Category Archives: Food & Theology

Paying attention: vinaigrettes, onions, etc.

To cook is to engage with small things. It has to do with paying attention to the detail. However grand the result might be (or not be, for that matter), a recipe is an accumulation of small steps. As any good cook will attest, the quality of the end product is a direct consequence of one’s attention to the incremental. Vinaigrettes included.

IMG_1611I suspect the same is true in many pursuits. It is certainly so in theology. In his book The Supper of the Lamb, the late Robert Farrar Capon — a theologian and cook of equal passion — dedicates an entire chapter to the onion. His point is beautifully made and well worth the cost of the book. It is a call to attention, in cooking and in life. Here is just a small extract.

Next take one of the onions (preferably the best-looking), a paring knife, and a cutting board and sit down at the kitchen table. Do not attempt to stand at a counter through these opening measures. In fact, to do it justice, you should arrange to have sixty minutes or so free for this part of the exercise. Admittedly, spending an hour in the society of an onion may be something you have never done before. You feel, perhaps, a certain resistance to the project. Please don’t. As I shall show later, a number of highly profitable members of the race have undertaken it before you. Onions are excellent company.

Once you are seated, the first order of business is to address yourself to the onion at hand. (You must resist the temptation to feel silly. If necessary, close the doors so no one will see you; but do not give up out of embarrassment.) You will note, to begin with, that the onion is a thing, a being, just as you are. Savor that for a moment. The two of you sit here in mutual admiration. Together with knife, board, table, and chair, you are the constituents of a place in the highest sense of the word. This a Session, a meeting, a society of things.

150px-The_Supper_of_the_LambRobert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection, New York: Doubleday, 1969, 11.

The Providore of Heaven

A few weeks back I sat in a seminar led by a colleague in ministry, Nicholas Tuohy. Chef turned pastor, Nick has written a thesis on food in the gospels. In the course of conversation, Nick referred to God as ‘host and providore’. Honestly, I didn’t hear much beyond that. The second of these images struck a distracting chord, and one that lingers.

The idea of God as provider is, of course, nothing new. I’ve reflected on the notion of providence many times. It’s this more tangible and personal image of God as providore that helps me imagine providing as more than just a thing God does; it’s who God is.

Every Friday I shop at the Queen Vic Market. My providores are many. There’s Bill with his cheeses, dolmades and yoghurts. There’s Tan’s trestles weighed down with seasonal fruits and vegetables. There’s Jago, father and son, with their ordered display of meats that never varies, Judy and her fresh eggs, Joe’s poultry and game, and that brisk but anonymous woman who supplies the fresh pasta for our Sunday night dinner. As I see each one standing behind their produce, there’s abundance and beauty, honest work, connection between producer and product, and a relationship with customers that is so much more than conveyor belts, cash registers and plastic cards. The market itself is open to the elements, pungent, and often chaotic. As I push my trolley from shed to shed, there are puddles to navigate and overflowing garbage bins to avoid. No antiseptic aisles here. No piped music to sooth the consumptive spirit. And there in the thick of it are my providores, perspiring in the summer and rugged up in the winter.

There’s something about this that touches on the nature of God’s providence. In the creation story of Genesis, God’s creating and providing are one: God creates life and God sustains life. There are no degrees of separation, no progressive movement away from creation on God’s part. This is not the God of head office, the anonymous CEO of a global supermarket chain seeking market dominance. This is God the providore, creating, choosing, handling, connecting and feeding. This is God of the pantry not of the boardroom, a perspiring God who does not manage providence from afar but embodies it.

Eating, knowing and lust

‘Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, and “the eyes of both were opened and they knew they were naked …” (Gen 3.7) The Hebrew word “to know” can have sexual connotations … The knowledge that Adam and Eve acquired included the knowledge that humans are sexual beings, and our sexual nature and physical hungers are deeply intertwined. Eating and sexual intercourse can both be acts of profound human communion … But eating and intercourse can become grave violations of communion when they are acts of consumption, gluttony, domination, or lust.’

