12 May 13 // Food + Theology: You Are What You Eat

REBR-038-9_Botticelli's-marriage-feast

Food + Theology: You Are What You Eat

by Samantha Curley

“Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 34:8).

Food is spiritual. Jesus says he is the bread of life (Jn 6:35). Food is justice. Ghandi said, “to those who have to go without two meals a day, God can only appear as bread.”[1] Food is political. President Harry Truman said, “in the long view, no nation is healthier than its children, or more prosperous than its farmers.”[2] And food is sociological. Wendell Berry wrote, “How we eat determines to a considerable extent how the world is used.”[3] Food shapes the way we see the world and experience each other. Food is meant to be a gift – holy, honest, and identity forming. Yet, in our global economy, food has become a commodity and a business of liquidation; consumed by feeding more people, more cheaply. We have lost sense of where our food comes from and what it’s about. We’ve lost track of the history, relationship, and theology of our food. We’ve forgotten how to cook, relying on warehouse grocery stores, freezers, preservatives, and microwaves to feed us, alone in our kitchens. And still one billion people in the world are starving while another billion suffer the consequences of obesity.

Food is also narrative. Take a fortune cookie to China, for example, and no one will be able to identify the staple Americanized Chinese take-out treat. This is because the fortune cookie originated in Japan and was brought to America by Japanese immigrants in the mid-1900’s. While beginning to introduce the fortune cookie into American culture in San Francisco, the United States government put Japanese Americans in internment camps during WWII. Chinese Americans capitalized on the open market, seized the opportunity to take over, and soon came to dominate fortune cookie production. Now every culture has created their own twist on the “Chinese” fortune cookie. In Italy, you’re served fried gelato-shaped cookies at the end of your meal, and N.A.S.A. even serves Chinese food – fortune cookie included – on its shuttle menu. In 2005, 111 players won the Powerball lottery when statisticians predicted there would only be four or five winners. It was not the TV show Lost that inspired lottery-goers, rather 104 of the winners had chosen the winning numbers from their fortune cookie fortunes.[4]

From an evolutionary standpoint, we are in an unique and strange situation not to know or to think about where our food comes from.[5] As hunters and gatherers, feeding ourselves and our families by the animals we could kill and the consumable plants we could find was a full-time job. Only 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent of Western Asia, the development of agriculture revolutionized this system of food acquisition. As food could now be grown rather than hunted, fewer people and less time was required. Surpluses became available and not everyone had to devote all their time to finding and preparing food. Cities began to form around the fertile lands that could produce life to sustain the people inside of them. Rome waged wars, not merely to conquer land or impose religious ideologies, but to conquer the land that held and produced grain, because to feed people was to control them. The religious, physical, and political life of the community was dominated by the grain that sustained it.

In the 1900’s everyone was what Mark Bittman calls ‘locavores.’ Every family had a cook (usually, but not always, the mother), frozen food hadn’t been invented, and chain stores didn’t exist. Margarine, patented in France in 1869, was required by some state laws to be died pink so as to warn consumers that it was fake by ensuring the product was visually unpalatable. What people ate consisted of mostly one ingredient and they often personally knew whoever grew, killed, and sold them their food. Not only was food the social, economic, and geographic center of the city, it was also a visible part of the landscape. Animals would literally walk into cities to be slaughtered outside of the restaurants where customers saw and waited for their food; it was impossible not to know where whatever ended up on your plate had come from.

The dawning of the railroad emancipated cities from geography; food no longer had to travel by foot. Thus, the Industrial Age divorced the relationship between agriculture and the city, between cities and nature. Food became anonymous, periphery, and devalued. The land just outside cities – no longer reserved for farmland – became residential suburbs. People moved out of cities as food moved out of sight. As the century turned, economist David Ricardo developed the theory of comparative advantage stating that “economic growth is maximized when nations specialize their productive activity and then trade for the rest.”[6] This notion of economic farming based on efficiency lead to monoculture crop production and as a result has necessitated massive government planning and intervention.[7] The southern and western United States became agricultural hubs that shipped grain all over the country. Farmers discovered how to can and freeze food items because farms, especially in California, were producing too much to ship fresh. Expiration dates began to appear on food labels and consumers grew ignorant, separated, and distrustful of the food they ate.

