Tuesday, 12 October 2010

What the Bible has to say about food, JRI Conference, 7th March 2010

In this talk I want to try and make you see food in a new light. This is because I think food is important - so important in fact that we can often take it for granted. So firstly I want to suggest that we ought to take food more seriously. Though I guess that since you are here today at this conference you may not need that much convincing of that.

Secondly I want to suggest that the Bible can help us see food in a new way. This you might need more convincing of. In particular I want to suggest that if we understand the Eucharist more clearly then we will see food in a new way

But the whole point of the Bible is not just to help us see things more clearly but to change the way we act. So thirdly I want to suggest that if we start to see food in a new way we will change the way we eat and produce food.

Now for most of us our interaction with food is as a consumer - though buying, cooking and eating it. But some of us may be involved in farming, food manufacture, food retailing etc. I want to suggest that the Bible has a lot to say to food producers as well as consumers.

So why is food important? Well primarily because it’s essential for existence. Food like air, water, shelter and clothes are necessary for life. But food is not only good for us it tastes goods. Eating for most of us – is one of the greatest pleasures of life. But food is not merely a source of physical sustenance and pleasure it is fundamental to many other aspects of our lives.

The sharing and eating of foods establish our relationships - from breast milk which cements the mother-child bond to the cup of coffee or glass of beer or wine which facilitates the making of new friends.

Claude Levi Strauss – the anthropologist – says that what distinguishes us from other animals is not tools, nor language, not even consciousness, but cooking. The invention of cooking – so says this evolutionary anthropologist - involved fires and hearths around which our early ancestors gathered to share meals. Of course animals sometimes share food but they do not share meals. Meals are centred on food but eating is not the only important thing to happen there. Levi Strauss says that that it was around those meals where people for the first time looked into one another’s eyes and said to one another – this is good.

What we eat is also central to our identities. What we eat defines us just as much as what we do in the rest of their lives. Cultures are identified as much by their cuisines as by their art or even their language. One of the first things we learn about another culture is what they eat.

And because of its importance to life food is central to religious practices. All religions have general rules about food: its cooking and eating. Until very recently Christians of many different denominations wouldn’t eat meat on Fridays and would only eat fish. All religions also have special rules around food for special occasions – involving either fasting or feasting. Christians still fast at Lent – if in a rather rudimentary fashion - and still have special feasts – such as Christmas lunch – and special foods for special occasion – if only pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, turkey and Christmas cake at Christmas and of course Cadbury’s cream eggs at Easter.

And in all religions food plays a central role in religious worship. In the Christian tradition the celebration of a meal is our central act of worship - though we easily forget that the Eucharist, communion, mass – whatever you want to call it - is a meal with real food and drink.

And because of its importance people may have distinct attitudes to food. They may have developed strong dislikes and likes to certain food. They may have made up their minds only to eat certain foods – for example to become a vegetarian or vegan. They may have decided only to buy Fairly Traded coffee, to avoid buying genetically modified foods or to eschew eating at McDonald’s.

Some of our attitudes to foods are shaped not only by what we like or have grown accustomed to but other values we put on foods – our ethical values if you like In this talk I want to suggest that the Bible can shape such attitudes to food but not just our attitudes our behaviour as well.

This is not to say that our ethical decisions about food can be derived solely from the Bible. Nor is it to suggest that we cannot make good moral judgments without the aid of the Bible. Indeed in this talk I will draw on modern fiction to make some points. Moreover I think Christians need to be fairly humble when it comes to food ethics – we don’t have a particularly good track record – or rather that track record is rather patchy.

But clearly we do need to change our attitudes to food: what we eat and how we produce it. We are beset by crises that relate to food. I think there is good evidence that the recent food crisis – i.e. the world wide increases in food prices that began in late 2006 triggered what has become known as the financial crisis. Both the food crisis and the financial crisis are related to the running out of oil (the oil crisis) and of course the over-use of fossil fuels such as oil – on which are farming systems are currently dependent - are contributing to the environmental crisis.

