Beginning in the last decades of the twentieth century, it became common for Christian theologians and preachers to lay a great deal of emphasis upon "narrative" as a privileged category in Christian theology, proclamation, and ethics. While the drive to "narrativize" theology quickly veered toward the faddish, the trend has bequeathed to subsequent Christian thinking the notion that the kinds of stories we tell reveal a great deal, not only about the content of our faith, but also about how that faith impacts daily life. This notion-that stories matter because we often do our thinking and our acting by means of narrative-continues to yield insightful dividends in the life of the church.
It is, of course, hard to imagine a more essential day-to-day action than eating. Because a growing ecological consciousness among Christians concerned about the health of God's good creation has seized upon the production and consumption of food as a crucial topic for environmentalism, the relationship between Christian belief and eating habits is beginning to receive a great deal of attention.
As is often the case, the emergence of this hot topic in theology is part of a wider cultural trend. The New York Times Bestseller List has, for instance, featured numerous titles exhorting saner practices of producing and consuming food. One thinks especially of the work of Barbara Kingsolver (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle) and of Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma, and In Defense of Food).Significantly, the importance of telling stories has received much emphasis in this popular literature on ethical eating. The critically acclaimed documentary Food, Inc. by filmmaker Robert Kenner (in consultation with Pollan and Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser) points out that most of the images customers see upon entering the typical supermarket evoke pastoral scenes of rural farms with open fields and dairy cows hand-milked in barns, scenes that in fact have been rendered virtually extinct by the dominant practices of factory farming. Food retailers sell and consumers buy these false stories, when in fact the true "story" behind a given package of plastic-wrapped meat (involving cramped conditions for animals, dubious standards of cleanliness, and slaughter practices that most of us would judge excessively cruel were we forced to view them firsthand) is effaced.
This literature also asserts that both the false and the true stories we tell are constitutive of our identity. Jonathan Safran Foer (of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close fame) states at the beginning of his provocative text Eating Animals that "facts are important, but they don't, on their own, provide meaning.... But place facts in a story, a story of compassion or domination, or maybe both-place them in a story about the world we live in and who we are and who we want to be-and you can begin to speak meaningfully about eating animals." Foer goes on to tell just such a true story, one about a conversation that he had with his Jewish grandmother as she told him what it was like to flee from the German invasion on foot, across the forests of Europe:
The worst it got was near the end. A lot of people died right at the end, and I didn't know if I could make it another day. A farmer, a Russian, God bless him, he saw my condition, and he went into his house and came out with a piece of meat for me.
He saved your life.
I didn't eat it.
You didn't eat it?
It was pork. I wouldn't eat pork.
What do you mean why?
What, because it wasn't kosher?
But not even to save your life?
If nothing matters, then there's nothing to save. (Foer 14, 16-17)
These poignant words raise the question: if the frameworks of meaning by which we live our lives necessitate that we tell true stories, then what does the Christian faith-which, after all, has at its core the story of the one who is "the way, the truth and the life"-have to tell us about food consumption in our own day?
Recently, historians of Christian thought have rendered environmentally-conscious Christians a service by reminding us that the relationship between food and the narratives that constitute faith communities is not a new concern in Christian life. Theologians and preachers in all periods of the church's life have faced a variety of conflicting options for living out the Christian worldview around the table.
