Eating as Discipleship

The food economy is still an accessible place to begin working out an economy of membership.
July 28th, 2016

Wendell Berry's famous statement that "eating is an agricultural act" has motivated many to reconsider the agricultural systems our eating habits promote. Yet Berry's writings also contend that eating is a spiritual act; when we eat, we enact our relationship with the rest of creation and with the Creator. Unfortunately, the social architecture of the developed world encourages us to imagine food as a fuel that we consume. We're trained to treat food as a commodity whose sole purpose is to satisfy our desires and give us energy.

Lisa Graham McMinn's To the Table: A Spirituality of Food, Farming, and Community joins a chorus of other books that call Christians to resist this consumerist view of food. McMinn's book begins with Leslie Leyland Fields's proclamation that "food is nothing less than Sacrament." In defending this view, McMinn—a sociologist and co-owner of a CSA—adds her voice to the growing number of books and blogs celebrating farmers' markets, gardening, and home cooking.

the popularity of spiritually inflected food writing in general, indicates a growing unease with how the consumer economy has warped our relationships to one another and to the rest of creation

What might it actually mean, however, that "food is nothing less than Sacrament"? Claims about sacramental eating can often be unsatisfyingly vague. Eating sacramentally should not mean that every meal becomes a sort of mini Eucharist. If everything is holy, then nothing is. (In Hebrew "holy" means "set apart.") McMinn herself comes from a Quaker background, in which the sacraments are not elevated, unique moments but embedded in daily life. As she explains, "We work to see all moments of life as sacramental—every meal as sacred time, an encounter with God." Even so, she admits that "as an observant Quaker I fail at this; every meal does not, in fact, feel like communion." And this is probably good; as McMinn later acknowledges, our eating should follow a cyclical or seasonal pattern of ordinary meals punctuated by holidays (literally, holy days). Hence writers like Robert Farrar Capon and Rachel Marie Stone advocate a ferial-festal rhythm, a household order that brings together the mundane and the holy without obliterating their differences.

Perhaps, then, claims about eating sacramentally should be understood not just spiritually but also economically. I use "economic" here in its root sense of "household management"; it can be helpful to recall that "economy" comes from the same Greek root as does "diocese" and "ecosystem." Those who belong to the household of faith should operate according to a grammar of membership rather than consumption. Eating sacramentally becomes a way for us to practice our membership with creation. When we eat as members of creation, we learn to see creation not as mere fuel, but as a gift from God.

It can be difficult to imagine what it would look like to eat according to a eucharistic economy rather than a consumerist one, but William Cavanaugh's Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire provides a helpful analysis of the way the Eucharist overturns the grammar of a consumer economy. When we eat, we consume other lives, digesting their bodies and incorporating them into our own. A similar logic informs our consumer economy, in which we repeatedly buy products to build up our own lives and identities. Yet when we partake of Christ's body and blood, we become what we eat; we are made members of the body of Christ. As Christians, our identity comes not from the commodities we consume but from the one who gives himself as food for us.

Cavanaugh considers how this eucharistic grammar might guide the church toward an alternative economy, an economy of membership rather than consumption. Instead of focusing on the desires of our own, individual bodies, Christians recognize that we are members of another body, and we seek to serve its health. While a consumer economy encourages us to treat all products as disposable commodities, the Eucharist reminds us of the incredible cost that Jesus paid to give us abundant life, and it calls us to participate in his life by giving of ourselves for others. If we allow this understanding to move from the Communion table to the dinner table, it reshapes the way we understand all eating. Eating toward communion means that we gratefully receive the gifts of other creatures' lives and then generously give of our lives to serve others.

Eating "toward communion," a phrase McMinn borrows from Norman Wirzba, is a way of "acknowledg[ing] various memberships: that we belong to God and are members of the human race, yes, but also that we share the earth with animals, plants, and microbes." Eating in this way can become a means of loving others instead of merely consuming calories. Perhaps the best way to "acknowledge" these memberships is to take more personal responsibility for tending them. Cavanaugh suggests that a eucharistic economy would entail turning our homes into places of production, making ourselves "active and creative participants" in unfolding creation's gifts and sharing them with others. Following a similar logic, McMinn suggests ways to become more involved in our food—gardening and cooking ourselves, shopping at farmers' markets and local bakeries, and eating meals with others.

These are the kinds of recommendations you'd expect to find in a book subtitled "A Spirituality of Food, Farming, and Community," and indeed, many of McMinn's ideas echo those of other writers, from Wendell Berry and Norman Wirzba, to Rachel Marie Stone and Michael Pollan. McMinn's book, and the popularity of spiritually inflected food writing in general, indicates a growing unease with how the consumer economy has warped our relationships to one another and to the rest of creation. For all its well-documented problems, the food economy is still an accessible place to begin working out an economy of membership. I can't make my own computer or fix my car, but I can grow a small garden and cook meals for family and friends. This growing movement to eat in more healthy, creation-honouring ways has much to commend it and can become a sort of gateway drug to practicing an economy of membership in other spheres as well.

This movement, however, remains vulnerable to being co-opted in at least two ways by our pervasive consumer economy. First, even those who want to eat in a healthy, just way are tempted to reduce the value of food to the stickers on its packaging: price and nutrition labels mark food as a fungible commodity. We make purchasing decisions, then, based on a calculation that balances what we are willing to pay against the calories, fat, cholesterol, and vitamins we'll receive in exchange. This relationship to food mirrors our relationship to the fuel we put in our cars; some prefer the cheapest fuel available, and others are willing to pay more for premium, high-octane food because it tastes better, is better for their body, or imparts a certain status. While we may point to fast-food chains, factory farming, and microwavable dinners as the chief perpetrators of this food-as-fuel social architecture, diet programs, health-food smoothies, and the supplement industry all play according to the same rules. The person scarfing lunch while hunched over a computer and the person swallowing a daily regimen of pills participate in the same economy.

