Somatics, Semiotics, and the Study of Religions: Concepts and Approaches Reconsidered

  • Martin Radermacher
Part of the Popular Culture, Religion and Society. A Social-Scientific Approach book series (POPCULT, volume 2)


In this chapter, I draw on Sect.  3.1 and try to answer once more to one of the central questions of this study: How and why does devotional fitness work? This question aims at understanding how the identity of devotional fitness programs is created and also at conceptualizing devotional fitness programs in a theoretically fruitful manner. As I have tried to show in the previous chapters, the identity of programs stems from the way they relate to their environment. From that, I turn to more general considerations about how the study of devotional fitness may tell us something about how discursive identity is construed, about the dichotomy of the religious and the secular, and issues of practice and practicing. Finally, I also reconsider the approach of combining semiotics and somatics.


Identity construction Dichotomy religious vs. secular Practicing religion Theorizing devotional fitness Semiotics and somatics 


Constructing Identity from Difference

It is crucial to this study that there is a difference between institutionalized, congregationally implemented evangelical fitness programs (exercise programs in churches, groups, and organizations) and the discourse “devotional fitness.” These are two interdependent levels that shape each other. The advantage of speaking of devotional fitness as a discourse is that I can include communications from sources that institutionally would not be regarded as evangelical or even Christian. I have shown in the chapters above that the discourse “devotional fitness” extends into wider Christian and ‘secular’ discourses. Institutional settings (churches, congregations, and ministries) are connected to the discourse insofar as they realize many of its suppositions and provide the necessary organizational frame and means to practice devotional fitness. I have also not focused on individual motivations and inter-subjective perceptions in my analysis but used these the reconstruct the broader communicative system.

Often based on motifs emerging in the Christian and evangelical context, this discourse transforms continually and appears in settings that are not necessarily Christian. I have nonetheless characterized devotional fitness as “embodied evangelicalism” in order to highlight the fact that the discourse mainly feeds on evangelical tropes and is in many cases manifested in evangelical contexts. This does not exclude appearances of the discourse in different, non-evangelical settings as it transforms and adapts to other contexts (think, e.g., of Williamson’s Course in Weight Loss and fitness classes in mainline Protestant and Catholic1 denominations).

“Devotional fitness” as a terminus technicus is a communicative reduction and ‘condensation,’ a concept and perspective summarizing certain observable phenomena. These phenomena are (semiotic and somatic) communications in the widest sense, and they have specific characteristics that allow for summarizing them under the umbrella term “devotional fitness.” These specific characteristics are not absolute, but relative. In other words, I cannot say of a certain communication or practice that it belongs in the field of devotional fitness at all times for this and that reason. What I can say, on the contrary, is that a certain element I recorded belongs in the field of devotional fitness because it has been communicated in relation to other communications and that this interrelation and the way the elements refer to each other and are hierarchized and semanticized, is ‘of devotional fitness.’ The element “body as temple,” e.g., has been used in the temperance movement in the beginning of the twentieth century. It was not connected to reducing and working out, and, therefore, cannot be regarded as part of an early discourse of devotional fitness. Today, however, it is often used as a basic premise of evangelical fitness programs as it is connected to different practices and issues which are at stake in contemporary US society. Certain fitness practices and poses, as I have shown in Sect.  7.5, are equally present in yoga and devotional fitness. In the one case, yoga, they are not at all embedded in a Christian context while, in the other, they are unquestionably of devotional fitness.

In short, the context determines whether any given communication belongs to the field of devotional fitness. From that, I conclude that specific communicative elements may sometimes belong to devotional fitness, while at other times, in different contexts, they do not belong to devotional fitness.

Communications of any kind (verbal, acoustic, practical) are considered to belong to devotional fitness if they are related to the notion of the body being the temple of (the Christian) God in combination with the idea that the body as God’s temple has to be kept in shape in order to do God’s work on earth. Keeping it ‘in shape’ practically refers to physically strengthening the body and forming its shape according to the slimness and fitness ideal. Apparently used in ‘non-Christian’ contexts too, this ideal at the core of devotional fitness highlights the deeply entangled character of devotional fitness. Thus, we have the three basic elements which make up a discursive context that allows for using the term “devotional fitness”: The body/temple-motif, a specific notion of health, and the ideal of physical ‘perfection’ of the body.