Some facts that need changing: over a billion people are hungry, 300 million are obese, the production of food is responsible – on a global basis - for 30% of green house gas emissions.

So what does the Bible say about all this? Actually I think the Bible has rather a lot to say about food which is difficult to summarise in forty minutes or so – or however long I’ve got left. I’d like you to brainstorm with your neighbour for a minute or so.

I guess that you will have just found that there are of hundreds of references to food in the Bible. There are references to food in the first chapter of Genesis. Verse 29 says ‘And God said [to humans] ‘Behold I give you very plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the Earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.’ And in the last chapter of Revelation – where John is describing his vision of a new heaven and earth – verse 2 says: ‘also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.’

It is easy I think very easy to see many of the references to food in the Bibles as symbolic. And indeed many of the references to food in the Bible are indeed partly at least symbolic – the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil that Adam and Eve eat at the very start of the Biblical story was surely not just an ordinary fruit, but something more than an apple or peach or whatever fruit it was. But conversely to see it as purely symbolic means we might forget that it is important to the story that it was it was the eating of a particular food that was the problem rather than some other act of disobedience and that it was a particular type of food: a fruit and not a vegetable or even some animal which God had forbidden the first humans to eat.

I am saying this simply because I want to suggest that when the Bible talks about food it matters what food the story is about and even when it uses food as a symbol we need to think more about the particular food it is referring to. So for example when it comes to the Eucharist it matters that it is bread and not meat that is eaten. It matters that it is wine and not water. And I’d go further: it also matters how that bread and wine are produced.

So you might I think realise, from talking to your neighbour that the Bible frequently uses the metaphor of food to refer to the spiritual. We even sometimes talk about the Bible itself as spiritual nourishment. There is that famous verse in Deuteronomy – which Jesus quotes back at the devil when he is tempted to turn some stones into bread: ‘Man shall not live by bread alone but … by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of God.’

Even in the secular world we use food as a metaphor. Nowadays we are all consumers. Consumers of consumer goods. But how many of these consumer goods do we actually eat?

But as well as talking about food in a symbolic or metaphorical sense the Bible also has lots of stories about physical food – both its production and consumption. And as well stories it has instruction. There are rules about food particularly in the Old Testament. You might think here of what are called Jewish food laws. But God gives instructions about foods not just to Moses but virtually to everyone else that appears in the OT from Adam and Eve to the later prophets. But there are even some rules in the NT: for example Paul’s instructions about food previously offered to Roman gods in the shape of idols. Finally as well as stories about food and instructions on how to produce, prepare and eat it there are generally principles that can be applied to foods.

The Bible has lots of things to say about eating foods which I will come onto later but it is also has things to say about how we produce our foods and then distribute them to those how need then. It is I think useful to separate out what the Bible has to say about producing and distributing food from what it has to say about eating it.

So first producing and distributing foods.

Here I think there are two basic principles: stewardship and justice.

First a word about stewardship.

Here some of the key texts are to be found in Genesis. Genesis tells us about the way things were meant to be and how human behaviour – from the very beginning – has had a big and detrimental effect on the rest of creation – including the plants and animals that we eat for foods.

Genesis Chapter 2 verse 15 says that when God created human beings he put them in a garden ‘to till it and keep it’. This garden was not just a flower garden. In this garden were - as Genesis 2 verse 9 says: ‘all kinds of trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food’. Now the name Adam is a pun on the Hebrew word Adamah - often translated as ‘earth’. But a better translation of Adamah is ‘compost’. So from the beginning one of the primary tasks for humans was to help produce food (and the operative word here is help).

Note that the first instructions about the production of food come before the first story about the eating of food – the eating of the fruit of the knowledge of food and evil. Note too that it is plant based foods - seeds and fruits - that God gives humans to eat, not animals. And that their primary task in relation to food production is to gather fruit and seeds – to till and keep the garden - not to hunt animals.

