Feeding Bodies and the Theology of Taking Lives: An Interview with Norman Wirzba
According to the Gospel of John, when Jesus first appears after his resurrection he is mistaken for a gardener. He comes to Mary Magdalene, who is weeping at the empty tomb, and she asks him what has been done with Jesus’s body. But perhaps this case of mistaken identity tells us something about the character of God. In a culture that relies on fast, convenient, and cheap food, perhaps it is time to reclaim Jesus as the gardener, the one who gives life and is the source of life, and perhaps it is time to allow that understanding to change how we view our relationship between faith and food. Norman Wirzba in his newest book, Food and Faith: A Theology of Food, has pointed to the endless and essential connections between food and faith that Christians everywhere need to hear. In this interview, Wirzba leads us to a renewed understanding of food and faith, giving us a hope to imagine something new, something Jesus has in store for us—a foretaste of heaven, right here.
The Other Journal (TOJ): In your new book, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, you explore what food means in the life of faith. Why should what we put in our mouths matter?
Norman Wirzba (NW): There’s a lot to think about there. On the one hand, we have to pay attention to who we are as Christians. My worry is that for so much of Christian history, and especially in America today, a lot of Christians think about themselves primarily as individual souls. The fact that they are bodies doesn’t really seem to matter much. Eating is a great way to talk about human embodiment. It’s also a great way to talk about human embodiment in its relationship to lots of other bodies, and ultimately in its relationship to God as the one who nurtures the whole of creation so that we can have life.
In my book food became this wonderful way for me to open up a whole set of questions that aren’t on the table for a lot of Christians, questions about what it means to be one of God’s creatures living in the world today in a way that will be more responsible. We know that a lot of the eating that we do is bad for us physically, socially, and spiritually, but it’s also bad for creation. Eating is one of those great and complex kinds of activities that opens out into the whole realm of human existence in its relationship to other humans, in its relationship to other creatures, and then in its relationship to God.
When I first started working on the book, I had friends that would say, “Why are you writing a book on food? Christians aren’t supposed to worry about food, right? It’s in the Gospels. Jesus says in Matthew that we’re not to worry about what we’re going to eat or what we’re going to wear.” But the truth is that whenever we eat, we’re making a statement about who we think we are and how we value the world. What would it mean to see eating as receiving God’s creation? Eating is not just a physiological act. I think it’s an ecological act and a profoundly spiritual act.
TOJ: How does eating show us our place in the world? That is, how is eating central to what it means to be humans or to be creatures? And how does eating and the act of saying grace show our place in the world?
NW: I think we could start with how our eating shows us to be interdependent creatures. We’ve sort of gotten used to the idea—and there’s a lot in our culture that encourages us to think this way—that we are self-standing beings. And if not self-standing beings, we are at least self-legislating beings, which means we get to decide for ourselves the kind of life we want, and we want to have that life on our own terms. We love the kinds of conveniences and technologies that allow us to have life cheaply, conveniently, and on demand. And what that does is it gives us a really distorted sense of who we are, because we then start to think that the world exists for us. That’s a profoundly damaging view of the world because the world doesn’t exist for us; the world exists for God. And so the question should be, how can our eating show that we understand this? And when you think about how we live and what Eric Schlosser called the “Fast Food Nation,” we see that eating has become primarily an economic act where everything hinges upon cheapness, speed, and efficiency, and in doing that, we’re doing great harm to our bodies, to agricultural workers, and to animals. We’re destroying our fields. To have all these cheap, convenient foods means that we’re not adequately caring for things.
Our duty to care for things is, I think, fundamental. It starts in Genesis, where we have a kind of foundational story in which God says we’re supposed to take care of the garden. Through much of our eating today we’re not taking care of the garden. When you look beyond the physical act of consumption and start to ask questions about the stories behind the food—what’s really going on to get that food to us?—I think you get a picture showing us that our eating and our living are not right. Ultimately, I want to help us understand what it means to be a responsible, faithful creature in the world. Eating can be a powerful way to do that.
You also ask about saying grace, which I think is really important. I grew up saying grace, and I imagine lots of people have. The act of saying grace can become formulaic, but it can also have a lot of value. We’re all very busy people and that means we don’t reflect on what we’re doing much of the time. We just go through our day by rote, and because we haven’t stopped to think about what we’re doing, we continue in ways that are damaging to creation and to ourselves. So an important part of saying grace is stopping and clearing our minds of the clutter, worry, and anxiety of all that’s going on in our heads. Then we turn our attention to what’s on the table. What we discover is that we’ve got a history of living and dying happening on that table. We’ve got a history of agricultural workers and cooks and people who have produced and prepared the food. We need time to take that in because, otherwise, we are more likely to abuse what we take for granted, what we don’t value. My hope is that we will learn to value food, not make an idol of it, but value it as God’s gift given to us.
