More than Meets the Mouth Or, the Meaning of Meals

Kenneth A. Myers
Monday, July 13th 2009
Jul/Aug 2009

The following is a transcription of a lecture Ken Myers gave at someone's home—over dinner no doubt!

For most of my adult life, I've been involved one way or another in trying to understand contemporary culture from within a Christian worldview. I've been interested in asking, "What in our culture makes the gospel foolishness?" In 1 Corinthians 1:23, Paul says that the gospel is foolishness to the Greeks: there were things about Greek culture that made the gospel particularly implausible. I think that, in addition to the fact that people are sinful and don't like to hear the message of the necessity of repentance, there are at any given time and in any given culture, particular blind spots or ways in which the culture eclipses what the truth is. And I've been interested in that partly for reasons of commitment to evangelism, trying to figure out why the blind spots are there, and partly for reasons of trying to figure out how we ought to understand the gospel in a pure way and not be influenced by the surrounding culture.

Recently, I've been more interested in what we might call the way culture denies reality, and the ways in which the church is tempted, because of its placement in our culture, to deny reality. I'm interested in cultural patterns that deny the structures of reality that God has created, because culture isn't just about ideas-it's about ways of being and doing within God's creation. Roger Lundin, in a book he wrote called The Culture of Interpretation, says that the word "culture" designates a complex interlocking network of symbols, practices, and beliefs at the heart of a society's life.

Most Christian cultural apologetics (as I sometimes describe what I do) tend to focus on beliefs: what kind of worldview-that is, what kind of implicit theology or philosophy-is evident in our culture? So we often talk about our culture's view of something. I'm really interested in practices and symbols, because they're associated with beliefs; and often practices and symbols tell us subtler things about the beliefs that we might not see otherwise. But symbols, practices, and beliefs within a particular culture always reflect some view of God, and they also express some view of creation and some view of the human. What do we think it means to be human? Cultural life is a set of choices that affirm some idea or other of what people see as the ramifications of being human, particularly of their understanding of what human nature is. Culture at its best in some way represents the created goodness and subsequent fallenness of what it means to live in space and time as divine image-bearers of a three-person Creator, living in space and time with bodies intended to enjoy the material world with other people, engaging the rest of creation through five distinct senses.

Culture isn't just about ideas; it's about the reality of our embodied life in space and time, just as Jesus wasn't merely the idea of redemption but an embodied redeemer. We can do good culture and we can do bad culture. We do good culture insofar as we recognize who we really are, who God really is, and what the world really is. Bad culture involves the denial of reality as much as the breaking of rules. Bad culture is God-denying in its denial of reality. It's also dehumanizing. Contemporary Christians are very good at sniffing out the God-denying parts. We're not as good at seeing ways in which our culture might be dehumanizing because we're generally not very good at rejoicing in our mere humanity.

I am increasingly using the phrase "Christian humanism" to describe this kind of project of cultural apologetics. Over the years, I've come to realize that a lot of what constitutes bad or unhealthy culture is not only contrary to God's Word and contrary to God's order in creation, but it's bad for people, and it's bad for people in a way that denies some aspect of their humanity. So, if we're going to address the dehumanizing aspects of culture, then we need to re-humanize it, and that's why I like the phrase "Christian humanism," which would include defining and delighting in and caring for the joys of the merely human.

Now, most Christians would gag at the phrase "Christian humanism" if they didn't die first. If we were to go to most churches in the area on a Sunday morning-conservative churches-and ask people to fill in the blank, "[blank] humanism," and played a little Family Feud with them, the phrase that would come to mind would not be "Christian." Similarly, if we were to go to the local university and ask them to fill in the blank, "Christian [blank]," it wouldn't be "Christian humanism." It would be "Christian right" or "Christian coalition," or something like that. The two words seem to be at odds with one another in our time, and I think the idea of Christian humanism seems counterintuitive to many people because, among other reasons, Christians have succumbed to what might be called a Gnostic temptation as they've thought about the ramifications of their beliefs. The church has been tempted in different ways at different times to spiritualize Christian faith to an extreme form, removing it from the reality of lived human life in space and time. Paul Marshall has written that we often think of ourselves as apprentice angels, not as redeemed human beings who are on a pilgrimage to a richer and fuller experience of our humanity.

