February 13, 2011 / Praxis
An interview between TOJ Editor-in-Chief Chris Keller and the author of GENERATION EX-CHRISTIAN, Drew Dyck.
October 14, 2013
Food is the daily sacrament of unnecessary goodness, ordained for a continual remembrance that the world will always be more delicious than it is useful.
—Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb
In the gospels, it is Jesus’s table fellowship with social outcasts that most confounds his critics. He tells stories about seeds and soil, farmers and bakers. When he feeds the hillside multitudes with bread and fish, all four evangelists seem keen to tell us that full bellies and plenty of leftovers for others are signs of the reign of God. And in Jesus’s last meal before his execution, he reworks Israel’s signature ritual feast to offer his own body and blood as food for his closest companions.
Now we who have been baptized into his death live by consuming Christ. His body—taken, blessed, broken, and shared—makes of us a body. And for all that this means and for all that it requires, there is this fundamental imperative: we are to nourish and care for our own bodies and the bodies of others. Thus, all our sharing of food, our withholding or wasting of it, our complicity with unjust food systems, and, perhaps most unsettling, all our eating and overeating are implicated in our participation in this simple, holy meal.
So what are we to make of the unhealthy, overweight bodies we have become? How do we address—with grace, not judgment—the alarming rise in food-related illness and obesity in the bodies of men, women, and children who are members of the eucharistic body?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, since 1980 obesity prevalence in children and adolescents has more than tripled. One-third of all adults in the United States are obese, and more than 60 percent are overweight. Rates for type-2 diabetes have skyrocketed, especially among the young. A special report in the August 2011 issue of the Lancet forecasts 7 million new cases of coronary heart disease and stroke, and more than 500,000 new cancer cases by 2030.1 Our unhealthy lifestyle choices—mostly having to do with food—will soon cost us $70 billion a year in health-care costs.
As grim as these statistics are, they are almost never interpreted theologically or pastorally. The radical individualism of modern Western Christianity considers eating and our choices and habits regarding food as both intensely personal and unrelated to faith. Moreover, the body/spirit dualism, another sacred precept of modernity, has downplayed and devalued the messy materiality of our lives and bodies. What is important, we’ve learned in Sunday school and in sermons, is the health of our souls. When Christians have sought to heed St. Paul’s admonition to “present our bodies as living sacrifices” (Rom. 12:1 NRSV), we haven’t thought so much about food as about vice, interpreting the passage as a summons to abstinence—from sex for the unmarried and from the evils of drinking and smoking for all.
But there is also the outright awkwardness of talking about overeating and obesity in Christian communities. Firstly, there’s the role that fellowship meals have long played in congregational life: potluck suppers, dinner on the ground—any number of occasions at which Christians gather around tables of plenty. Overeating at these communal meals seems obligatory, as if it were a way to compliment and reward the cooks. To bring up the sin of gluttony in such a context would be a lapse in good table manners.
Church suppers are also linked powerfully to memory and to long-term Christian formation. Through the years parishioners might not remember what Epiphany is or how many Sundays are in Ordinary Time, but they recall with fondness a favorite dish lovingly prepared and brought every year to the church picnic. They also sense, rightly, the power of food to create and strengthen community. Shared meals over time are significant occasions for both practicing and growing in faithful Christian witness, for learning to offer and receive hospitality, for cultivating attentiveness to the goodness of creation, for being leisurely present to others in this era of eating fast and eating alone. In ordinary table fellowship, as in the Eucharist, we meet each other at the level of our most basic need. As Frederick Buechner once observed, “it is hard to preserve your dignity with butter on your chin or to keep your distance when asking for the tomato ketchup.”2 When we eat together, we make ourselves available and vulnerable to one another and thus glimpse and share in something of the mystery of divine communion. Now someone wants to spoil these powerful experiences with depressing health statistics?
