering made with flour, oil, and salt. "My, that grain offering is very similar to our present-day Frito!"
Biblical scholars point out that the Bible is filled with food imagery because it was written for an audience that was hungry all the time,
for whom the idea of Heaven as a banquet--Luke 13:29--must have had a lurid potency. Today, the preoccupation with food in
the Bible is resonant for the opposite reason: Americans have too much to eat. About sixty per cent of adult Americans are
overweight, and more than a third of those are obese. Earlier Christian-diet activists advocated denial, but Shamblin dwells in
the region where the Bible meets Madison Avenue in a hearty celebration of consumption.
Shamblin's dietary monitions are, in many ways, sound. "I enjoy all foods in moderation," she says, which is a mainstay of
healthy eating. Studies have shown that although depriving overweight people of their favorite foods may effect immediate
weight loss, that loss is often not sustainable over the long term. She offers an astute critique of the nation's thirty-four-billion-dollar
diet industry, which she feels encourages people not to refrain from overeating but to consume fat-free cookies and other treats
by the bagful. "Dieting . . . has created and exacerbated an excused greed that has grown to monumental heights in this
country," she writes in "Rise Above."
But many of Shamblin's arguments are controversial. She thinks that vitamin supplements are unnecessary, and she is dubious about
the benefits of exercise, because, she says, it is merely another form of enslavement; the only exercise Shamblin recommends is
for people to get down on their knees and pray. She has no patience with the self-help ethos that has prevailed in the past few years,
in which behaviors that have traditionally been thought of as sins, such as overeating, drinking, and drug use, have been labelled
as addictions. She told me, "There's a view that if you're fat there is something wrong with you--it is genetic, it is congenital, it is
inherited, it is your mother's fault"; she is skeptical of the suggestion that there could be any explanation for obesity
other than downright disobedience to God. The natural state of man is slender, she said. "If you look at National Geographic
magazine pictures taken in Third World countries where food is not the addiction--I am not referring to pictures of starving
people--you will see that God made people's bodies to be lean," Shamblin writes in "The Weigh Down Diet." She doesn't believe
that there is such a thing as a genetic predisposition to fat. "Let's go back to the Holocaust," she suggested to me. "To the
concentration camps, where there was less food. What person genetically predisposed to obesity was in there, out of the
millions and millions that died? When they ate less food, they became emaciated."
Shamblin claims that Weigh Down offers empirical evidence of the existence of God: her followers wish to lose weight; they turn
to God, and lose weight--ergo, God exists. Whatever Shamblin's powers as a theologian or a logician, such conviction has emboldened
her to tackle larger issues than fatness.
"About a year and a half ago, I felt the Scriptures getting clearer," she told me over lunch, and her eyes welled up with
tears. "My eyes were opening up to more and more of God's pain. I was waking up to the fact that there was more to be
done. I was running into people who had gained back all their weight. Then I realized that there was a discrepancy: they were
going to a Thursday-night Weigh Down class and hearing one thing, and on Sunday morning they were hearing a different thing."
Church leaders, she said, are telling their congregations that God knew that men would never be able to stop sinning, so he sent
Jesus among them so that his blood would serve as their salvation.This message, according to Shamblin, is nothing more than a license
to sin, because it allows Christians to believe that any wrongdoing will automatically be forgiven, and that they aren't strong enough
to do the right thing in the first place. Shamblin believes that the church should be a place of holy terror, but instead it "has
become a community--it helps you wash your car on the weekend or it helps you find a job." Churches have become like restaurant
franchises, she says, all competing for the same customers and luring them with attractive offers. Americans have had a hard
time learning the lesson of submission to God because this country has a strong culture of self-reliance. "You were taught, 'God helps
those who help themselves,' " she said. "But that is not how I see it." Surrender is "the key that unlocks most of life."
Eighteen months ago, Shamblin said, she felt called by God to start her own church. She was encouraged by her husband, David
Shamblin, an affable fellow with a large belly who serves as the C.E.O. of Weigh Down. The Remnant Fellowship has since grown to
around eighty members, some of whom work for Weigh Down. The church's name is derived from the Book of Ezra ("The Lord our God has been gracious in leaving us a remnant and giving us a firm place in his sanctuary. . . . He has granted us new life to rebuild
the house of our God and repair its ruins").
Shamblin's new vocation as a religious authority has led her into a major controversy with church leaders. A furor arose last
fall, after a weekly E-mail that Shamblin circulates to followers included a discussion of her understanding of the Holy Trinity.
She stated her belief that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost were not equals, as the Christian church has officially held since
the First Council of Nicaea, in the fourth century, but that the Trinity is a hierarchy, with God at the top. Shamblin's statement
received wide publicity in the Christian press: the question of whether she was a heretic was raised in the pages of Christianity
Today, and the Christian publishing house Thomas Nelson, which was to have published her latest book in September, severed relations
with her. Pastors nationwide cancelled their Weigh Down programs, and on-line Christian bulletin boards were filled with anxious
inquiries from Weigh Down followers who feared that they had unwittingly joined a cult. Other observers expressed the hope that Shamblin, who has had no theological training, simply didn't realize that her view of the Trinity amounted to heresy.