There is of course a huge debate about word the Hebrew words for ‘till’ (abad) and ‘keep’ (shamar) in Genesis 2 verse 15. Abad is sometimes translated as serve, shamar as guarding or protecting. Taken together they have given rise to notions of environmental stewardship. I.e. the idea that we are not exploit creation but to conserve it for future generations.

Environmental stewardship can be taken to imply that we human beings were created in order to manage creation and that we ought to do so. Especially taken in conjunction with Genesis 1 verse 26 where God says ‘Lets us make humans in our image…and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air and over the cattle, and over all the earth…’ But management is not – to my mind – an implication of ‘till and keep’. There is no indication – any where in the bible that human being - are capable of managing creation: they self-evidently are incapable of doing so. That they do have dominion over creation on the other hand seems to me a statement of fact.

Of course farming might be construed as management of creation. But note that farming in the Genesis stories is regarded as a necessity and not a good thing in and of itself. The first humans – Adam and Eve – are initially gatherers of plant-based foods, not even hunter gatherers. When they are expelled from Eden they have to become farmers. Now it is not just a matter of looking after the garden – only by the sweat of his brow can Adam eat bread.

The next story in the Bible after that of Adam and Eve is the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. And you’ll remember that this comes about because it is the offering – and by implication the employment - of the shepherd Abel rather than that of the famer Cain who God had greater regard for. Wandering herdsmen like Abel have always been a problem to famers like Cain and of course have generally lost out in disputes. It is Cain the famer that builds the first city and cities too – that can come into existence with the invention of farming - are viewed as necessities rather than good things by the biblical writers.

Much more might be said about environmental stewardship and its implications for farming which I am sure we will be discussing today.

Secondly a word about justice

Perhaps it goes without saying that justice is a major theme of the Bible. To take just one example. At the start of his ministry Jesus –according to Luke – starts by preaching in his local synagogue. His first sermon is on Isaiah Chapter 61 Which begins ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor’. Isaiah Chapter 61 goes on ‘I the Lord love justice. I hate robbery and wrong. I will faithfully give them their recompense.’

Many of these Biblical references to justice relate to food, both to the injustice of hunger in the midst of plenty, and to the iniquity of practices that lead to hunger. Here is Amos:

‘Hear this, you who trample upon the needy and do away with the poor of the land saying, “When will the new moon be over that we may sell grain? And the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?” Skimping the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales. The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob, “Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. Shall not the land tremble on this account …and all of it rise like the Nile and be tossed about and sink again”. “And on that day” says the Lord God “I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning and all your songs into lamentations”’ .

This quotation from Amos also makes the point that injustice in the Bible is closely linked with environmental destruction and then environmental catastrophe. Mistreatment of the poor goes hand in hand with disregard for, and exploitation of, natural resources. We know this from our own modern day experience – global warming will hurt the poor more than the rich.

While environmental stewardship and justice are useful Biblical principles for thinking about food production. There are others – the notion of Sabbath – rest, not just for human being, but also the land - is another key principle. But today I want to highlight respect for animals, the shedding of their blood and the eating of meat. The Jewish food laws are sometimes required as a quirky bit of the Bible that can be skipped over. But actually they are I think amazingly interesting and informative.

It should be noted that most of them apply to animal based products (meat and dairy) rather than plant-based products. And throughout the Bible you can find the idea that we should only be eating meat with care. Note that as I said before the first humans were vegetarians, God gives Adam and Eve fruit and seeds to eat not animals. God only actually gives express permission to human beings to eat meat exactly 600 years after the birth of Adam. He gives this permission to Noah – where in an echo of what he said to Adam he says that ‘Every living thing that lives I give food for you …as I gave you the green plants. Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is its blood.’ I.e. you can eat meat but only under particularly circumstances. It is not I think co-incidental that one of the things that we now need to do if we are going to save the planet is produce and eat less meat. Not to cut it out entirely but to produce and eat it more reverently – and perhaps only in the context of a feast.

