Food is a prominent topic in the Bible and through much of church history but food seems to play a minor role in the lived faith of the Western Church, in great contrast to a secular culture that has passionately embraced food practices. My ultimate question relates to how the modern expressions of the church might embrace food practices but before I get to that I'm simply wondering what happened. Why is there such an absence of practical guidance around food as an expression of faith in today's church.
The best book so far in my research is Theology on the Menu: Asceticism, Meat and Christian Diet by Grumet and Muers. It's a scholarly work with original research that describes the history of food practices in the church.
Here are some choice quotes and observations from this book thus far:
- Referencing Clement of Alexandria's attitude toward food in his work on Christian ethics, The Instructor, "Among the skills of cookery, Clement singles out for special criticism the 'useless art of making pastry' which, he contends, vitiates the tastebuds and imperils moral discretion. Based on my experience with doughnuts I think he might have a point.
- Benedict's Rule offers a more positive attitude toward food. According to the Rule the cellarer is required to "look on all the monastery's cooking utensils 'as upon the sacred vessels of the altar."
- As a Protestant I was surprised to read about Calvin's argument that the Lenten fast was not "divinely inaugurated" and that Jesus' 40 days of fasting at the beginning of his ministry was not a model for followers to emulate during the 40 days of Lent. According to Calvin, "It was therefore merely fasle zeal, replete with superstition, which set up a fast under the title and pretext of imitating Christ."(p. 30-31)
The book points out that the Reformation did not automatically lead to the end of fasting and food rules in the Protestant expressions of the church, but Calvin and others planted the seeds of suspicion that continue to shape the Protestant attitude toward fasting.
- One line of argument they make in the book that I find especially intriguing is that certain rhythms of food practices, especially the Lenten fast, arose out of the context of the rhythms of nature. For example, during the late winter and early spring when meat was most scarce they abstained from meat as part of the regimen of Lent. It was seasonal eating incorporated into the church calendar and Christian conscience.
The authors highlight this perspective as a neglected approach to the topic that deserves more attention, and I agree.
- In their chronicling of the early church the authors highlight the debates about sex and food. Many argued that lust was the source of all sin, but there were many who posited that gluttony was the granddaddy of all vices. Gregory the great argued that the moral path began with the "fight against gluttony" and this logic led many to conclue that fasting was the most important and valuable practice in the monastic life.
A cursory glance at debates in modern churches it seems clear that sex won out over gluttony as the most important moral issue, but perhaps it would be worth returning to this debate and giving gluttony another look. I can't remember hearing the topic gluttony ever mentioned in church debates about morality and ethics.
Feel free to chime in if you have thoughts about what happened to Christian food practices. I'll share more from the reading as I progress.