Devotional fitness is a discourse that takes up communications from other discourses (evangelical Christianity, ‘secular’ society, medicine, non-Christian dieting and fitness, and yoga; see Chap.  7). These elements are recontextualized and resemanticized in the process of import. Having a slender body, for example, is no longer a merely individual goal, influenced by fashion ideals and a body-focused culture—it is meant to glorify God. Walking as an athletic practice is no longer merely ‘healthy’ but an occasion for enjoying God’s creation. In the face of these contexts, programs often draw their identity from what they are not. They claim to be, e.g., not a diet but a lifestyle, not one-sided but holistic, not idolizing the body and appearance but continually worshipping to God, not yoga but Christian fitness.

The identity of devotional fitness is fluid yet distinct, dynamic but clearly recognizable. In this regard, the discourse ‘struggles’ with the same problem so many participants deal with: the search for identity and the need to find their ‘true self.’ To make no mistake, the discourse as a completely abstract realm cannot struggle nor find a true self. Structurally, however, on both the discursive and the personal level, identity appears, from a researcher’s perspective, dynamic and relational. Protagonists in the field, on the contrary, more often embrace the idea that there is something like an absolute or stable identity that one has not yet found personally, or that one has to defend communicatively.

The distancing and clear positioning as a Christian program are formulated in implicit and explicit theologies of the body (Sect.  6.4), including a distinct set of values, such as modesty and relationships, and proper practices (Sect.  6.1). The identity—consisting of theology, value-ideas, practices, and the like, and emerging from negotiations at different discursive contact zones—is visualized in logos, i.e., visual symbolism, which show Christian icons such as the fish or the cross as well as ‘profane’ items from the fitness world. These visual symbols (intentionally) illustrate how elements from different contexts are drawn together. In this way, the iconic level parallels ideological and practical levels that are also shaped by combinations, mergers, and overlappings. These logos mirror the entangled reality of practicing devotional fitness and are visual markers of dedifferentiation .

In much of this study, especially in Chap.  7, I have argued that programs of devotional fitness approach and, at the same time, reject practices and value-ideas circulating in their cultural environment, in this way constructing a distinct identity by resemanticizing and re-relating these elements within their specific conceptual frame. We observe this not just in dieting in fitness, but in entirely every societal and cultural area (books, movies, magazines, fashion etc.). Evangelicals are able to ‘Christianize’ almost everything. I hypothesize, on the grounds of cultural semiotics, that religious semiotic systems produce a dynamic stock of communicative elements when protagonists recontextualize and thus semanticize elements they draw from their cultural environment. One can shed light on processes of identity construction by examining how discourses adapt and reshape existing communicative motifs and practices. I have developed this hypothesis with regard to the evangelical fitness and dieting scene in the United States, but it may well serve as a general tool to consider evangelicals’ construction of identities in related contexts too.

In this study, I tried to demonstrate how and in relation to which areas of society the “evangelical dance of engagement and distinction,” as Gerber calls it on the basis of Christian Smith’s work (Gerber 2009, 407), takes place. While Gerber has primarily focused on how American “fat phobia” and associated value-ideas have been taken up and reshaped in First Place 4 Health, I attempted to integrate a larger set of practices and notions that exist in different societal areas and that are, in different ways and with different intentions, recontextualized and reshaped in devotional fitness culture. Christian Smith and Michael Emerson (1998) have, on a broader scale, argued that evangelicals in the United States draw much of their cultural impact from the ways in which they face societal plurality and are able to engage and interact with their non-Christian environment, a thesis that I could amplify and confirm with specific regard to devotional fitness.

These studies in mind, I have focused on the particular aspect of constructing identity. The identity of devotional fitness programs is created and produced in the ways protagonists and authors recontextualize and resemanticize elements of the cultural repertoire they have at their disposal. This identity does not emerge from within the discourse but from the way these programs differ from what they consider the ‘secular world,’ conventional biomedical Western medicine, non-Christian dieting programs, yoga, and their Christian environment. We see, then, that identity as a coherent meaning and symbolic system, linked to corresponding practices and forms of social organization, does not so much emerge from within devotional fitness but from the way protagonists relate to societal discourses.

