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Starvation Stunts and Authentic Spiritual Discipline

Benjamin S. Cole

David Blaine wants you to believe that he has done something newsworthy. In case youíre not familiar with Americaís newest magician, illusionist and stunt-artist, then you simply have not been reading the newspaper or watching your television.

In May 2002, Blaine stood on a 24-meter high flagpole in New York for 25 consecutive hours without a safety net. In November 2000, he encased himself in a six-ton block of ice in New York Cityís Time Square for 58 hours. Heís even been known to stop by innocent city-dwellers and levitate himself for kicks and thrills. Heís part Harry Houdini, part David Copperfield, and part Evil Knieval. Some would say heís part stupid.

And now David Blaine has starved himself. Over the past 44 days, Blaine has lived in a clear plastic box suspended over the River Thames in London, England, without any food and surviving on limited rations of water daily. He began experiencing an irregular heartbeat last week. According to reports from British doctors, Blaine now weighs four stones (25 kg) less than he did when climbed into his box more than six weeks ago.

Since he first entered his box, Blaine has withstood ceaselessly taunts and jeers. People set up barbecue pits and let the smoke waft Blaineís way. On more than one occasion heís been pelted with eggs and golf balls. One bystander was fined for tampering with Blaineís water supply. Others have shamelessly bared their breasts and buttocks in Blaineís general direction. 

Why exactly Blaine wanted to starve himself is uncertain. That he garnered worldwide media attention is unsurprising. Even I have been caught up in the daily reports about Blaineís health condition. For some reason Blaine has captured our attention, and now he is sipping vitamin-enhanced juice packs in a London hospital.

Not too long ago a number of Southern Baptist pastors were obsessed with the rewards of prolonged fasting. Booklets were published on the subject, each claiming to teach the secret to divine power. I can remember conventions past and the gaunt faces of more than one Baptist preacher who had just emerged from his all-too-public juice diet, I mean, forty-day fast.

In reflecting on this, I am reminded of some things that Jesus had to say about fasting and spiritual discipline.

First, itís not a publicity stunt.  I seem to remember Jesus saying something about going into your closet for prayer and anointing your head when you fast. Second, itís not to arrest the attention of God or to force his hand. But if you read what some prominent pastors have written on the subject, you might end up thinking Jesus was some kind of dietary consultant peddling his juice extractor on the Home Shopping Network.

And when I think about Jesusí own forty-day fast in the wilderness of temptation, I cannot help but recognize just how far removed Blaineís starvation stunt is from the experience of Christ. Not to mention the juice-your-way-to-power fasts of well-meaning preachers.

Jesusí fast was a real fast, a total and complete exercise in self-denial. And when he was taunted, tempted and ridiculed by Satan during the ordeal, Jesus demonstrated for all time that manís source of life is not to be found in bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

So while David Blaine was lifted to a lofty spot above the River Thames, Christ was taken to a very high place and offered the kingdoms of the world. And when Jesus came down, he wasnít rushed to a hospital; he was led to a cross.

And while some preachers would have you sip your juice and reveal anew that bothersome habit of Christís disciples to compromise his teaching, Jesus defeated Satan not with a little food or a little juice, but by the integrity of his life enabled by the Spirit.

October 22, 2003

Benjamin S. Cole is a Baptist minister who recently completed his M.Div. at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC, and has returned to his home in Dallas, Texas. He intends to begin doctoral work in church-state studies at Baylor University this coming year. Mr. Cole can be reached for comment here.

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