By Brett McCracken
“How does food relate to theology? What can it teach us about faith?” For students in Bible professor Andy Draycott’s Theology 2 class last year, these were important questions. Food was the lens through which the class looked at central Christian doctrines.
In the course, the theme verse for which was “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8), Draycott used food-centric passages as a theme to narrate the biblical history of salvation, starting at the end and working backwards: the marriage supper of the lamb and the fruit of the tree of life, the Last Supper, Jesus discipling around the dinner table, the Passover meal in Exodus, the provision of manna and quail in the desert, to name a few.
Food is all over the Bible, a constant throughout. Forbidden fruit. Dietary laws. Parables of wedding banquets. Miraculously multiplying fish, Jesus eating and drinking with friends, family and Pharisees. But what are we to make of it all? Is there a “theology of food” that Christians should apply to their everyday eating habits? What hath foie gras to do with faith?
Food is a Gift!
Food is first and foremost a gift from our creator — for sustenance but also enjoyment. It’s a gift that keeps us alive, but it goes beyond that; it tastes good. It’s something for which we must constantly give thanks.
“Food speaks to the fact that God created well, and the enjoyment of food is part of living in God’s good creation,” said Draycott. “The fact that we need food likewise speaks to our dependency on God and his sustaining of creation.”
The “manna and quail” episode from Exodus 16 exemplifies the way that food symbolizes our dependence on God, reminding us that what we have we have only by God’s grace, and thus we must be supremely grateful for it — especially when others go hungry.
As Draycott notes, “if creation tells us there is an abundance of God’s goodness and provision for us, then the actual reality of scarcity of food in the majority of the world must at least make Christians in our rich context aware of waste and wastefulness.”
Biola biology professor Jason Tresser believes every time we sit down for a meal we should give thanks to God “to acknowledge our dependence upon his creation,” but also to realize that “we’re not isolated from creation; we’re part of it.” Creation is a precious gift that God has entrusted to us, notes Tresser, and we have a responsibility to steward the resources we have and recognize that they are not infinite.
Being Good Stewards
What does “being a good steward” of food entail? This question has both individual and societal implications. For individuals, we can think of it as an extension of being good stewards of our bodies. When we acknowledge that our bodies are not our own but were bought at a price, should we be haphazardly eating junk food and endangering our health?
As Christians, we must remember that the body is a temple of the Holy Spirit and that “everything I put into it should go through a filter,” said Biola nursing professor Annette Browning. “I must be on the watch continually not to overeat, overindulge in caffeine or alcohol and to keep my flesh in check,” she added, noting that heart disease, strokes, high blood pressure and diabetes are just some of the many health ailments directly traced to diet.
Healthy food is not something often associated with college campuses, but Biola’s catering company, Bon Appetit, has made it a point of emphasis. According to Biola’s Bon Appetit head chef John Rose, the company employs “stealth health” tactics in their cooking wherever possible. They make chimichangas baked, not fried, and few notice a difference; they use olive oil instead of butter, and no trans fats.
“If we can make something that’s still good, with the flavors still there, and yet make it healthier, we will,” said Rose.
The new “Simple 600” program at the Cafe — an entire meal in 600 calories or less — is another effort to offer healthier options to students.
“We’re trying to give students a healthy diet while they’re here,” said Rose. “That’s part of our job — to educate people about what’s good to eat and hopefully initiate a lifetime habit.”
Eating healthy food can be easier said than done, however, especially since socioeconomic factors often lead to the most unhealthy food being the cheapest and most accessible in poor communities, said sociology professor LaDawn Prieto Johnson.
During her five years of working in the rough Rampart district of Los Angeles, Johnson started wondering why so many families who struggled to make ends meet financially were also dealing with obesity issues. When she began investigating the markets and food sources in the area, it made sense.
“Why is the fruit so gross and old? It looked like the leftovers,” she said. “Highly processed foods, hot dogs, lard-filled stuff ... that was the food I saw there.”
Johnson believes that, when it comes to food, Christians have a responsibility not only to their own health but to the well-being of others who are affected by systemic issues in food consumption. Do our consumer habits in eating perpetuate some of the dysfunction in the food industry?
