“Edification, Socialization, Conversation”
A Review of
In the Beginning was the Meal:
and Early Christian Identity.
by Hal Taussig.
Reviewed by Chris Smith.
In the Beginning was the Meal:
and Early Christian Identity.
Hardback: Fortress Press, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
I heard an interview on NPR several years ago with Fred Rogers (a.k.a., Mr. Rogers), and one thing in particular that he said in that interview lodged itself permanently in my head, namely that (and I’m paraphrasing from memory here) the most significant formative practice in a child’s development is dinner-table conversation. This observation has come back to mind as I reflect from time to time on Christian formation in the Church and particularly did so the past week as I was reading Hal Taussig’s new book In the Beginning was the Meal: Social Experimentation and Early Christian Identity. I was very excited when I heard about the release of this book, as it brought together two things for which I have a deep appreciation: Early Christianity and eating. Ultimately, I found the book to be somewhat disappointing in that it was intended for a highly specialized academic audience and in that Taussig represents a common academic theological position in his skepticism about traditional understandings of Jesus and Christianity. Setting aside both of these concerns (as best as possible), I’d like to explore here the implications of Taussig’s research on the ways that we worship together in our churches and the ways we are formed into the image of Christ. Taussig himself, actually initiates some reflections in this direction in his epilogue, which is perhaps the most accessible section of the book.
In brief, Taussig’s thesis was that the early Christian gatherings were not worship services as we think of them, but rather meals that were shared together in the tradition of the Hellenistic associations of that era (an “association” as used here has a fairly specific socio-historical understanding, and is not just a generic term referring to any group of people). Taussig describes here three “dimensions” of the meals of these Hellenistic associations: how the participants organized themselves at the meal, the deipnon (the time of sharing food together) and the symposion (a post-eating time of singing and intentional conversation). He notes that “the symposion was the part of the meal where most of the social interaction, community discussion, singing and teaching occurred” (47). In my mind, the most significant chapter in the book was focused on “Meals of resistance to Roman Imperial Power.” In this chapter, Taussig explores how the assembling of socially and economically diverse peoples to recline together (a leisurely posture of eating that culturally could only be afforded by the upper classes) was an act of resistance against Roman imperialism. Further, he also observes that these meals created a space in which:
new relational patterns and social structures could be risked without the larger consequences incurred because of the imperial domination in the public square. The stability and safety of the meal structure became a primary milieu in which to imagine different relationships emphasizing the qualities of philia, koinonia and charis (123).
In a later chapter, Taussig explores in more detail how these early Christian meals created a space for social experimentation, especially in the areas of gender and ethnicity.
So what would it look like for us to “respond to this early Christian worship from within our own time and place” (193)? Taussig emphasizes in his epilogue that explores this question that in many churches too much time is spent on the unidirectional – people speaking or singing at us and not with us. Taussig’s work here is a reminder that Christian worship was at its origins conversational – and I would likewise argue that it should be so today as well. Furthermore, in shifting from a meal to a religious service, we miss the bulk of the economic significance of sharing food together. Certainly, we need to discern how the cultural practices that gave meaning to the worship meals in the early Christian era can be paralleled in our cultural contexts today. To summarize Taussig, the early Christian gatherings were focused to a large extent discerning a way of following Jesus together in resistance to the imperialism of Rome. In the present age of American imperialism, the need is just as great for churches to discern the way of faithfulness together. We need spaces, for instance, where we can share meals and life with those of different races, ethnicities, economic classes, sexual orientations, etc. And as we share together around the table, salting our conversations with more familiar elements of worship like teaching, singing and praying, we will be formed more fully – just as a child is formed into a mature adult – into the image of Christ Jesus. I am grateful for Hal Taussig’s work and especially for the reminders therein that Christian worship – in its origins – was not about some sort of disconnected religious service, but rather about the natural sorts of edification, socialization and conversation that we all do with regularity in our day-to-day lives – but done in such a way that the cross of Christ and his redemptive contrast-culture are remembered.
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
Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
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