It's Potluck Sunday. I stand near the end of a long line wondering what will be left by the time I get to the front, grateful that I'm not particularly hungry. I have some idea of what the offerings will be: hot dogs wrapped in white buns, cut in half for the more delicate appetites; buckets of drive-through fried chicken anchoring the table. Neon-orange cheese doodles will inevitably show up, somewhere near the salads. The greenest item will be several bowls of lime Jell-O with fruit suspended in it, which, I've decided, is to signal its inobvious function as food.

We pray our thanks over this smorgasbord of chemical wizardry and marketing genius, ask that it would strengthen our bodies (something I believe will take divine intervention), and invite Jesus to be among us as we eat.

When we lift our heads, I consider this last request and wonder, surveying the tables: What would Jesus put on his plate? Would Jesus eat lime Jell-O and cheese doodles? Would he care that the chicken in the bucket came from cages where the birds were likely fed their own recycled excrement? Would he eat that barbequed pork that came from massive pig farms that pollute the water, soil, and air? Would he stand, as I do, filled with guilt, dread, and judgment before this culinary minefield?

I think a lot about food these days, and not always charitably. I've been ruminating on the headlines and a recent crop of food books concerning what many are calling "the global food crisis," one that has given rise to a new food movement in the United States and abroad. The movement has taken on the momentum of a religious revival, changing the way Americans eat and how they think about food and the use of the earth. Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation; Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma; Nicolette Hahn Niman's Righteous Porkchop; Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle; Marion Nestle's Food Politics; Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals; and many others expose the disturbing state of the nation's food supply and the destructive effects of industrialized food production on the national and global environment.

The most recent confirmation that all is not well on our plates came in August, when 1,500 people were poisoned by eggs contaminated with salmonella, leading to a recall of 550 million eggs. (The chickens at the culprit farms were kept in battery cages, which have been criticized for being both unsanitary and inhumane.) When The New York Times Magazine announced its intention to expand its already generous coverage of food this year, it explained that such writing is "perhaps never a more crucial part of what we do than today—a moment when what and how we eat has emerged as a Washington issue and a global-environmental issue as well as a kitchen-table one."

Article continues below

While elements of the new food movement are rarely Christ-centered (more on that soon), I believe the movement has much to teach Christians about stewarding creation, loving our neighbors, and eating and drinking to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31).

Manure Lagoons, Superweeds, And GMOS

Where does the news begin? Most of the authors trace our crisis in food conduct and conscience to the events following World War II, when the federal government led a shift from family-operated agrarian economies to corporatized agribusinesses. In agribusiness, efficiency and mass production have, more often than not, overruled fair treatment of farmers, humane treatment of animals, and proper care of the land.

I've been ruminating on a crop of books concerning 'the global food crisis,' one that has given rise to a new food movement. The movement has taken on the momentum of a religious revival, changing the way Americans think about food and the use of the earth.

One of the early voices to sound the alarm was social critic and Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry, who has written voluminously about returning integrity to the act of eating. In his essay "The Pleasures of Eating," he describes a typical processed meal, either fast food or cooked at home from packages, so altered from its original form as to be unrecognizable on the plate. "What nature has produced, man has turned into the products of industry," Berry concluded. Two sentences from his famous essay have become rallying cries for the new food revolution: "Eating is an agricultural act"; and "… how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used."

Reports on "how the world is used" for food production make up an apocalyptic catalog that leaves no ground untainted. The ills of factory farming begin with the dousing of soil and crops with pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and herbicides, producing foods with measurable levels of contaminants. The runoff from these additives is the primary source of water pollution in the U.S., more than all other industrial sources combined. Factory hog farms alone, with their massive "manure lagoons," emit 70,000 tons of hydrogen sulfide gas annually. Herbicides such as Roundup are used in such quantities that "superweeds" resistant to pesticides have sprung up, creating the need for yet more toxic formulas.

Article continues below

Meanwhile, Monsanto, DuPont, and other multinational agricultural corporations are creating a growing number of genetically modified organisms (GMOS), altering the genetic code of one species by inserting genes from another, even animal to plant. (The Grocery Manufacturers of America estimates that 75 percent of food on U.S. grocery shelves contains at least one GMO.) There are significant concerns over the long-term safety of such foods, the deep decrease in agricultural biodiversity their use has created, and the monopolizing of patents and seed by corporations. The net result: The nation's food supply is under the dominion of a few conglomerates.