Now I want to turn to the eating of food rather its production though some of you will note that I have already strayed into consumption when discussing meat. It is of course almost impossible to separate out the two

As I said at the beginning food is both necessary for existence and a source of pleasure. On a regular basis we consume meals. But on an occasional basis we have feasts. The Bible has much to say about both meals and feasts. The Eucharist is both a meal and a feast. At a basic level the consuming of bread shows us that it is a meal, the drinking of wine shows us that it is a feast.

There are seven miracles in John’s gospel. Two concern food or drink. Once concerns bread – the feeding of the 5000 where the purpose of the miracle was to provide a meal for hungry people and resulted in there being more than enough for everyone to have: ‘as much as they wanted’ according to John . The other concerns wine – the turning of water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana – where the purpose of the miracle was not nutrition but pleasure – so that everyone could continue to have a great time at the wedding.

There is much in the Bible about the necessity of food for existence. The Book of Exodus tells us, for example, that the Israelites, for example, wouldn’t have survived the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land without God supplying them with manna and quails on the way. The miracle of the feeding of the 5000 echoes this OT miracle as well as the prophet Elisha’s miraculous feeding of 100 men from 20 loaves of barley and some corn.

One of the principles behind such stories is that God is that ultimate source that he supplies us with food in the form of calories and nutrients, that food is a gift not a right. And this should lead to certain attitudes: gratitude for one. But these stories also teach us that we have our own responsibilities with regards to this provision. In the wilderness the Israelites have to learn not to be greedy about food: if they seek to gather more manna than they need and store it, the manna goes off - and the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 only happens when one of the crowd - a small boy - steps forward to offer what food he has brought for his own consumption. .

But as well as stories about food as physical sustenance the Bible also has things to say about food as a source of enjoyment - normally in the context of a feast. That food can and should be enjoyable is demonstrated in the Old Testament with lots of references to the future where there are not just lots of food but great tasting food as well. So we have prophecies of feasts – in for example Isaiah prophecies that: 'On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine, the best of meats and the finest of wines.’

The New Testament ontinues this theme of eating and drinking as enjoyable. Jesus does so much of it that he gets accused of being a glutton and a drunkard . And he too prophecies a feast at the end of time: sometimes called the Messianic banquet. So for example according to Luke Jesus says ‘Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will sit at table in the kingdom of God’

But one of the clearest examples of food as more than nourishment comes in the miracle at the wedding feast at Cana where, you may remember, they had run out of wine and Jesus turns six stone jars of water each holding about 20 or thirty gallons into six jars of wine i.e. an enormous amount. But not just any old wine - better wine than they had been drinking previously. The principle here is that God means us to enjoy our food.

Now food as a source of enjoyment seems a problem for some people: it is as if we do not really see food as part of God’s creation. So while we are happy to wonder at the marvel of the sunset on the one hand - or the perfectly formed flower on the other - we do not seem to marvel at great tasting food to the same extent. It is, I concede, not difficult to get the enjoyment out of food out of perspective.

Here is an extract from American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis - not a book I would recommend anyone should actually read. It’s a book about the consumer society and has a lot in it about eating. In this extract the narrator - Patrick Bateson and some of his ‘friends’ in quotation marks are sharing a meal/freast in a restaurant

‘It’s called California classic cuisine’ Anne tells me, leaning in close after we ordered…

‘You mean compared to, say, California cuisine?’ I ask carefully measuring each word and then lamely add, ‘Or post-California cuisine?’

‘I mean I know it sound so trendy but there is a world of difference. It’s subtle she says but it’s there.’