We tend to believe there is an endless supply of food accessible to us at all times, Johnson said, and we don’t really weigh the consequences of what we buy.
“When you go to a market as a Christian and you see the options that you can buy, it never crosses your mind to think, ‘Where did this tomato come from and why can I get it year round?’” said Johnson. “I would like to see Christians taking responsibility for what they’re buying and say, ‘Where is this coming from and what price is being paid for me to have it?’”
Christians should be aware that there is power behind what we buy, argues Johnson, who thinks we need to go beyond thinking about food as a charitable contribution.
“Christians are good at soup lines,” she said. “But in terms of economic power, we need to be able to say, ‘I’m not going to make certain consumer choices anymore.’”
Are the food companies we support paying unfair prices to the farmers who grow the products? Are they abusing animals, harming the environment, hurting local economies? These are just some of the things our eating habits may be supporting, but it doesn’t have to be that way, said Johnson.
“If we were more committed to understanding the power behind the foods that we consume, Christians could make a huge global impact,” she said.
Sustainable Food Practices
So what sorts of food choices should we make, both for our own health and for the sustainability of the wider world? One of the keys, says Tresser, is taking steps to be less disconnected from the origins and labor practices of the food we consume.
That’s why, when he arrived at Biola in 2009, Tresser created a campus organic garden where students could get a first-hand look at where food comes from. More than three years later, the sizable garden grows a wide array of produce (beets, radishes, broccoli, onions, tomatoes, for example), all harvested by the hands of students in Tresser’s botany and environmental science classes. The food is then returned to the community: some of it donated to a local food bank for needy families — the Interfaith Food Center; some donated to Biola’s own Cafe, where it winds up in things like spicy quesadillas, spinach salad and carrot cupcakes. In addition to donating healthy produce to those in the community, the garden also decreases Biola’s total waste output by reusing organic waste (coffee grounds, Cafe food scraps, trees that are pruned or cut down).
The garden embodies sustainability, but also the benefits of locally grown food. Tresser believes eating “local” has many upsides: reduced energy costs (local food doesn’t have to be transported as far or refrigerated as long), fresher and better taste, more nutrition (local, independent farmers often don’t used enriched fertilizers or other chemicals), and the supporting of local workers and businesses.
At Biola, Bon Appetit partners with local farms and strives to use local foods whenever possible.
“If you buy local, you’re buying stuff at its best and freshest,” said chef Rose, who added that Bon Appetit also strives to support sustainable food in other ways: purchasing only sustainable fish (such as wild salmon as opposed to farmed salmon, which often carry disease); consolidating food shipments in fewer delivery trucks; buying earth-friendly disposables; and working with students to reduce waste during meals.
Food and Fellowship
There’s a tendency in our Western industrialized context to think of food as fuel — something meant to just keep us as individuals productive and moving from one thing to the next. But this misses one of the biggest, most biblical aspects of food for the Christian: community. We need look no further than Jesus, said Johnson.
“His ministry revolved around breaking bread; it was all around food,” she says. “If we take our cues from Jesus we recognize that food isn’t just a fuel; it’s an opportunity to socialize and engage with each other.”
Andy Draycott agrees. Part of eating well as Christians, he says, is “finding time to eat slowly with others.” Invite someone to eat with you at the Cafe; cook a meal for friends or for people you don’t know. “Find a way to make eating a relational event.”
Draycott also thinks food reflects upon the biblical value of hospitality — “which is what the church is: a hospitable body, a welcoming body,” he said.
In his class, Draycott has his students live out the hospitality of food by going to a pastor or elder’s home and preparing a meal for their family.
“It seems to work for them as an important discipleship moment in learning how to be hospitable and receive hospitality, all around the practical preparation of food,” he said.
Junior Bethany Linnenkohl knows the joys of food and hospitality firsthand. A serious foodie and fan of cooking (she periodically shares her recipes in Biola’s student newspaper, The Chimes), Linnenkohl works for multiple catering companies and loves every minute of it. She’s catered weddings for friends where she made chocolate swans and blown-sugar hummingbirds. She’s organized craft services for several Biola student film productions.
