While eating for optimal health and weight loss has been an American obsession for at least 100 years, the past decade has seen growth of a different kind of awareness; a food movement comprising culinary, agricultural, ethical, and environmental concerns. Writers such as Wendell Berry, Michael Pollan, and Barbara Kingsolver have shown us that the choices we make about what to eat touch more than just us. Americans have long been able to spend a lower percentage of income on food than any other industrialized country, but cheap food comes at a price, including environmental degradation, diet-related diseases (like Type II diabetes), and egregious suffering on the part of people and animals.
In Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Duke theologian Norman Wirzba (author of Living the Sabbath) adds a distinctly Christian voice to the ongoing dialogues of the food movement. His approach begins with recognizing food as a gift from God. I interviewed Wirzba recently to ask him about his approach to eating, weight loss, and dealing with "less than ideal" meals.
What differentiates your perspective from others within the 'food movement'?
Lots of writers have helpful things to say about our food system. But not many are saying why eating matters to God, or that food is God's love made delectable. Eating well does help heal our world. And eating well brings pleasure to God and witnesses to God's kingdom. Growing and sharing food is a vital, daily part of our ministry as ambassadors of God's love.
How is food "God's love made delectable"?
Eating is one of the most pleasurable things we can do, and it is something we must do frequently, which means it practically invites us to think about what we are doing and how we can do it better. It is incredibly rich in the way it touches so many domains of life (with ecological, agricultural, social, ethnic, political, economic, and religious implications). When we pay attention to eating, we start paying attention to a lot else. I think the heart of a Christian theology of eating is about receiving, and then sharing, food as the sensory expression of God's love.
What are some practical steps that churches, families, and communities might take to practice good eating?
The first thing is to slow down. Become intentional about what you eat, who you eat with, and how you eat. Think about the context: when you are in the kitchen, be aware of how God's love is made evident in the food you're preparing. When you're around the table, think about how you can together be more grateful for the many gifts of God. List the needs of your community so you can then use God's love, made evident in the food and fellowship, to address those needs.
How do we properly think about and act toward food that is raised in ways that don't allow it to speak of God's grace? Do we not eat Grandma's canned soup casserole, for example?
I make it a rule not to stand in judgment of the food people serve me. So many factors determine why each of us eats the way we do. If we can help each other see what is going on in our food industry and in our eating habits, maybe we can together make incremental changes toward better eating. I am certainly not the perfect eater; I need friends to help me become better. And I need Grandma to make sure I don't get too big for my britches.
What does a Christian theology of eating have to do with a theology of the body? In other words, how might we better think about issues like weight loss in light of a theology of eating?
The question of the body is so important. But not just human bodies. If we think carefully about our bodily health we must also think about the health of all the bodies with which we live and eat. I think about health much more than weight; God created a great diversity of bodies and body types. Eating in a healthy way should take priority over concerns about weight. Industrial food systems provide a lot of cheap calories in the form of junk that makes us ill. If we focus on healthy food—that is, bodies of plants and animals that have been treated well—we will be much healthier as a result.
How would you advise people who want to eat in a way that glorifies God but cannot afford healthier options, such as free-range meat?
Industrial food has been especially destructive for poor people; it makes lots of unhealthy calories available cheaply. Good eating should not be elitist. I recommend that people try to grow some of their own food. You don't need lots of land and it's not very expensive to do, though it takes time. I also recommend that people join community gardens and that churches start to grow food on their grounds. Some interesting studies are now being done showing that the total costs associated with healthy food are actually less than the supposedly cheap food we buy. Good food does often (but not always) cost more up front, but it is more nutritious and satisfying. It also results in fewer (often very expensive) trips to the doctor.
Thank you, Dr. Wirzba!
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more