The term "Gnosticism" comes from the Greek word gnosis, meaning "knowledge." It refers to a variety of religious movements that stress salvation through secret knowledge, and they all also hold that matter is intrinsically evil. According to some Greek thought, there were in the universe two eternal and irreconcilable and opposing principles of good and evil: good was resident in spirit, and evil took the form of matter. And so God is good because he's Spirit; and we are evil, not because of disobedience, but because of the fact that we are material. Now, that clearly contradicts the biblical teaching that God created the material universe and then insisted pretty emphatically on its goodness: six times, as a matter of fact, in the first chapter of Genesis. The last time, he says "Behold, it was very good" when he reflects on it (Gen. 1:31). What's more, God later entered the world as the Word became flesh, in order to redeem the world, which we're told in John that God loved so much (John 3:16).

Orthodox Christianity has officially repudiated Gnosticism. Every time we recite the Apostles' or Nicene creeds we affirm the resurrection of the body, not the immortality of the soul. I don't know how much we think about that affirmation and what consequences the doctrine of the resurrection of the body has for the way we live now. But despite this official rejection of Gnosticism, Gnostic sentiments have infected the church from day one, and they're especially strong in American Protestantism. Whenever we think of the gospel merely in terms of some vague religious feeling, rather than the record of the work of God in real history, we're thinking in a Gnostic direction. Whenever we display indifference to or suspicion of the physical world, we're betraying a kind of Gnosticism. Whenever we think of our salvation as a way to escape the limitations of human nature (including the limitations of our embodiment) instead of a pilgrimage of faithfulness within the good limits of our createdness, we're thinking like Gnostics. Whenever we think that true faith is just a matter of spiritual insights and sensations, or something that addresses only our motives, and not a matter of evoking specific works of love and obedience in the real world of space and time, of matter and history, we're thinking like Gnostics.

Today, Gnosticism among contemporary Americans takes a slightly different form. Some of us may not be convinced that it's evil to have a body, but we are suspicious of our embodiment in the sense that to be embodied means to live in history, it means to live in a particular community, and it means to live in creation. Roger Lundin again has said that the form of our contemporary Gnosticism is to embrace the idea that the individual self can know truth immediately without any reference to the created order that Solomon himself relied on to know truth; without any reference to the community of faith that we're a part of, which is the church; without any reference to the tradition that we're a part of, which would be the theological tradition of the church. I think that's one of the reasons why denominations and sects have flourished in America; we have something like twenty-thousand denominations in this country-some outrageous number like that-because of the fact that we've been instilled with this idea that each individual has the capacity to know truth apart from any tradition, apart from history, apart from what God has done in the church or in nature.

I think a lot of our environmental confusion is due to the fact that we don't take our embodiment seriously. It's interesting that the story of Creation and the Fall link two particular sources of fruitfulness. The curse afflicts what? It afflicts childbirth and it afflicts agriculture. Originally we were tied to the earth: we were created from the dust of the earth, and we were given the fruit of the earth to eat. We can't survive without an attachment to the earth.

I want to use eating as a kind of test case to try to discover some kind of wisdom about our nature: What might it mean that we are creatures who eat? That's not the sort of approach theologians or pastors might take, but maybe they should take such an approach more frequently. God could have created us as creatures who photosynthesize, who just stand out in the sun for a little while and get all the energy we need and then go back to work, or he could have created us with little nuclear generators that give us all our energy; but for some reason he created us as creatures who eat. What do we learn from this? What's common about creatures that eat? We're not the only creatures who eat-I'm assuming angels don't eat-and there are other ways to create beings apart from that kind of necessity. What kinds of things do we learn from the fact that we eat?

