December 20, 2012 / Theology
Sarah Coakley shares how prayer intersects with her work as a scholar and as a priest and makes a case for asceticism in the everyday prayer life of Christians.
Food is deeply relational. It relates us to its source, the earth; it causes us to form social networks for its production and distribution; and through its consumption, it demonstrates our personal connections, or lack thereof. Because of this, our ways of eating are poignant symbols of our way of life—what we eat tells us about who we are. If we look at a typical North American diet over the course of a week, we would most likely see an abundance of sweet, salty, and fatty foods. We would find more animal products and far fewer fruits, vegetables, and grains than in the diets of other cultures. And we would see more waste, both in packaging and in parts of meals that are left uneaten. Moreover, we’d see a great array of choices lined up before us. But in watching how North Americans navigate these choices, we would find that the act of choosing what we eat is very different than mindfulness about how and what we eat. The North American diet is largely one driven by the industrialization of food, by marketing and consumerism, and by what is now our habit of greed and satiation. We have been shaped by a corporate, industrialized, fast-food nation such that mindless consumerism and consumption have become the modus operandi for eating in our culture.
Alongside such patterns of consumption, however, is a widespread cultural discussion that appears to recognize that eating is about more than just fueling our bodies. There is a barrage of media attention: TV shows and cable channels; movies and documentaries such as Fast Food Nation, Fresh, Ingredients, Good Food, Food Inc., and The Great Food Revolution; countless websites like www.foodmuseum.com, www.sustainabletable.org, and www.urbanorganicfarmer.com; online essays by writers Wendell Berry (“The Pleasures of Eating”) and Mary Eberstadt (“Is Food the New Sex?”); and a surge in the popularity of food authors such as Barbara Kingsolver, Harvey Levenstein, Marion Nestle, Michael Pollan, and Margaret Visser. There are organizations devoted to our consumption of food, like Slow Food, Sustainable Table, and the Center for Global Food Issues. There are even meta-analyses being conducted to assess the contribution of all this fuss to Western politics and policies.
So what is it about our society that has engendered this present attention to eating? We suggest that this interest is a reaction, perhaps even a collective corrective, to a disconnection that permeates our society. Our society values autonomy, but in extreme forms, autonomy becomes detachment. As a society, we can choose to live without long-term connections to friends and family, or to any particular place. Perhaps the current interest in food is a sign that we have begun to question whether autonomy should be a cultural value without limits. Furthermore, our renewed interest in eating may give us the means to move from the extremes of unlimited individual freedom, and the detachment it brings, toward a more connected and mindful way of life, thereby improving our families, communities, and society.
Reflecting on the use of food can clarify some of the ways that autonomy threatens our health and communities, and it can also offer options for a richer, more connected life. We might say that food offers paths for reattachment. But food’s life-giving property is not new news. Consider Jesus’s words and actions, for instance: “Remember me when you eat,” “Giving thanks, he took the bread,” “Come and have breakfast.” Christian theology offers deep reflections on food as a signifier for paths of life. Jesus’s words and practices call us to think more clearly about human existence and to attend to larger moral questions for life today. The cultural interest in food is thus a rich place to reflect on culture and theology. It has the potential to help us recontextualize and attend better to important attachments—attachments within ourselves and also to others and the earth.
A Disconnect in Society
One of the oddest exchanges in the Gospels is the one between Peter and Jesus after the rich young ruler goes away despondent, not wanting to sell his possessions and follow Jesus. Peter responds by pointing to the actions of Jesus’s disciples who have indeed left everything to follow Jesus, and Jesus promises them a reward for following (Mark 10:28–30; parallels in Matt. 19:27–30 and Luke 18:28–30). This exchange seems odd to us today because the action of leaving houses, fields, and families is so common in our society. How can this be an indication of commitment to Jesus when many of us will leave land, houses, parents, siblings, and even children at the prospect of better work, a good education, a nicer view, better weather, or a more suitable spouse? Unlike first-century Rome, detachment is a general practice in our society, not an exceptional practice.
Of course, context is everything. Jesus’s rural society was rooted in land and community, whereas our industrialized, mechanized way of life requires an autonomous, moveable workforce. The wages of mobility sustain life and, as a result, a person’s commitment to location often decreases the possibilities of wealth—quite unlike the situation of the rich young ruler. Mobility becomes the mark of those who are committed to wealth; the poor are those who cannot move. It is an ironic reversal.