What can we do about such realities? Many books, such as Jane Goodall's Harvest for Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating, include "What You Can Do" lists. While there are notable distinctions between writers, there is general agreement that "mindful eating" (a term borrowed from Buddhist practice) entails the following:

  • Educating ourselves on where food comes from (a chemist's lab? a hemisphere away? a local farm?);
  • Eating locally as much as possible to support local farmers and to reduce the natural resources it takes to put food on our plate;
  • Growing and preparing our own food;
  • Eating lower on the food chain, meaning eating less meat and more plants;
  • Supporting fair-trade practices that protect rather than exploit workers;
  • Supporting organic farms and free-range ranches;
  • Advocating for a return to agricultural biodiversity.

Here let me offer full disclosure. I have spent large portions of my life in the New Hampshire woods and Alaskan wilderness, growing, hunting, and harvesting much of my own food. As such, most of the can-do lists read to me as commonsense activities and responses to a real crisis. I would argue a step further: As Christians, under obligation to the God who created our bodies, and as Americans, who continue to lead the industrialized world in obesity rates, we should foster a healthier diet. As believers urged by the apostle Paul to "take captive every thought to the obedience of Christ," we should be more thoughtful about food production and our treatment of God's creatures and his earth.

Article continues below

Yet after reading the literature and listening to the many conversations around me, I have significant concerns and cautions about the new food movement.

Deep-Fried Happiness

My critique begins, paradoxically, with the movement's greatest strengths: its call to an integrated, holistic perspective and the personal moral accountability that integration brings. At the movement's core is the belief that the world is a single, intricate, and interdependent ecosystem. Thus our personal acts have global consequences, for good and for ill, ones we don't often see but that are nonetheless real. The Organic Garden Café in Boston, a raw foods café, exemplifies this sense of unity. By "embrac[ing] the idea of oneness," the café's mission is to "honor the earth, farmers, and ourselves through our use of pure organic ingredients."

While Christians rightly reject the Eastern and New Age pantheism that often informs "the world as one," we are hard-pressed to ignore the observable fact that what's done upstream has downstream effects—an environmental version of "many parts, one body." Monsanto's controversial pesticide Roundup runs into aquatic systems and kills more than weeds—it also kills amphibians and other animals. The new food movement continues in the footsteps of the environmental movement of the 1960s to counteract the mass reductionism ushered in by industrialization and even the scientific method itself, both of which reduce whole systems to parts and pieces.

Our disconnection from our food and its sources is further fed by our culture's emphasis on personal happiness and moral subjectivity, leading to what author Barbara Kingsolver calls "alimentary alienation." When we pull packages of deep-fried chicken fingers or cans of cheese spray off the grocery shelf—which we are entitled to eat because they make us happy—we don't recognize the source of the food nor consider its cost to workers, farmers, or the environment. We see only the pieced, processed, and packaged final product. "Whole Foods," then, is not just the name of an upscale grocer. It symbolizes a return to a larger, holistic view of the earth, and a call to moral responsibility within that sphere.

Nowhere are religion and morality more on display—or the voices more hortatory—than in discussions on the killing fields of the factory farms. Several dozen books have appeared recently detailing the horrific cruelties taking place at pens and slaughterhouses (see sidebar, "The Grim Realities of Factory Farms"). While the authors do not advocate for identical measures, all seek to at least reduce if not outright end animal suffering and/or usage because of its patent immorality. They also believe continuing to raise animals for meat is morally unjustifiable because of its monopoly on resources that could feed the world's hungry. Jonathan Safran Foer, in Eating Animals, writes, "So what kind of crime is animal agriculture, which uses 756 million tons of grain and corn per year, much more than enough to adequately feed the 1.4 billion humans who are living in dire poverty?"

Article continues below

The authors are right to reclaim the field, the slaughterhouse, and the kitchen as integrated realms of morality. Is there any activity under the sun beyond the scope of God's goodness, compassion, and righteousness? The attention to the essential unity of creation—all created and sustained by one God, our Father—calls believers into some part of the food movement as well, just as we are called to care for creation and pursue justice on others' behalf. All are inextricably woven together, bearing on our Genesis command to "dress and keep the garden," to exercise caring dominion over its creatures, and to love our neighbors. As Scott Sabin of Plant With Purpose reminds us, "We have little choice as to whether we will interact with creation. But we can choose whether our interactions will be life-giving or death-dealing."

