Thursday, February 07, 2008

[The pictures from the "A Christmas Story" house are just after this post; scroll on down! pax, jeff]

Faith Works 2-9-08
Jeff Gill

Food As an Act of Faith

There’s a little seven word phrase that’s been stuck in my head the last few weeks, and look out – I’m trying to stick it in yours.

It comes from the writer Michael Pollan, who wrote “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” a few years back, tracing food from the land to your table, and all the long, strange trips edible items take to get there.

He didn’t end up a vegetarian by the conclusion of his journey, but it was a near thing.

Pollan’s latest is called “In Defense of Food,” and in the magazine article that was the basis for the book, he came up with the tagline “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

For some of us, that sounds like a Lenten discipline right there. But Pollan is no ascetic, calling for an entirely meatless regimen or a life of deprivation. He is asking of those of us who eat – that’s a pretty inclusive category, sweeping up people of faith in many quarters – to just be more mindful of what it is we’re putting in our bodies.

Paul the Apostle had some hard words for the Christians in Corinth about “the body is a temple” of the Holy Spirit, and his general statement moves towards the folk wisdom “we are what we eat.”

Chemistry and biology remind us “we really, really are what we eat.” Religious traditions of all sorts have asked hard questions about what food is proper, or right, or “clean.” Some of those answers are cultural norms dressed up for church (“don’t eat those guys food”), and some have practical underpinnings, such as the relative unhealthiness of swine in desert environments (“don’t eat pork”), and others have ethical groundings.

Observant Jews keep a separate set of dishes for dairy and meat products, and even non-traditional Jews in Israel have those foods kept at a distance from each other. Why this concern? Well, as the nation Israel grew in the land of Canaan, many of their neighbors considered a particular dish as a real delicacy – a youngling, lamb or calf, boiled in the milk of its mother. The Old Testament dietary code said this was a vile practice that led to cruelty and insensitivity to suffering, and you should bend over backwards to avoid it.

Today, avoiding yogurt sauces over chicken might seem to be missing the point, but when you know the source of the practice, you can appreciate the concern.

In the season of Lent that began last Wednesday, many Christians are looking to their diet for a source of conscious discipline, and may be giving up cookies or candy or some treat for Monday through Saturday (with a modest exceptions on Sundays to Easter). Catholics traditionally give up red meat on Fridays, which is why Friday Fish Frys are so common right now, and everyone from Wendy’s to MickeyD’s is promoting fish sandwiches.

I come back to Pollan’s thoughts, asking us all in a way that should be of particular interest to religious folk “What are we eating? What are the implications of how that food got to our tables? What should we then eat?”

Or – “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Pollan is suggesting that we consider food as items where we can know where it comes from and how it got here (mostly); preferring butter to margarine and fruit to fruit snacks and vegetables to oddly colored specks embedded in our pre-made entrees.

What is your diet saying about your beliefs, especially through this Lenten season?

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; toss him an answer at

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