These observations allow for an introduction of theoretical approaches that focus on the idea of difference as the core principle of creating social reality. In linguistics, for example, this idea has been famously proposed by Saussure, who assumed that linguistic signs are made from what distinguishes them from neighboring signs (Saussure [1916] de Saussure 1967, 145). Based on Saussure and others (e.g., Spencer-Brown 1999), Niklas Luhmann, in his systems theory, attributes a central role to difference as a basic theoretical concept. The system, in Luhmann’s terms, is the difference between system and environment. The difference between system and environment is the main feature of the system and it is produced and reproduced by the system itself in its operations—in social systems these operations are communications (Luhmann and Baecker 2006, 79–80). Identity, too, in Luhmann’s conception, is only possible through and by difference. The system needs to differ from its environment in order not to vanish (Luhmann 1985, 243). This is not the place to discuss Luhmann’s systems theory; my intention is merely to demonstrate that the notion of “identity from difference” is relatively well-established in the study of cultures and societies.

Like identities, differences are not ‘just there.’ They are made. For Luhmann, social systems operate on the basis of communications that are, at least analytically, independent of intentional subjects. Nonetheless, the necessity of continuously operating—or rather: communicating and practicing—is transferable to the discourse of devotional fitness.

Therefore, I argue that it is fruitful to focus on two aspects, not just in the study of Christian fitness programs but also in the broader study of religions and cultures: First, the ways in which discourses ‘are what they are not,’ i.e., how they relate to, differ from, and interact (directly and indirectly) with their environment, and second, the concrete, practical communications and communicative practices in the course of which this happens. In the tradition of the cultural turn, both these aspects suggest that ‘con-text’ (i.e., the environment of the phenomenon being researched) is at least equally important as ‘text’ (i.e., the phenomenon itself) and that focusing on the doing, communicating, embodying, and practicing of religion is a way of fruitfully engaging with the ever-transforming realities of people’s life worlds.

Dichotomy of ‘Secular’ Versus ‘Religious’

Throughout this book I have indicated that I do not fully agree with the dichotomy of ‘secular’ versus ‘religious’ on an analytical level. While this difference is real—and an integral part of their identity—from the perspective of participants in evangelical fitness culture, and for many ‘religious’ actors all over the world, it seems far too simplified to take over this distinction on a level of analysis. I have partially reproduced the distinction of ‘religious’ versus ‘secular’ when analyzing the interconnections of ‘secular’ societal discourse and that of devotional fitness only to question this same distinction by pointing out its constructive and entangled character (the ‘secular’ as a stereotyped other).

Within a materialist approach to religion, but on the basis of spatiality and religion, Marian Burchardt and Irene Becci make similar suggestions. Although the difference of secularism and religion belongs to the most effective mechanisms of social othering, they argue that concepts of the secular and the religious should always be researched as complementary terms (Burchardt and Becci 2013, 12). Speaking of the religious always involves the secular, and vice versa. Religions cannot exist without reference to the non-religious. However, the classification of empirical reality in religious and non-religious realms has increasingly been challenged by scholars of religion. Re-entangling the ‘secular’ and the ‘religious’ on a level of analysis is also in agreement with Csordas ’ demand for a collapse of dualities (Csordas 1990, 8), not just of body and soul, or subject and object, but also of secular and religious. It is, however, hardly possible to completely collapse this duality into a non-dual concept, because this would completely neglect people’s understandings of their life worlds. But, from an observer’s perspective, it is necessary to pay attention to the complementary and interdependent nature of this conceptual pair.

