“A Deep and Abiding Communion”
A review of
Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating.
by Norman Wirzba.
Review by Mary Bowling.
Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating.
Paperback: Cambridge UP, 2011.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
At first glance, Food and Faith: a Theology of Eating might seem like the newest in the long and popular line of books for foodies, in which case the question would be “What now?” Michael Pollan, Joel Salatin, end even Wendell Berry have done an effective job of getting their point across, and have seemingly been able to foster in a growing percentage of the American population at least a recognition that the system that provides most of the country with food is flawed to the point of creating widespread disease instead of health in both people and places. Anyone who would seek out yet another book related to the modern food and agriculture industry has likely already heard this information coming and going. But as the subtitle suggests, Food and Faith is not really a food book for foodies. It is a theology book for Christians. Norman Wirzba is certainly sensible to agrarian thought and the works of many writers who would promote more healthful ways of living and eating, and has authored or edited several other related works. What he does here however is to take the subject of food and eating- a subject that many people feel strongly about, although maybe for somewhat vague reasons- and locate it firmly within the realm of the goodness of God’s creation.
The fact that food and eating are central to all life is easily taken for granted. The fact that food and eating are intimately tied to the Christian faith is easily overlooked. For Wirzba, life and food and eating and faith are all gracious gifts proceeding from the God of creation. The act of eating is itself fraught with significance, even aside from questions about animal husbandry, land conservation, and nutritional value. Eating establishes us firmly within the world of the living and every time we take a bite we proclaim that we are full participants in creation. We must also acknowledge with every meal and with every bite that life is a gift that is continually given. However, with each sustaining bite we not only receive life, but taste death. The very food that is given by God for our nourishment has required death of another participant in God’s creation – whether plant or animal, yeast, microbe or fungus – and those lives in turn have required the deaths of others. To be fully cognizant of the gravity of the gift of food, then, should cause our eating to be both humble and grateful. Wirzba notes that the refusal to accept the deaths of others as an ongoing, life-sustaining gift is in some ways a refusal to accept creation as it is, given by God, on God’s terms. He begins the book with a few chapters dedicated to the significance of eating in general as it relates to the way we live in and view the world, and about how the way we currently eat and garden/farm tell a very uncomfortable tale about our unwillingness to accept care and nurture as ways of life and instead pursue quick and mindless consumption.
Wirzba reminds us that the first human drama takes place in a garden, a place that God himself delights in and has sought Sabbath rest in. So aside from being just a source of the gift of food, gardens can themselves be places of gift, places where people connect and observe life and death, not just consume them. In much of the Bible, gardens have been places where people interact with God. The first sin occurred in a garden, and separation from that garden also meant separation from God. As a sign of his obedience, Noah plants a garden after being rescued from the flood. Jesus spent his most prayerful time in a garden. A garden represents care, and the ability to nurture and take delight in a garden signals people’s willingness to share God’s nurturing spirit, to care and be cared for. Conversely, to view gardens, food, and all of creation as things that exist solely for our own consumption places us in perpetual exile and we continue to reap the consequences of that exile.
After outlining the basic theological issues related to food and eating, Wirzba spends several chapters treating specific themes that appear throughout the Bible that have significance relating to food. He addresses sacrifice, the Eucharist, saying grace, and the possibility of eating in Heaven. Along with these come a host of other related topics including feasting and fasting, vegetarianism, hospitality, delight and gratitude, reconciliation, and resurrection. The chapters are somewhat self-contained and could easily be used as topical study guides, but they also help flesh-out and reiterate the whole idea that there are many ways God has given us to be close to him that involve the simple, day-to-day and necessary act of eating food. Correctly done, partaking in sacrifices was a way for Israel to offer back to God some of the same beautiful gifts he had so freely given and a way to understand the divine perichoresis, the complete and total unending act of giving, receiving and indwelling of the triune God. The Eucharist also is a way to identify with and accept the loving, perpetually given life and death of the Christ. Saying grace is a way to graciously receive the blessing of food and life, but also to recognize that our own lives are and will be given to God and others as gift.
Just as all of these food-centered devices for communicating with and understanding God were given in complete love and for the purpose of God’s deep communion with His people, the gifts become warped and cause destruction when they are co-opted and used as fuel for men’s egos. Sacrifice becomes violent, feasts become gluttonous, and the Eucharist becomes divisive. Such is the world as it is and has been. Wirzba recognizes that many of the tangible ills prevalent today are reflections of people’s misunderstanding, misuse, and rejection of these gifts of God. Rather than dwell on the very human capability and propensity to take a beautiful and well-meant gift and turn it against the Giver, Wirzba continually points to what a right relationship with God would look like. With each chapter, he identifies some of the ways that eating has been done to detrimental effect, but the focus is on God’s love and care for his creation and how his created ones can fully receive that care.
It is clear from Norman Wirzba’s use of language that he genuinely longs for the deep and abiding communion he writes about. Delight, delectable, nurture, gift, and offering – among others – are words and themes that appear repeatedly in this book. There is a sense conveyed of needing to abide in a more pure relationship with our creator, though for those who are inclined Wirzba’s language may evoke some notions of romanticism that are certainly unintended. He has a lovely way of choosing and using words to describe and delve into ideas that could be construed as mundane like eating or gardening. At around 230 densely-packed pages, there is a lot to digest here, and like all rich, filling, and abundant meals the best course of action for most people is probably to share. Food and Faith would be very well-suited to deep study and conversation with a group. Reading, like eating is better when it is done purposefully and with a recognition that what is provided is for the nourishment of God’s creation toward a greater love and deeper communion with Him through greater concern and deeper care of each other.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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