Secondly, a dramatic rise in the number of overweight clergy makes preaching, teaching, and pastoral counseling about obesity difficult. In recent years, studies have shown what many clergy, their spouses, and attentive lay people have long-known: that pastors often suffer in silence the stresses and burdens of leading a congregation. Loneliness, depression, addiction, the break-up of marriages—these and other painful realities of life in the fishbowl of ordained ministry take a tremendous toll on the physical and emotional well-being of clergy men and women and their families.
Thirdly, sociological and psychological factors come into play. For instance, many people struggle with body image issues. Those who are trying to resist or who have finally conquered the cultural pressures to be unrealistically thin must now negotiate health warnings about the serious risks of being too fat. And what is “too fat” from the perspective of optimum health? Congregations are often not hospitable places for those who suffer silent shame and poor physical health due to any number of eating disorders.
Class issues are also at work. Is the current trend toward questioning our food sources and eating more responsibly the privilege of those with the time and resources to pursue such ethics? What are the social and economic conditions that keep many of the working poor in perpetual poor health? And how is it possible for congregations to address these questions honestly when so many churches are segregated by class?
And in terms of race: food and identity go deep. Whether it’s the soul food tradition of African American cuisine, the carb/corn-rich diet of Latino cultures, or the never-enough butter and salt of white southern cooking, food and shared mealtime rituals profoundly shape racial and cultural identity. The food of these cuisines routinely leads to increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, yet what would those Sunday potlucks be without the beloved dishes—homey, comfort fare—of one’s ethnic heritage?
A final difficulty in confronting these challenges theologically (but by no means the last word on the subject) is the lack of clarity in our descriptions. Is obesity a medical or moral concern? A sickness or a sin? Has the clinical discourse of addiction, compulsion, and dependence co-opted the biblical language of gluttony and lack of self-control?
Surely, it’s not an either-or proposition. Addictions are real and complicated and rarely vanquished through willpower alone. But there is something about the thoroughgoing medicalization of contemporary life that makes it easy for Christians and Christian communities to cede authority—and sometimes our own best instincts—to medicine, psychotherapy, and pharmaceuticals. Often we defer to doctors because we are both bewildered and intimidated by a health care “industry” that regards human bodies as “potentially defective machines,” in Wendell’s Berry’s memorable phrase.3 This isolationist view of bodies and health—a highly paid specialist for this or that organ, for instance—typically regards obesity as an affliction of the autonomous patient-consumer to be treated increasingly with a choice of drugs or surgical procedures.
And thus we also sidestep much of our own culpability in eating too much. We know we shouldn’t overindulge, but we regard our routine proclivity to excess with a kind of amused resignation. With a shrug and a wink, we reach for seconds, for another sliver of pie or a fistful of cookies. Overeating during the holidays—now a continuous secular feast from late November till early January—becomes an opportunity for detailed reporting on epic binges and turkey comas on the couch. The sins of the body, our repressed Victorian ancestors insisted, are sexual not culinary, so our inability to control our desire for food is deemed regrettable weakness not grave sin. Gluttony, that ugly, old-fashioned word from Scripture, gets made over to refer to any number of appetites.
A liturgically rooted response to the crisis of obesity insists, counterintuitively perhaps, that food is meant to be enjoyed and that meals ought to be occasions of extravagance and abundance. In the Eucharist, after all, we are invited to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). Thus one so-called solution to the problem of overconsumption is not deprivation, not endless scrimping and skimping and counting and calculating, but a rediscovery of the pleasures of eating. To take delight in good food mindfully prepared—and the slow food movement has much to teach us here—is to acknowledge our dependence on the abundant gifts of creation. To experience this delight with others is to move beyond nourishment to conviviality. It is to consume our daily sustenance with the kind of attentive, unhurried gratitude that the Lord’s Supper summons us to.
This might sound a bit too pious and precious when what we’re really craving is a cheeseburger and fries. We are back to our old dilemma: We know we eat too much, want too much of the wrong kind of food, and are doing ourselves serious harm. Of course we need to eat less, exercise more, and learn to desire more healthful food. But we are trapped in habits of mind and body that make conversion difficult. We are by turns compulsive and careless in our eating; at times we are confident we can do better (those earnest New Year’s resolutions), and at other times we are resigned to a life of endless struggle with food and weight and compromised health.