And how do we learn to receive the gift gratefully? That leads into the next dimension of saying grace, where we learn to try to be thankful for what our life depends upon. To be grateful will invariably put us into a position of humility because we understand that without the gifts of family and friends who nurture us along the way, and without God’s gifts of fields and water and plants and animals and bees, we’d be done! Without worms and bees, there’s no fertility or pollination; and without fertility and pollination, we don’t eat; and without eating, we don’t live. And so I think eating can be a powerful sort of lens to get us into a deeper understanding of who we are and where we are and on who and what we’re dependent.
TOJ: You mentioned being at the table, and so I’m wondering what your thoughts are on what it means for us to sit at the table, especially in acts of hospitality and justice and mission as we participate in God’s reconciliation of the world?
NW: We’re pretty unusual today in that we have so many people eating individually and on the run. There was a famous book awhile back called Bowling Alone. You could get at many of these same kinds of issues by writing a book called Eating Alone. I think this way of eating promotes a very distorted view about who we are as people and also about what food is.
One way to describe food is as God’s way of saying to us, “I love you. I want to nurture you into life.” When we understand food in this very theological sort of way, that in eating we are the beneficiaries of God’s love, the only appropriate response is to turn our life into a source of nurture for others. That means coming to understand that eating is not primarily about consumption but about sharing life with others so that together we can realize our full potential. When we discover that there are people in the world who don’t have enough to eat or who eat in ways that are unhealthy to them in the long term or who live in food deserts like you find in many inner cities where they don’t have access to good food, I think the church must become serious about feeding these people. When you look at the Gospels, Jesus is doing lots of things with bodies—touching them and healing them, for instance—but he is also feeding them. And if we are supposed to be witnesses to this Christ, I think it would be really fantastic if churches were to say, “We’re in the feeding business, literally, and that means that we’re going to try to make our church a physical place in which even the growing of food, and then also the sharing of food, happens regularly, a place where people understand that we’re not just interested in individual souls.”
Jesus cared about souls, but he always understood persons as embodied creatures who need physical touch, physical healing, and physical feeding. And I don’t think the church should be any different. It should understand that its mission has to reach out to the bodies of other human beings, which means, then, that you have to worry about all the bodies those human beings come into contact with—the bodies of animals, the bodies of plants, the bodies of fields and forests, and all the rest.
TOJ: And Jesus spends a lot of his time eating with people, right?
NW: Oh, yeah. When I first started working on the book, I was amazed at how much food shows up in the Bible. It’s all over the place. We don’t pay attention to that or think that it’s of any great significance because, for the most part, we live in a culture that doesn’t ascribe a lot of significance to food. I know that there are things like the Food Network now on cable TV, but it’s a spectator sport. Many of these cooking shows are not meant to instruct you in your own cooking or in your own growing of food. In fact, a lot of the commercials for these kinds of shows are about convenience foods that you pop in your microwave. These shows are about pyrotechnics, about selling kitchen equipment, but they’re not about making us better eaters, better producers of food, better sharers of food.
TOJ: What happens when we no longer see food as gift, when we begin to understand food as this commodity, as this product to be purchased? And how does that kind of imagination shape the way we think about food when it becomes just a product?
NW: People don’t appreciate how industrial food production signals a new phase in human history. For generations, millennia even, we’ve understood that eating is an ecological and agricultural act, which meant that our eating was always bound to ecological limits and ecological potential—a person can’t abuse the land for long and expect to be able to eat from it. But what’s happened in agribusiness is that we no longer understand eating as an ecological reality; we understand it as an economic reality. That means that when we decide how we grow food, we are not asking about the fertility of the soil, the supply of water, or the consequences of poison. From an ecological standpoint, we have to protect soil fertility and water purity, because when you lose those, you lose everything! But an economic way of thinking about agriculture is primarily concerned about price; it’s primarily concerned about efficiencies. And as soon as you go down that path, you may compromise soil fertility, use up or poison your waters, abuse your animals, and abuse your agricultural workers because you’re doing it all for the noble aim of the cheapest price! For a lot of people, all that matters is that the food is available and that it is really, really cheap.