“I cook like crazy. My roommate is spoiled,” said Linnenkohl, who is also vice president of the Biola Cheese Club.
For Linnenkohl, nothing is more rewarding than to surprise her roommate, friends, or a family in need with a plate of cookies or a homemade meal.
“There’s this glow that comes on their face when you arrive on their doorstep with a meal for them,” she said. “It warms their hearts, and then you get to enjoy it together with them.”
Linnenkohl knows that food brings joy to people, and it’s her joy to prepare it for them.
“There is nothing that I could do or love more than making food and serving it,” she said. “There’s no other place that I feel closer to God than in my kitchen.”
Food in the Now and Not Yet
Food is beautiful, says Linnenkohl, “because God created it. That’s fundamental.”
It’s also beautiful because it gives us not only life but pleasure, and culture, fostering relationships and conversation, merriment and joy. It’s beautiful because through it we experience diversity within the people of God and enjoy a foretaste of the eschatological feast to come.
In his book Earthen Vessels, alumnus Matthew Lee Anderson (’04) suggests that our human dependence on things like food will be ended in the new creation, pointing to 1 Corinthians 6:13 (“Food is meant for the stomach, and the stomach for food — and God will destroy both”). And yet one of the final images in the biblical narrative depicts eating: the great wedding feast of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9). Anderson concludes that eating in the new creation must be for some other purpose than sustenance or survival.
“In the resurrection,” writes Anderson, “our bodies will no longer be dependent upon resources for their ongoing existence, suggesting that when we consume, it will be for the purposes of pleasure.”
If food in its final manifestation is eating for pleasure in the new creation, then in the here and now it’s both similar and different than that. In the taste, sweetness and celebratory joy of food today, we get glimpses of the renewed creation to come. But food and its accompanying problems — health issues, eating disorders, addiction, gluttony, obesity — underscore that the “not yet” is indeed not yet.
The church has played out this tension historically through two food-related traditions that both have a place on the liturgical calendar: feasting and fasting.
“Fasting is telling us the bridegroom is not with us and so we pray as we fast, in anticipation of Jesus’ return,” said Draycott. “But at the same time, the promise of the new creation allows us to anticipate that reality and feast in it.”
Like most things in creation, food speaks both to the imperfections of this present world and the joy unspeakable to come. Within that tension we exist, eating and drinking, just as Jesus did. Whether we’re cooks, college students, farmers or freshmen trying to avoid the dreaded “15,” food is a part of our lives: something we can approach thoughtlessly, or with a Christian witness and desire to taste and see that, indeed, the Lord is good.
9 Tips for Eating Christianly:
- Slow down. Try to find time to truly enjoy food. Prepare it yourself. Savor it.
- Give thanks. For the food you have, for the hands that prepared it, for the land and animals it comes from; above all, for God the provider and sustainer of life.
- Show hospitality. Invite others to dine with you. Follow Jesus’ example. Share food with strangers. Throw long dinner parties.
- Eat in community. Enjoy food with others. Let it be a unifying source of social pleasure.
- Be sensitive to those around you. Many people struggle with food-related issues (dieting, food addiction, eating disorders); keep this in mind as you eat. Know there are many Christian resources available if you or a loved one need help.
- Eat justly. Recognize that your eating affects others. Try to support ethical and just food practices through discerning consumer choices.
- Fight global hunger. Remember that nearly 1 billion people in the world do not have enough to eat. Keep that in perspective and do what you can to feed the hungry in your communities and across the world.
- Develop taste. Expose yourself to new things and expand your palate. Learn to appreciate quality food, unique flavors, textures, combinations.
- Eat humbly. Rather than eating food to show off your culinary sophistication, eat with humility and thanksgiving, awestruck by the beauty and goodness you are privileged to enjoy.
Brett McCracken is the managing editor of Biola Magazine. He is the author of Hipster Christianity: When Church & Cool Collide (Baker, 2010) and a forthcoming book about Christian approaches to consuming culture (Baker, 2013). You can follow him on Twitter @brettmccracken.