There are many pressures in our society that move us toward this pattern of detachment. Industrialization is an important one. Mobility is also a valued expression of our individual autonomy. Societies that constrain movement—geographically, culturally, religiously, economically—are seen as controlling and reactionary.
But there are also other forces at work. Technology makes us “omnipresent and multilocal.” You are reading this online, but that’s not the same as a view from nowhere. It matters that we are writing from the Pacific Northwest in the United States and that neither of us are native to this place. It matters that urbanization locates us in cities where it is harder to know and experience our geography, our history, and even our neighbors. It matters that if you are like us, you have lived next door to people you have never met. Social isolation is now the norm, not the exception.
In addition to social isolation, the high degree of mechanization distances us from the production of the things we use and from those who produce them. Kindergarten teachers must now organize field trips to local farms so that children will connect food production with farms, not grocery stores or fast-food outlets. The raspberries I picked for breakfast this morning in my backyard mean more to me than those that come from some unknown garden in some distant state. I can more fully appreciate my dinner when I know the rancher who raised my beef and have met the vegetable growers at my local famers’ market.
We also live in a throw-it-away society. Largely due to mechanization, many products are cheap, and the relative low cost of things means we are prone to devaluing and discarding them. If I have a shirt made by someone I don’t know in a city or country I have never heard of, I will value it less than one made by my friend. If I can purchase my shirt with the same money I might use for five chocolate bars or two cappuccinos, I am unlikely to become attached to it. It is as disposable as the chocolate bars and the cappuccinos, and my consumption is as mindless. If I can buy cheap produce whenever I want, I don’t have to consider whether it was picked in another country by underpaid laborers on poorly managed land. I may not consider how eating it affects my body or my family. As Jesus said, where our treasure is, there our heart will be also (Matt. 6:21 and Luke 12:34). If things don’t take much of my treasure, I will not be mindful of their use. Cheap food therefore increases the likelihood of mindless consumption.
Jesus’s call to invest in heavenly treasure and to detach from land and possessions was certainly prophetic in his time. And there is no doubt that his words remain prophetic for those of us who desire things more than God. But what does the gospel have to say in a society where people are disconnected from each other and from place? The theologian William Cavanaugh has argued that American consumerism is a social pattern marked by disconnection—the accumulation of goods not because we are greedy for many things, but because we are detached from caring about anything. As he notes, “The United States has one of the lowest savings rates of any wealthy country, and we are the most indebted society in history. [. . .] People do not hoard money; they spend it. People do not cling to things; they discard them and buy other things.”
In this culture of disconnection, we are also witnessing an alarming rate of detachment from self. Primary evidence is the increase in obesity and eating disorders—a detachment even from physical self and the normal rhythms of one’s body, such as hunger and satiation. One recent estimate by the National Association of Eating Disorders indicates that over ten million Americans report symptoms of an eating disorder. Once a problem thought to be confined primarily to adolescent girls, this seems to be changing in recent years. In their 2007 book, The Muscular Ideal, J. Kevin Thompson and Guy Cafri report a 700 percent increase in journal articles on male body image and eating disorders among men since 2000.
These cultural shifts have changed our patterns of daily life and have thereby changed our sense of self and our connections to one another. Productivity and efficiency are valued over connection to and communication with others. One direct result of this is a decline in time at the family table and in the number of shared meals. A 2004 Gallup poll found that only 28 percent of families with children eat dinner together every night. Shared meals are where humans both develop and pass on culture. If we are missing this mechanism of cultural communication, we are also missing crucial opportunities for emotional and social development. Is it any wonder, then, that eating disorders and the profound disconnection from self that accompanies them have become epidemic in our society?
This disconnection from self and others may point to a deeper issue. Perhaps we wish to avoid the truth about our vulnerability—our need of God and others, of anything outside ourselves. In the case of those with eating disorders, the body and the appetite are tightly controlled as a way of avoiding the awful truth of neediness. As Stephanie Paulsell writes, “A person with no hungers, no needs to fulfill, would be immune to pain—powerful. But none of us, no matter how thin or how full we become, is powerful in that way.” But this aversion to vulnerability, this modern quest for complete control of our own lives may be approaching its end. The cultural attention to food may suggest we are rebelling against these extremes of productivity, efficiency, and autonomy that our culture encourages. Watching our society as we eat may open our eyes to signs of cultural fatigue.
