Unbiblical Evangelicalism: Lessons from Rick Warren’s “Daniel Diet”

Posted on 12/22/12 13 Comments

The other day while watching an episode of Brian Williams’ program “Rock Center” I learned that Pastor Rick Warren is on a new crusade to lose weight, and help his Saddleback Church do the same. He’s lost fifty pounds so far and his church collective has dropped more than two hundred thousand pounds. Not only is that good for the heart, its also seeker sensitive as it leaves more room in the padded pews for newcomers. So I don’t care to disparage the diet at all.Before I started The Daniel Diet I was this wide!

The make-up of the diet makes sense as well. Eat seventy percent fresh fruits and vegetables (I said fresh: maraschino cherries and chocolate covered raisins don’t count) and thirty percent grains and goodness (the “goodness” is my own addition since I forget what came after grains, but rest assurred it wasn’t red meat).

So what is the name of this new eating plan? Warren calls it The Daniel Diet and supposedly “bases” it on Daniel 1:12-13 where we read that while Daniel and his friends lived in Babylon, they said to the king:

“Please test your servants for ten days: Give us nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink. 13 Then compare our appearance with that of the young men who eat the royal food, and treat your servants in accordance with what you see.”

So because Daniel and his homeboys had only vegetables and water we should have, er, seventy percent vegetables and fruit (and thirty percent grains and other stuff) along with the water. (Perhaps Warren drew up his diet from The Amplified Bible Version.)

* * *

Sounds interesting. However, I have a much better biblical mandate for losing weight. I call it “The Elijah Diet”, for we read in 1 Kings 17:2-4:

2 Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah: 3 “Leave here, turn eastward and hide in the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan. 4 You will drink from the brook, and I have directed the ravens to supply you with food there.”

5 So he did what the Lord had told him. He went to the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan, and stayed there. 6 The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the brook.”

The great thing about this diet is that it includes meat for every morning and evening meal. The bad news is that  you are required to have access to a brook (storm sewers and garden hoses do not qualify). The worse news is that you also need a trained raven to bring you your meal.

If you can’t find a brook or a raven, then you could try my second option. I call it “The Moses Diet”. Based on Exodus 16 it is a diet of quail and manna. Unfortunately when I tested this diet the manna never appeared on my front lawn. (One morning I found a dinner roll near the driveway but it turns out my wife had left it out of sympathy.) So I was reduced to finding new ways to chow down on quail: deep-fried, diced, steamed, fricasseed … sigh.

But if you really want to get serious about weight loss you should try the golden standard. I call it “The Jesus Diet”. You can read about it in Luke 4:1-2:

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.

Believe me, Mr. Warren. The Jesus Diet is beautiful in its simplicity. You don’t have to worry about seventy percent of this and thirty percent of that. Just eat one hundred percent of nothing.

* * *

Needless to say, the point of this silly exercise is to point out that Warren’s “biblical’ diet is not really what it claims to be. The Bible isn’t wearing the trousers here. It’s not providing a life guide for eating. As the Rock Center story pointed out, when Warren decided that he needed to lose weight he consulted four nutritionists. After learning from these folk what a balanced diet looked like he arbitrarily selected a verse from the Bible to “baptize” their good advice and thereby make it “biblical”. (The fact that “Daniel Diet” is alliterated is merely a bonus.)

Christian Smith refers to this as “biblicism” by which he means “a particular theory about and style of using the Bible that is defined by a constellation of related assumptions and beliefs about the Bible’s nature, purpose, and function.” (Smith, The Bible Made Impossible, Brazos, 2011, 4). Smith then identifies ten characteristics of biblicism, the last of which is the most relevant for this discussion:

“Handbook Model; The Bible teaches doctrine and morals with every affirmation that it makes sense, so that together those affirmations comprise something like a handbook or textbook for Christian belief and living, a compendium of divine and therefore inerrant teachings on a full array of subjects–including science, economics, health, politics, and romance.” (The Bible Made Impossible, 5.)

Smith goes on to list two pages of book titles that exemplify the simplistic biblicist Handbook assumption, including the following:

Bible Answers for Every Need,

Scientific Facts in the Bible: 100 Reasons to Believe the Bible is Supernatural in Origin,

The Biblical Connection to the Stars and Stripes: A Nation’s Godly Principles Embodied in Its Flag,

Gardening with Biblical Plants,

Biblical Economics: A Commonsense Guide to Our Daily Bread.

As Smith observes, “Clearly masses of American Christians are biblicists who expect the Bible to be able to speak with authority on a nearly limitless range of topics….” (10)

The fundamental flaw in all these approaches is embodied in Warren’s Daniel Diet. As I already pointed out, he didn’t go to the Bible to get diet advice. He went to several nutritionists and then found a verse to prooftext whatever they told him. As I noted above, it’s also a poor prooftext since one hundred percent vegetables is not seventy percent fresh fruit and vegetables with thirty percent grains and whatever else. And of course in claiming this verse Warren completely ignores the unique situation of Daniel and his comrades as they are striving to maintain their unique cultural and religious identity whilst living under foreign occupation.