Jewish philosopher Leon Kass has suggested that creatures that eat are necessarily curious about the world around them. They know that they don't exist necessarily. They know that they're contingent on other things to exist, so they know that they're needy. They also need to be curious because they need to find something to eat, and so they have to have an outward direction about themselves. He looks at quite a few other aspects in a book of his called The Hungry Soul.

We celebrate as a nation a holiday that we still call Thanksgiving, even though it's not entirely certain who's being thanked-other than the federal government for having given us the day off. It's a holiday that combines religious affirmation of some vague sense, usually, with memories of national identity. It's at root a harvest festival, and the first Thanksgiving was celebrated in Virginia in 1619-not in Massachusetts by the Pilgrims, who celebrated it a year later. They were, in a sense, repeating what non-Christian peoples have done; that is, celebrate the fact that since we must eat to live and since the earth must give us food to eat, we're very grateful to God for favoring us with his blessing so that the earth does give forth food.

Now, if you know a little bit of Greek, you know that the Greek word for giving thanks is eucharisto. And the word "Eucharist" is used by many churches to describe or label what is alternatively called the Lord's Supper or Communion. The Eucharist is a thanksgiving meal. It's a meal that Christians share regularly and a meal that recognizes that while we do live by bread, we don't live by bread alone. We also recognize the fact that those who have fellowship with the "Word become flesh" live by partaking of his body and blood. I'm not going to talk much about this-I'm just mentioning it in passing-but we could take a lot of time to ask: why did Jesus institute a meal as one of our sacraments? And why does he say this barbaric, cannibalistic thing, that we can't live unless we eat his body and blood? There's something about eating, and there's more than meets the mouth to eating. And it's remarkable how frequently eating is associated in the Scriptures with events of the highest theological and spiritual importance. In the very first chapter of Genesis, in the account of the sixth day of creation, God says to his newly formed image-bearers, "Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food" (Gen. 1:29). Then God beholds everything that he has made and assesses it: it was very good. The stuff and the order of creation and the nature of nature is good. It is a good thing that we're creatures that need to eat, as it constantly directs our attention to our finitude, to our creatureliness, and to our grateful reliance on our creator.

Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann has observed that in the biblical story of creation,

man is presented as a hungry being and the whole world as his food. Man must eat in order to live; he must take the world into his body and transform it into himself, into flesh and blood. He is indeed that which he eats, and the whole world is presented as one all-embracing banquet table for man. This image of the banquet remains throughout the whole Bible: the central image of life. It is the image of life at its creation, and also the image of life at its end and fulfillment.

That fulfillment is described in Revelation 19:9 where John writes, "And the angel said to me, 'Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.' And he said to me, 'These are true words of God.'" Jesus, at the meal we now call the Last Supper, after he poured out the symbolic wine for the disciples, told them that he wouldn't drink again from this fruit of the vine "until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom." That is, until the everlasting festive fellowship of the bride and the bridegroom commences. Horatius Bonar, who's written some of our finest hymns, caught the sense of this when he wrote, in reference to the church's commemoration of the Lord's Supper, "Feast after feast, thus comes and passes by, yet passing, points to the glad feast above, giving sweet foretaste of the festal joy, the Lamb's great bridal feast of bliss and love."