In this regard, previous studies of religion and dieting/sports in the United States have sometimes merely reproduced secularization narratives and considered dieting and sports as a means to fill the vacuum left by the vanishing of religion (see page 16 f). Other approaches, particularly Griffith’s, have instead tried to get hold of the complex relationships of religious and non-religious discourses in the shaping of contemporary body practices. Gerber, on the other hand, partially reproduces emic concepts of the secular and the religious when she points out that the central ambiguity of First Place 4 Health is that it can either be a spiritually enhanced secular program or a secularly influenced spiritual program (Gerber 2012). While this is in agreement with actors in the field, one may, from a researcher’s perspective, try to go beyond these categories and focus instead on how this difference is continually contested in religious practice.

Recently, Hubert Knoblauch has been among the prominent scholars in the German-speaking study of religions to argue for an understanding of contemporary religion that pays attention to the entanglements and overlappings of supposedly ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ spheres. Devotional fitness, I argue, may be analyzed from the perspective of “popular religion” in the sense of Knoblauch.2 It is an example of contemporary religion that both confirms and amplifies Knoblauch’s diagnosis. Examining devotional fitness programs thus helps to understand the basic features of contemporary popular religion in that it illustrates some of its characteristic features.

The term “popular religion,” according to Peter W. Williams (1980, 19), was first used in Louis Schneider’s and Sanford M. Dornbusch’s Popular Religion: Inspirational Books in America (Schneider and Dornbusch [1958] 1973). The term has since been employed in a plethora of ways.3 Here, I am deliberately referring to the way sociologist of religion Hubert Knoblauch understands the concept. The term “popular religion,” in his rendering, does not refer to “folk religion,” i.e., the religious expressions of laymen (the distinction of laymen and clergy is practically irrelevant in the study of evangelicalism anyway), or simply to the way popular culture establishes relations with religions, but to a conceptual perspective that pays attention to the intersections of religious and non-religious popular culture (Knoblauch 2009, 198). Knoblauch suggests for religious and popular discourses to overlap. The concept “popular religion,” in this case, focuses on contemporary religious phenomena specifically highlighting incidents of delimitation or dedifferentiation. That is, ‘religious’ discourses cross and intersect with ‘non-religious’ discourses on many levels and through different media. The concept “popular religion,” as I use it here, does not merely highlight the fact that devotional fitness takes up elements of non-religious popular culture. It rather should provide an understanding of devotional fitness beyond the religious/secular divide.

Besides this first trait of the concept (dedifferentiation ), popular religion as a concept also highlights the popularization of the religious, religious aspects of popular culture, and the fact that what used to be ‘religious’ meshes with popular culture (Knoblauch 2009, 193, 255). Traditional churches, for instance, take up means and media of popular culture when they begin to advertise themselves in ways similar to market-oriented companies (Knoblauch 2009, 194)—this is a specific marker of devotional fitness programs too. In fact, evangelical Christians have, consciously and unconsciously, adopted some of the basic ideas developed about the body in ‘New Age’ and other self-directed spiritualities, taking up concepts like “holism” and “healing.” Holism, e.g., is used in complementary and alternative medicine to express the idea that “both illness and healing need to be understood as encompassing physical, mental, emtional, spiritual and social factors” (Barcan 2011, 24). The same counts for the idea of the body as an individual project (Barcan 2011, 41).

On a different level of analysis, the religious dedifferentiates from the secular when formerly religious communications, once clear markers of religious institutions, reappear in popular culture and, vice versa, when elements formerly bound to popular culture, re-emerge in communications tied to religious institutions. This exchange of communications does not only refer to metaphorical symbols but also to ‘deeper’ topics and subjects originally monopolized by churches (Knoblauch 2009, 197). In short, the boundaries between the religious and the secular or popular become increasingly obsolete and blurry (Knoblauch 2009, 227).

It is important to note, however, that this kind of dedifferentiation does not, for believers, result in the dissolution of borders between the sacred and the profane. Churches and spiritual movements alike are eager to separate sacred realms from non-spiritual areas. In order to do so, while continuously integrating ‘non-religious’ media and practices, they have to rely on processes of thorough modification and resemanticization (Knoblauch 2009, 197). This is exactly what happens in devotional fitness programs when protagonists, despite their most visible endorsement of popular cultural value-ideas and practices, still consider their programs distinctly Christian. The re-entanglement of the religious and the secular on a level of analysis, therefore, needs to bear in mind that, for those being studied, this distinction is very real and relevant. As scholars of religion, however, we need to acknowledge the constructive character of this distinction and trace the processes whereby this border is contested and made meaningful. The scholar’s perspective, in conclusion, should not take religious and secular as given categories and, in this way, use emic concepts as analytical concepts.

