Church Practices and Public Life: A Global Feast
First in Comment's "church practices and public life" series. The biblical story of food can be summarized in its chief emblem. The history of the world from creation to consummation is enacted in the process of making bread.
Editor's Note: We're accustomed to thinking of the practices of the Christian faith as something that happens within the church, shaping those who engage in them. But we don't always think about what it looks like when those same practices translate into and affect public life, informing society beyond the church walls. Comment asked some writers to explore this question in reference to a number of the distinctive practices of the Christian faith—like tithing, prayer, preaching, baptism, and singing.
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The recipe is simple. Mix water, flour, yeast, and salt. Knead by hand into a lump of dough. Let it rise. Bake when risen. Eat, preferably with others.
So simple, yet so difficult. I have a tortured history with bread-making. I've managed to evenly sauté thirty pounds of spring ramps just before an Easter feast, and to roast a Christmas suckling pig in my tiny New York oven, but I can't bake an edible loaf of bread to save my life.
Perhaps this shouldn't bother me—you can buy perfectly good bread at most stores—but it does. I am neither a chef, a baker, a nutritionist, nor the son of one of these. My quest to make bread is not some last item on a DIY foodie checklist.
No, my failure to make bread bothers me because I'm a pastor. My livelihood depends on it. And whether or not you know it, yours does, too. The hope of the world hangs on that elusive loaf.
To feast you need food. The central biblical emblem for all food is bread—give us this day our daily bread. Let's think about the significance of food for a moment, that we might set the table for a feast.
Food is central to who we are as human beings and communities; our food practices comprehend nearly everything important that we do in life: from the time we nurse as babies until our last meal we will use food to celebrate, to mourn, to court a spouse, to explore other cultures, to pursue health or its opposite, to medicate, to experiment, to delight, to worship. Food is present in most of what we do in life and food both shapes and expresses our personal habits and cultural values.
Brooklyn, where I live and minister, has become one of the country's epicenters for what we'll call the "New Food Movement": a fierce commitment to all things local, seasonal, organic, artisanal, and sustainable. And the cultural diversity of Brooklyn has endowed it with a rich culinary history—a habit of being in the world that is suffused with the celebration of all things exotic and other.
Of course, we in Brooklyn are not alone. While the world has always had its gourmands, perhaps never before have the masses—at least in the developed West—participated in the food finery and experimentation that previously was the domain only of kings. Our never-ending Western banquet has also provoked a recent but deepening understanding of the ethical responsibilities we have to others as exclusive guests at this heavy-laden table.
While there is much to celebrate in our more informed practices and growing culinary catholicity, there is still much to lament. The loss of local-culture food practices, disparity due to poverty, personal gluttony and obesity, the rise of nutritionism and dieting fads, disappearing hospitality, convenience, and the economy of the suburbs have all contributed to the devaluation of our cooking and eating practices. We're confused by competing claims and practices, and it often seems that we have lost a basic vision for the meaning and purpose of food itself. If we want to truly feast like kings, we will need to explore together as a global community the deeper meaning of our food practices and the ethics of eating.
I suggest we begin our quest with a story. The Christian philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has written, "I can only answer the question 'What am I to do?' if I can answer the prior question 'Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?'" That is, we can only understand ourselves and our role in the world if we understand the stories that have shaped who we are and how we understand and lean into the world.
In other words, true feasting is much more than a matter of personal taste. Our individual experiences with food inevitably form how we think about and encounter food and we need to attend to the ways in which our personal food stories have perverted our attempts at feasting—for us and for others. What you've eaten or haven't eaten, how you've eaten what you've eaten, and with whom you've chosen to eat—all of these things have shaped how you approach food even as they reveal what you may believe even subconsciously about food and eating.
But here's where it gets interesting. Long before your personal histories with food ever came to be, there was . . . food. Which is to say, food itself has a story. And it's a story in which we cannot help but participate, but one that started long before you or I became players. If we want to answer the question "How can we feast in ways that cause the world to feast?" we must first ask, "What is the story of food?" Only then will we be able to grope toward answers concerning what is food's purpose and meaning, and how we might together develop a beautiful and ethical culture of feasting.