Cheap food, however, conceals a lot of costs to human and ecological health. As ecological systems and agricultural communities and workers suffer more and more, we’re going to find ourselves in a position where the food system itself will be completely unsustainable and will collapse. I don’t know exactly how that’s going to look. Agribusiness depends entirely on cheap oil. As the cost of fossil fuels continues to rise, we may have multiple food crises. In North America we don’t spend that much of our income on food, but many people live in parts of the world where a daily income of two dollars a day is normal, and these people don’t have margins to work with. As the price of oil rises, food riots develop around the world because the very staples they need, be it rice or bread or some other cheap food, have been priced out of range and so they can’t eat. When you have people who can’t eat, what have you got? You have a context for tremendous political unrest, let alone all the misery that accompanies starvation.
TOJ: We do see some places where people are starting to think about these things, but some people would say that it’s very “bourgeois.” How we can move toward something different, especially an alternative that might work in places like the inner city, where people don’t have the funds to be a part of that kind of culture and don’t have access to certain kinds of foods because of where they’re located?
NW: That’s a really important question because there is a kind of elitism that you can see in foodie culture, if I can put it that way. There’s even idolatry going on here. The Atlantic Monthly ran a March 2011 article by B. R. Myers that illustrates how a lot of our food writers today are guilty of gluttony. The use of the language of the seven deadly sins by a secular writer like Myers is pretty insightful. I don’t know that I accept all the aspects of his critique, but he’s right to say that eating can become an aspect of high-brow culture in which all that we care about is the exotic quality of the food. Quality often means a higher price, which then takes the nutritious food out of the reach of poor people who could never afford to buy it. You don’t find poor folks hanging out at Whole Foods. So, yes, there’s an important dimension to that charge of elitism in some of the food movement.
I think there are lots of ways to respond to it. I think we have to understand how government policy right now subsidizes the production of really bad, unhealthy food. It’s hard to call some of it food because it’s so highly processed that it’s not anything that comes out of the ground. That’s a policy decision not an ecological decision. Why couldn’t we then say that we’re going to start supporting the production of healthy food so that the subsidies that now make high fructose corn syrup so cheap—and which shows up in everything—are instead going to be used to support people who are growing real food and organically grown fruits and vegetables, and humanely raised beef, poultry, and dairy?
We need to get out of the habit of thinking that as eaters we are only food consumers, that the only relationship we have with food is a purchasing relationship. Historically, almost everybody was involved in the growing of the food they ate. They didn’t grow everything, certainly, but they grew a lot of it. And for the things they didn’t grow, they had personal relationships with the people who did. And so you understood that you had to be involved in the growing of food. I’d like to advocate that people start growing some of their own food. You don’t need to a lot of land to do it. If you’ve only got a small apartment, start by having a couple of pots where you can grow something. That would be really important.
In urban areas, including those inner-city food deserts that I mentioned, there is land that’s not being used for anything. Some of it is municipal land; some of it has been abandoned. There’s no reason why that land can’t be taken over by community groups and individuals who say, “Let’s start growing some food here!” Why can’t churches be partnering with community groups to start growing good, nutritious food? A lot of the price that’s associated with food these days is related to the labor, technology, packaging, and distance it’s traveled, so when you grow your own food, you can wipe out all those costs and get it a lot cheaper.
Another aspect of this is that churches are sitting on a lot of land, a lot of manicured lawns, bushes, and pavement. Why can’t some of that land be turned into gardens that then produce food so that the people who can’t afford to buy good food can work with community or church members to produce healthy food? In parts of the world where for six or seven months you can’t be growing things outside, people can also recover the art of preserving food—they can learn to can tomatoes, make salsa, or whatever. That doesn’t mean we have to do everything—that’s a big job—but we can do something. And that can take a lot of pressure off of people who right now are looking at food they can’t afford but would love to eat. I think that’s a really important issue for the church to take up.
TOJ: Some of the things you’ve talked about are similar to what other popular culture figures have talked about. Michael Pollan, for example, has made some of the same moves, but you’re trying to understand food theologically. I’m wondering what the gospel has to say here. What do the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus have to say here? And how is that different from the movement of mainstream culture? Or how does Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection influence how you view things?
NW: At the end of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan has this party scene where he, along with his friends, puts together a meal where everything has been either hunted or gathered. They’ve spent a lot of time preparing this big feast, and as they’re sitting around the table, he says that he was longing for a language that wasn’t at his disposal. It was the kind of language that he would call a religious sort of language, the sacred. And I think Pollan’s right in suggesting that this is the direction that you have to go if you’re going to talk about food in its real depth. I respect and have learned a lot from Pollan—I think he’s got a lot of very important things to teach us—but I think you have to go further, you have to go in the direction of theology, because you have to be able to deal with the fact that eating is a matter of life and death.