Knoblauch’s concept intends to encompass many of today’s developments and currents in the religious scenery and is not restricted to certain religious traditions. Popular religion may refer to fundamentalist, Pentecostal, charismatic, evangelical, esoteric, and occult movements (Knoblauch 2009, 81).4 Although this approach widens the concept to a degree that has drawn some criticism, Knoblauch argues that all these discourses have basic similarities: they grow (sometimes rapidly); they often spread internationally; they embrace scientific knowledge to some extent (e.g., medical argumentations); they feature democratic forms of community (one might think of small groups and lean hierarchies in devotional fitness); they bring forward anti-institutionalism; and they seek meaning individually, based on personal experience (Knoblauch 2009, 81–82).

The concept “popular religion” (the same applies to “popular spirituality ”), in this specific definition, is not bound to specific religious traditions and focuses on systematic features—not so much on content, tradition, and ‘liturgical’ forms. Popular religion is a systematic category applying to certain discourses. It focuses not on their inherent identity but on the intersections of different discourses. That makes it useful for the intentions of this study which primarily focuses on discourses and not on institutions or congregational and denominational groups, and thus harvests the potential of discursive approaches.

Many of the characteristics associated with the concept “popular religion” or “popular spirituality” apply to the discourse of devotional fitness.5 With its focus on the individual body and the goal of internal and external transformation, devotional fitness clearly caters to individualism and emphasizes personal experience. Personal experience as a source of (spiritual) authority is particularly obvious in founders’ life stories, a general feature of evangelicalism which has always emphasized that conversion can only happen individually and that the individual must face God unmediated.

It is obvious by now that devotional fitness without doubt blurs the boundaries of supposedly religious and non-religious realms. Seemingly secular activities like aerobics and jogging are embedded in biblical legitimation and diet regimens supposedly revive biblical knowledge about the body and its needs. Fitness and dieting, crucial elements of contemporary popular culture, are resemanticized and ‘sacralized,’ so to speak. On the other hand, the ‘religious’ itself becomes popularized when biblical verses accompany seemingly ‘secular’ workout routines. On a superficial level, ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ discourses merely exchange motifs and slogans, for example when especially challenging workouts are accompanied by Philippians 4:13 (“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” King James Bible, 2003). On a deeper level, however, body images are theologically elaborated; attending to the body, keeping or making it fit, ‘healthy,’ and slim becomes an effort most agreeable to God.

It seems, therefore, that when we let go of the analytical categories of “religious” and “secular,” the object of research, “religion,” disappears as a self-evident category. Religion, then, is no longer a class of objects or empirical phenomena that is more or less definable and recognizable. Instead of identifying a typological class, “religion” becomes a perspective of research. It is not something scholars of religion simply ‘find,’ it is a concept they deliberately employ to describe and, potentially, understand certain aspects of people’s life worlds, bearing in mind the contested character of the religious and the secular.

Practice and Practicing

I have already noted that I consider practice and practicing of utmost importance in the making of religion, and I wish to reapproach these ideas from another angle, starting with Clifford Geertz’s oft-quoted, now ‘classical’ definition of religion6 in which he speaks of a “system of symbols” with several features, one of which is that the symbols in this system formulate “conceptions of a general order of existence” (Geertz [1966] 2009, 90). I do not intend to discuss Geertz’s definition at length (see, e.g., Talal Asad’s (1993) and Manuel A. Vásquez’s (2011, 212–21) critical assessments)—yet one of the examples he employs to illustrate his point provides a useful re-entrance into the questions at stake here.