Eating and drinking was Jesus’s last communal action with his disciples. And communion became one of the two central practices that mark the identity of the Christian church. However much Christians disagree about what the practice signifies or how its effects are accomplished, most of the church agrees that it is important to eat and drink together. If we view the Pauline texts as representative of the early church, such eating and drinking appears to have been an identity-creating practice for the church from the very earliest times. As Paul reminded the Corinthians, on the night Jesus was betrayed, he took bread, gave thanks, and broke it, and similarly, he took the cup and announced the new covenant. Whenever we eat and drink, we remember Jesus’s death until he comes (1 Cor. 11:23–26). Matthew, Mark, and Luke all follow Paul’s directive and remember Jesus’s eating and drinking with his disciples (Matt. 26:26–29, Mark 14:22–25, and Luke 22:14–20).
Jesus’s call to remember him in our eating and drinking has many important implications. There are at least two that we want to raise in the context of this discussion. First, when we eat and drink at the Lord’s table, we recall that our lives depend on God’s good gifts, that we are connected to God. As we take in the symbols of Jesus’s body and blood, we are reminded that we do not live or love by our own efforts alone. Rather, we are dependent creatures and we acknowledge that by giving thanks. To receive the bread and the cup, with thanksgiving, as God’s gifts to us, is to recognize our dependence on God the Creator and Sustainer of our lives. That may be why Paul cautions the Corinthians to be careful about the context in which they eat (1 Cor. 10:21). At the Lord’s Table, we are mindful of our vulnerability and dependence on God; we are aware of our location in God’s economy.
Second, when we take communion, we also proclaim that we are Christ’s body, members of one another. This is a strong statement about human relationality. Again, recalling Paul’s instructions, it is a transgression of the Lord’s Supper if we eat and drink together when our lives contravene such unity (1 Cor. 11:29). This is the sin of our many denominations—we have not discerned the body. Instead, we have divided the body into groups, some of whom will not eat and drink together. Our rules for eating the Lord’s Supper codify our divisions. To eat and drink together is to acknowledge our relatedness, not just to God, but also to those with whom we eat. When we eat and drink together, we acknowledge our need of one another and of the earth that God created. We are formed into a communion.
Remembering Jesus may help us to resignify all our eating practices. And it is here that we find a resonance with the current food movement. Both the Lord’s Supper and the food movement seek to reorient us in interdependence and in community. To identify these resonances does not disregard the shortcomings and problems of the food movement. Rather, it affirms the movement in its call to attend to how we eat as steps toward wholeness and reconnection to place and to one another.
Eating Mindfully: Resignifying the Food Movement
Mindful practices of eating, such as those established at the Lord’s Table, may help us to be healthier and holier people. Again, from Paul: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). In other words, pay attention to your eating and drinking. Such attention to food—its sources and its quality, its careful preparation, and its enjoyment—may be our society catching up to Jesus’s ancient words, recovering an old modus operandi and reminding us of better ways to be human. According to the Slow Food trinity, food must be “good, clean, and fair.” In a 2008 article from the Nation, Eric Schlosser explained that “good” refers to taste; “clean,” to local, organic, sustainable means of production; and “fair,” to a system committed to social justice (September 22). Good, clean, and fair food is food produced in ways that confess how dependent we are on the earth and how essential are our relations to one another. Committing to these eating principles presents us with regular reminders to give thanks and recognition to the sources of our food and the people who produced it.
This shift toward mindful eating may also have a profound impact on the family table. If we think about feeding ourselves as an activity on a continuum, it is a continuum that moves from feeding, through eating and dining, to communing. As we move across the continuum, food not only meets our individual physical needs, but it also places us within a social context. Do we just grab calories on the run, or do we create and eat meals with family and friends? Do we eat alone at our workstation or do we move to share the lunch hour with a coworker? Something very different happens when we eat a hurried meal while continuing to work at our desks or while driving in our cars than when we eat at table with others. If we choose to dine or commune rather than just feed or eat, we are making an important choice. How we take in our food offers us an option to move outside of ourselves.
Mindful eating will also call us to distinguish between local and global choices. According to the food movement, to be a good world citizen means being a local consumer. You can find local markets everywhere. And thus even the act of acquiring food can be a way for us to be connected to place, local land, family, and community. Buying local refocuses consumers on the place where they live and makes them aware of their interconnectedness. It reminds us that what we eat comes from the land and is grown by people. When I shop at the local farmers’ market and meet the men and women who grow the food I will share with family and friends this week, I begin to care more. I care more about how that food was grown, who picked it, how the animals were cared for, how the soil will be sustained, and how much the workers are paid. I am thankful for the Creator and Sustainer of all forms of life that in turn give us life.
