12. Is There Food on Your Table?

In Acts 2:42, we are told about the first believers:  “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer… All the believers were together and had everything in common (v. 44)… They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all people.” (v. 46-47)

A study of the communal meal practice of the first century church reveals a radically different model from our present-day attitudes toward shared meals.[1]  Why did their shared meal practices disappear over time, and why, today, do our foodways and mealways look so different?  A foodway is an accepted term that describes the habits and practices of food consumption and production in a cultural, social, or economic context, and shows us “how societies construct notions of self and community.” [2],[3]

The North American approach to food has shifted most dramatically in the past forty years, and seems absurdly paradoxical even for Christians because our foodways swing between two poles, one of apathy and ignorance, the other of obsessive and compulsive control. We now have 24-7 cooking shows on television, yet very few of us actually cook anymore.  We say we have no time to eat, but most of us are overweight, a symptom of eating too much too often.  Time is scarce, while cheap (and unhealthy) food is overabundant.  We spend millions of dollars each year on dieting (i.e. we spend more in an attempt to eat less).  Some of us overdo, while others do nothing; some of us are indifferent to our health and healthcare, while others’ anxiety about their health creates fanatical control issues.  Most people shun regular exercise while others spend far too many self-absorbed hours in the gym. We either become overly fastidious about the quality of our food sources, or we consume vast amounts of processed foods we know are not good for us.  (As one example, boxed cereal, a highly processed food, once promoted as just one part of a healthy breakfast, has become the default nighttime ‘meal’ when we are short on time, energy, or creativity.)  Our dining and kitchen tables are repositories for mail and school papers rather than places for a shared meal.

Since the dawn of time, people have been hunters, gatherers, farmers and shepherds.  Today we are much more disconnected from understanding how food reaches our tables.  At home and at church, we take pride in our manicured lawns and landscaping, but rarely consider using the church property to grow food for others with no land.  It seems that we are hungry, but not for food, and that Christians in particular need to think and pray about their own selected foodways and mealways.

Thoughtfulness can go a long way to help us find a healthy middle ground where food and meals are concerned.

“To grow food and eat in a way that is mindful of God is to collaborate with God’s own primordial sharing of life in the sharing of food with each other.  It is to participate in forms of life and frameworks of meaning that have their root and orientation in God’s caring ways with creation… Food is about the relationships that join us to the earth, fellow creatures, loved ones and guests, and ultimately God.  How we eat testifies to whether we value the creatures we live with and depend upon… When our eating is mindful, we celebrate the goodness of  [all creation has to offer], and…acknowledge and honor God as the giver of every good and perfect gift.”[4]   In other words, we must relearn what it means to care about, and care for all creation, including ourselves.

Perhaps even more importantly, our inattention to meals and cooking means we have stopped teaching our children about foodways and meal practices (mealways).[5]  In my experiential nutrition class a few years ago, I handed a bunch of fresh carrots from the farmers’ market to a student to peel.  I can still see him standing at the sink, carrots in hand, exclaiming with confusion that these could not possibly be carrots, because in his world all carrots were the size of one’s pinky finger and had no peel or green leafy tops.

Fortunately, young people are beginning to show a resurgent interest in healthy (and just) ways to grow, prepare, and share food!

[1] A subsequent chapter discusses the meal practices of the early Church in detail.

[2] Angel F. Mendez-Montoya, The Theology of Food: Eating and the Eucharist (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), p.6.

[3] I have coined the term “mealway” to describe the general habits and practices surrounding how a society or culture consumes meals.

[4] Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating (New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. xiii, 4

[5] This is a critically important point, as we will see.  Much is learned in the kitchen and around the table that actually has little to nothing to do with food.

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