Eating Righteousness

Despite the new food movement's ambitious and commendable goals, however, its core beliefs offer an alternative religious movement, much of it carrying the urgency of an ultimate cause. Its central tenet is that by changing the way we eat, we can save ourselves—and the world. John Robbins's book The Food Revolution: How Your Diet Can Help Save Your Life and Our World is just one of many holding out on this explicit promise. One review sums up the book's raison d'etre like this: "What can we do to help stop global warming, feed the hungry, prevent cruelty to animals, avoid genetically modified foods, be healthier and live longer? Eat vegetarian." Many books go further, urging a vegan diet that rejects all animal products, including eggs and dairy. (One reason given by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, author of The Face on Your Plate: The Truth about Food: The animals have not consented to our use of their goods.)

Article continues below

Evangelistic zeal for transforming the world through a restricted diet abounds. Foer reported in a recent interview that 18 percent of college students are vegetarians now, adding, "There are more vegetarians in college than Catholics, there are more vegetarians than any major, except for business … That's something I feel very good about." Walter Robb, the co-president of Whole Foods, the poster-grocer of the food movement, has described the goals of his company in distinctly religious language: "We're not retailers with a mission, we're missionaries who retail." The "mission" is first: "… to change the way the world eats," a motive that "comes from our soul," Robb says.

In this worldview, righteousness, morality, purity, and guilt are common terms applied most often not to people or to actions but to actual foods. The book Righteous Porkchop includes a chapter on "Eating the Right Food." Recipes are labeled "righteous" as well: Righteous Tofu Burger, Amanda's Righteous Queso (made without processed cheese), and Righteous Raspberry Lollies (without dairy or refined sugar "so you can suck on them with a clear conscience").

"Pure" is a ubiquitous adjective used to describe a vegetarian or vegan diet and lifestyle. An animal-free diet that also rejects "caffeine, sugar, alcohol, or processed foods" is labeled "ultra-pure." If you have overindulged, rather than confessing your sins you can undergo a "cleanse," a popular diet or fasting practice that rids the body, and some claim the spirit, of "toxins."

To claim that certain foods lead through the narrow gate to purity and righteousness, and others lead down the wide road to pollution, is nothing new. A popular Hindi website, Food for Life Global ("Uniting the World Through Pure Food"), explains that only "pure vegetarianism" is allowed because what we eat directly affects "our spiritual consciousness" and our "subsequent behaviors." The very purpose of food, it says, "is to give strength to the body and purify the mind." Some strands of Buddhism also require vegetarianism. A woman writes on a food blog, "My desire to be a vegetarian is very tied up to my desire to be a Really Good Person."

Perhaps in no other time has our culture so widely absorbed the largely Eastern concept that physical, mental, and spiritual purity can be derived from food—and that we earn our virtue through vigilance over fork and plate.

Article continues below

Strangely, while these writers offer a global, moral, even theological perspective on food, in practice their approach can lead to myopic self-absorption and legalism. In online social networks, people dish the details of their every meal and bite as if the world hung upon their words and their food choices. Some show signs of orthorexia, an eating disorder defined as "an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating." Colorado nutritionist Steven Bratman coined the term after his own journey into obsessively healthy eating while living on a commune and managing an organic farm. In his desire "to eat pure food," he rejected any vegetable plucked from the garden more than 15 minutes previously. For the sake of mindfulness, he ate alone and chewed each bite 50 times, all of which left him feeling "clear-headed, strong, and self-righteous." He writes, "A day filled with sprouts, umeboshi plums, and amaranth biscuits comes to feel as holy as one spent serving the poor and homeless."

Bratman's goal of achieving "wellness through healthy eating," though, began to take over his life. "I had been seduced by righteous eating. The problem of my life's meaning had been transferred inexorably to food, and I could notreclaim it." Today, Bratman, now restored, sees growing numbers of patients in his clinic with this disorder.