The Christian story in the Holy Scriptures is where we should start in looking for the meaning of food. Food is central in the first scene of the Bible; it's central in the last. And to a large degree the story of God and his work in the world is eventuated in the story of food and humanity's relationship to it. The biblical story of food can be summarized in its chief emblem. The history of the world from creation to consummation is enacted in the process of making bread. God is the Great Baker and the story of the world is hidden in a single loaf. If we'll allow this story to shape our personal stories, we'll find a way forward for feasting as Christians and in the public realm.
A compelling story that allows room for creative tension and exploration is the need of our current food culture. Happily, it is a story that has spilled out of the pages of the Bible right into the central and repeated rite of the universal church in history. We will do well to live out and into this drama more thoughtfully.
Back to our recipe, then. Mix water, flour, yeast, and salt. Knead by hand into a lump of dough. Let it rise. Bake when risen. Sit down with others to eat. This recipe is simple to comprehend but difficult to execute. Don't give up the pursuit; it's too important. Bread-making is God's recipe for a global feast.
We begin with water. This is where God starts and so must we. Water is the element by which all creation is baptized into being. It was there first at creation; it was there at our birth. It was there first in new creation; it was there, too, at our rebirth. Water is how God gives life.
The first question, then, is this: Do the elements of our food culture give life? In my opinion, one of the most disquieting indictments of Western food culture is the end of the movie Wall-E. Our perverted feasting has created nations full of Wall-E people. I'll leave you to digest, but surely this is not a life-giving food culture. Add to this the work of Michael Pollan and the documentary Food, Inc., among many others, and there is plenty of evidence that we are feasting upon death.
What is just as important but usually forgotten is the particular plight of the poor, farmers, undocumented workers at our factories, and the people of underdeveloped nations who are directly harmed by our industrial food practices. Justice and mercy demand scrutiny of the actual foodstuffs we ingest, our production mechanisms, governmental food policies, trade agreements, and the stubborn interference of agroscience and petroleum companies. A healthy feasting community will begin with a commitment to create food practices that bring life both to those at the table and those not yet at the table.
God also uses water to make things holy. The Bible makes clear that for the baptized, Christ has made everything holy for consumption. "Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch" is now the doctrine of demons. Christians should not go in for supposed "Bible Diets" or swallow whole-(no)-hog "Forks Over Knives." This is where not only modern diet plans but also supposed ethical-eating communities and movements are in danger of leading us astray. The vegetarian and vegan communities, as one example, are fast-growing in North America. And while they provide an important and prophetic critique of mainstream food cultures that are unhealthy and destructive to the least of these, we should remember that a significant command of the gospel is to not exclude pork belly from the menu.
I mean this as more than beef-tongue-in-cheek. If we realize that food is a crucial carrier of social identity and cohesion, we will not categorically divorce ourselves from the union inherent in eating with those from other cultures in order to maintain any given personal diet. To put it bluntly, always eat what you're served. (Without probing its meticulous sourcing.) Everyone is holy.
Add flour and salt. God works with the stuff of creation, and so must we. His work of creation and redemption is of the earth—it is earthy. Everything he has made is good—good enough for tending, growing, then harvesting by putting to death and feeding to other good creatures that they may have life. His work of kneading is to divide and remove living things and mix them into new situations: new creation. We won't begin to exhaust the implications here, but chefs and eaters take heart: there is a universe of play awaiting you.
I also want to offer two broad cautionary guardrails. On one side: there is plenty of cause for concern about the opportunistic corporate take-over of food technology (for instance, GMOs and pink slime). Our food experimentation should never become too far removed from the very stuff of creation itself. For me this means my basic default is one shared with many of my urban neighbours: as often as able, go natural with your food sourcing. On the other side, I'm hesitant to legislate neo-agrarian practices. In the commanded feast of the Eucharist God does not serve up wheat stalks and grapes, but bread and wine. These products are his very good creation glorified by human culture, dominion, science, and work. We can't all just return to the land and be fed. Rather, we'll have to carefully work out faithful uses for human technology in the food process if we want to set the feast.
