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Snickers, sin, and salvation: the Puritan themes of TV's 'The Biggest Loser'

Puritans confronted the weight of sin. The obese contestants on 'The Biggest Loser' face up to the sin of weight. Both know that willpower alone isn't enough to conquer bad habits.

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In 1678, when the Puritan John Bunyan wanted to share his message of redemption from sin with the masses, he used a book-length allegory – at the time, a popular platform. If he were alive today, Bunyan would probably use a correspondingly demotic medium: reality TV. And the program he would create, if it didn’t already exist, might be “The Biggest Loser,” in which obese contestants compete to lose the most weight.

“The Biggest Loser” is a modern-day allegory of self-transformation, one that speaks to our culture as compellingly as "The Pilgrim’s Progress" spoke to that of our forebears. Being on “The Biggest Loser” – or striving to lose a lot of weight under any circumstances – really is a kind of pilgrimage, one beset by the usual hazards of temptation, weakness, and doubt. It’s a journey one makes in the direction of self-mastery through a hostile landscape studded with fast food and malevolent coworkers bearing baked goods.

Willpower plus practical wisdom

What this show demonstrates is that willpower is weak, and without practical wisdom unlikely to triumph. We are likely to have more success, to cite one relevant example, keeping ice cream out of the house than resisting its siren call from the freezer. The good news is that even the weak of will have opportunities to constrain their own choices, if only they acknowledge their weakness and take up arms against it.

At the same time, the show and its many knock-offs vividly dramatize the challenge of moderation – that virtue of virtues – in a world of freedom and affluence.

They are cautionary tales about the ways in which we can fall short of our own fondest wishes for ourselves by succumbing to powerful unwanted desires on a daily basis. Each indulgence of these appetites is insignificant in itself – What’s one bite? – but taken together they can impose a burden heavy enough to warp our lives.

For "Biggest Loser" contestants, being selected for the program is a dream come true. Most of the contestants are so heavy they seem beyond hope of redemption. They have a great weight they’re trying to shed, just as Bunyan’s Everyman hero, Christian, is trying to do with the weight strapped to his back.

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