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Dare to Do the Daniel Diet

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The "Daniel Diet" launched by Pastor Rick Warren at Saddleback Community Church has a lot of people talking. About a month ago, a national paper asked me to comment on this latest plan from a passionately creative Christian leader. It was the health editor. Never talked to a health editor before, ever. I rarely talk to a health provider. So besides unwillingness to criticize a brother in public over a totally unimportant issue, about which I knew nothing except for what the editor told me, I declined in short order.

Yet now here TIME magazine spotlights the "Daniel Diet"-and does such a good job with it, I thought, that something larger is worth bringing to the table (no pun intended). In a land where almost anything with the word "diet" in it sells, "spirituality" isn't far down the list either. Together, the world's their oyster. Now, if we can get sex, spirituality, and diet in the same program, I'm guessing we'd see that one at the airport.

What intrigued me about the TIME article was the author's keen exegetical skills. I'll explain in a minute.

When I was growing up, the Old Testament was a quarry from which to sculpt heroic examples to emulate. "Dare to Be a Daniel" meant something like "Man up-don't be afraid of lions." You do your part, and God will watch your back.

Still in that genre, the "Daniel Diet" focuses predictably on what obsesses most Americans today: obesity. Understandably. To badly paraphrase Isaiah, I am out of shape and dwell among an out-of-shape people. I have lost a few pounds, am back in the gym, but my wife keeps telling me that it's not about fad diets but about daily decisions. "Just think about what you're doing," she tells me. The point is, I don't need Daniel-or the Bible-to tell me I need to get fit. And a diet of seeds and water that Daniel and his Jewish compadres endured may not even be healthy.

It all goes back to the human-centered way of reading the Bible, as if God were a supporting actor in our drama, rather our being cast as beneficiaries of his bounty in Christ. We appeal to statistics to convince people that prayer makes us happier, healthier, and more fulfilled than non-prayers. Leviticus is relevant only if we can explain how the dietary laws somehow reveal secret principles of universal health, when that wasn't the point of these laws at all. Their purpose was to separate Israel from the nations: the "clean/unclean" separation, keeping a pure line leading to the Messiah. That distinction was dissolved with Christ's advent, as Peter was told by God in the dream in Acts 10:9-19. Pork is as acceptable as chicken now, just as in Christ believing Gentiles are co-heirs with Jews.

The problem with the moralizing interpretations familiar to us is not only that they focus the story on us rather than on God and his work in history, centering on Christ; it's that precisely in making it about us, we trivialize the greatest story ever told. No wonder so many people assume that the Bible is simply a collection of tips for life.

Elizabeth Dias, the author of the TIME article puts his finger on the right issue: "But the historical context of the Book of Daniel suggests that the text in fact has very little to do with diet or health." (Read more here.)

Appealing to Choon-Leong Seow, an Old Testament professor at Princeton Seminary, Dias notes, that "Daniel is less a story of resisting rich food than a story of resisting a foreign king." "Daniel and his friends resisted the king's table, Seow says, as a tangible expression of their reliance on God's power instead of the king's." "If the text were actually about diet, Seow argues, there would be evidence that the king's table violated Jewish food laws. A Jewish diet would have meant no pork, Seow notes, but most other meats, slaughtered properly, are O.K. Wine too is permissible. Nor does the text give any indication that the king's food had been offered to idols, which is another thing that would have made it off-limits to the young Jews."

Dias, who studied with Seow, points out, "It's no surprise many people don't realize this, since English translations sometimes miss the original emphasis the Bible places on contrasting what the king could give Daniel (earthly pleasures) and what God could give him (something much greater). 'The point is not the triumph of vegetarianism or even the triumph of piety or the triumph of wisdom,' Seow concludes, 'but the triumph of God.'"

Wow! Talk about getting the point! Just then, though, Dias drifts toward another form of moralizing the story. Daniel's actions were mainly about solidarity with his oppressed fellow-Jews. "There's a lesson or two here for a modern culture in which the income and opportunity gap grows wider every day." The Book of Daniel may not be about a diet plan. "Still, it's the call for restraint, for choosing not to get drunk on excess, that may be the Book of Daniel's most powerful message. Not only does this benefit the privileged, but also the needy, who may then have a chance to enjoy the choicest portions too, as opposed just society's leftovers. That's a message Daniel himself would probably celebrate and support."