Geertz writes that a “particular case of asceticism” may be an “example of a religious motivation” when it is “directed toward the achievement of an unconditioned end like nirvana” and, on the other hand, an example of ‘secular’ motivation when it is directed toward a “conditioned [end] like weight-reduction” (Geertz [1966] 2009, 98). Apart from the fact Geertz is also, at least implicitly, building on the religious/secular dichotomy, we are, when looking at devotional fitness, confronted with a similar, yet more intricate case: The end of weight-reduction itself is connected to “unconditioned” ends—ultimately living in God’s grace by fulfilling his purpose. Weight-reduction does not become an unconditioned end in itself, but the ‘conditioned’ end of weight-loss and the ‘unconditioned’ end of fulfilling God’s plan merge in devotional fitness. While Geertz’s distinction was probably meant to contrast ideal types, this example demonstrates the limitations of this approach and illustrates the re-entanglements of the ‘religious’ and the ‘secular.’

It also draws attention to the question: What is it that makes weight-reduction (or sports, or any other practice) ‘religious’? It is not the practice in itself that is ‘religious.’ The context, I argue, determines whether a practice is religious to those involved. Context, in turn, is not a static entity—it is also practiced and performed, and thus in continuous transformation. Courtney Bender suggests thinking of religion as practice—stressing the performative and process-related aspect of doing religion she uses the gerund (practicing)—and turning away from the idea that there just ‘are’ groups or institutions that are self-evidently ‘religious’ and others which are not (Bender 2003, ix–x). Turning away from ‘religious’ institutions and towards processes that make religion, Bender brings forward a view on religion in its discursive, embodied, and practiced entanglements. Religion does not end when the researcher leaves ‘the field’ and it does not end when we enter supposedly ‘secular’ realms. On the contrary, the ‘secular’ contains the ‘religious’ and vice versa. What is religious and what is not religious is constantly negotiated and renegotiated in both academic and non-academic discourses (Bender 2012b, 46). This negotiation does not have to be explicit. Rather, it may be understood as a continuous communicative practice that serves to contextualize and make sense of people’s needs, activities, rationales, and beliefs.

Vásquez supports similar practice-centered approaches which “explore religion in all its historicity, as a holistic process, not simply a product, of either symbolic systems or economic structures” (Vásquez 2011, 257). These approaches focus on embodied and emplaced religion that is negotiated in networks and “interaction among society, culture, psychology, and biology” and highlight religious experiences as they shape and take shape in everyday life (Vásquez 2011, 257).

The focus on doing religion is almost necessarily linked to various forms of embodiment. Instead of overusing this somewhat fuzzy concept, it is more useful to develop specific concepts that still highlight the valid claim of somatic approaches that the body and its role in making meaning should be a focus of research on religion. Based on research on Pentecostals in Ghana, Birgit Meyer has developed two such concepts that fit the somatic and material approaches to religion supported in this study and deserve a brief introduction as examples of useful concepts: “aesthetic formation” and “sensational form.” These terms have been development in the context of media usage but are, I argue, applicable to devotional fitness in the frame of the approach hitherto outlined. I introduce these concepts here as examples of instruments that fruitfully interlock with perspectives of practicing religion and embodying religion.

The concept “aesthetic formation,” derived from a critique of the “imagined community” (Anderson 2006), highlights processes of making community based on “shared aesthetics” that include members by way of their senses, experiences, and bodies (Meyer 2010, 7). Communities are not just imagined, they become real and experienceable in their sensory potential; they are not static, but always in process—therefore the term “formation” instead of “community” (Meyer 2010, 6–7). Similar to Cohen (1985; see page 41), Meyer turns away from the idea of sharing meaning and considers shared aesthetic experiences as the formative features of community. The communities in devotional fitness may well be analyzed from such a perspective. The physical perceptivity of the overweight or slim body, struggling with food-intake, convincing oneself of doing sports, shared images of the ‘perfect’ body, and experiencing weight-loss and weight-gain—these are the elements that make up devotional fitness groups as aesthetic formations. In the sense of aesthetics as a theoretical current outlined in Sect.  3.2, these practices are “the material basis for making sense. Meaning production is not disembodied and abstract, but deeply sensorial and material” (Meyer 2012, 28). Entering a Christian fitness group, people soon become acquainted with an imagery and sensory equipment that revolves around the young and slender body, movement, activity, health, and the gustatory and olfactory markers of eating ‘healthily.’ These aesthetic formations, together with the underlying theologies of the body, make and consolidate meaning.