But if the Eucharist enacts the unity of the body, then we receive the gifts of bread and wine not as an aggregate of individuals but as a community of lives linked through acts of mutual care and hospitality. My insecurities and anxieties about food are met by your willingness to be a source of support and encouragement and truth telling to me, however tentative and clumsy our attempts at this may be. The church’s common witness to the bread that gives life, our drinking of the cup of salvation—these realities make sermons and studies and congregational conversations about food and health a natural and necessary outflow of eucharistic practice. An organic garden on church property or somewhere nearby becomes holy ground, fertile soil in which to grow not only food but friendships, a place where together we work out our salvation with shovels and sweat and a little fear and trembling, trusting that in due season we will indeed “taste and see that the Lord is good.” And it’s worth noting that the Greek word for salvation in the New Testament refers not so much to happiness in the afterlife as to wholeness and well-being in the here and now.
In describing the dual problem of overeating and obesity as not merely a lack of individual willpower but as a crisis of community—as a failure, even, of eucharistic imagination—we discover that we do not have to bear alone the burden of our destructive patterns of overconsumption. As we commune with sisters and brothers who experience the same struggles and setbacks, our food-related pathologies are received at the table of grace.
At the same time, though, we acknowledge that a preoccupation with our own food-related failures can keep us from a true catholicity, from recognizing that in every local assembly is gathered the transglobal body of Christ. In fellowship and responsibility we are joined to these sisters and brothers far and near. Therefore, at the Lord’s Table, we confess our complicity with an industrial food system that contributes not only to our own poor health but to that of our neighbors and to the planet. As fast food has gone global, heretofore unexperienced health crises are emerging around the world. US agricultural policy, with its heavy crop (corn) subsidies, has meant the underwriting of chronic obesity in those who are forced to subsist on cheap, processed, overly sweetened foods.
Yet through the gifts of bread and wine our lives are linked to theirs: “When one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (I Cor. 12:26). At every local celebration of the Lord’s Supper is the welcome intrusion of the universal body of Christ, and the work of justice flows outward from the table to the neighbor in need. This meal is the revolutionary witness to the health and well-being that God desires for all of creation; it marks the intersection of what has been with what will be.
“Food is the daily sacrament of unnecessary goodness,” observes Robert Farrar Capon.4 Blueberries and tomato sandwiches and church supper casseroles are material evidence of the sheer gratuity of creation. In the Eucharist—also a sign of superfluous abundance—we receive even our own lives as gifts and learn that the whole of creation lives out of the inexhaustible generosity of God. In a culture that encourages us, by turns, to hate our bodies or to worship them, the Eucharist reveals the truth about our creatureliness: in the many vulnerabilities of bodily existence, there is grace. Flawed, frail, aging, aching, diseased, damaged—in all the ways we bring our bodies to the table of the Lord, we discover that we are meant for fullness of life. And we dine with friends who help to make that possible.
It is a modest meal—a bit of bread, a sip of wine or juice. But in and through it are possibilities for transformed living. With thanksgiving we eat and drink to the health of our bodies and our world, Sunday and every day.
1. Statistics on obesity and type-2 diabetes are available from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Overweight and Obesity,” http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/childhood/data.html. Statistics on coronary heart disease, stroke, and cancer are from “Obesity,” Lancet, August 26, 2011, http://www.thelancet.com/series/obesity.
2. Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, revised and expanded (San Francisco, CA: Harper, 1993), 64.
3. Berry, “Health is Membership,” in Another Turn of the Crank (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 1995), 89.
4. Capon, The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection (New York, NY: Modern Library, 2002), 40.
Debra Dean Murphy
Debra Dean Murphy is an assistant professor of religious studies at West Virginia Wesleyan College. She is the author of Teaching That Transforms: Worship as the Heart of Christian Education, and her articles and essays have appeared in Modern Theology, Cross Currents, Liturgy, and the Christian Century. She blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture, and Politics.