‘I’ve heard of post-California cuisine.’ I say, acutely aware of the design of the restaurant: the exposed pies and the columns and the open pizza kitchen and the deck chairs. ‘In fact I’ve even eaten it. No baby vegetables? Scallops in burritos? Wasabi crackers? Am I on the right track? And by the way did anyone ever tell you that you look exactly like Garfield but run over and skinned and then someone threw an ugly Ferragamo sweater over you before they rushed you to the vet? Fusilie? Olive oil on Brie?

‘Exactly’ Anne says, impressed. ‘Oh Courtney where did you find Patrick? He’s so knowledgeable about things. I mean Luis’s idea of California cuisine is half an orange and some gelati,’ she gushes, then laughs, encouraging me to laugh with her, which I do hesitantly.

This is obviously getting the enjoyment of food at a feast badly out of perspective and the conversation at this feast about food an almost insane articulation of consumerism. Now good conversation is almost as important as good food at a feast. Here the conversation becomes distinctly on the malign – as evidenced by Patrick Bateson’s aside apparently spoken directly to, but ignored or not heard by, Anne about her looking like a skinned cat.

The description of feasts in American Psycho can be contrasted with the description of the feast in Babette’s Feast by Isak Dinesen. This is a short story – turned into a great film that I would recommend – and which has much to say about food and feasts and their sacred dimensions. At this feast too the participants of the feast – members of a rather dour religious community – talk about the food – extraordinary and delicious food bought and cooked by the eponymous Babette – although initially they vow not to do so because they fear punishment from God if they enjoy the feast. But and here I quote:

‘The convives grew lighter in weight and lighter of heart the more they ate and drank. They no longer needed to remind themselves of their vow. It was they realised, when man has not only altogether forgotten but has firmly renounced all ideas of food and drink that he eats and drinks in the right spirit.’ And ‘Of what happened later in the evening nothing definite can here be stated. None of the guests later on had any clear remembrance of it. They only knew that the room had been filled with a heavenly light’ and that ‘Time itself had merged into eternity’ ‘

So I would suggest that food cannot be truly enjoyed out of its moral context - and this context includes how it is produced, traded, sold, consumed. To illustrate this I thought we might taste some foods.

The first sample I am handing round is Easy cheese made by Kraft foods. It comes in an aerosol can and is designed to be sprayed on biscuits, hot dogs, etc. I purchased these cans on e-bay from a UK company called Jenifer’s Jungle. God knows what relationship the contents of the can have to real cheese. Because of the vagaries of US labelling law we cannot actually tell how much cheese there actually is in the can but we can tell that it is not the main ingredient: that is whey. God also knows the conditions under which the cows that produced the milk from which the whey and cheese were made were kept.

Easy cheese seems to me to epitomise the reduction of food to its chemicals. And this is what most of western agriculture and modern food production methods have been doing for the past 50 or so years. Modern day farming and food production are now heavily dependent on large scale industrial chemistry. So for example most of the world’s agriculture systems now rely on artificial fertilisers that can only be produced because two German chemists - Haber and Bosch - invented a way of turning nitrogen in the air into nitrogen in the soil - in around 1909. This dependency on industrial chemistry is one way in which modern day food has gone wrong. The aerosol can is of course symbolic of global warming because of the CFCs aerosol cans used to contain but you’ll be pleased to hear that these cans do not contain CFCs.

I can find no reference to Easy cheese in the Bible

The opposite of Easy cheese can I think be represented by a fruit cake. I made this myself with a recipe I have used many times. Perhaps most importantly for the baptisms of my daughters. Fruit cakes are traditionally associated with important religious events. Think Christmas cake. The fruit cake is basically bread – the staple food for many cultures – turned into a celebratory food by the addition of raisins (which of course are dried grapes from which wine is derived). But cakes also bring together a host of ingredients – and nowadays these ingredients come from all round the world. So this cake contains almonds and raisins –from the Middle East, ginger from the Far East, pineapples from Central America – or at least this is where the plants that produce these foods originally came from.