When we eat, even if we’re vegetarians, we are taking the lives of others. And the question is, how do you make yourself worthy of the life of another that you now consume? And that’s a very, very difficult question. It gets us to the heart of what it means to be a creature, because God creates a world in which everything that is alive eats, but for anything to eat, another must die. And this is where I think theology has so much to offer, because when you look at the Old Testament and the New Testament, you find that there is this use of the language of sacrifice. There are plenty of people who would want to say it’s time to put sacrifice outside of our theological imaginations, but I think that that’s precisely the wrong way to go. A lot of suspicion about sacrifice rests upon a misunderstanding of what it is. We look at the sacrifice and we fixate on the altar and the slaughter of the animal. We don’t pay nearly enough attention to the giving of the person to that animal in its nurture, in its protection, in its rearing so that the animal could be presented to God. Historically speaking, the case can be made that the offering of the animal was always accompanied by the self-offering of the person making the sacrifice. It was the same with the grains that were offered at the temple.
When you live in an agricultural society, to offer the first fruits of your fields and to offer the healthy animal in your flock is to make a profound commitment of yourself to God. Jesus shows us this in his ministry in an ultimate and practical way because he shows us that to live the Christian life is to give yourself away. You give yourself away not by despising yourself. You give yourself away by devoting your life to the nurture of others, even the nurture of the whole of creation because without the creation, none of us can live. Theologically speaking, I think what Jesus shows us is that if you want to be a truly Christian eater, you have to learn to eat in such a way that you aren’t simply taking things from the world, but that you’re also giving yourself to the world in its care, in its protection. I think that’s really what the Eucharist is all about.
The Eucharist is about eating Jesus, drinking Jesus, so that he can enter into us, and being now inside of us, he can redirect all of our activities so that we can talk about a christological form of raising animals, raising plants, and pursuing an agricultural economy. Once we have Christ in us, Christ transforms our vision, and transforms our expectations about what’s important, what should be valued, what needs to be cared for, what needs to be protected. Because of Christ, all of these things now appear to us in a new light. I think that’s the really profound thing the Scriptures show us, that there is this uniquely self-sacrificial way of relating to food and the world that then makes genuine sharing possible.
TOJ: So Jesus helps transform our imaginations, so to speak. He gives us a new way to look at food, in a sense, so everything kind of goes through Jesus.
NW: It’s like when you come to the Eucharist table, and you see that the bread is not just bread, that the wine or grape juice is not just wine and grape juice. It’s the life of the world. And the Eucharist table extends to our kitchen tables because we don’t just do this as a little memorial that we tuck away and sequester from the rest of our lives. We eat Jesus so that we can be nurtured into the life that we are supposed to live every day, which means that our dining room table now should be informed by the Eucharist table.
TOJ: You have said that as we grow up, food plays a big role in our church life. And we see this, for example, in Sunday potlucks. Why is it, though, that we fail to see the connection between food and the gospel? How can we be faithful eaters?
NW: We are so gnostic, even when we’re trying not to be. We really think that Christianity is about saving souls and getting our souls to heaven. Church members get together to eat all this unhealthy food that has been destructive to the land and abusive of animals and agricultural workers, and we do this because we really don’t think our bodies matter. This is, of course, in direct violation of what the Gospel teaches—that Jesus becomes incarnate, in the flesh, and is seeking the reconciliation of all bodies in creation. And so, because we have become so gnostic in the way we think about the world, there can be a disconnection between our lives and the message of the good news, which Colossians 1:23 says has been preached to all creatures. This biblical directive should change dramatically the way we relate to each other in bodily form.
You might also say that we’re captive to the culture and thus eat the same way everybody else does. I’m not in a position to judge how everybody else eats because I’m not a perfect eater myself, so I must be careful here and can’t go around pointing the finger. However, I think that as we read scripture together and reflect on what eating looks like when understood in a scriptural way, we’re going to start changing some of the things we do when we have a church potluck. Maybe we will second-guess using the cheapest meats and vegetables and will be willing to purchase meats and vegetables that were raised responsibly. Maybe we’ll think about whether we’re serving our food on Styrofoam or disposable products that are not compostable. Maybe we will start asking questions about who is doing the cooking—is it assumed that the women do all the cooking and cleanup and that the men just sit around and eat, or is this a shared kind of work? Once we bring a eucharistic or christological imagination to this very basic, simply wonderful action of eating together as a church, you just never know what’s going to be the result, what kinds of good things can happen from that. I happen to think that if churches ate together more frequently that would be tremendous because so much good ministry can happen when people are around a table, eating together, sharing their life. I don’t think we should ever underestimate the importance of that. Yet we must make sure that act of eating together is a faithful witness to the kind of eating Christ wants us to do.