From the beginning, from Creation-in chapter one of Genesis when God gives the earth to man so that he might live-to the end of holy history, eating is a profoundly important activity for human beings. It's in the very order of creation. It's in the arrogant and rebellious eating of the Fall in which Eve eats something she's not supposed to and defines her eating on her terms rather than on God's terms (Gen. 3:6). It's in the bread and wine brought by the priestly king Melchizedek as Abraham is journeying home (Gen. 14:18). It's in the preparation for deliverance in the Exodus (Exod. 12). It's in Israel's miraculous eating in the wilderness (Exod. 16). It's in the feeding of a famished Elijah by ravens (1 Kings 17:6), and of a suicidally depressed Elijah by an angel who makes a cake of bread (1 Kings 19:4-8). It's in the miracles of water into wine (John 2:7) and of multiplying bread and fish (Matt. 14:19); and it's even in that wonderful post-resurrection command of Jesus to the disciples, one of the few post-resurrection commands. We know, "Go ye therefore into all the world and preach the gospel," but there was another important command that's recorded in John 21:12, "Come and have breakfast." And it's shortly after this that Jesus uses another eating image when he tells Peter three times, "Feed my sheep." Jesus has just fed the disciples by cooking for them a breakfast on the beach after they've been up all night catching fish. It's remarkable to me that we have so few pictures of what Jesus did after the resurrection and the fact that so much time is taken on the fact that he's out there cooking breakfast for the guys. As a friend of mine said, "Cleaning the fish: a pretty earthy task for the resurrected Second Person of the Trinity to do."

In the Christian view, communion with God and the enjoyment of meals are not really separable. Because we are created as physical and hungry beings, God's provisions for body and soul are mystically united. Again, Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann says that at some instinctive level all human beings know that eating is an occasion for the recognition of our provisional existence-that is, someone else has to provide for us or we wouldn't survive-and of a power beyond ourselves that sustains us. Schmemann writes,

Centuries of secularism have failed to transform eating into something strictly utilitarian. Food is still treated with reverence. A meal is still a rite, the last natural sacrament of family and friendship, of life that is more than eating and drinking. To eat is still something more than just to maintain bodily functions. People may not understand what that "something more" is-but they nonetheless desire to celebrate it. They are still hungry and thirsty for sacramental life.

Now maybe the centuries of secularism failed to reduce eating to mere fueling. But I fear that only a few decades of Ronald McDonald may have succeeded where Voltaire, Rousseau, Bertrand Russell, and Carl Sagan have failed. Schmemann wrote this passage in the early 1960s, before McDonald's became nationally popular.

The American hunger for convenience may not have destroyed our hunger for meaning, but it has certainly eclipsed it. Now I could never prove this scientifically, but I have a hunch that the unprecedented epidemic of eating disorders in our time must be tied to the fact that our whole culture is increasingly organized around disordered attitudes toward eating. Once, families organized their lives, as did communities, around shared meals. Today, meals are consumed on the run to leave time for more activities. We want our food to be convenient and we want it to be cheap. American economists and agricultural bureaucrats are proud of the fact that food is cheaper here than anywhere in the world, but no one seems ashamed of the fact that it's also less tasty, less treasured, and less savory. I was speaking with a friend who recently moved back here from France, where his school-age daughter had an hour-and-a-half lunch break. In her school in Kentucky, she has fifteen minutes. It's fueling; it's not enjoying a meal.

Another friend who commented similarly has noticed that when Europeans can't sit down to enjoy a meal, they don't eat. He said he thinks that may be why they don't have the weight problems that a lot of Americans do. I myself would never think, "If I can't sit down for a meal, I'll skip it." No, I'll grab something and eat while I'm driving because I think, well, the important thing is to get something into my stomach, even though I'm not likely to die of starvation. But we don't realize that we're missing something in that kind of meal. I'd go so far as to say that we're alienated from our food. It's an alien kind of substance.

Robin Mather, a food critic for the Detroit News, tells some rather scary stories about people who write her letters about food preparation and food safety. One wrote, "I have a can of tuna in my cupboard. I have no idea how old it is. The sticker says it cost 35 cents. Is it still safe to eat?" But the one that scared me most was a woman who wrote in saying she was puzzled by a recipe she read that asked her to skin the chicken breasts, and did this mean, she asked, that she was to peel the plastic film off the Styrofoam tray?

