Doug Wilson posted a video this spring detailing his distaste for the gym. Specifically, his distaste for bodybuilding. It’s ironic and perhaps inappropriate for an overweight man to criticize those who are perhaps extreme in their physical fitness, but at least are on the better end of the spectrum than himself.
It’s fair to say that there are some things wrong with bodybuilding, but in order to do so accurately we must distinguish between various things that go by that title. What bodybuilding is often associated with can be a number of unrelated things, some good and some bad: Steroid use. Excessive tanning. Muscular development. Self-confidence. Masculinity. Power. Strength. Health. Addiction. Narcissism. Self-doubt. Fear of rejection. Exhibitionism. Blackness. Drug use. Obsessive compulsive disorder. Homosexuality. Players. Christianity. Hedonism. Fascism. Militarism.
These are just a few of the things that come to mind regarding bodybuilding. Clearly not all of these are immoral or irrational. Clearly some of them, from a pro-white and Christian standpoint, are both immoral and irrational.
So what exactly was the good reverend criticizing in his video? He was not criticizing the occasional bout of fitness inspired by a doctor’s advice, or a general desire to feel better and be healthier.
What Wilson criticized was bodybuilding’s alleged lack of a telos, or end. Essentially he argued that beyond the normal health benefits from a modest amount of exercise, bodybuilding has no purpose, no ultimate point. Therefore, it’s at best a waste of time and at most a display of an emotional disorder.
What I would ask is, if that’s true, what is the point of any art or sport? Does Wilson believe that all of those should be ruled out by Christians as legitimate fields in which to excel, either as amateurs (like Olympians or competitive choir singers) or professionals (like Major League Baseball players or world-class performance artists)?
Let’s look at music. What is the point of music? Some Christians distinguish between sacred and secular music, drawing the line between music that is about God or used in worship, and that which is not. But why distinguish between music connected with the worship of God, and music that is simply beautiful? Music can be used as a part of worship, yes, but the point of music itself is not worship any more than the point of food is worship or the point of medicine is worship. The point of music, food, medicine, and all endeavors is to glorify God, and glorifying God is not something confined to the activities of corporate or private devotions.
We run into this pattern of thinking in much of American Protestantism. It boils down to a Christianized version of utilitarianism which draws that distinction between the sacred and the secular. If it’s not immediately useful or necessary to the sacred purpose of life — to glorify God and enjoy Him forever — or those biological functions which sustain it, such as eating and basic medical care, then this version of Christianity says we should ditch it, or at least relegate it to those unsaved masses over there. That’s part of how we got to where we are today as a culture largely devoid of Christian influence — the abandonment of much of the arts, politics, business, and media to secularists who saw no reason to disparage those fields. What this does is limit Christians to those few things that are indispensable to one’s salvation, namely, the preached Gospel, the printed Bible, the sacraments, prayer, and the cultivation of personal holiness. Even food, hygiene, and shelter aren’t necessary to salvation. So we can ditch those, too, which is much of the impulse behind Christian asceticism. After all, what is their telos if this life is simply a way station on my pilgrimage to Heaven, nothing more?
Because he’s a postmillennial Reformed Presbyterian, I don’t believe that Wilson buys into this philosophy in most things. His theological school teaches Christians to take dominion in all facets of life, in this world and the next. That’s why his disparagement of bodybuilding is surprising. Just like filmmaking, fictional literature, the Olympic sports, baseball, basketball, hockey, football, soccer, racecar driving, or a million other amateur and professional pursuits not essential to our salvation or sanctification, bodybuilding can be a field in which Christians enjoy the good gifts God has given on this earth and maximize their gifts in order to glorify Him.
How do Christians glorify God through bodybuilding? Well, how do they glorify Him through work as a NASCAR auto mechanic? Through designing a beautiful building? Through cooking delicious food? It’s not just the utility of the thing that glorifies God. It’s not just buildings used for worship, or buildings used for housing the homeless that glorify God. Designing buildings that are beautiful glorifies God because beauty has an inherent worth in God’s sight. Ditto for the food, even if it’s food that we shouldn’t eat at every meal. Think of a great dessert or fine cuisine that wouldn’t make it on the Weight Watchers meal plan. The chef or baker who prepares that food can nonetheless glorify God in so doing simply because he created something delicious.
If you’re still not convinced, then what about sex? What about alcohol? If you enjoy either for their own sakes, and not for the benefits that they bring — whether procreation or lower rates of heart disease — does that make your enjoyment of them illegitimate? No. God gave them both as gifts, and it is our privilege to enjoy them to the full, within the boundaries God has commanded for them.
So too with bodybuilding. Unfortunately, as I’ll write about in a separate piece, much of what passes for bodybuilding is outside the boundaries God has given for enjoying and maximizing the gifts of physical strength and beauty. The abuse of the gift, however, does not negate or make illegitimate the gift. If it did, we’d all be celibate, fast every day, never drink alcohol, never paint, never sing, and so on.
So on this count, Wilson misspoke. Bodybuilding does have a telos. Its telos is to glorify God and enjoy Him — right now, in this life — and into further eternity.
Wilson also criticized bodybuilding’s alleged roots in obsession over one’s appearances or self-worth. This is simply a smear. Just as with designing beautiful architecture, working on a song, perfecting a recipe, or improving one’s time in the 100m dash, regularly spending time in the gym to add strength, muscle mass, and definition to one’s body is the cultivation of beauty and excellence with the gifts God has given. This implicitly glorifies God, who gave the bodies, the health, and the everyday miracles of His created order that makes such strength and beauty possible.
Is the gift of strength and beauty perverted by many people who pursue bodybuilding? Are there bodybuilders who have emotional shortcomings and try to conceal their real problems? Sure. But again, the abuse of the gift does not delegitimize the gift or bar us from using and enjoying it. The same happens with music, acting, writing, leadership, entrepreneurship, and every other facet of life. Sin pervades every area of life, but the grace of God can sanctify every area of life to our use and enjoyment, and to the glory of God. Just as there can be drug-addled football players, musicians, and politicians, there can be godly, humble football players, musicians, and politicians — and we’re tremendously grateful for them when they exist. So too with bodybuilders, powerlifters, Olympians, and all who excel in the fields in which God has gifted them.