Goodbye, Eden

Part of the devolution from lofty global goals to a crippling personal obsession may simply be our sinful bent toward the self. But I think there is more going on. In a recent essay in Policy Review, "Is Food the New Sex?" Mary Eberstadt ponders a cultural reversal in values: We have become mindful and puritanical about food, and mindless and licentious about sex. Perhaps in a world where moral values are subjective and in constant flux, we feel an even greater need for boundaries and stability, at least in some areas of our lives. We may not be able to resist an affair, control our children, prevent sexual abuse in our churches, or restrain Wall Street greed, but we can control what we put into our mouths.

In yet one more irony, the save-the-world theology of diet, while seeming to deepen the value of food, paradoxically often reduces food to the function it performs: food as social justice; food as nutrition; food as righteousness. All of these views diminish the fuller meaning of food found in the Scriptures.

Article continues below

On the opening page of the Bible, God announces that all he has made, the fruits and vegetables spoken from his imagination, are "very good." Lush in flavor, exquisite in beauty and fragrance, their value is intrinsic to their God-made-ness. He gives the food to the first man and woman as sustenance. But even in this state of sinlessness, God sets limits on Adam and Eve's diet, that as they obeyed, they would be fed not only physically but spiritually as well. Food was intended to be another expression of their dependence on and communion with their Creator.

The Old Testament dietary laws were given later to God's people not as a means of earning righteousness, but to remind the Israelites that they were set apart from all other nations, and that every activity, even the daily labor of feeding themselves, was to be done within the province and provision of a loving God. The manna God miraculously fed his people in the desert was a foreshadowing of Jesus, who came to give himself as the Bread of Life. In his last hours on earth, Jesus chose to enjoy a dinner with his disciples, where he served homely bread and local wine to mark his death and ongoing life within the disciples and us. While we sup on the bread and wine of Communion now, we hungrily await the marriage supper of the lamb, a coming feast we joyously anticipate through simple daily foods.

Even a cursory reading reveals that food is a major concern in the Scriptures, the locus of both physical and spiritual realities that gesture not solely to one or to the other, but to the essential integration of both. But in the biblical economy, food alone—even the food of the Communion table—can never bestow purity, health, or righteousness. When Christ fed the hungry thousands on the hillside, he fed them not only actual bread but also words of truth and salvation, that he comes as the Bread of Life and the Living Water to help us recognize the deeper needs that he alone can fulfill.

"Every bite of food, given by God himself, is to make God known to man, to make man's life communion with God," Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann writes in For the Life of the World. But without recognition of the God who has made the earth, our dependence on water and food may move us elsewhere—toward communion with the earth, even communion with food itself. These elements, then, become ends in themselves, and the full integration that the food movement seeks and that God desires for us is lost.

Article continues below

Our attempts to restore the earth and return to Edenic communion with it ultimately cannot succeed. Just as we cannot perfect our bodies or spirits through eating pure foods, so we cannot perfect the earth, no matter how heroic our efforts. Because of our foreparents' appetite for authority and forbidden food, creation has been groaning, subjected to futility and death. Sea lions eat the first 15 salmon from my family's fishing nets to fill their appetites. They gash and torment 30 more simply for play. One spring I counted 90 deer washed up on our beach line, drowned as they swam across the strait.

How shall we use our freedom in Christ? If it ends in mindless consumption, exploitation of God's gifts, and mistreatment of our bodies, then we have allowed our appetites to enslave us again.

Nature will always be "red in tooth and claw." We steward the earth and exercise dominion over its creatures as expressions of love for and obedience to our Creator, who named it all very good, but we cannot take back or re-create the garden. Not until heaven will we see the garden restored, but it will be set not within a wilderness, but within the gates of a massive city, the unavoidable conclusion that the perfected world to come is foremost about proximity and communion with one another and with God.

Cooking Pots To Sacred Bowls

Finally, without a theology rooted in the God of creation and the God of the Scriptures—who alone completes the meaning of creation and its sustenance, and who will someday fully restore it—I worry that the food movement and its calls to action will divert us from our real need: a transformed heart. I worry as well that it may devolve into the very fragmentation it aspires to repair. Without a redeemer, the source of grace, the integration and holism that the movement seeks to easily descend into orthorexia, purer-than-thou-ism, and factionalism.

Such is the case even now. Pollan describes the food movement as a "big, lumpy tent" where "sometimes the various factions beneath it work at cross-purposes." Bratman remembers the splintering and infighting among commune members over whose diet was purer. Tom Billings, a raw-foodist, complains that the raw-foods movement is "split into a number of factions, and it seems that no one agrees with anyone else." The last thing we need inside or outside the church is another brand of factious legalism.

