July 13, 2015 / Theology
A character study examining the human desire for permanence and importance apart from normative life in Birdman.
August 10, 2011
The film Babette’s Feast has perhaps done more service in teaching undergraduates and seminarians about the Eucharist than any other work of art over the last twenty-five years. It is the tale of an austere Danish Christian sect that carefully shuns the sensual delights of this world. Babette, a star chef and a refugee from counterrevolutionary violence in Paris, comes to live among the dwindling congregation. After winning 10,000 francs in the French lottery, Babette decides to spend it all on a sumptuous banquet on the occasion of the one-hundredth anniversary of the founder’s birth. The congregation, afraid of the sin of sensual luxury, decides to eat the meal but not to take any pleasure in it and to avoid all mention of the food during the dinner. They cannot help but be overcome by the meal, however, and gradually their frigid facades melt, while old hostilities are repaired and old loves rekindled. The film is a mainstay in the classroom because of its deliberate Eucharistic imagery. Babette’s total gift is a symbol of Christ’s self-emptying and Christ’s call to the table of abundance. The congregation gradually accepts, despite their resistance, that God’s grace is not finite but lavishly spread over all of creation. They are invited to a meal that, in its celebration of God’s creation and redemption, offers a glimpse of a new world in which sins are forgiven and all that divides us is healed.
As I read Stephen Webb’s essay, “Against the Gourmands,” I could not help but picture the members of the Danish congregation, shutting their eyes and trying desperately not to take pleasure in the feast laid out before them. Webb denies that food is sacramental and subscribes to a kind of dualism in which, as he says, “fine dining is to the tongue and nose what a sexual orgy is to other bodily organs. In both cases, sensations have to be carefully paced and systematically parsed if satiation is to be postponed.” We can agree that overindulgence of the senses is certainly problematic, but I don’t have the same qualms about a sacramental view of food or the world in general. In principle, at least, it is entirely scriptural to see all creation as an icon of God and a potential window to God’s grace. Gluttony is a sin; Webb is surely right to say that Christians should not elevate the self-indulgent aesthetic appreciation of fine cuisine into a virtue. Just as surely, however, there is a distinction to be made between a properly sacramental point of view and an idolatrous one that simply collapses the divine into the material.
It would be fair enough if Webb’s essay were simply a reminder that refining our tastes won’t save our souls. Where Webb’s essay really goes wrong, however, is in its refusal to make another type of distinction, that between the gourmand and the ordinary people who are trying to return some measure of justice and sanity to a corporatized food system which has become exploitative of farmers and workers and toxic to the environment. Webb lumps together snobs who consider knowledge of the “aromatic effects of arugula” to be a sign of advanced spiritual awareness with people who guarantee a fair wage for local farmers by forming community supported agriculture (CSA) cooperative buying arrangements. In this manner, Webb manages to present the local food movement—arguably one of most successful grassroots, democratic forms of resistance to concentrated power in the United States in the last few decades—as a form of elitism. To this irony is added the fact that Webb sets himself against the elite while rushing to the defense of corporate agriculture and behemoths like Walmart and McDonald’s.
Webb is rightly concerned that those who shop at Walmart not be considered less Christian than or morally inferior to those who can afford to shop at Whole Foods. But to move from here to a blanket approval for the “efficiency” of the current food system requires ignoring the fact that the reason many are forced by necessity to take advantage of Walmart’s low, low prices is that low, low prices come at the expense of low, low wages. Walmart in particular has been ruthless in its demands that suppliers cut costs, which means low wages in the United States and even lower wages in China. Walmart is by no means alone; “efficiency” means low wages and brutal working conditions for immigrants—many undocumented—who work the fields and slaughterhouses of the corporatized food system. Webb dismisses “sifting through ingredients in order to weigh the morality of their origins as well as their consequences” as just another form of high-culture gluttony. Although it is true that not everyone has the resources required to track down and buy food produced in a way that is healthy for human communities, it is not that difficult to distinguish between gluttony on the one hand and a concern for avoiding the exploitation of the poor on the other.