All too easily, a "right" way of eating can become just one more commodity we consume to hone our preferred identity—as brand-fuel.

Capon rails against such a commodified view of food in his classic The Supper of the Lamb, arguing that calorie counting, nutrition labels, and dieting are the natural consequence of viewing food as fuel. The alternative is to reimagine food as God's gracious, loving gift. As Capon declaims, "Man invented cooking before he thought of nutrition. To be sure, food keeps us alive, but that is only its smallest and most temporary work. Its eternal purpose is to furnish our sensibilities against the day when we shall sit down at the heavenly banquet and see how gracious the Lord is. Nourishment is necessary only for a while; what we shall need forever is taste. . . . 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." This same sentiment animates McMinn's claim that "reflecting God's image in the kitchen requires us to stop thinking about food only as body-fuel and see it as one of God's primary ways to express divine provision."

If nutrition labels foster a reductive view of food, price labels can be just as misleading, and another of McMinn's contributions is to expose the flawed accounting that characterizes an industrial food system. For instance, buying food at Walmart seems cheaper than shopping at a farmers' market, but Walmart achieves its low sticker prices by "passing on costs to taxpayers, to Walmart employees, to farm and factory workers abroad, to animals, and to the entire neighbourhood—the ecosystems we all depend on. When understood from this perspective, it's not much of a savings for anyone." By working to account for these broader costs, McMinn practices what Berry calls a "valid criticism," one that "attempts a just description of our condition [and] aims at a full accounting and an honest net result, whether a net gain or a net loss." To use McMinn's example, buying fair-trade chocolate rather than the cheapest brand is more just because it entails "paying a more accurate price for what chocolate costs." By encouraging readers to broaden the terms of their accounting, McMinn challenges us to stop treating food as a fuel-like commodity.

However, McMinn's call for fair-trade food brings us to a second way in which the local-food movement can be co-opted by a consumer economy. All too easily, a "right" way of eating can become just one more commodity we consume to hone our preferred identity—food as brand-fuel. So critics who find all this posturing about organic food and fair trade insufferably hipsterish have a point. Holier-than-thou eaters can curate an identity through posting meals on Instagram, sipping fair-trade coffee at a hip café, or buying vegetables directly from a farmer; by doing so, they are still treating food as a commodity whose value comes from the physical, social, or psychological benefits it provides to the consumer.

Yet eating as members of creation isn't a brand that only appeals to a certain demographic. Rather, as Cavanaugh writes about fair trade, "Christians . . . will narrate the Fair Trade movement differently," not as "the mere expression of a preference," but "as the pursuit of one of the chief ends of human life, that is, communion with other persons." Christians must resist the temptation to make healthy or just ways of eating simply one more expression of their identity. The fact that these forms of eating can be co-opted by a consumer economy does not negate their importance, but it does mean we need to regularly audit our motives: Are my food choices motivated by the pleasures of consumption, by knowing I'm the cool kind of person who only eats fair-trade chocolate, or are they motivated by a delight that stems from gratitude for my membership in God's extravagant, superabundant creation?

Focusing on the desires that underlie our relationship to food makes an economy of membership accessible even to those who don't have lots of disposable income to spend on fair-trade coffee. McMinn admits that she used to think a lack of time and money pushed poorer people to eat more fast food and to relate to food as a mere commodity. Further research, however, painted a more complicated picture: "the lower a family's income, the more they cooked from 'scratch.'" The recent economic recession seems to have contributed to a "turn toward home" as underemployed people become more involved in their home economies. While lower-income people may lack access to healthy, more just food options, many also take the time to treat growing, buying, cooking, and eating food as opportunities to creatively demonstrate love for others.

What McMinn's book provides—with its gritty, hands-in-the-dirt examples—is a set of "diversionary practice[s]" that help those of us who live within an industrial food system to begin eating toward communion. "Diversionary practice" is a phrase from Michel de Certeau's The Practice of Everyday Life, a book that celebrates the strategies by which people "make-do" within unjust or oppressive systems. We can MacGyver the tools that undergird the industrial food system by using modern manufacturing and transportation systems to get quality canning tools, gardening equipment, and heirloom seeds. Similarly, we can use the Internet to find a CSA or a local farmer who raises grass-fed beef, to watch YouTube videos on how to raise chickens, or to research the origins of distant foods and find fair-trade alternatives. Our food system may be oriented toward injustice, but a renewed imagination of food can inspire us to find creative ways to eat as members.

As McMinn exemplifies, the food economy remains remarkably susceptible to subversive, communal delight. There are many easy, cheap ways of delighting in the sacramental gift of food—cooking and eating with others, canning local produce, growing a garden. With creative intentionality, we can all begin to eat as members rather than as consumers of creation. And when we eat as members, we eat sacramentally, honouring a gift that will always be more delicious than it is useful.

 

Jeffrey Bilbro is an Assistant Professor of English at Spring Arbor University in southern Michigan. He grew up in the mountainous state of Washington and earned his B.A. in Writing and Literature from George Fox University and his Ph.D. in English from Baylor University. His first book is Loving God’s Wildness: The Christian Roots of Ecological Ethics in American Literature, and he and Jack Baker have a book forthcoming from the University Press of Kentucky, An Education in the Virtues of Place: Wendell Berry and the University, that explores how Berry’s vision could shape a more healthy form of higher education, one that encourages students to lead placed lives.

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