Article continues below

But we in the church have much to answer for ourselves. Here's a question, which I ask myself as well: Why have we ignored food for so long? Why are we not attending more seriously to Paul's injunction to literally "eat or drink … for the glory of God"? Beyond a quick word of thanks before meals, have we seriously considered how our eating and drinking either reveals or suppresses the glory of God? I don't believe we have. Most of us have been living in a kind of self-absorbed somnolence that may be partly rooted in our own lingering dualism that privileges the soul over the body.

Additionally, the Protestants among us have reveled in our dietary freedom and our distinctiveness from more liturgical churches, which follow the church calendar and maintain traditions of feasting and fasting. As Protestants, our food practices have relied far too heavily on a single New Testament passage, I believe: Peter's vision of a sheet full of formerly unclean animals let down from heaven. God's command to "rise, kill and eat" (the supreme-meat-lover's favorite biblical scene), in my opinion, has been used to justify a kind of gustatory free-for-all.

How shall we use our freedom in Christ? Freedom is never given for license or for self-indulgence. If our freedom ends in mindless consumption, abuse of the earth, exploitation of God's gifts, and mistreatment of our bodies, then we have allowed our appetites to enslave us again.

I don't really know what Jesus would have put on his plate at the church potluck that day. I suspect he might have tossed a few cheese doodles on his plate, next to his Jell-O, quietly reminding me that it is not what goes into our bodies that makes us unclean, but what comes out of them, from our mouths and hearts. Even so, I'm pretty sure there will not be junk food in heaven, nor do I think we'll be eating meat. I'm expecting to cook good, slow food there, and I have reason to believe we will.

Zechariah, my new favorite minor prophet, ends his book, which is largely about condemnation and judgment, with a gorgeous culinary image of heaven. When heaven comes down to earth, he writes, "the cooking pots in the Lord's house will be like the sacred bowls in front of the altar. Every pot in Jerusalem and Judah will be holy to the Lord Almighty, and all who come to sacrifice will take some of the pots and cook in them" (Zech. 14:20-21).

Article continues below

Every pot—yours, mine—will be holy to the Lord. And every soup and vegetable and grain and fish and casserole and souffle and flan and pasta prepared within them will be holy to all who partake.

I believe we're not to wait for this day, that we are to join the food movement thoughtfully and joyously, beginning now to more faithfully give attention to food. I don't pretend to practice or even understand all the ways this is possible, but I am beginning to learn. Many others in the church are already practicing such attention. Some, like Amy Frykholm, are beginning simple fasting practices. Alyssa Herbaly Coons is slowly adding local farm-raised meat to her lifelong vegetarian diet. Green Bay Community Church in Wisconsin has been holding a farmer's market in the church parking lot on Thursday nights, followed by an open-air worship service. The Christian Reformed World Relief Committee has joined a fair trade coffee group, Brew Justice, that buys coffee from small independent farmers. Women in my own church have begun an organic food co-op. And, like most congregations, Fellowship Church in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, has a food pantry open to anyone in need.

So much is possible as we return the growing fields and the kitchen table to God, to whom it all belongs. As we do, we will discover another essential means of divining God's glory in our midst and living out our stewardship of God's earth, ourselves, and our neighbors. May we all take, eat, and be blessed by God's holy, sumptuous foods.

Leslie Leyland Fields is an author living with her husband and six children on Kodiak Island, Alaska. She is the editor of The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting toward God (Wipf and Stock) and the author most recently of 'Parenting Is Your Highest Calling' … and Eight Other Myths That Trap Us in Worry and Guilt (Waterbrook).

Related Elsewhere:

"The Grim Realities of Factory Farms" is a sidebar to the cover story.

Previous Christianity Today articles on food include:

Pennsylvania: The Bake Sale is Back in Business | After a health inspector gets zealous, state passes law letting nonprofits sell homemade food. (June 10, 2010)
'Femivores' and Food Ethics | The trend toward locally grown, naturally raised food is giving some women more fulfilling lives than the workplace ever did. (March 16, 2010)
Hunger Isn't History | The world produces more food than ever. So why do nearly a billion people still not have enough to eat? (November 7, 2008)
Food Fights | State governments increasingly regulate church potlucks. (March 15, 2005)

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.