February 1, 2011
For more than fifty years, Jack LaLanne has been a presence on American television. In 1952 he began an early-morning televised exercise program on a station in Oakland, geared towards housewives. From that small beginning, his program became a fixture on television as he preached the gospel of health through exercise. In more recent years, he has been a familiar figure on infomercials, marketing his juicers and doing feats to show his remarkable fitness as a man in his eighties. But that was only a small slice of his crusade to change the way Americans lived. He opened what is thought to be the first health club, invented exercise machines, and performed a series of stunts that brought attention not only to his own remarkable fitness, but also to his message: “I had to be people believing in me.”
LaLanne was a man on a mission: “The crusade is never off my mind – the exercise I do, the food I eat, the thoughts I think. To me, this one thing, physical culture and nutrition, is the salvation of America.” As he told one interviewer, “It is a religion with me. It’s a way of life. Billy Graham was for the hereafter. I’m for the here and now.”
By the time Jack LaLanne died at the age of 96 in late January, he had become part of a health movement that has reshaped America, as well as many Americans. “Back then I was a crackpot,” he said. “But now I’m a success.” And there is much to be thankful for in his emphasis on the value of exercise and the importance of good nutrition. The reality is that physical fitness has been raised to cultic status among many who pay more attention to their bodies than anything else at life. At the same time, we face the obesity crisis that threatens the lives of too many of our children.
But, for all that, Jack LaLanne’s gospel had nothing to say for his greatest need in life. His may have been a religion, but it could not hold back the finality of death. He may have staved it off for a few years, but the pneumonia that took his life had the last word. It is a vivid reminder that a religion that only speaks to the here and now leaves us weaponless in the end. It is unchangeably true that “man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). And even for the here-and-now, LaLanne’s gospel falls short. The apostle Paul gives us wise counsel: “While bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:8).
Hit the gym. Watch your diet. But beware of paying even more attention to your soul. don’t miss the lesson: A gospel only for the here and now isn’t a gospel at all.