For the most part, New Testament stories such as that of Peter's vision in Acts 10 led Christians to regard hard-and-fast dietary prohibitions (including those of the Hebrew Bible) as untenable under the conditions of Christian freedom. Various sects and mystery cults, popular during the early centuries of the church, were known to exhort their followers to follow strict dietary guidelines (particularly avoidance of meat) as a means of separating themselves from the "fleshliness" of bodily life. Christians eager to follow both the Hebrew Bible and the logic of the incarnation in proclaiming material creation "good" thus would sometimes use meat consumption as a litmus test to separate true Christians (those free to eat meat) from clandestine Gnostics who would not consume meat. Moreover, this affirmation of creation often took on ecological tones of connections both among humans and between humans and nature. David Grumett and Rachel Muers argue that:
Underlying the historic Christian disquiet at the heretical implications of dietary restriction… was a desire to prevent groups or individuals cutting themselves off from the various networks of earthly connections in which food placed them. To eat with others was not only to express fellowship but to affirm interdependence. Heretics were regarded as using their choices (hairesis) about food, as well as about doctrine, to refuse this interdependence by separating themselves from an imperfect world and seeking on earth a false vision of heaven. (Grumett and Muers, 128)
While this ecological sensibility constitutes a genuine achievement of the early medieval church, one sad reality should also be acknowledged: similar logic was soon applied to intentional pork consumption as a way of separating Christians from their Jewish brethren. This was a regrettable perversion of the spirit, if not the letter, of the compromises reached by the "Jerusalem council" described in Acts.
Even with such freedom in place, exhortations both from scripture and the early church to avoid gluttony (or even excessive enjoyment of food) allowed early Christians-particularly those associated with the various cenobitic monastic movements that arose in the fourth and fifth centuries-to embrace the renunciation of certain foods for salutary spiritual purposes. In particular, Christian ascetics intuited that the consumption of meat, as well as such delicacies as rare spices, was something to be kept under relatively strict control. A common compromise (found also within monastic movements of other religions, including Buddhism) was to allow meat consumption in situations where one is at table with a host serving meat on the host's initiative, or in situations in which an ascetic was sick and could benefit from the nutrients available in meat. "The monastic community, in which some members ate meat in the same refectories as others who abstained, deliberately maintained a visible context of acknowledged interdependence and solidarity. Asceticism had to be rooted in eating practices deemed ordinary in order not to be regarded as suspect" (Ibid, 129).
Mediating amongst these various poles-affirming creation, using food as an instrument of social solidarity, and being mindful of the dangers inherent in "eating badly," i.e. excessively or unethically-thus constitutes a useful framework for thinking about Christian food practices today. And what ties all of these together is the felt need-both within and outside of the church-to start telling true stories about where our food comes from, theologically and practically.
In his recent book Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating (Eerdmans 2011), Norman Wirzba suggests that placing food within the total, ecologically bound story of God's creation and redemption of the planet serves the dual purpose of incisively critiquing modern practices of food "production" and reclaiming eating as a sacramentally significant act of praise:
Food, when understood in a theological way, is not a "product." The food we consume is God's creation, a vast and unfathomably deep community of creatures that is sustained by God's sacrificial love. Every time we eat, we are called to recognize the profound mystery that God created a world that, from the beginning (even in something like a pre-fallen state), lives through the eating of its members. (134)
Wirzba's point here suggests that, before Christians become overly preoccupied with the myriad specifics of contemporary food choices (Should we be vegetarian or not? Are we morally obliged to buy certified organic products? And so on…), the more fundamental work at hand is to "re-narrativize" our food. I would suggest that those whose faith rests upon what we take to be the most foundationally "true" story of them all must disdain attempts by advertisers to use false narratives-be they staged pictures of seemingly contented cows, shamefully unregulated use of such terms as "free-range" or "cruelty-free," or specious appeals to "natural" means of production-in order to sell us food which has undergone degradation in order to reach our mouths. And in place of these false stories, we can draw deeply from the wells of our Christian tradition in order to tell the kinds of stories that might inspire us to work on putting better practices in place at the farm and at the table.
It is clear to any sane observer that current practices of global food production are damaging the health of our planet and our bodies. Less obvious, but no less important, are the ways in which de-narrativized food "products" are damaging our souls. Re-inserting eating into a broader story of creation, redemption, and-crucially-charity might be a significant step in our being able to "say grace" at the table, that is, to make eating a part of grace's story.
Robert Saler is visiting lecturer in theology at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and pastor of Bethel Lutheran Church in Gary, Indiana.
Foer, Jonathan Safran. Eating Animals. New York: Back Bay Books, 2009.
Grumett, David and Rachel Muers. Theology on the Menu: Asceticism, Meat, and the Christian Diet. London: Routledge, 2010.
Wirzba, Norman. Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.