If we're going to talk about food, we need to start with theology. Before chocolate was invented, a snake put "sinfully delicious" and "decadent" on the menu. Somebody fell for the marketing ploy, and we've had a complicated relationship with food ever since.
We've also had a complicated relationship with sex, and with siblings, and with weapons of mass destruction. It's all there in Genesis (where the WMDs are swords). And pretty soon, right-thinking people started coming up with rules to keep people from doing bad things. You can have sex with this person but not that one. You really shouldn't deceive, sell, or kill your brother. Beat your swords into plowshares.
The rules helped to restrain bad guys, and they gave would-be good guys some helpful pointers. Still, there were plenty of bad guys to go around, and good guys could get pretty anal about what other people should or shouldn't do. Anyway, it's obvious that you don't create a good marriage simply by avoiding sex with the wrong person, and you don't have a pleasant Thanksgiving dinner simply by not killing your siblings, and you don't banish war simply by wiping out as many weapons as possible. The rules are helpful — adultery, fratricide, and genocide are really bad ideas —but if you want a Peaceable Kingdom, you're going to need more than rules.
Same with food. We have a food problem all right: famine, starvation, and food insecurity in some places; morbid obesity, addictions, and eating disorders in others; and everywhere an amazing increase in diseases exacerbated by eating badly. So of course we have come up with rules: Cut back on fat. Cut back on salt. Avoid sugar. Avoid carbs. Eat low-glycemic index carbs. Eat less meat. Eat no meat. Count calories. Eat your vegetables. Eat organic. Eat local.
Some of our rules are nonsense, and some exist so snakes can sell more products. But many — such as Michael Pollan's famous "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants" — are excellent. Trouble is, though some of us follow the rules (sometimes with the result of improving our own health but sometimes to the point of obnoxious self-righteousness), the world still has a major food problem. In fact, it seems to be getting worse.
So here's the theology, which may sound vaguely familiar to people who have read St. Paul's letter to the Romans:
- Food is good, though the world has a serious problem with it.
- Rules for healthy eating are good, though nobody follows them perfectly.
- Even if we followed food rules to the letter, we would not solve the world's food problem.
- We need a whole new way of thinking about food: one that emphasizes celebration, hospitality, and sacrament.
- Then we can just forget about the rules, right?
- Wrong. Many of the rules are excellent in their place; they just aren't capable of restoring paradise.
- Only celebration, hospitality, and sacrament can do that.
This is part of a series of short posts especially for people who attend St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Glen Ellyn, Ill, where I'll be leading conversations about food on September 22, September 29, and October 6. I'll post about food every weekday between September 16 and October 4. See full series atlivelydust.blogspot.com.
LaVonne Neff is an amateur theologian and cook; lover of language and travel; wife, mother, grandmother, godmother, dogmother; perpetual student, constant reader, and Christian contrarian. She blogs at Lively Dust and at The Neff Review.
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