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Retouched Bodies

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Two stories in the New York Times this morning caught my eye, or rather, their juxtaposition did. The first concerns efforts of a French lawmaker to have retouched photographs used in advertising labeled as retouched. The second reports that the American Society of Plastic Surgeons has revised its policy about a technique for breast augmentation that uses fat suctioned from the hips or thighs.

The French lawmaker, Valérie Boyer, has two teenage daughters. Reflecting on the way they respond to images of idealized beauty has made her want to show them just how fake the ideal is. As the article notes, almost all advertising photos are digitally altered. Her proposal, if it becomes law, would require advertising photographs displayed or published in France to carry a label saying that they are retouched. The debate has expanded to include what constitutes beauty and whether advertising photos should be considered art.

Retouched photos falsify something, but what? And let’s face it: we are talking mostly about photos that make women look thinner, younger, and more sexually appealing. In fact, why stop at altering photos? Why not alter women’s bodies to make them more attractive?

That’s where the second article comes in. Some plastic surgeons have been doing it for years, but the procedure was frowned upon by their professional society. Now the society has revised its policy. The procedure involves liposuctioning fat cells from the hips or thighs and injecting them into the breasts to make them larger. It’s easy to see the benefits. No artificial implants; the injected material comes from your own body. You can make your breasts bigger and your thighs smaller just by shifting some of your own fat.

We not only retouch photos of women to make them more attractive, now we can retouch the women themselves, and in a way that merely involves redistributing their fat. Aren’t both processes driven by the same discontents? Which should I prefer—and which do I prefer—the artificial beauty of airbrushed perfection and impossible proportions? Or the natural beauty of an open countenance and a sincere heart?

Judging only by bumper stickers, more tourists travel to South Dakota to see Wall Drug than go to see the Badlands or the Black Hills. I’m not sure what this says about people, but it doesn’t feel right. It feels like the same sort of thing that drives some of us to prize artificial beauty.

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Christians Caused Crash?

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The headline on this month’s issue of The Atlantic piqued my interest. “Did Christianity Cause the Crash? How Preachers Are Spreading a Gospel of Debt,” it read. I couldn’t wait to dig in. I wasn’t far into the article, however, before I discovered that here was no far-reaching indictment of Christian economics. Instead, it was an article linking the preaching of the so-called prosperity gospel to foreclosures and rampant consumer debt.

Let me digress for a moment to deplore the use of questions in headlines to make them sound sensational. In this case, the headline makes it seem as if their is some kind of energetic debate among economists about the role of Christianity in the global economic crisis. If there is such a debate, the author never mentions it. Instead, the question seems to be addressed to readers, as if the readers might be better informed about the topic than the journalist or as if forming an opinion based on the limited information available in the article is just as valid as forming one based on extensive research into the facts. I see more and more of this kind of headline, for example, “Is Google the New Evil Empire?” I don’t know; you tell me.

The article in The Atlantic contains a good summary of prosperity gospel teaching and its origins and principle advocates. Nevertheless, the author, Hanna Rosin, produces only one salient fact connecting the crash to the prosperity gospel:

“Demographically, the growth of the prosperity gospel tracks fairly closely to the pattern of foreclosure hot spots. Both spread in two particular kinds of communities—the exurban middle class and the urban poor.”

To make the leap from this kind of correlation to the causation suggested in the headline requires more faith than I can muster. The causes of the crash have been well established: cheap credit, subprime loans, consumer overconfidence, corporate greed in the financial system, speculation in risky investments. Into this mix we now throw a few preachers assuring people that God wants them to have piles of money. Did those preachers tip the scales and cause the crash? Wasn’t their influence relatively minor in comparison with the pervasive cultural pressures to leverage debt and look successful?

The prosperity gospel is no gospel at all. It winks at greed and makes poverty a sin. There is nothing in it of Jesus’ compassion for the poor and suffering and nothing in it of the kind of self-sacrifice that has characterized Christians down through the ages. There is simply no scriptural warrant for believing that God wants to bless Christians in general with financial success. The riches of his kingdom, freely available to all, are not the kind that gather dust in a safety deposit box. They are spiritual treasures stored up in heaven for those who value the pursuit of his kingdom above every other concern, even their own life.

Neither Jesus nor the apostles condemned the rich for their wealth, nor did they criticize the poor for their poverty. They warned the rich against trusting in their wealth, and they comforted the poor with promises of riches in eternity. The apostles were realists. They knew that not everyone could become rich. They knew that those who make wealth their goal “fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction” (1 Tim 6:9). Much as I would like to have a little more money, especially now that I am unemployed, I prefer not having to deal with ruin and destruction. Life is more than money. Much more.

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