By the 1970’s, Norman Borlaug’s “Green Revolution” had doubled corn, wheat, and rice yields with his development of new seed varieties, irrigation, and use of fertilizers and pesticides. Food production had become industrialized (and, with hindsight, unsustainable) and Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.[8] Women began entering the work force in greater numbers leaving no one in the home to plan and cook meals. America slipped into a fat-phobia frenzy (Weight Watchers began in the 1960’s) and we started eating packaged diet foods that lacked nutrition – yogurt replaced ice cream, granola bars replaced Snickers. We packed our foods with corn and soy and called them ‘value-added.’ We were in a food health craze and the answer was industrialization – cheap food on demand – moving us further away from a relationship with the raw materials that were filling our stomachs. As bodies physically grew bigger and sicker, caskets grew wider, some no longer able to even fit inside hearses.

Today, the food situation continues to grow more complicated and equally grim. Twenty percent of the greenhouse gas we produce (more than car pollution) comes from livestock production. More than half of the antibiotics produced in the country go to feed the animals we will subsequently slaughter. The world drinks one billion cans of Coca-Cola a day. Diet-related, preventable diseases account for over half of the deaths in the United States each year.[9] It takes ten calories to produce every one calorie we consume. Half of the food produced in the United States is thrown away and one-third of the grain crop grown in the global world is fed to animals, not humans.[10] Food companies spend more money on advertising directed at children than it would cost to provide health insurance for every uninsured child in the country. And while our government pays $35,000 to keep a prisoner locked in jail for a year, we spend only $500 to feed a student in school.[11]

We do not, however, need a “romanticized image of our agrarian past.”[12] Industrialization and the supermarket have changed the world, largely for the better. It is important to recognize and combat the mythical image we may be tempted to carry of the rural life. Counter movements, the fallacy of returning to some idealized notion of the simple past, will not restore our relationship with the food we eat, nor will it heal the broken and hungry people in the world. Neither nostalgia, nor short term solutions will solve the deeply ingrained systematic problems regarding our food. The hope is to recognize where we are and how we got here so as to transform our relationship with, and thinking about, what we eat. And so we move from its history to explore the relational aspect of our food.

Food is as relational as it is physical. We cannot dissociate the way we eat from the way we see the world and understand ourselves. With food as a sign of health, “the competition, disorder, and destruction we witness in our lands and economies are clearly being worked out in our bodies and in our eating.”[13] The decisions we make about food – growing it, buying it, cooking it, and sharing it – determine our relationship to the land (i.e. agriculture) and to each other (i.e. culture).[14] Carolyn Steel believes that food is the fundamental ordering principle of Utopia, orienting the way we live with each other, successfully or with detriment to the land, our own selves, and our communities.[15]

Wendell Berry understands the impact of industrial eating as resulting in “a kind of solitude, unprecedented in human experience, in which the eater may think of eating as, first, a purely commercial transaction between him and a supplier and then as a purely appetitive transaction between him and his food.”[16] As passive consumers, we hurry through the buying, preparing, and eating of our meals, often alone, often not even sitting down at a table to enjoy. And this hasty and transactional eating carries over into the rest of our days at the office, in our recreational activities, and back again into the kitchen. The way we eat, the speed in which we demand and depend on feeding our bodies, becomes a paradigm for the isolated and hurried way we live our lives. As our food has become anonymous and unidentifiable, so has our lives as relational, embodied creatures.

Yet, “feasting and fasting are two of the primary ways we enact relationships. How we eat, what we eat, and how much demonstrate what we think our responsibilities to each other and the world should be.”[17] Jesus’ radical hospitality during table fellowship coincided with his radical forgiveness (Mk 2:13-17). To eat with people was a way to heal them, to bring them back into restorative relationship with their community. The feasting and fasting Jesus chose was to eat with the marginalized, to invite to the table those whom would never repay the blessing of sharing a meal with him (Lk 14:12-14). When Jesus instructs us not to worry about what we will eat, asking “is not life more important than food?” (Mt 6:25), he does not mean that food is not important, or even central, to our lives, because to share food is to share life. “Patterns of eating are so closely and so early [i.e. breast feeding] tied to patterns of loving, we should not be surprised that a culture that is confused about love should also be confused about how to relate to food.”[18] We lose something deeply human and central to life when we relegate food to fuel and consume merely to fill our stomachs. We experience the effects of this way of eating in our broken relationships with ourselves[19] and our communities.

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Eating is itself a language, a means through which we navigate relationships and communicate identity and belonging.[20] Massimo Montanari believes that food “can serve as mediator between different cultures.”[21] Instinctively we believe that people who eat differently, must be different and a shared table can become a place of reconciliation rather than division. With reference to Peter’s vision in Acts 11, Letty Russell uses the term “just hospitality” to talk about “practical forms of welcome that do not exclude on the basis of difference but instead promote solidarity among strangers.”[22] The table transcends time and space, enchanting and uniting those who share from the same plate. Jesus says, and sociology seems to confirm, that to restore relationship with each other we must begin with table fellowship – the way we gather, prepare, and share our meals.