UnknownElizabeth T. Groppe, Eating and Drinking (Christian Explorations of Daily Living), Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011, 49.

Image: ‘Adam and Eve’ by Jacopo Robusti Tintoretto

On vegetarianism

lisa-simpson-vegetarian2I’m no vegetarian. I’ve confessed my love of meat before, not as virtue but simply a fact of preference and of my complete inability to conceive of a meatless kitchen.

Ten years ago I read a thoughtful but unconvincing book on the theology of vegetarianism. The argument was that a vegetarian diet is God’s plan for humankind and that my surrender to that truth is part and parcel of my full conversion:  ‘Clearly, carnivorous eating is a mockery of all that God works toward and desires.’

With apologies to all of my more virtuous friends, I couldn’t come at it then and I can’t now. My grease smeared fingers are well and truly in my ears. I’ve decided to like Adam Gopnik’s perspective instead:

‘Evangelical vegetarianism … is closer to the Shaker prohibition on sex that it is to the abolitionist war on slavery: it does not ask us to be better than we have been. It asks us to be other than we are.’

Adam Gopnik, The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food, London: Quercus, 2011, 136.


Zadok Perspectives on faithful eating

Zadok Perspectives is the quarterly journal of Ethos: Centre for Christianity and Society. It’s an award winning publication well worth a subscription. When it comes to issues of food, the latest instalment ‘Faithful Eating in an Unjust World’ is certainly worth a look.

DOC150414-15042014101731 2It includes some terrific articles on the big issues of agriculture and globalised food production from a distinctly Christian perspective. Economist, homemaker and community farmer Dianne Brown explores the contrast between industrial and sustainable agriculture and the Christian commitments relevant to our choices: the stewardship of creation, intergenerational justice, equity for agricultural communities and living humbly with the limits of human knowledge. Similarly, Jonathan Cornford (PhD), the founder of Manna Gum, provides a succinct biblical perspective on the challenges of global and local agriculture into the future.  Both pieces are a challenging read.

There are other articles that address the more personal and local application of faith to what and how we eat. There’s Alison Sampson’s regular column on Everyday Spirituality prodding us toward ways we can ‘choose life’ in our shopping, cooking and eating; Paul Tyson’s and Paul Crother’s encouragements to acts of ‘micro-resitence’ in the face of large scale food production and supply; Dominique Emery’s testimony of juggling ethics, cost, nutritional needs and taste in the family home; an interview with Nick Ray on ethical shopping; and Kim Cornford’s inspiring story of neighbourhood food production and sharing.

For me, the highlight of the issue is Dianne Brown’s stories of two farmers, Giuseppe in Tuscany (France), and David in central Victoria (Australia). Though on different sides of the world, both are working land that has been in their families for generations, and both are on the slow journey toward more sustainable farming practices. Their stories are a moving account of the extraordinary cost of change, the risks inherent to ‘radical’ action, and the layers of complexity in the economic, social and cultural challenges that are part and parcel of their journey. More than anything, it’s a reminder to people like me of just how easy it is to talk and how challenging it is to act.

Berry on food as sacrament

If I ever talk of daily food as a sacrament — a visible sign of grace — there are those who grimace. They are concerned, I think, that in casting the net so broadly I am in danger of diminishing the real worth of the ‘sacramental’ and, especially, the more formal sacraments of the church.

My own view is that to allow the sacramental to be limited to particular church rituals, no matter how rich, is to diminish the sacred possibilities inherent in all of earthly life. Even worse, when it comes to faith that implicates every aspect of our lives, we let ourselves off the hook far too easily.

In regard to food, Wendell Berry says it succinctly but well:

‘To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration. In such a desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness and others to want.’

5669124Wendell Berry, The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural, Counterpoint, 2009, 281.