Predictably, evangelicals often use Daniel for personal well-being and moral uplift, while mainliners go for the social justice angle. In both cases, the story is about us and what we can use from it for our self-crafting and world-crafting projects. Yet something more wonderful is lying there in Daniel waiting to be discovered! Even in exile, God is faithful to his covenant people. The most powerful king in the region of that day is not Lord, as it turns out. Yahweh is. (That's what the actions of Daniel and his friends, the fiery furnace, and the visions are all about.) With the vision of the four beasts (or kingdoms) in chapter 7, the message becomes crystal-clear: The Ancient of Days takes his throne in the courtroom and the "Son of Man" appears. All of the empires are shaken, but this kingdom that will arise has no end. "But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, forever and ever'" (Dan 7:18). The prophecies go on to relate in apocalyptic imagery the triumph of the Son of Man over the earthly empires. God has the last word in the book: "'But go your way till the end. And you shall rest and shall stand in your allotted place at the end of days'" (Dan 12:13).

It's this prophecy that Hebrews announces as having been fulfilled with Christ's coming: Everything that can be shaken will be, "in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain." "Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and awe" (Heb 12:26-28). In this version, God has the starring role. He is building his kingdom, installing his Messiah on his holy hill, and we're recipients of the victory he has won-for us and for the whole world. Now that's a headline story!


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  • Guest - John

    I think the most ironic "Bible food" spin is made by Ezekiel 4:9 Breads. They promote their alternative grain breads with Ezekiel 4:9's admonition to "Take also unto thee Wheat, and Barley, and beans, and lentils, and millet, and Spelt, and put them in one vessel, and make bread of it..." (as spelled on their web site). What they leave out is that Ezekiel was to make this bread while tied up on his side using human feces, then cow dung when he objected!

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  • Guest - Aaron

    Why would you call Rick Warren a brother when he preaches a false gospel?

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  • Guest - Dave Coats

    "Just then, though, Dias drifts toward another form of moralizing the story." She hits the nail squarely on the head and then can't restrain herself from paying homage to her false gods and idols. What a great example of our shared human condition and why we need to be constantly fed with word and sacrament!

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  • Guest - Debbie Gilliam

    Honestly, the best diet I have experienced is to Feast on the Words of our Savior, Jesus Christ. If I am eating out of boredom, I need to pick up my scriptures and read. If I am thirsting for knowledge, I study and pray. If I want to help my spirit be in tune with our Savior, I deny my body any excess of food. I want to be healthy, but not to indulge in more than is needed for my body. If I want more, I pray for self discipline and distract myself by turning my attention to helping others. I have told my children, you cannot have too much love or drinks of water, be careful about the rest.

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  • Guest - chuck

    in order to do this diet, do i need to become a enuach? what about my friends?

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  • [...] might have heard about the Daniel diet? It is quite the rage ins some churches. Here Mike Horton discusses the underlying hermeneutic. It is a helpful [...]

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  • Guest - Douglas

    The Scriptures used in "The Daniel Plan" and "The Daniel Diet" have been twisted like those twisted in The Purpose Driven® Life to promote a particular teaching of a man. This is not the first time nor will it be the last time the Scriptures are twisted to promote certain teachings. How are Christians supposed to cope with constant Scripture twisting? How can a person who constantly twists the Scriptures be called a brother??? I thought Christians weren't in the habit of twisting the Scriptures and if they were convicted of that sin then they would confess it and repent of it? Has no Christian pointed out this sin to the brother?

    Please help me, I am absolutely disillusioned.

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  • [...] From this post Share this:FacebookTwitterEmailLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Tags Evangelicals, Morality, Perceptions, Personal well-being Categories Bible, Culture, Discipleship, Social Justice [...]

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  • [...] can read the entire article here. Share this:Like this:LikeBe the first to like [...]

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  • Guest - Julie

    I doubt if this will ever get published on this website, (although other "inflammatory" remarks above certainly were), but this is the reason I stopped going to a reformed church: You bash without even acknowledging your bashing. You couch it in bible quotes and intellectualism. In addition, all the sermons I ever heard were just apologetics for the reformed faith. Yeah, the "heart" of God was like a four letter word. Not biblical enough, I guess. What a shame.

    There's nothing wrong with promoting healthier eating in the church where obesity and ill health are RAMPANT everywhere. It's not Satan worship or even wrong thinking. Every Daniel Fast devotion I ever read just brought me closer to God.

    I'm so done with haters and superiority. Please. Just step down and take one good look at yourselves.

    It's a shame this won't ever get printed, but at least someone read it. Please think about the spoken word which can never be taken back. Stop polarizing the church and find common denominators. Please.

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