Because of his conflation of mere aestheticism with social justice, Webb continually diverts attention from the social consequences of the current system. For example, he writes that “Much of the foodie critique of fast food is based on this mistaken notion that the longer it takes to make and consume a meal, the more spiritual it is.” This may be the “foodie” critique, but it is not the far more serious critique mounted by Eric Schlosser and others. As Schlosser points out, fast food has had a tendency to distort the food system through the pursuit of the very “efficiency” Webb extols. Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation is not a rant against the tastes of the lower classes but a sobering exploration of the often-ruinous effects of the present system on independent farmers and ranchers, the environment, farm workers, slaughterhouse workers, rural communities, and more. Besides low wages, the current food system provides cheap “fuel” for us because it externalizes many of the true costs; what we don’t pay at the drive-through window, we pay through taxes for government subsidies, higher health-care costs, wars for cheap oil, environmental cleanups, et cetera.
Likewise, simple living and organic food are, at the very least, more than an artificial attempt to foster a certain “natural” aesthetic by the cultural elite. Webb claims that “the more natural the diet, the more it will need to be artfully (that is, artificially) produced,” but this is misleading at best. The only reason organic food is considered exotic today is that farming through chemicals gained almost complete hegemony in the second half of the twentieth century, largely through the concerted efforts of chemical companies and the US Department of Agriculture (the history of which is told by Michael Pollan, whom Webb ridiculously calls a “gourmand” and a “glutton”). Before that time, “organic food” was simply called “food.” Similar comments apply to “free range,” “cage-free,” “local produce,” “hormone-free,” and many other supposedly artificial devices of the cultural elite.
The theological justification Webb provides for ignoring the social impacts of our food choices is based on a notion that “Christianity secularized the production and consumption of food by taking the ritual out of animal sacrifices.” It is, of course, true that Christianity did away with kosher laws and animal sacrifices. It does not follow, however, that food became a matter of spiritual and moral indifference to Christians. The idea that Judaism was crassly materialistic while Jesus came to preach a higher, more spiritual way has by now been entirely discredited by a whole generation of biblical scholars following E. P. Sanders and many others. The Eucharist becomes the sacrifice of Christians, and, at least at the beginning, a real meal was involved. There is no evidence in the biblical text for Webb’s fanciful idea that Paul in I Corinthians 11:17–34 was especially concerned about those who “turned their noses up at the common fare of the lowest classes.” Paul’s concern, according to the text, was that those who had food refused to share it with those who had none. This is a failure to “discern the body,” as Paul says, a failure to see that we must be concerned with the spiritual and material welfare of the weakest members of the body of Christ.
Webb grudgingly grants that “There is something to be said, then, for the argument that locally grown produce and humanely raised animal products capture and extend the moral message of communion,” but he says that such decisions should “flow naturally from acts of worshipping God” and not from “efforts to change the world” or attempts to “inject morality into our meals.” I fail to see the usefulness of this sharp dichotomy between worship and morality. Of course, we should not substitute acts of consumption for the worship of God; Webb here is perhaps concerned, and rightly so, about the tendency of some churches to reduce being a Christian to morality, or of some churchgoers to substitute our own human actions in favor of social justice for acts of worship of the living God. But such distortions are simply the flip side of any dichotomy that demands that we choose worship instead of social justice. Paul does not seem to think that the material building up of the body of Christ in the world detracts from the worship of God; it is, rather, a manifestation of the work of the Holy Spirit in us.