Wendell Berry is a farmer/poet/novelist living in Kentucky. He works a small farm in Port Royal and writes poetry when he's not feeding the hogs. He has also written quite a few essays about cultural and agricultural issues, and he has persuaded me that we have lost sight of the link between culture and agriculture, that we need to take more seriously the created pattern of the earth's provision for our food, and not to look at it as an industrial but as a biological enterprise. Berry, who has written quite a bit about the pleasures of eating, points out that our economic order encourages us to be

mere and mindless consumers of food, just as our entertainment industry encourages us not to entertain ourselves, but to be less and less involved in entertaining ourselves and to become more and more passively dependent on commercial suppliers. So too have patrons of the food industry, who have tended more and more to be mere consumers: passive, uncritical, and dependent. Indeed, this sort of consumption may be said to be one of the chief goals of industrial production. The food industrialists have by now persuaded millions of consumers to prefer food that is already prepared. They will grow, deliver, and cook your food for you and, just like your mother, beg you to eat it. That they do not yet offer to insert it pre-chewed into your mouth is only because they have found no profitable way to do so. And so the passive American consumer sitting down to a meal of pre-prepared or fast food confronts a platter covered with inert anonymous substances that have been processed, dyed, bleached, sauced, gravied, ground, pulped, strained, blended, prettified, and sanitized beyond resemblance to any part of any creature that ever lived. The products of nature and of agriculture have been made, to all appearances, the products of industry. Both eater and eaten are thus in exile from biological reality.

Berry concludes, "The result of this exile is a kind of solitude, unprecedented in human experience, in which the eater may think of eating first as purely a commercial transaction between him and his supplier, and then as a purely appetitive transaction between him and his food, but not as something in the realm of the living world." I describe this as a kind of collective eating disorder. Our experience of eating is disordered: it's increasingly detached from an order of things in creation. And so our intuitive recognition of the kinds of creatures we are and of the requirements of a well-lived life is itself disordered.

Why am I making such a big deal about all of this? I think because it's an echo of one of the biggest problems in contemporary culture, and that is to assume that nature or creation and culture are in opposition; that culture is what human beings do, not to reflect nature or to be engaged in creation, but what we do to improve on creation. Nature is just a lot of disordered raw material awaiting human ingenuity and desire. There's just a bunch of stuff out there and it has no order and no meaning. We impose order on it by our wills and our creativity. There's no such thing either as human nature, except for the existence of creativity and will; and there's no order or logic to the way we live in the world. Reality is what we think it is.

C. S. Lewis observed in an incredibly prescient book written in 1948 called The Abolition of Man, "For the wise men of old, the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline and virtue." In other words, to be wise and to live a good life means to discern the ways of the world as Solomon did, to understand that there's an order in creation, and that I should fit my life into that order in some way; and we do that through knowledge, through an understanding of the world; we do it through self-discipline, where we constrain ourselves and contain our appetites and virtue, which is a development of entrenched habits of choosing to do the right thing. On the other hand, there is the modern view; he describes this as the view of applied science or technology and of magic. He relates our technical approach to the approach of magicians, where the problem for them is: "How do I subdue reality to the wishes of men?" The magician or the genie in the bottle comes in and remakes reality to fit our wishes. And modern technology is increasingly doing the same. We have our wishes; we want to reconstruct reality. We have certain desires; we want to reorder nature so that our desires can be fulfilled.

There's a passage in C. S. Lewis's book Perelandra in which the protagonist goes to another planet and sees all sorts of beasts and trees and plants that are unlike anything that exist on earth. There's one scene in particular in which he goes up to a tree with big globular bubble-like fruit on it. As he touches one, it bursts open and showers him with a strange but sensual experience of taste and smell. He finds it very satisfying; in fact, it's the greatest feeling he's ever encountered. Seeing a whole grove of these trees with these clusters of bubbles, he thinks to himself, "I just want to run through them all!" But he soon realizes that would be wrong. That would be to gorge himself on a pleasure that is best enjoyed according to the delicacy of the nature of the pleasure itself. And so he realizes that he can feast only insofar as he has a kind of ordered desire, a level of containment to the desire, and he'll enjoy it more that way. And we similarly tend to think that if something is good, then more of the same thing as soon as possible is better. But that may not be true. It may be that something is good, and we'll really enjoy it a lot more if we just wait for the next time.