When we eat mindfully in this way, we realize we are part of a local community. We realize that we live within relationships. Each person is reminded not only of their vulnerability, but also of the web of connection that sustains life. Ironically, eating locally can give us a much more responsible perspective on the global economy. In a recent article, Pollan states, “The food movement is also about community, identity, pleasure, and most notably, about carving out a new social and economic space removed from the influence of big corporations on the one side and government on the other.” Careful eating and mindful choices around food become a way to counter the consumerism and detachment in our culture; they become a way to raise our awareness of others and the planet.
We suggest that mindful eating provides opportunities to embrace our relational identity—to be open to others’ needs and our own need of others. In our relationships—with family, friends, neighbors, community, and God—we become more aware that food and our choices around eating have the potential to make us more truly human. In the language of communion, we reaffirm our covenant with God and other people. We are reminded that we do not live or love by our own efforts. We are dependent creatures who live best in a posture of gratitude.
Thus, the current concern about eating well might be viewed as a form of social repentance for the widespread perspective that ignores the significance of place and relationality in human thriving. If this is true, then to eat well may become a sign of reattachment; the current interest in food may be an expression that we have begun to care about ourselves, our place, and our neighbors; we have begun to acknowledge our need for the sustenance that only God can provide. These new cultural patterns may help attune us to the rhythms of our bodies, communities, and the earth as a timely antidote to our detached, disconnected way of life.
Flannery O’Connor said that “Somewhere is better than anywhere.” Our practices of eating can attach us to somewhere—to a particular people and to a local place. We are experiencing a new cultural interest in food but this interest is a cultural phenomenon not yet fully understood. Reflection on Christian communion sheds some light on these new social practices and attunes us to a deeper yearning than the food movement may have in mind—or mouth. Perhaps the Lord’s Supper articulates the goodness in all the cultural attention to food. Something is certainly happening when even McDonald’s starts advertising, “Grown here. Picked here. From here.”
 For more on the diets of other cultures, see Peter Menzel and Faith D’Alusisio, Hungry Planet: What the World Eats (Napa and Berkeley, CA: Material World Books and Ten Speed Press, 2005), including a November 2005 interview with Michelle Norris of NPR here. For more on the relationship between food and consumerism, see Harvey Levenstein, Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1988) and Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in America, rev. ed. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003); Marion Nestle, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002); and Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (New York, NY: Penguin, 2006) and In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (New York, NY: Penguin, 2009). For more on fast food and America, including the moniker “fast-food nation,” see Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2001).
 For examples of food writing, see Levenstein Revolution at the Table and Paradox of Plenty Nestle, Food Politics; Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food; Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2007); and Visser, The Rituals of Dinner: The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities, and Meaning of Table Manners (Toronto, ON: HarperCollins, 1991). For examples of meta-analyses, see Jeremy Harding, “What We’re About to Receive,” London Review of Books 32, no. 9 (2010): 3–8; and Pollan, “The Food Movement, Rising,” New York Review of Books 57, no. 10 (2010): 31–33.
 Graham Ward, “Introduction, or, A Guide to Theological Thinking in Cyberspace,” in The Postmodern God: A Theological Reader, ed. Graham Ward (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1997), xv.
 Cavanaugh, “Detachment and Attachment,” in Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 34.
 Amy Novotney, “New Solutions,” APA Monitor 40, no. 4 (2009): 47–51.
 J. Kevin Thompson and Guy Cafri, eds., The Muscular Ideal: Psychological, Social, and Medical Perspectives (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2007).
 Pollan, In Defense of Food, 195.
 Stephanie Paulsell, Honoring the Body: Meditations on a Christian Practice, The Practices of Faith Series, ed. D.C. Bass (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002), 83.
 New Revised Standard Version.
 Leon R. Kass, The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1999).
 http://www.localharvest.org/ (accessed July 22, 2011)
 Pollan, “Food Movement, Rising.”
 Flannery O’Connor, “In the Protestant South,” in Mystery and Manner, eds. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969), 200.
JoAnn Badley teaches biblical studies at The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology. Long a lover of the Apostle Paul, she is encouraged to find once again that his ancient letters help with the conundrums of our lives.
Stephanie Neill is a clinical psychologist who has been in practice in Western Washington since 1990 and has taught at The Seattle School since 2001. She holds a PsyD in clinical psychology from Rosemead School of Psychology. Her post-doctoral training emphasis was on post-traumatic stress disorder. Professional interests include the intersection of psychology, theology and current culture, as well as the interface of psychological and spiritual issues in character development. She grows golden raspberries and uses her grandmother’s recipe for pickled beets.