Food has a history, a history manipulated and controlled by politics and the economy. It is a history that has distorted our relationship first with the land and then within our own bodies and our communities. It is impossible to ignore the centrality of food to the way we experience life. Food, however, also navigates our relationship with death; death is where food becomes most theological. “To eat is to savor and struggle with the mystery of creatureliness,”[23] and the ultimate struggle and mystery of a creature is in its dying. “There is no death that is not somebody’s food, no life that is not somebody’s death.”[24]

What does it mean to eat ourselves into existence?[25] Dante wrote that meaning occurs on four levels: the literal or most obvious level, the metaphorical or poetic, the political or ethical, and finally, the mystical. There is a mystical and spiritual quality to the food we eat, a quality that Jesus captured with the vocabulary and through parables of bread-making (Mt 13, Mk 8, Lk 9, Jn 6, etc.). Bread undergoes three transformational life cycles in the twelve steps it takes to go from wheat to eat.[26] First, seeds – containing the potential for future life – must be harvested (a euphemism for killing) by crushing the seeds into flour. The flour is then mixed with water to form clay and that clay is mixed with leaven. The hebrew word for clay is related to the word Adam; God becomes a kind of baker and Adam, his creation, becomes the dough. Leaven means to enliven, to vivify, inciting growth – the proof of life – from the death of the seeds. As the dough rests in preparation for the oven, it develops character under the careful watch of the baker. Once in the oven, however, the life of the dough will cease as it reaches 140 degrees, the thermal death point (TDP) of baking. To complete its mission, the dough has to give up it’s life; the bread making process experiences its second death.

Out of the oven, however, death becomes life once again. The dough becomes bread: the staff, or symbol, of life. The third death comes as bread is consumed, a dying that brings life to the eater. The transformation of seeds to flour to dough to bread reveals the connection of life and death through the food we eat. It is a deeply spiritual connection, as Ghandi observed that a piece of bread is the face of god. Yet it is also an elusive and mysterious connection noted by Wendell Berry: “We can grow good wheat and make good bread only if we understand that we do not live by bread alone.” Theologically understood, “food is not reducible to material stuff” but to the “provision and nurture of God.”[27] The body of Jesus, the bread of life, must break in order to feed us; the bread must die in order to rise. The ultimate mystery of life is its connection to death.

Even the healthy soil that holds the seeds and grows the wheat that becomes our food, is teeming with death and life:

“Death decays into [the soil] and reemerges as new life, all because of the astoundingly complex and mostly invisible work of billions of bacteria and microorganisms. Without their work our world would be overwhelmed by the corpses and stench of death. Soil is a marvel and a mystery that we have not yet even begun to comprehend. It is the hospitable ‘table’ out of which terrestrial life, even the life (weeds!) we may not necessary choose, literally grows.”[28]

Wendell Berry describes soil in Christ-like terms believing that its fertility is always building from death into promise, that “death is the bridge or the tunnel by which its past enters its future.”[29] Reconnecting with where our food comes from, and the processes that transform raw materials into food, can bring peace to our relationship with death. In the pleasure of mindful, informed, and shared eating, “we experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend.”[30] If we are what we eat, and we feed on death, we are forced to rethink what it means to live and to die.

Food is more than fuel, more than calories necessary to sustain life. Rather, food is the means through which we understand life. “Give us today, our daily bread,” (Mt 6:11) is not a prayer for the dough of creation or the manna of existence, but for a relationship with land, neighbor, and God; for a mediating relationship between life and death. Until we believe and experience death as the sustenance of life, we will never know what it means to truly live. And the connection between death and life is no more clearly or habitually experienced than in our growing, cooking, and sharing of meals together.

In order to restore this knowledge and experience, the first and most basic task is relearning what it means to cook; stepping back into the kitchen, peeler in one hand and colander in the other. We need to become reacquainted with and passionate about finding recipes, learning cooking techniques, and sitting around our dining room tables. We need to stop watching Rachel Ray and actually start making dinner. In the midst of socially- and ecologically-minded debates surrounding vegetarianism, Heribert Watzke instead suggests people become ‘coctivors,’ taken from the Latin word coquere, meaning ‘to cook.’ He urges us to recapture the entertainment, design, creativity, and transformation of a cooked meal. Coquo ergo sum; ‘I cook, therefore I am.’[31]

Moreover, cooking is inversely correlated to obesity rates and is also “one of the fundamental activities that situate and define people as human beings.”[32] The further removed we are from our kitchens, the larger and less human we’re becoming. Cooking is the gateway into restoring our relationship with food, self, and other. We must become people who think about and plan the food we eat and who are mindful of where our food comes from. We need to eat real food that tastes good, while remembering to share it with others. We most join God’s work as bread-maker, each becoming amateur chefs who delight in the culinary arts of creation, land, community, and food.

