As I prepared for a week of eating only wild-foraged foods there was a lot of chatter online about the recent popularity of cleanses, where people go for a period of time only drinking juice, or following some other regimen of limited foods that supposedly cleans out impurities from the body. Much of the conversation in recent weeks has been driven by an article by Judith Shulevitz at the New Republic, "Jesus and Moses Went on Cleanses, That doesn't mean you should." The more accurate description of the article is visible in the web URL that titles the piece, "The idiotic-cleanse-craze-and-modern-theology-juice-fasts."
What caught my attention is not just the controversy about the merits of calorie-depriving cleanses, but the strong religious streak to the movement. Shulevitz notes how similar they are to religious fasts and argues that this is really what drives the movement:
...people don’t afflict themselves for their health, or not only for that. I won’t be the first to point out that cleanses look a lot like religious fasts or that people crave the transcendence that comes from self-deprivation.
According to Shulevitz it's an existential acting out in response to a world envisioned as poisoned. In the laymans terms, the world is full of $#@$ and therefore we are a full of $%@#, and cleanses are a way to clean out the you know what. It's original sin reduced to terms that even a middle schooler could understand and some would argue that the movement has the sophistication of junior high boys when it comes to the digestive system. The books apparently spend a lot of time on the topic of defecation.
Most mainstream doctors and scientists are highly critical of the cleanse movement as Shulevitz notes. As a pastor who sat at the bedside of a dead parishioner who chose homeophathic cleanses and diets to cure her cancer instead of chemotherapy I join with those doctors and scientists in their criticism. It is dangerous and irresponsible to make unproven claims about the health benefits and curative powers of diet and herbal remedies. When I see such assertions arise in the organic/slow food/real food conversation it drives me crazy.
But I'm more interested in the spiritual/religious aspects of the movement. Should pastors and theologians be just as skeptical of these pseudo-scientific detox regimens as the doctors and scientists? I don't think so.
Shulevitz is right to identify the movement as primarily an expression of spiritual longing and we in the church ought to take note. Just as we have abandoned fasting as a spiritual practice the void has been filled by pseudo-religious movements that take seriously the real connection between body, mind, and spirit. This is the part the cleansers get right and the church, these days, mostly gets wrong.
I just finished a week of eating wild-foraged foods. Here in the Inland Northwest that means I spent a week eating mostly huckleberries, call it my Huckleberry Cleanse. I didn't go into it with visions of dirty toxins in my intestines. It was a personal challenge and I did have in mind the experience of Israel in the wilderness foraging for manna every day for 40 years.
I have to admit I come away from the experience feeling some affinity for the "Cleaners."
It did reset my body and mind and awaken my spirit in new ways. It did clear my body of the high-salt and high-fat diet I gravitate toward. I did lose 10 pounds and here on the morning after I'm not nearly as hungry as I was a week ago before my foraging began. It's easier for me to concentrate and I feel psychologically in a better place. The first coulple days were a hassle but after that there was a strange peace and quiet that settled on me as I experienced freedom from the tyranny of hungers that clutter my mind. In a sense I feel clean.
I've had a similar awakening every time I've fasted. Last year when I followed the dietary regimen of Ramadan, going daylight hours without food or drink, I felt empowered and peaceful. When our family joined with our local Greek Orthodox congregation for their Advent and Lenten fasts last year we experienced spiritual renewal and a strengthening of family and communal bonds. When we followed the Kosher food laws for a month we experienced renewal in our family life. In my experience, intentional fasting has the potential for spiritual growth and renewal.
It's been an important practice for most of the history of God's people in the Bible and in the Christian church, but in the modern west it has fallen victim to the spirit/body divide imposed on the church by the Enlightenment and modernity. (That's my assessment that I'll flesh out more later.) Not even Catholics do fish Fridays anymore and Protestants are mostly left to our own whims when it comes to Lent. We're missing out.
Shulevitz is wrong. "Jesus and Moses Went on Cleanses," and we should to.
The church in the west would do well to listen to the spiritual longings expressed by those who are turning to colonics and cleanses for help in this crazy fragmented world we live in. They are looking to put the pieces together, body, mind, and spirit. What does the church have to offer them? We have a treasure trove of resources if we dig a little into our history, and it's not based on scatologically obsessed pseudo-science, it's based on the Bible, on the life of Jesus, and on the experience of the early church.
And contrary to the Cleanse movement these practices lead us to embrace the body as good and holy, as sacred space.
(This post is part of an ongoing inquiry into food practices in the church supported by a grant from the Louisville Institute. Find out more about the Tables of Plenty Project here.)