TOJ: My church recently read a passage out of John that seems relevant here—I am wondering, how do we understand Jesus as Gardener? What does it mean that outside the tomb, in this place of death, Mary Magdalene mistakes Jesus for the gardener, as the one who brings life?
NW: That’s a great question and it’s really hard to know exactly what to make of this reference in John where Jesus is mistaken for a gardener. I take it back to Genesis where the first description you really have of God is as a gardener. In Genesis chapter 2, it says God planted a garden in Eden to the east, and that ought to stop us dead in our tracks because we’re not used to thinking about God in that way. I have never heard a sermon about God the gardener. And that’s striking because this is one of the first passages in the Bible where we’re introduced to who God is, and I think it’s significant that God is not initially portrayed as the warrior but as the gardener. You can trace this language of God gardening throughout the Old Testament. It shows up in many of the psalms; it shows up in the prophetic literature. I think you can understand this language of God as the primordial gardener in that God is constantly nurturing all of life, protecting life, making sure that it has what it needs to survive and to flourish. God gives to the world its fertility! I think maybe what’s so instructive about John’s Gospel is that the garden is the site of resurrection and new life. Perhaps the resurrection life that Christ makes possible in us now has to have these ecological dimensions, these gardening dimensions, and perhaps, having seen how Christ overcomes death, we can now approach the death of the world differently and gardening in it differently. That might be one way to go about it, but that’s a fair bit of conjecture.
TOJ: I’d like to end with the first question that you asked in the first class that I ever took with you; you started off the class by asking this question. Will there be eating in heaven?
NW: I think there will be eating in heaven. Of course, I can’t say that with any kind of certainty or serious confidence. Throughout the church’s history, others have explored this question and answered no. For instance, Tertullian says that we’re not going to eat in heaven because God is the one who provides for all of our needs, and in heaven we are participating in the life of God, so there is no more need. That makes perfect sense. But is eating only about the satisfaction of need? I don’t think it is. I think eating is fundamentally about establishing a life of communion. There are all sorts of ways to talk about what that communion looks like—how does the Trinity, for instance, help us understand what that communion looks like? But certainly communion is about learning to share in the life of each other, and eating is one of the most primordial ways we have for sharing in the life of each other.
Since, as Christians, we don’t believe in the immortality of the soul but the resurrection of bodies, I think it’s significant and quite possible that in heaven we will continue to eat. What its precise character will be, of course, I have no idea. One of the reasons it will be a transformed eating is that right now, for me to eat, another must die. Will that be the character of the eating in heaven? I don’t think so. But what other kind of eating could there be? There’s a wonderful hint of this, I think, in the story of Moses. When Moses is out in the wilderness before he agrees to lead the people of Israel, God encounters Moses in a burning bush. The remarkable thing about that burning bush is that it is not consumed. In fact, its presence is sort of magnified, heightened in the very burning of it. I wonder whether, since eating is a kind of burning—digestion is a kind of burning—it may be possible that the eating we do in heaven will be like a burning that doesn’t consume but instead magnifies to fuller vision and clarity what is there. I certainly don’t know, but I think we need to use our imaginations here. I think there are scriptural and theological grounds for saying that eating would occur in heaven because it’s such a wonderful way of participating in life with each other. And it just tastes so good!
TOJ: That’s great. Do you have any final words or thoughts?
NW: Just to be merciful with each other. It’s very easy to become judgmental when we start thinking about eating and not realize or appreciate how intensely personal eating is. People eat the way they do, not always because of choice or even because of some conscious decision—it’s just what they do. For us to become better eaters it’s going to take a lot of time and a lot of mercy. So I try to tell people, “Let’s work on that.” If we start there, we’ve made a good beginning.
Jon Tschanz is a recent graduate of Duke Divinity School, Team Pastor at Warren W. Willis UMC Camp in Fruitland Park, Florida, and Associate Director of Branches, a division of South Florida Urban Ministries, in Florida City, Florida.
Norman Wirzba is Research Professor of Theology, Ecology, and Rural Life at Duke Divinity School. He pursues research and teaching interests at the intersections of theology, philosophy, ecology, and agrarian and environmental studies. Wirzba has published The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age and Living the Sabbath: Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight. His newest book, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, is available now.