Grateful for this interview conducted by Aarik Danielsen, with Kendall Vanderslice:

Men and women cannot live by bread alone but, in its breaking, we recognize the one who gives us life. We bring nothing to the table of Jesus, yet he graciously offers us all the abundance he shares with the Father and Spirit. Called together for sacraments or a shared pot of soup, we taste and see that the life Jesus gives is not one of pure utility but just-because delights.

Kendall Vanderslice’s We Will Feast is a banquet of a book. Part food memoir, part theology of consumption, and part journalistic endeavor, it explodes the reverence and joy Christians feel in the communion line as it sits down with worshippers at dinner-churches. These congregations recognize the gospel centrality of meals, building their entire liturgy around the simple graces and surprising glories uncovered around the table.

Dinner churches require no spiritual resume, no requirement for entry but one: a desire to be filled.

“A dinner-church service draws people together through a form of bodily knowledge that is more accessible than the rituals of different church traditions—it draws people together through the knowledge of how to sit at a table and eat,” Vanderslice writes. “It relies not on the memory of the right chants to murmur but a belly hungry for food and a heart hungry for community. It beckons all who thirst for companionship, for a space to ask questions, for healing from the pain of loneliness or rejection.”

Ultimately, she concludes, “worship around the table is a communal search for every glimmer of goodness in an aching world. It’s a communal search for resurrection. It is worship built on rest and delight and community.” In a conversation about We Will Feast, Vanderslice—a writer, baker and recent Duke Divinity School graduate—discussed the promises the table makes, our equality before God and each other, and a brisket that has stayed on her mind…and tongue.

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Danielsen: When we consider meals, we often relegate grace to an opening prayer, something we say, then move on from. How can a shared table spur the exchange of grace, and help us stay our hearts on the gracious gifts of Jesus?

Vanderslice: Meals are an incredible gift: God created us such that our deepest needs—for nutrition and companionship—can be met at the table as we delight in food and conversation. When we attune ourselves to these dynamics, we realize our deep reliance on one another and on God in order to be able to eat in the first place.

Our prayer of thanksgiving then is a mode of recognizing both beauty and humility. We thank God for the good food that we are able to eat, and at the same time we ought to be humbled by God’s consistent provision of rain and nutritive soil and healthy animals and farmers on whom we rely in order to eat in the first place.

We embody our gratitude for the gift of food when we shift from mere words of thanksgiving to the actual process of delighting and consumption and community. In turn, we too are transformed through the process of eating, through the conversations we share around the table, and through our remembrance of God’s gifts to us.

Danielsen: Early in the book, you write that Jesus’ meals with his disciples helped them remember him “and his promises of a coming Kingdom, an eternal banquet in the presence of God, and an end to death and pain and evil.” What are some of the specific Biblical promises that came to your mind during your time at dinner churches?

Vanderslice: I am enamored with the image of the Tree of Life offered in Revelation: a tree whose leaves heal nations and that bears its fruit all year round. It is all too easy for us to take part in Communion, in remembering Christ’s death and resurrection through bread and wine, while forgetting that Christ’s sacrifice promises the healing of divisions and unifying of the church as one body.

I’m convinced that the Eucharist, which is a meal itself, is both the promise and the means of this unification and healing. It looks forward to God’s promise of a New Jerusalem while also doing the work of forming us into community, into the kingdom of God. The imagery of the Tree of Life suggests to me that food is central to the new creation and that trees themselves, and the leaves and fruits they burst forth, are participants in the healing of creation. As I visited dinner churches and watched meals serve to draw folks together, to hold the tensions of their divisions and disagreements, I witnessed a glimpse of those healing leaves at work.

Danielsen: You write of a moment in church history when “worship over a meal was seen by many as too joyful, too focused on physical pleasure.” How has your own understanding and experience of pleasure changed or deepened since researching and writing this book?

Vanderslice: I constantly think of Father Robert Farrar Capon‘s writing on the relationship between fasting and feasting in The Supper of the Lamb. Capon was greatly concerned that we not lose sight of the intense pleasure of food and he believed that the only way to properly experience that goodness was through a balance of fasting and feasting. If we only feast, we lose sight of pleasure because we never learn to hunger after what is good. At the same time, if we only fast, we are fooled into believing that goodness lies in the abstinence itself! The longer I sat with this book, the more fully I grew convinced that we need to recover rhythms of fasting and feasting, of work and rest, which teach us both to hunger and to delight.

Danielsen: Related, it seems Christians often are afraid of delight. You use that word throughout the book, painting a picture of a God who prized delight over utility in creation. Why do you think we’re so afraid of delighting in God, and how can food become an arrow pointing in the right direction?

Vanderslice: In all honesty, I think we are scared of our bodies! We are scared of its needs and with that we have a difficult time grasping that God enjoys satisfying our desires and needs together. But there is a fine line between wielding these gifts for good and allowing them to become vice. So much of our ability to delight in creation is wound up in our reliance on another, and our ability to experience pleasure is tied up with the vulnerability of relationship with others. When that reliance and vulnerability is tended with care, we are able to experience the deep goodness and delight of creation. But it is so so easy to exploit that dependence instead.

In order to avoid the irresponsible use of creation, we fall into the trap of believing the avoidance of pleasure is in itself the primary good. In turn, our avoidance of God’s gifts becomes its own kind of vice! This is why I’m so convinced we need to recover rhythms of fasting and feasting and the centrality of communion in order to really grasp how we can delight in the world with care.

Danielsen: Sin and grace are perhaps the two great equalizers of human existence. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; yet God bids us all “come.” How can churches treat the table as an equalizing force, a tangible reminder of the grace that binds all kinds of people together in Christ?

Vanderslice: The table is the ultimate reminder of our dependence on the created world, on one another, and ultimately on God in order to survive. We pray altogether “Give us this day our daily bread” remembering that we are utterly dependent on God’s provision of food, and thus dependent on soil and plants and farmers and cooks, to survive. Food bears the scars of a fallen world, and our inability to extricate ourselves from systems of injustice that surround the production of food means that the table is a daily confrontation with sin.

And yet, despite this, Jesus still chose the table as the place to remind us of his death and resurrection! When we recognize the table as a place to wrestle through difficult conversations and to dive together into the messiness of relationship, then it becomes the place where we recognize our unity, dignity, and equality as well.

Danielsen: Off the top of your head, can you think of one meal (either that you made or had made for you) that caused you to experience overwhelming delight in God? Perhaps the food was amazing; perhaps it wasn’t, but the company and setting made the difference. What’s an all-time, hall-of-fame-type meal in your memory?

Vanderslice: The night before I moved from Massachusetts to North Carolina for seminary, my parents hosted a dozen of my closest friends for dinner and a bonfire. My dad, a true Texan at heart, smoked a brisket and my mom put together a range of vegetables and an elaborate cheese board. Before eating, every friend and family member prayed for me one-by-one: for my call to ministry, for my studies, and for this book, which I was working on at the time.

The food was a reminder of the many places I’ve called home (and a nudge to remain faithful to the right kind of BBQ) and through it, the community that helped me to discern my next season commissioned me into it. I’ve carried those prayers with me throughout the two years since, especially when the hunger for good brisket strikes!