In the latter part of his essay, Webb turns to my small book Being Consumed as an example of what goes wrong when food is regarded as having theological and moral import. I would like to respond to Webb’s critiques, but I will need to distinguish where we disagree from where Webb has simply misread or misconstrued my text. To begin, Webb attributes to me the nonsensical idea that people “squander their money for no specific purpose.” My point is not that people have no personal goals or ends; my point is that free-market ideology (e.g., that of Milton Friedman) is indifferent to the goals that people choose for themselves, as long as those people get what they want. According to Friedman, economists have nothing to say about whether an economic transaction is good in some moral or theological sense; goodness is a matter left to individual morality. In economic matters we can only judge whether an exchange is free from external interference, not whether or not it is good. In the case of a Chinese factory worker making thirty cents an hour, the market is “free” if the employer and the employee enter voluntarily into the arrangement expecting to benefit: the employer boosts profitability, the employee staves off starvation. But this deliberate blindness to the grossly asymmetrical power relations involved cannot occlude the fact that economic transactions, as relations between people, are deeply moral (or immoral) and carry theological import. For this reason, I argue in my book that there is no “free market” as such to either criticize or praise. The real question to be answered with regard to each economic transaction is, “Is this transaction free?” That is, “Does it contribute to the flourishing of the people involved and the creation that sustains them? Does it contribute to the ultimate goal of all human life, which is participation in God?” Webb thinks it is too much to ask that mere purchases be invested with such theological import. I don’t. I think that as long as some benefit from the cheap labor of others, Christians cannot declare such arrangements “secularized” and go on our merry way.
If this is true, one cannot avoid—to the best that one’s ability and resources allow—entering into hard, particular judgments about what kinds of economic arrangements are truly free. One example I give in my book is that of the Zweber farm, where my family has purchased grass-fed, organic meat. Webb raises skeptical questions about the slaughtering practices, price, and environmental impact at the Zweber farm. To answer these questions: the meat is butchered at Lorentz Meats in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, where a glass-walled abattoir allows those who so desire to watch the entire process (Pollan mentions Lorentz by name in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma). The price is reasonable, because we buy in bulk and eliminate the supermarket. If we pay more, we do so voluntarily to support the Zwebers and their farm. Pace Webb, there are no “hidden costs” to the environment when meat is raised this way; cattle turn grass into high-quality protein. Little petroleum is required. Webb’s final salvo at the Zwebers is that they are capitalists, responding to a niche market. If successful, they or their competitors will inevitably go corporate, as consumers drive up demand and suppliers strive to cut costs. The irony here is that Webb describes the “free” market in terms that are marked by a sense of inevitability and fatalism. If, however, people do not accept so-called free-market ideology, and do not believe that their only role in the market is to maximize self-interest and lower costs to themselves, then there is nothing inevitable about the corporatization of the local food movement. Webb is right that consumers can help drive markets toward better products, but that only reinforces my point that we should use our economic power for good ends. Only when economic arrangements contribute to the true ends of the human person should we declare that market “free.”
None of this implies, as Webb claims, that I think we should abandon the practice of private property; I explicitly invoke Thomas Aquinas’s justification of private property on both page 29 and page 52 of my book. Neither do I suggest, as Webb claims, that all individuality is obliterated in the body of Christ; as I write, “At the same time, we do not lose our identities as unique persons, for as Paul says, each different member of the body is valued and needed for the body to function (I Cor. 12:12–27)” (55). Neither do I make the absurd claim that “The church should be in control of the market.” Again, I will let my actual words from the book make the point: “The church is called to be a different kind of economic space and to foster such spaces in the world. This does not mean a ‘sectarian’ withdrawal from the world; Christians are in constant collaboration with non-Christians in making such spaces possible” (pp. ix-x).
If Christians are attentive to our economic practices, we can help to create eucharistic spaces on earth that prefigure the fullness of the Babette’s feast that God has prepared for us. This does not mean gluttony. Insofar as Webb’s essay warns us against self-righteousness and self-indulgence, it is a salutary piece. Insofar as Webb encourages us to disregard the theological import of our practices of consumption, he is out to lunch.
 See Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2001).
 See Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008).
 Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (New York, NY: Penguin, 2006).
William T. Cavanaugh
William Cavanaugh is Senior Research Professor in the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology at DePaul University. His latest books are Migrations of the Holy (Eerdmans, 2011) and The Myth of Religious Violence (Oxford, 2009). His books have been translated into French, Spanish, and Polish.