At some deep intuitive level, I think God has created us with a desire for an experience of something rooted in the nature of things, and that's why I think the environmental movement has sprung up, realizing that there is something in the nature of things, in the created order, that isn't just there for our desires. Unfortunately, some have ended up worshipping nature rather than being-as God says to Adam in Genesis 2:15-placed in the garden to tend and keep it. That is our rightful relationship with creation: we are there to tend and keep, taking into consideration the nature of the nature for which we are caring. G. K. Chesterton says that the pagan wants to worship nature as mother, but that we are rather to treat nature as a little sister, not as a mother-a little sister who's in need of care, and neither independent of us nor lording it over us. We are created with a sense that we are more than matter and desire, even though our cultural institutions seem to suggest otherwise. But it does take a lot of effort to live unconventionally; so when cultural conventions suggest that eating can be reduced to mere fueling, it's harder and harder to remember the deeper meaning of meals.

Christians ought to have a more thoughtful attitude toward such things than others do. I doubt it's the case, but it would be nice to see that Christians did take meals more seriously and treat them with more reverence than the population at large. Unfortunately, the social science data suggests that we don't even take marriage much more seriously than the population at large does. So, sadly, I'm not hopeful about this. But I think it is one of the areas, while it's not an explicitly moral thing-that is, again, it's not a sin to use paper plates; there's no law concerning it-where there's a question of fittingness.

I think Americans have an undervalued view of how important symbolic action is. That's one of the reasons our lives have become more and more informal, because we don't realize the power of symbolic action to seal commitments and ideas into our heads. I think this is why the Sacraments are instituted, because God knows the preacher can preach; but unless you do something, unless there is some symbolic action, involving material reality, you're not going to understand. That's not magic, that's just taking account for the kind of creatures we are. If we were angels made of pure mind or pure spirit, we probably wouldn't need to give attention to symbolic action. Fortunately, we still recognize the necessity of symbolic action in most funerals (although not always). Funerals and weddings are the two places where some symbolic action is still retained, for the most part. But largely, we tend to give that up, again because we do prefer to think of ourselves as pure will or pure spirit. In our salvation, we are not saved to become angels, but we are saved to become perfected embodied souls-or ensouled bodies, which is a little more accurate. We're not really embodied souls, at least in terms of the order in creation. God first makes the body and then "souls" it by breathing into it life.

To conclude, I want to quote Wendell Berry one more time:

Our kitchens and other eating places more and more resemble filling stations, as our homes more and more resemble motels. Life is not very interesting, we seem to have decided: let its satisfactions be minimal, perfunctory and fast. We hurry through our meals to go to work and hurry through our work in order to recreate ourselves in the evenings and on weekends and vacations, and then we hurry with the greatest possible speed and noise and violence through our recreation. For what? To eat the billionth hamburger at some fast food joint, hell-bent on increasing the quality of our life? And all this is carried out in a remarkable obliviousness to the causes and effects, the possibilities and the purposes of the life of the body in this world.

He's suggesting that there's a pattern to the way our bodies ought to live in this world; that there's some things that you stretch so far that you get to a breaking point. And I like that phrase, "The life of the body in this world," because we do live as embodied creatures; we have a particular nature and we live in a particular kind of place-and that nature and that place received a benediction on the sixth day of creation. We're more interested in going beyond the purposes and possibilities of life in this world because those purposes and possibilities are limited. We're enchanted by the possibilities of worlds of our own creation. We want to reorder space and time, to treat time as a mere commodity rather than the form of our existence, to eliminate the meaning and significance of matter itself if possible, to reconfigure our own biology and the structure of all around us so as to satisfy and exalt our own wills. But we're creatures of body and spirit, and to be embodied means to be limited and to be needy. That's the state in which we're created, as limited and needy creatures, and that was the state upon which God pronounced that benediction. It's a good thing that we are limited and needy. It's a good thing to be limited and needy. That condition is not a circumstance of the Fall; it's part of our good human nature.

Monday, July 13th 2009

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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