Food, Finitude and Faith

James Tonkowich | Columnist | Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Food, Finitude and Faith

On Monday, as I prepared Spice Rubbed Roast Chicken, I was listening to a Mars Hill Audio’s interview with Duke Divinity School professor Norman Wirzba. Wirzba and host Ken Myers were discussing Wirzba’s new book Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating.

When the chicken was ready to go into the oven, I headed into our basement to work out. Flipping on the TV for a little company, I caught the end of one of my favorite shows, Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern. Zimmern was in Uganda dining on freshly speared wild talapia and (I’m not making this up) braised swamp rat.

Monday, you remember, was also the day Pope Benedict XVI announced his retirement and in the speculation about a new pope, one commentator suggested that he must be, above all, an evangelist.

Here’s how the pieces fit together.

First, food. Most of us think about food at least three times a day, which is more than we think about a lot things. Markets, restaurants, bakeries, coffee shops and fast-food franchises fill the landscape because we need to eat.

Some of us are downright obsessed with food and with cooking. We watch Food Network, cram shelves with cookbooks, fill drawers with gadgets and stuff cabinets with way too many bottles of vinegars, olive oils and specialty salts. Food is a big deal.

And that shouldn’t surprise us. Food is a big deal in the Bible often marking, in Ken Myers’ words, “events of the highest theological importance.” A list, as Ken Myers points out, is easy to compile. At Creation God gave Adam and Eve the world for food. Humans fell through ill-advised snacking. Abraham prepared dinner for three angels. God rescued Israel from slavery as they ate the Passover and then provided manna. God used ravens, a destitute widow, and an angel to feed Elijah. Jesus performed his first miracle at a wedding feast. He fed thousand with a boy’s lunch. He gave his apostles bread and wine declaring it to be his body and blood. He made them breakfast on the beach. And one day will feast with his people at the marriage supper of the Lamb.

“Communion with God and the enjoyment of meals,” says Myers, “are not really separable. Because we are created as physical, hungry beings, God’s provision for body and soul are mystically united.”

It is through eating, Norman Wirzba notes, that we participate in “God’s life-giving, yet costly ways.” Most people, he asserts, don’t know were their food comes from. Rules for safe food shield us from the costly ways through which God gives us life.

That’s one of the reasons I like Bizarre Foods. Andrew Zimmern knows the source of food. Whether he’s in a primitive fishing boat off the coast of Mozambique fileting just-caught sashimi, in Texas shooting a javelina and helping skin, butcher, and barbeque it, or in France draining the blood from what will be a chicken dinner, Zimmern leaves no doubt in anyone’s mind: food, whether bizarre or tame, begins when something — fish, javelina, chicken or carrot — dies so that we might live.

In this way, as Ken Myers and Norman Wirzba point out, food points to our dependence on creation, on others (I may have roasted my chicken, but I didn’t raise it, kill it or clean it), and on the power beyond us, who is the ultimate supplier of our daily bread.

Which brings me to the papacy and evangelism. Whether or not the next is an evangelist (I sincerely pray that he is), every Christian is called to evangelism. That being said, could it be that food can be at the heart of evangelism today? Ken Myers quotes the late Eastern Orthodox theologian Alexander Shmemann who wrote in For the Life of the World: 

Centuries of secularism have failed to transform eating into something strictly utilitarian. Food is still treated with reverence. A meal is still a rite — the last “natural sacrament” of family and friendship, of life that is more than “eating” and “drinking.” To eat is still something more than to maintain bodily functions. People may not understand what that “something more” is, but they nonetheless desire to celebrate it. They are still hungry and thirsty for sacramental life.

Perhaps the way to our neighbor's heart is through his or her stomach. Perhaps modern people who reject the true, the good and the beautiful in most of life can be wooed to consider God’s grace by the truth, goodness and beauty of food.

It’s worth a try. Why not host a dinner party and find out? You could serve Spice Rubbed Roast Chicken and quite naturally begin a conversation about food, finitude and faith.