As a teenager, Pastor Phanta Lansden battled obesity, anxiety, and self-doubt, as many young people do. She was bullied because of her weight. By the time she reached her mid-20s, she weighed almost 300 pounds. Later, as senior pastor of St. James Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, North Carolina, she knew she had to take action to lose weight.

According to Presbyterians Today, Lansden began with a five-pound weight-loss goal. “Once I hit the five, I celebrated,” she said; “then I said, ‘I’ll do five more.’ When I got to 30 pounds, I said, ‘I’m going to buy myself a new outfit.’” In the end, she lost over 100 pounds, and in 2019 she completed the Charlotte Marathon.

Faith and fitness are now central to Lansden’s ministry. Seniors take part in fitness classes at her church, and members of all ages join the CROP Hunger Walk each October. She stresses good nutrition as well. “As a pastor, I challenge people to think of ways we can eat healthier,” Lansden said. For example, when the congregation hosts funeral receptions, they may have heart-healthy baked chicken alongside the fried chicken.

This is a challenge, because food is such a big part of culture that it is hard to abandon — even when it is unhealthy. “It’s just thinking of ways to shift the culture to think healthier,” she said. “The healing journey manifests in our spirits, minds and bodies. God desires that we live whole.” In all of the meals that Jesus shared with others, from the wedding feast at Cana to the Last Supper in Jerusalem, Jesus showed a desire for people to eat well, enjoy God’s abundant goodness, and “live whole.”

Body and Spirit

In my novel Windows of the Heavens, a Methodist pastor named Harley Camden discovers that a church member has a secret collection of erotic books, and this leads him to reflect on the relationship between body and spirit.

Are erotic books really such a dark secret? Harley remembers that in Dante’s Inferno, the lustful were sent to the second ring of hell, where they were punished by being blown back and forth by strong winds. This was a terrible fate for the lustful, and it prevented them from finding any peace or rest.

But at the same time, Harley knows that this was simply the second ring of hell. These souls were not being punished as severely as the people in rings three through nine, who had committed the sins of gluttony, greed, anger, heresy, violence, fraud, or worst of all, treachery. For Dante, lust was bad enough to deserve condemnation, but it was far less serious than all of the other sins.

Psychosomatic Unity

Perhaps, thinks Harley, a penchant for erotic books can be tolerated because the human body is a gift of God, part of the creation that God had declared to be good. The ancient Hebrews believed that the spirit and the body were united — “psychosomatic unity” is what Harley’s divinity school professors called it — and they saw feasting and dancing and touching and lovemaking as part of a good and faithful life. Jesus himself had no problem with human bodies, and was well known for the ways in which he fed people and healed them, often with a physical touch.

It was the Greeks who saw the spirit and the body as separate, and their high view of the spirit and low view of the body eventually influenced Christianity, leading many people to believe that their bodily appetites were dirty, disgusting, and evil.

Harley knows that suspicion of the body and its natural impulses, grounded in Greek philosophy, had caused many members of his church to become overly obsessed with their weight or their sexuality, leading to self-loathing and even self-destructive behaviors.

Like Phanta Lansden, Harley knows that God wants us to keep body and spirit together, in our faith, fitness, nutrition, and sexuality. God wants us to “live whole.”

Want to explore this topic more? Check out Windows of the Heavens.