In connection to the idea of aesthetic formations, Meyer also developed the concept of “sensational forms.” These “can best be understood as a condensation of practices, attitudes, and ideas that structure religious experiences” (Meyer 2010, 13). They are “relatively fixed, authorized modes of invoking and organizing access to the transcendental” (Meyer 2010, 13). In other words, sensational forms mediate the relationship to the transcendental; they are shared and transmitted in the course of religious practice. The sensational form is not meant in opposition to content or meaning but as a “necessary condition without which the latter cannot be conveyed” (Meyer 2010, 13). The body is a necessary component of these sensational forms when its “triple role” as “producer, transmitter and receiver of the transcendent” is acknowledged (Meyer 2012, 28)—functions of the body that I have emphasized throughout this study. As the analysis of devotional fitness has demonstrated, participating in the specific sensational forms of these programs tunes believers’ “sensorium […] through distinct, gendered techniques of the body” (Meyer 2012, 27). Sensational forms are repeatable and thus attain continuity and availability for the believer. Participants in devotional fitness classes, for instance, will regularly invoke similar movements, combined with music, lyrics, and an inner attitude or expectation, that enable them to experience the transcendent, i.e., their connection to God. The small group meeting itself, with its regular pattern, may also become a sensational form. In the center of this sensational form stands the body as a medium that has gained legitimacy over the course of a process that I have outlined in this book. Influenced by evangelical and non-evangelical discourses, the body became a medium to connect the individual to God. The authority with which protagonists reassure their followers that only the ‘healthy’ body is a body pleasing to God emerged as the result of a confluence of medical, social, evangelical, and fitness discourses, as I have demonstrated in Chaps.  4 and  5. These sensational forms always involve practice; they are not meant as a purely cognitive category.

Practicing—in whatever form it may occur—is, for the purpose of this study, conceptualized as communication (Sect.  3.2). That does not entail falling back into metaphors of language, structure, and textualism (as critiques suspect of Geertz’s approach; see, e.g., Vásquez 2011, 225), but highlights dynamic processes of negotiation and making meaning. Devotional fitness, to my mind, is an excellent case to show how the concept “religion” is constantly negotiated in discursive and embodied practice. This happens both explicitly—when outsiders argue that ‘this is not religious’ and that they are ‘just making money’ or ‘just shaping their bodies’—and implicitly—when practitioners ‘spiritualize’ seemingly non-spiritual activities. Aerobics may become a deeply spiritual experience when it is recontextualized with Christian praise music, scripture recitation, and an underlying theology of the body that requires believers to attend to their ‘temple’ and be ‘good stewards’ of their bodies. ‘Eating well’ and ‘living healthily’ may become features of a Christian life when they are performed and communicated in the knowledge that the Bible expects Christians to do so. The simple act of bookending a fitness session with prayer is an effective practical way to make fitness into religion and communicate about the specific identity of their program.

Semiotics and Somatics Reconsidered

At this point, it is time to reconsider the basic theoretical approach laid out as the foundation of this study in Sect.  3.2. Specifically the combination of semiotic and somatic approaches that I have already sketched above deserves reconsideration. Throughout this study, I have been eager to demonstrate the value of considering both the somatic practice and the discursive practice when looking at the ways in which shifts in meaning occur over time and in the course of exchange between neighboring discourses. Thus it was possible to detect semiotic shifts in relation to physical practice and, vice versa, the way in which physical practice is subject to changing rationalizations and legitimations.

Based on these considerations and studies outlined earlier (specifically Bender 2003, 2012a, b; Csordas 1990, 1994; Vásquez 2011; Meyer 2010, 2012), I would like to suggest a more integrative approach to these—only superficially different—levels of semiotics and somatics.