Shamblin says that she meant exactly what she said. "There is a hierarchy, absolutely," she told me. "Look at Jesus on the
Cross. Who did he cry out to when he said, `My God, my God, why have you forsaken me'--himself?" Indeed, the inequality
of God and Jesus is the basis of the Weigh Down philosophy: "The only way that I could talk people into not going into the pantry
at ten o'clock at night was to help them see that even God's son was so humble and knew that God was so great, and that we are
to follow him."
Even before the Trinity flap, Shamblin's religious teachings had unsettled some of the Weigh Down workers. Five former employees
have filed lawsuits alleging that Shamblin pressured them to join Remnant, and forced them out of their jobs at Weigh Down because
they were at theological odds with her. One of them, Tonya Cardente, worked until last June as a counsellor, speaking with Weigh Down participants who telephoned, looking for support. Cardente told me, "People were calling in and saying that they had not been
walking in obedience"--they had fallen off the diet wagon--"and that they were wondering whether they were going to lose their
salvation." Cardente couldn't bring herself to follow the Weigh Down line, which contradicted everything that she had learned
about God's forgiveness.
Shamblin insists that no one at Weigh Down is required to join Remnant, and if anyone has felt pressure to join she suggests
that its source is divine. "Do people's consciences feel pricked because every time I talked I would say something bold, like 'You
have got to lay down this sin'?" she asked me. Shamblin suggested that, in any case, Weigh Down, which has about
fifty employees, is exempt from laws preventing discrimination on religious grounds, just as the Mormon Church is. When we spoke
again a few weeks later, she had another argument. "All that I ever required was what every employer requires--that you support
the products, and you support the author," she said. "The confusion comes in because my product happens to be religion.
Never did I tell anyone they had to use the product. Remnant happens to be one of our products, so to speak. We are
encouraging fellowship based on repentance."
In Franklin, I attended Remnant's Wednesday-evening service, which took place in a warehouse at the back of the Weigh Down
headquarters.There were around fifty worshippers in attendance: fat people and thin people; lots of small children; hardly a soul
looked older than fifty. I saw one black family. Remnant has no pastor or priest--it is patterned on the meetings of the first
Christians, who did not employ ministers--so the service was conducted rather like an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. There
was a series of catchy praise songs to kick things off; Shamblin joined in, vigorously shaking a tambourine. Afterward, a microphone
was handed around the congregation. When it reached Shamblin, she spoke of the need to relinquish one's appetites--"dying to
your will," as she puts it. "Dying is such a hard thing to do," she said. "It is a profound mystery, but you are happier when
you die. Do I look dead from dying?" She sat erect and bright-eyed and beaming, while in her lap lay a sleeping child--one congregant
who had been unable to keep up with her elders' inexhaustible enthusiasm.
In the church that Shamblin attended as a child, women were not permitted to preach. That, she believes, is the way things
should be. "How could anyone read the Bible and not see that men are meant to lead?" she asked me. It is ordained that
women should be subservient to their husbands, but the lesson of wifely submission is a hard one for modern women to learn--it
was hard even for Shamblin, growing up amid the burgeoning social liberalism of the nineteen-seventies. She said the hardest part
of dying to her own will has been submitting to her husband. "A few years ago, we had some financial difficulties, which he thought
should be solved by selling our house," she told me. "I had sponge-painted the walls; I had made the curtains. But I went
to God, and the Bible fell open to a passage where it said anyone who gives up his house or his home for my sake will receive back
tenfold. So I went from room to room and said, `God, you can have this room.' I gave up every room. Yes, I've died." Since then,
the financial difficulties have been resolved, and the Shamblins now live in a historic house in Franklin.
It pains Shamblin that it has taken a woman to deliver her message. "I knew when I wrote this stuff that it was not
right for a woman to do this," she said as we sat in her office and she snacked on some candy. "I felt so sorry for God that
there wasn't a man doing it. I felt sorry for God that everybody wasn't bowing down." But under extreme circumstances, she
believes, women may become the messengers of God. "The Book of Joel says that, in the last days, God will pour out his
spirit on men and women, and both men and women will prophesy," she said. She believes that the last days may be upon us, and
says that the Trinity controversy and the lawsuits by former staff members may be God's way of testing her and her hard-core
followers, just as he did in Biblical times.
But she is pressing on. Shamblin is working on a new book, to be published under the Weigh Down imprint. In it she will present
an extended metaphor of her own devising, in which God is portrayed as a benevolent C.E.O. and Satan as a rebellious ex-employee who is casting dissent among God's other workers. She is also marketing a new series of videotapes, "Weigh Down at Home," which are designed to motivate dieters on the nights when they don't attend Weigh Down meetings. Shamblin says that she regularly fields
suggestions that she should have her own radio or television show, and although she says she'd dread doing it, she adds that this
might be a period in her life when such a development would be appropriate. "It may be that God leads me that way," she said.
Then there is the Remnant Fellowship. She and her husband, along with the other church members, are building a new place
of worship, and they hope that construction will be completed within the next year. The forty-acre plot of land on which the
structure is to rise is several miles from the Weigh Down headquarters, and some local planning commissioners expressed concern that the Remnant building was simply an expansion of Weigh Down, and thus should be zoned as a business. After deliberation, the commission decided that Remnant was, indeed, a house of God. Ground will be broken in the spring.
copyright 2001, Rebecca Mead
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