There are I think at least five references to fruit or rather raisin cake in the Bible. (One in 1 Samuel, two in Jeremiah, one in Hosea and one in Song of Solomon ). Cake in the bible is somewhat ambiguous. It’s considered a bit dangerous –too luxurious and so associated with both pagan worship (as in the references in Jeremiah and Hosea) but also with sex as in Song of Solomon – where the women in this says to the man in this love poem. ‘Sustain me with raisin cakes…for I am sick with love.

When eating this cake it might be worth pausing for a moment over the different tastes which you ought to be able to find within it. Can you taste the pineapple, the ginger and the almonds? This is how I think we should truly enjoy foods by paying more attention to them - to their taste for starters - but also where and how the ingredients are grown, harvested, transported, processed packaged, sold. We don’t, I think, think enough about how our food reaches us. We laugh at children who think that milk comes from cartons rather than cows but fail to see that we as adults generally regard food as coming from the supermarket rather than the fields or forests, let alone supplied by God.

But as I have been saying food is not merely for sustenance and for its taste: it is also much more than that it is to be shared and enjoyed with others, that meals and feasts are more than just the foods of which they are composed. This brings me to back to the Eucharist. I think we can easily forget that the sharing and consuming of food and drink - and actual physical food and drink - is central to the Eucharist.

Of course the Eucharist is not just a meal or a feast, it’s also an act of remembrance of Christ’s life, death and resurrection and it’s a re-enactment of Christ’s life giving sacrifice. But at its heart is the eating and drinking - the physical eating of food and drink - and this reminds us, amongst other things of God’s incarnation in Christ. In Jesus God became a physical human being. This in turn reminds us that the spiritual is inseparable from the physical and God cares for the physical to the extent that he became physical himself. God cares about our food and where it comes from because he cares about our bodies just as much as he cares about our souls and we should do likewise.

It is also a meal that challenges us to think about our food system - and in particular the way the food that we produce as a nation, as a planet, is shared out. The Eucharist – like the Messianic Banquet is a meal to which all are invited regardless of age, gender, race, wealth, position in society. At the Eucharist all are given both enough food sufficient unto their needs.

If at the Eucharist we taste the bread and wine and think where it comes from and how it is made then we might start to think how to change our food production systems. It seems to me that we should, at the Eucharist, provide real bread made by people from within the Eucharistic fellowship and ideally made from grain grown by people who live close by. It should not be bread made from wheat that is produced by a process that is destroying the planet, nor turned from flour into bread by a mechanised process rather than by human hands (or at least a bread making machine).

The Eucharist is a feast in which we have a foretaste of the Messianic Banquet. And this banquet is a real banquet not a metaphorical one. One of the implications of this is that we have hope. It is easy to despair when it comes to the way we currently produce and consume food. If the population continues to increase: how are we going to feed all those people? Meanwhile people in the developed world and now developing world are getting fatter and fatter largely because they are eating too much junk food. How are we going to stop that? Modern day agriculture and food production systems are helping to destroy our planet: how are we going to change the way we grow and produce our food to stop that happening? The promise of the future banquet suggests that these problems will be solved. There is a coming time when there will be enough great tasting food for all to share.

So if we look to the Eucharist and come to understand its full meaning; if we can regard the food and drink eaten there as not just nourishment but as source of enjoyment - real enjoyment, if we see the food and drink as something to be shared and if we pay attention to where the bread and wine come from then I think we will begin to change our behaviour.

The problems we have with food and the ethical questions they throw up are all inter-related. And this is because we have lost site of the ultimate source of food and hence its true value. We take it for granted: thinking somehow that whatever we do: the earth will supply what we need. We have treated it as means to an end rather than an end itself. We have become - in a word - greedy. And in our greed we have exploited creation: we have ravaged the garden which we were supposed to tend and take care of. Turning our eyes to the Eucharist might help us see food for what it truly is: a marvellous gift from God.