Eating as a Spiritual Practice: Is Food the Next Big Spiritual Discipline for American Christians?

image from polishfoodinfo.comRachel Wheeler, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University has written a paper published in three installments on the Religion in American History blog arguing that the locavore trend with its farmers' markets, CSA boxes, and school gardens has established a significant foothold in the imagination of American evangelicals, citing recent books on the subject:

There is an equally voluminous output by Christian publishers, though it has gone largely un-noticed by the mainstream media. Presbyterian pastor Craig Goodwin recently published, Year of Plenty: One Suburban Family, Four Rules, and 365 Days of Homegrown Adventure in Pursuit of Christian Living, and Ragan Sutterfield, founder of a farm-school for disadvantaged youth, published a collection of essays entitled, Farming as a Spiritual Discipline. Rod Dreher, a Methodist turned Catholic turned Eastern Orthodox, has written about conservatives who embrace what are usually seen as liberal issues in his book: Crunchy Cons: Or How Birkenstock Burkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature lovers, and their diverse tribe of countercultural conservatives plan to save America (or at least the Republican Party); and one of my favorites, Don Colbert’s, What Would Jesus Eat?

She calls both the religious and secular variety of food advocates "locavangelists" and argues that secular locavangelists like Michael Pollan and Colin Beavan "draw heavily – and largely unconsciously—from the deeply rooted American tradition of evangelicalism." Wheeler cites the common ground of an emphasis on the "born-again" stories that dominate the genre, a common sense approach to life that echoes evangelical common-sense approaches to the Bible, and a focus on the conversion of individuals as key to ushering in the longed for kingdom of healthy food, communities, and land.

I find her arguments provocative and compelling but I'm not convinced yet of her diagnoses that recent events like 9/11, the commercialism of the 90s, and recent economic collapse are the perfect storm that has led to this embrace of food practices as a secular and spiritual discipline. I am inclined to look back further on the historical time line to the 1960s for the source of these recent trends but it's true that more recent events have served as catalysts for launching agrarian food perspectives into the mainstream. Her three historical markers are all subjects of the story I tell about our family's journey in Year of Plenty.

While I have some reservations about Wheeler's historical analysis, I completely agree with her philosophical observation that this secular and sacred trend is motivated by a desire to integrate belief and action. She writes:

The writings of locavangelists, of the lefty and Christian Agrarian variety, are rife with professions about the incongruity of belief and action. All the authors considered here write of the impulse to bring belief and action together....So, I think there is something of a widespread re-alignment of values going on, with many people opting to focus their energies on the familial and the local, shunning the plastic and the consumerist, and seeking above all, the authentic, however that might be constructed. Beavan, the No Impact Man, writes: “I want my work to align with my values. I want to write about what’s important. I want to help change minds. The blurb for Year of Plenty (by Goodwin, the Presbyterian pastor) announces, this is the story of “one family wrestling with what it means to re-integrate life and faith.”

Along with her historical assessment, Wheeler offers an observation about an American embrace of "practice." She writes in her introduction of the paper:

What locavores on the left and right seem to have in common is their emphasis on the importance of practice. It seems to me to be a commentary on what many now see as the superficiality of the 1990s....I find it fascinating, that a predominantly Protestant country has suddenly discovered “practice.” I don’t know quite what to make of this: it could be a response to the broader political and cultural forces, or it could suggest the assimilation of important religious ideas and practices from other religions. Americans are clearly hungry for practical guidance: Michael Pollan’s prescriptive book Food Rules, was quickly vaulted to the top of best-seller lists. Americans seem to want to be told what to do and many are finding new spiritual rewards in practicing the discipline of eating according to Pollan’s rules. Locavorism may well be the new Kosher, but it is being embraced with evangelical fervor.

This paper raises some important questions: Could food practices be the next big thing in the spiritual disciplines and practices of American Christians, especially evangelical Christians? In a fragmented culture where people have a growing awareness of a disconnect between belief and action, could food lead the way to more authentic and integrated experiences of faith? Given the common ground between evangelicals and their secular foodie counterparts, could food practices be a productive place of dialogue and faith sharing for American Christians who are often lacking generative places of engagement with non-Christians? 

These are all questions that motivate me as our family launches the Tables of Plenty project. For a culture that is hungry for "food rules" I suspect the church has a rich history of practices to draw from and share. I also believe that evangelical Christians, who are especially prone to being trapped in the modern divide between spirit and material realities, have something to learn from secular and religious food practitioners about the journey of integrating faith and action in the world. I'm excited to dive into these issues in the coming year.

You can read Wheeler's paper in three installments: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Picture: Polish priest blesses baskets of food on Holy Saturday before Easter.

Note: This is also cross-posted at the Tables of Plenty blog. In case you're wondering, I will be sharing some posts between this blog and Tables of Plenty but over time I'll share fewer and fewer posts between the two blogs.