To think that this kind of engagement with the text makes one biblical is just as absurdly reductionistic as thinking that pinning a Union Jack button to your lapel makes you British. If anything, the staggering superficiality of the whole project shows just how unbiblical mainstream evangelicalism really is.



  • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

    Let us return to Jesus Christ. It’s staggering how far, and in how many ways, we have strayed from Him.

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      Yes, just so long as we don’t reduce that mandate to buying a WWJD? bracelet.

      • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

        Perhaps you will consider writing a post on what constitutes a true return to Christ.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/David-Evans/100000619020207 David Evans

    I think we are entitled to regard grains and fruits as vegetable. They’re not animal or mineral, that’s for sure.

  • Puchinpappy

    I think in the push to be relevant and the pressures of weekly sermons weighing heavy on pastors the temptation towards “biblicism” is very real. I also see
    this in the media psychologists and Christian sound bite segments on the radio and internet. One sees it in abundance as smarmy giftware at the Christian
    bookstore. Take a look at the scripture passages they use with greeting cards,
    it so often misses the mark of the passage they are tacking onto a birthday
    card. To communicate this way one must start with the relevant item of interest
    and work backwards. It is harder work to start in the text and come forward
    because it might not match what you really want to say (and therein lays the
    problem). The local pastor feels the competition with the media darlings so we
    get series of sermons that have to do with marriage and family, scientific
    evidence or politics cloaked in Christian heritage. I like the practice of the lectionary used by many churches. Evangelicals could take a lesson and be encouraged to preach from a choice of several passages each week instead of playing potter or therapeutic massager with a passage that lacks exposition.

    I look forward to looking at Smith’s book.

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      The lectionary is an excellent guide though lectionaries still skip large sections of the Bible (e.g. the imprecatory psalms). What is more, they also leave it wide open for the pastor to interpret the passage. In “The Bible Made Impossible” Smith provides a list of the ways that the woman at the well pericope in John 4 has been interpreted. It is definitely eye-opening.

  • epicurus

    Does Warren often engage in unbiblical evangelicalism, or is this a blip?

    • Puchinpappy

      If there was a trend towards this kind of reasoning, I don’t believe that it is any different than many other preachers. Sometimes what seems logical at the time does not stand up to honest scrutiny. I think the lesson for a prominent preacher or a pastor in the trenches is to let the scripture lead and not lose that discipline. What is missing in using Daniel as the example is that, as Randal points out, there is so much more missing that is useful for understanding the this text.
      Scrutinizing Warren at this distance also leaves out the possibility that there is a more complete and reasonable pastoral plan to the diet that we do not know about.
      I don’t think that one can make Warren the poster boy for unbiblical evangelicalism. He has done very well with his ministry model within the context of his community.
      Go to any denominational meeting and there will be at least one address to the pastors present to lead with the scripture. It is a reminder that everyone needs from time to time.

  • Crude

    Merry Christmas, Randal.

    I’m not really a big Warren fan, but I don’t think there’s much wrong with this kind of – for lack of a better word – syncretism. I think the criticism here may be that Warren may well be doing it to make a buck, but relating a practice to the bible or such seems not only harmless in many cases, but positive at times.

    Granted, you can abuse this and go overboard, but what can’t you do that with?

  • becca

    If you look at Jewish tradition, the food Daniel and the other three captives ate was called “pulse” which means anything that grew from seeds – including vegetables, fruits, and grains (of course). I’m sure you can find, in Jewish historical documents, the typical percentages of each of the various seed-grown foods eaten at each meal. It is noted in the article above, that Rick first contacted nutritionists, not the Word of God… is the author certain of this or is it only speculation? In either case, the Word does have something to say about every aspect of our lives, including nutrition; if we believe we have discovered something on our own (for instance, a healthy diet/lifestyle) we are certain to find confirmation or negation in the Bible.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kate.law.925 Kate Law

    wow, such sour grapes from this author.

  • Tammie Wilson

    I appreciate the time you took in careful consideration of Pastor Warren’s attempt to not only help himself to be healthier, but also assist his followers to reap the same benefits. What I do not understand is why you have found it necessary to demean something that has obviously no evil intention or personal gain, but to help themselves and others. What is the driving force behind all of this anger and cynicism? Is there anything good that came from this commentary? If so please express what you feel your time and good effort has accomplished. Spiritual or no, blatant meanness and malicious behavior is not a productive way to spend ones day. I hope that these words fall on an ear that can receive criticism constructively as this would be the first route to handing criticism for it’s best intent, which to help. At least if the criticism has any goodness in it. May your day be filled with positive and kind thoughts. Best regard, Tammie Wilson

  • Mike Spencer

    What’s wrong with this? It is a mishandling of God’s word. It is a distraction from the mission. We are not instructed to use the Bible to, if I can quote another great distraction of the sheep, “have our best life now”. The Book of Daniel is not about your diet or lifestyle, it is about an unwavering faith in an all-powerful God who will save you from sin and death through His perfect Son. Jesus, the son of God (The Son of man); who lived the perfect life that we could not live in order to be the perfect sacrifice for our sins, and because He is risen, his followers will rise as well. Stop distracting the sheep, Rick!