On a global scale, the world creates more than enough calories to adequately and sustainably feed everyone in it. In the relationship between life and death, nature wastes nothing. So we, too, must strive for more sustainable and equal systems of production and consumption. Food is intimately connected to our spiritual, political, economic, and social lives. And eating is something we do every day, with a high degree of autonomy and control. When we make simple, yet thoughtful choices that adjust our own food practices, we may begin to see bigger changes, not just in our meals, around our waistlines, or on our dinner tables, but in other seemingly unreachable aspects of our world as well.


[1] Louise Fresco, “Louise Fresco on Feeding the Whole World,” TED video, 18:04, Filmed February 2009, posted May 2009, http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/louise_fresco_on_feeding_the_whole_world.html.

[2] President Harry Truman on signing the 1946 National School Lunch Act

[3] Michael Schut, ed., Food & Faith: Justice, Joy and Daily Bread (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2009), 16.

[4] Jennifer 8. Lee, “Jennifer 8. Lee Hunts for General Tso,” TED video, 16:34, Filmed July 2008, posted December 2008, http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/jennifer_8_lee_looks_for_general_tso.html.

[5] The brief history of food that follows comes from: Mark Bittman, “Mark Bittman On What’s Wrong With What We Eat,” TED video, 20:04, Filmed December 2007, posted May 2008, http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/mark_bittman_on_what_s_wrong_with_what_we_eat.html. And, Carolyn Steel, “Carolyn Steel: How Food Shapes Our Cities” TED video, 15:41, Filmed July 2009, posted October 2009, http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/carolyn_steel_how_food_shapes_our_cities.html.

[6] Norman Wirzba, Food & Faith: A Theology of Eating (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 93.

[7] Ibid., 93.

[8] Ibid., 72.

[9] Mark Bittman, “What’s Wrong With What We Eat,” TED talk.

[10] Carolyn Steel, “How Food Shapes Our Cities,” TED Talk.

[11] Ann Cooper, “Ann Cooper Talks School Lunches,” TED video, 19:38, Filmed December 2007, posted September 2008, http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/ann_cooper_talks_school_lunches.html.

[12] Jim Mulligan, “The Great Hunter-Gatherer Continuum,” in Food & Faith: Justice, Joy and Daily Bread, ed. Michael Schut (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2009), 137.

[13] Wirzba, Food & Faith, 103.

[14] Ibid., 155.

[15] Carolyn Steel, “How Food Shapes Our Cities,” TED Talk.

[16] Wendell Berry, “The Pleasures of Eating,” in Food & Faith: Justice, Joy and Daily Bread, ed. Michael Schut (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2009), 144.

[17] Wirzba, Food & Faith, 141.

[18] Ibid., 140.

[19] A deeper conversation regarding obesity, eating disorders, and body image, while beyond the scope of this paper, is an important component in the extended dialogue of our relationship with food.

[20] Ibid., 170.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 171.

[23] Ibid., 4.

[24] Gary Snyder, “Grace,” in Food & Faith: Justice, Joy and Daily Bread, ed. Michael Schut (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2009), 74.

[25] Miriam Therese MacGillis, “Sacred Agriculture: Reflections of a Contemplative Farmer,” in Food & Faith: Justice, Joy and Daily Bread, ed. Michael Schut (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2009), 69.

[26] The following bread narrative taken from: Peter Reinhart, “Peter Reinhart on Bread,” TED video, 15:30, Filmed July 2008, posted January 2009, http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/peter_reinhart_on_bread.html.

[27] Wirzba, Food & Faith, 7.

[28] Ibid., 13-14.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Wendell Berry, “The Pleasures of Eating,” in Food & Faith: Justice, Joy and Daily Bread, ed. Michael Schut (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2009), 147.

[31] Heribert Watzke, “Heribert Watzke: The Brian In Your Gut,” TED video, 15:14, Filmed July 2010, posted October 2010, http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/heribert_watzke_the_brain_in_your_gut.html.

[32] Wirzba, Food & Faith, 190.

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One thought on “12 May 13 // Food + Theology: You Are What You Eat

  1. I’m not sure what your point is? I can hardly believe such a poorly constructed piece of writing has been published on what I have previously considered to be a thought provoking blog.

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