Jung’s ‘Food for Life’

I prattle on a lot about eating as a spiritual act, and I believe it. But to say it’s a spiritual act does not claim eating as eternally positive. Halos and cornflakes don’t always go together.

To claim eating as spiritual is to affirm it as an act of meaning. As the oft-quoted culinary philosophy goes, we are what we eat: that is, what, where, how and with whom we eat speaks volumes about our most primary values. Those values may be life- and community-affirming, or not. But they are values all the same. Such is our spirituality—the most daily expression of what we truly believe, both positively and negatively.

The contemporary proliferation of eating disorders is a tragic illustration of the point. An eating disorder is eating gone wrong, evidence of deeper values and beliefs that are themselves disordered. How such disordering happens or where it originates is complex. Regardless, disorders like these point to a disordered spirituality, but a spirituality no less.

Theologian L. Shannon Jung wrote the book Food for Life: The Spirituality and Ethics of Eating out of his own struggle with an eating disorder and his consequent battle with obesity. Though he doesn’t dwell on his own story, his willingness to name it adds immeasurable worth to his writing.

In Part 1, Jung affirms eating as a profoundly joyful act, one through which we delight in God’s goodness in the most tangible way. But that joy is diminished, he argues, when the act of eating is a disconnected one: disconnected from its source, the Giver of life and sustenance; and disconnected from relationship with our fellow human beings and the earth itself.

For Jung, food is gift: first it’s the gift of delight: a daily and routine reminder of the providence of God. Second, it’s the gift of sharing: the commitment to hospitality, mission and justice that flows naturally from genuine delight. According to Jung, disordered eating is eating disconnected from one or both of these gifts.

In Part 2, Jung very helpfully places personal eating disorders in the broader context of communal or societal disorders. He lists four categories of disorder, each violating eating as gift.

1. Systemic / Global Disorders: According to data from the World Health Organization, at least 1.1 billion people worldwide get too few calories to ward off hunger, while another 1.1 billion take in too many. Referring to the world supermarket of food distribution, Jung writes: ‘The values that dominate … are designed to promote a level of consumption and greed that will produce the greatest amount of profit and market share. Rather than design a system that will provide food for everyone (which is manifestly possible) and will delight all, the system is designed to produce food that is upscale, convenient, processed, and cheap for the consumers who can afford it.’

2. Lifestyle Disorders: We live and eat in a context in which consumption rather than relationship is now the key to participation and validation: ‘The food industry spends billions of dollars each year on advertising and promotion to create an environment that constantly pressures us to consume.’

3. Interpersonal Disorders: For some, the long-term deprivation of interpersonal relationships results in a fear of relating to others or the complete loss of the skills to do so. Food becomes an activity of solitude. ‘Often it is easier to eat alone that face the threat of relating.’ More fundamentally, ‘we have abrogated responsibility for each other and, at the most tangible level, responsibility of caring for each other physically and materially.’

4. Personal Disorders: Jung describes the ‘popular salvation myth’ that encourages us to fixate on our bodies and, in some cases, engage in disordered eating patterns as a result: ‘Eating disorders are the result of distorted desires for wholeness and salvation that cannot be fulfilled short of God’s grace. … They are hungry ghosts who can never be filled, but whose craving and grasping and self-conscious emptiness violate our happiness and put us on the treadmill of concupiscence.’

In all of this, Jung says, we are caught … caught in our complicity with unjust global food systems, and in our perversity, loving those very things that are not good for us. What’s more, we are driven by an underlying cultural belief in scarcity, ‘thus we think we have to grab the goodies before they are gone.’ Addressing this complicity and perversity in the kitchen is both a personal and communal challenge.

In the final Part 3 of the book, Jung addresses this challenge for both individual people of faith and for the church. His perspective is an important one, sensitively and accessibly written for a wide audience. It’s a good place to begin in the exploration of eating and faith.

« Older Entries