Briefly, salt is God's means to make things tasty. By all means we must pursue food justice, but let's lose the sackcloth and ashes. This is a worldwide party we're preparing. If the salty community loses its saltiness, what good is it for but to be thrown out? (For saltiness I recommend my all-time favourite cookbook.)
Wait while the dough rises. For a long moment now, our physical work is done. We have come to the great pause in labour and are called upon to wait, to watch, to pray. Preparing for a feast includes mimicking God as a people of patience. We will not gorge ourselves on every offer that comes along, but wait instead for the good stuff.
The world needs to know from us what it means to fast. From eating disorders to involuntary famine to a multi-billion dollar diet industry, we have also perverted fasting ("bridal hunger games" being only one horrifying example). If we want to keep the feast, we will need to keep the fast. Our various food cultures will make many enticing offers, but for the sake of the kingdom we will need to say "no" to many offers, in some seasons, demonstrating that while we're not enslaved to any one religious or secular asceticism, we're also not enslaved to our bellies or to epicurean philosophies. For example, perhaps the Western church could occasionally consider leading a prescribed fast with our neighbours for the sake of food injustices to our less fortunate global neighbours.
As we're fasting and praying, we must also keep watch for the dough's rising, awaiting just the right time. This is where my attempts at making bread always go awry. I've selected the best ingredients; I've apprenticed and learned the art of kneading; I've folded my hands now and rested to watch the dough rise. Too often, nothing happens. There are contextual factors over which I have no control: fickle local bacteria necessary to the vitality of my homemade sourdough starter, humidity in my apartment, and so on.
The lesson I've learned: Yeast is the agent of the Spirit and we can not manufacture the resurrection. The Spirit of new life must work its strange and magical alchemy in our midst. With any luck it will leaven the whole lump, but even then we can only receive this power as a gift. For at any time—in our time, too—there are various leavens at work in the world. The spirit of the old leaven is malice, wickedness, hypocrisy, division, selfishness, gluttony, feasting on the world for its own sake. We may find that we need to throw out the old lump again and again. The spirit of the new leaven is love, holiness, life, truth, grace, interdependence, feasting on God with others. Good, leavening yeast is a work of God. This work of God in the world is what we fast to one day feast upon.
Let me make this concrete. One of my two most memorable meals was a five-course dinner with my wife as we celebrated our anniversary at one of the cutting-edge farm-to-table restaurants in New York City. There, I had the astonishing experience of drinking an apricot-tinged Sauternes paired with seared and hot-fat-bursting foie gras. The other was in the slums of the capital of Ethiopia in a small cardboard-and-tin room built on a landfill belonging to a dying HIV+ woman who served me stale popcorn while she roasted coffee beans over a small fire made of gathered kindling, then hand-ground the beans, then brewed them in brown, tepid water she pulled from a pan under her bed and boiled. She wept and told me her terrible story and introduced me to her beautiful, filthy child and asked me to pray with her. I silently prayed the coffee wouldn't make me sick, drank it, then asked for a second cup. She gave me more than she could afford. She fed me with the love of Christ; we became one in eating. This is something like the alchemy of the Spirit. This is food you can get your teeth and soul around. Please, Lord, let it rise.
Bake. When God sees that our world is leavened through with the good yeast, risen and ready, he will add fire. The refiner's fire will burn away the chaff and all impurity and every work will be tested and the aroma for which all creation has been longing will fill the cosmos. We'll look around joyfully at guests from every tribe and tongue and nation. Someone will call out "Take and eat." Then, at long last, we will feast and be satisfied: it will be so very good.
Suffice it to say that our food practices should anticipate and make intelligible this ending. For now the invitation to the feast is for the whole world; we go to the highways and the hedges to compel the nations to come in, knowing that there is nourishing life in this one loaf—here, where we sample the Table to come week by week, where our palates are weaned from the perverted faux-feasting of the age and our appetites are whet for that first toothsome bite at the wedding supper of the Lamb. For now a nibble, but then a banquet that will never end—feeding on God, on one another, on the new creation. The never-ending Eucharist—the Great Thanksgiving—will begin. A global feast. From creation to consume-ation. Take and eat. Indeed, all the world in a loaf.