As I have emphasized throughout this book, the lived reality of human beings is not simply divided into a semiotic level (discourse, communication, and meaning) and a somatic level (physical practice and sensory perception). These spheres of experience are entangled. A way to integrate these areas also on the conceptual level is—in a first step of the argument—to use the overarching concept of practice (following Bender): From this perspective, semiotics refers to discursive practice and somatics refers to bodily practice. This approach directs the researcher’s attention towards the fact that what people do with (and to) their bodies is at least as important as what they say, argue, or discuss about. In a second step of the argument, however, it is necessary to take into account the deeply semiotic nature of all of social reality, including the ‘material’ and ‘somatic’ spheres (Cassirer [1960] 2007). In that sense, it is not useful to distinguish a somatic level from a semiotic level because the somatic itself is part of a semiotic system. The somatic, in short, is always meaningful. Practice, in this context, is symbolic communication too. Starting from the overarching concept of communication, the conceptualization arrives at different modes of communicating meaning, may they be gestural or physical movement, written or spoken language, music, art, or any other medium. It is the prominent position of the ‘language of the body’ that makes devotional fitness a particularly interesting communicative system different from older Protestant versions of semiotic systems. The way bodies look, move, feel, and are nurtured tells us a great deal about the underlying meaningful concepts of devotional fitness programs—and that is before we have started to read primary sources and interview participants: Simply observing a reducing or fitness event at a random bible church in the United States reveals the appreciation of the active, moving body, the aesthetics of the fitness center, and the valuation of a ‘healthy lifestyle.’ Of course, it is important and necessary to factor in participants’ motivations and leaders’ considerations but these are not more relevant. In consequence, it is possible to collapse the dichotomy of semiotics and somatics and investigate a field such as devotional fitness as a meaningful communicative system that is perpetuated in different modes and media.

The concept of communication used here has to be broad and includes, as I have mentioned a couple of times, not just written and spoken language but all other sorts of practice too: In devotional fitness, we may think of praying, meeting in bible studies, going for a run, grocery shopping, cooking with friends, meditating on scripture, etc. In the semiotic system of devotional fitness, which includes practice and the body as basic, meaningful elements, there are different media of signs that allow for an analytical distinction of the multitude of communicative elements. Depending on the context, different media may be preferred: Written and spoken language plays an important role in the context of conscious debate about the value-ideas purported in different programs. The human body as a medium, on the other hand, is relevant not so much on the conscious level but on the unconscious level. Without doing so intentionally, participants read their fellows’ ‘body language’ and communicate through their bodies too. Their habitus, as the internalized and somatically reproducible discourse, contains all the notions of how a body should look and how it should be used. On other occasions, bodies are explicitly read as instruments of God’s will and as outer markers of inner, spiritual values.

Without neglecting the body and its practice, this approach enables us to see that all different communicative elements (whether physical, verbal etc.) are set in relation to each other: They are hierarchized and, by their context, semanticized. The central value-idea of the body as God’s temple is the pivot based on which all other communicative elements are set within a new context and experience semiotic shifts. In this way, a slim body is not just a fashion trend but a way to glorify God; walking is not only modest endurance training, but a way to enjoy God’s creation while meditating on his message; yoga is not simply a fitness trend inspired by ‘Eastern’ practices and holistic ideas, but a distinctly Christian practice.

It is this specific relation of different semiotic elements which allows for an identity of programs to emerge. The concept of the discursive contact zone which I have introduced above to get hold of processes of social othering and identity building also refers to the somatic mode of communication. In these contact zones, merging and distancing not only happens by way of (spoken or written) discourse, but also through sign exchange on less explicit levels, particularly the somatic level. If evangelicals dance to Christian praise music with the intention to shape their bodies for God, they are engaging in a contact zone between popular fitness and evangelicalism, and their bodies become the subjects of contestation between these seemingly contradictory areas. Bodies ‘cross borders,’ so to speak, and integrate such different aspects as a lifestyle based on biblicism and the quest for a slender, young body. The somatic practice of devotional fitness thus has an integrative potential for subjects participating in these programs in that it allows them to transcend borders—both between Christian and non-Christian social spheres of society and between the immanent and the transcendent, their everyday life as someone struggling with weight issues and their personal relationship with Jesus.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Martin Radermacher
    • 1
  1. 1.Center for Religious Studies (CERES)Ruhr-UniversityBochumGermany

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