Monthly Archives: December 2013

‘Eating Heaven’ at Readings

Chris Gordon, Events Manager at Readings Bookstore, has offered some affirming words for Eating Heaven.

As we move towards our Christmas Day preparations for the ‘Meal to End All Meals’, with expectations heightened by all around you, let’s remember why we do this every single year, even if we are not religious, spiritual or family orientated. If you are feeling a little overwhelmed by all around you, this engaging and sweet little book is an easy-to-read demonstration of our most social of activities.

Author Simon Carey Holt is the senior minister of Melbourne’s Collins Street Baptist Church, and prior to becoming a minister, Simon qualified and worked as a chef. His book is not an ode to organized religion but more a study of humanity through various meal times. He writes about culture, society and Melbourne. The book reminds us that we live in a community and that our most precious gift to each other is sitting around a table together.

Eating Heaven shows us how eating together is the most meaning-laden activity of our life: it’s how we communicate, and how we survive.

You can find the online version here.

De Botton on the Table

The popular English philosopher Alain de Botton has gotten a mountain of press over his book Religion for Atheists, and not all of it glowing. I’ve commented on it more generally here. But what he says about the table is worth a separate mention.

In one of his early chapters, de Botton argues that embracing the stranger is a distinctive of genuine community. With its demise in daily life, he wonders if our disregard of the stranger picked up speed as we ‘ceased communally to honour our gods.’

History teaches us, he says, that as people unite in belief, worship and a common confession of dependence, other differences of class, race, economic or social standing recede. De Botton then looks at the religious ritual of the mass and the role it plays in drawing disparate people together, creating an expression of community rare in secular society. Where are the tables like this one, he asks, apart from religious belief?

svALAIN_narrowweb__300x444,0According to de Botton, while there is no shortage of venues where we eat together, there is a distinct lack of such places that actively encourage the turning of strangers into friends. Indeed, most common eating rituals demand no level of transformation at all: ‘Patrons will tend to leave restaurants much as they had entered them, the experience having merely reaffirmed existing tribal divisions.’

In a restaurant no less than in a home, when the meal itself — the texture of the escalopes or the moistness of the courgettes — has become the main attraction, we can be sure that something has gone awry.

Sitting down at a table with a group of strangers has the incomparable and odd benefit of making it a little more difficult to hate them with impunity. Prejudice and ethnic strife feed off abstraction.

With this critique in mind, de Botton imagines a table in secular society (he calls it the Agape restaurant) where our fear of strangers recedes, a place where ‘the poor would eat with the rich, the black with the white, the orthodox with the secular, the bipolar with the balanced, workers with managers, scientists with artists. The claustrophobic pressure to derive all of our satisfactions from our existing relationships would cease, as would our desire to gain status by accessing the so-called elite circles.’

Having imagined such a non-religious place, de Botton concludes by affirming the role religious communities like mine still play through our distinctive rituals of the shared table:

Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism have all made significant contributions to mainstream politics, but their relevance to the problems of community are arguably never greater than when they depart from the modern political script and remind us that there is also value to be had in standing in a hall with a hundred acquaintances and singing a hymn together or in ceremoniously washing a stranger’s feet or in sitting at a table with neighbours and partaking of lamb stew and conversation, the kinds of rituals which, as much as the deliberations inside parliaments and law courts, are what help to hold our fractious and fragile societies together.

While I certainly have doubts about the real possibility of de Botton’s imaginary table, I am also conscious of how far our religious tables can be from the same possibility.  Despite their radical nature, all too often we have made these tables tools of separation and exclusion rather than places of open welcome and hospitality. In this, de Botton’s words are challenging.

Nouwen on the table

7209‘Although the table is a place for intimacy, we all know how easily it can become a place of distance, hostility, and even hatred.  Precisely because the table is meant to be an intimate place, it easily becomes the place we experience the absence of intimacy.  The table reveals the tensions among us.  When husband and wife don’t talk to each other, when a child refuses to eat, when brothers and sisters bicker, when there are tense silences, then the table becomes hell, the place we least want to be.  The table is the barometer of family and community life.  Let’s do everything possible to make the table the place to celebrate intimacy.’

H. Nouwen, Meditation: The Barometer of Our Lives 

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