In 2015, as I was going through one of the hardest periods of my life, I threw myself into gardening. I had gardened in previous year, but I became more obsessive about it. I got my hands on every gardening catalog possible, I read all the books that I could find, and I started having conversations with serious gardeners and farmers about their work. As I continued down this rabbit hole, I discovered something that would be for me a life-altering epiphany: every justice issue that I cared about had some food/land component. Whether it was
the environmental impact of how food is produced, the racial disparities that exist in food access, the ways that immigrants serve as the front-line work force for our food system… even the fact that homophobia and patriarchy have been historically linked to being able to track lineage of who owned land… everything I cared about came back to food and the land that produced it.
Around the same time I was having this epiphany, I was also recognizing that we didn’t talk about food much in the church. Sure, we occasionally had potlucks or snacks after worship and there was the monthly practice of communion for us Presbyterians, but we weren’t talking about the ethics of growing and eating. We weren’t talking too much about access and inequality either. And we certainly weren’t talking about the environmental impacts of what we ate. All of this is strange because the Bible talks about food incessantly.
Consider that the first sin in the Bible is one of eating. The first murder is committed after an offering of agricultural products. One of the chief miracles in the Exodus is God’s provision of manna and quails in the desert. Much of the books of the law include dietary instructions and restrictions. The injustices laid out in the prophets are often about who has food and who does not. Most of Jesus’ parables are agrarian in nature. The one miracle that appears in all the Gospels is the feeding of the multitudes with bread and fish. Jesus’ last night is spent at a dinner with His friends where he compares his own body and blood to common agricultural products. Paul chastises the Corinthians because some feast and get drunk at dinner while others in the congregation starve. John’s Revelation concludes with a vision of heaven coming down to earth, in which the heavenly city is filled with trees bearing many kinds of fruit.
And that’s just scratching the surface… the Bible is obsessed with food! So if the Bible is obsessed with it, why isn’t the church? There are a lot of feasible answers to that question, but I think the primary is that as a wealthy nation, food doesn’t dominate our thinking the way it did in an Agrarian culture. During our recent Food and Faith Podcast interview, biblical scholar Ellen Davis made the comment that “the Bible was written in a hungry world”. While it is great that less people die of starvation in our world, I do think we’ve lost something very important by having an overabundance of food options and by having such a disconnect between ourselves and where our food comes from.
Part of my hope for Stories of Food and Faith is that we can begin to reconnect to food as being a central tangible item in our spiritual lives. Perhaps, even beyond communion, it is time to think of all food as sacramental – visible, tangible signs of invisible, intangible grace. I think we can frame the importance of food in our spiritual lives around three ideas:
1. Food connects us to creation. Whether we understand it this way or not, food is the most intimate way that we connect to the created world. If that’s the case, couldn’t it also be argued that food is one of the most intimate ways that we connect to the Creator? “This is my body, broken for you. This is my blood shed for you”.
2. Food connects us with each other. There are only a handful of things that are more intimate than sharing a meal with someone. It’s why we go to dinner on dates! Eating with someone else is vulnerable. We expose our likes and dislikes, we remind each other of our biological functions, and we share in each other’s mortality and dependance. Eating with friends was one of the things I missed most during the height of the pandemic and as we slowly begin to regather, I am reminded of how much I need the connection that happens with people around the table.
3. Finally, food connects us to heritage. It does so in a few different ways: first, it connects us with the heritage of our own growing up. The odds are there is some kitchen, whether a parents’ or grandparents’ kitchen, that reminds you of where you come from for better or for worse. That kitchen becomes a portal to the past. Secondly, food connects us to the heritage of our ancestry. The foods of our ethnic groups connect us to the struggles of our ancestors and places us into their stories. The more I learn about what Africans and African Americans contributed to the culinary history of this country the greater connection I feel to the foods that they gave this country and the struggle that allowed them to survive enslavement and segregation. It also fuels me to continue the fights for justice that they started.
Finally, food connects us to our biblical heritage. As I’ve said already, the Bible is a rich tapestry of Agrarian thinking representing the thoughts and ideas of a people who were much more connected to the land than we are. A new connection with food can be a gateway to new connection with Scripture in ways that we may not have previously imagined. This is my hope. I believe that there can a spiritual renewal that happens when we allow ourselves to remember that we are creatures connected to our fellow creatures by what we eat and how we produce what we eat. I believe that we can find a new understanding of what it means to be both a creature and created in the image of the Creator. I believe that we can find new ways of being connected to one another in the garden and around the table. I believe that we can all start developing our own stories of food and faith.