Hungry for Religion

As the Church turns its attention to a certain supper, we thought we’d post the […]

David Zahl / 4.12.17

As the Church turns its attention to a certain supper, we thought we’d post the closing sermon from the most recent issue (Food and Drink) of The Mockingbird.

Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one”… Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do (1 Cor 8:4-8).

Food sacrificed to idols. It’s not something that keeps me up at night either. Seems pretty far removed from the daily stream of life. Stick with me, though, because this may be one of those passages where there’s more than meets the eye.

Paul is writing here to an audience—the Corinthians—who would’ve been well-versed in Greek religion. At the risk of (vast) oversimplification, Greek religion revolved around a pantheon of different gods of different capabilities and jurisdictions, whom mortals interacted with via animal sacrifice.

Adherents would bring an animal to the shrine of the god they worshiped, often the god from whom they wanted to get something. Once there, they would slit the animal’s throat and let it bleed out. Then they would ceremonially burn the carcass. But they wouldn’t burn it completely. Attendants would take the meat off the fire as soon as it was charred so that it could be sold in the marketplace, and the proceeds would go to support the temple. Oftentimes, the meat would be sold right outside the temple doors, at a cheaper price since it had been meant for another purpose.

So Paul is writing to a group of Christians who are conflicted about whether or not eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols was permissible or advisable. If they ate food that had been dedicated to a god they objected to, they felt that they were somehow complicit in a system they had rejected. By consuming this stuff, they feared they were jeopardizing their standing with God. The community in Corinth was so up in arms about the issue that they’d begun fighting amongst themselves: does eating this kind of meat matter or not?

Paul addresses their concerns head-on and offers a clear solution. Which we’ll get to, but first, a word about these Corinthians. They ascribed to what we might call a very superstitious view of food.

What do I mean by “superstitious”? A superstitious person believes that they can control the world through their actions. For example, if I open an umbrella inside, then I’m going to reap some back luck. Or if I break a mirror, or walk under a ladder, etc.

Professional athletes are notorious for their superstitions. Wade Boggs, the Hall of Fame third baseman who played for the Red Sox and the Yankees, used to eat chicken before every single game, earning him the nickname “the Chicken Man.” Apparently, early on in his career, he ate chicken before an important game and ended up performing really well when he didn’t think he was going to. And so, from that moment forward, he ate chicken before going out on the diamond. The logic is simple: act a certain way—do this, don’t do that—and you’ll be able to influence how life turns out, maybe how God relates to you.

Truth be told, superstition is what most people think religion is. Whenever I’m at a social function, and people find out what I do for a living, they often try to connect by talking about their experience with religion. It’s a polite thing to do, definitely preferable to them turning and walking away. And yet, more often than not, the words that follow have more to do with superstition than “true religion.” Obviously, I would never interrupt or rebuke someone who’s trying to make a connection, but you sort of want to say, “It’s nice that you eat so much chicken, but what I’m trying to do on Sunday is something else entirely.”

Anyway, the focus of the Corinthians’ superstition is food. Which at first glance might sound like a silly subject for a sermon in a non-1st Century Corinthian context. And it would be, if our relationship with food didn’t take up such an inordinate amount of our time and headspace. We too, it turns out, have developed a highly superstitious relationship to food. To our grandparents’ generation, the way that we talk about food—the amount we talk about food—is hard to fathom.

What do I mean? Over the past fifteen years or so, we’ve witnessed the rise of what is known as “celebrity chef culture.” People make pilgrimages to eat at a certain chef’s table. This has been helped, no doubt, by the explosion of cooking television. I was joking with my wife that last month, we watched more cooking-related television than non-cooking-related television. I’m talking about Ina Garten and Martha Stewart, but I’m also talking about Top Chef and Anthony Bourdain and Mind of a Chef. There’s a lot of high quality cooking television out there. It’s very relaxing. It’s very satisfying. (It’ll make you hungry though.)

Television is just the tip of the iceberg. We also have more choices of what to eat than ever before. I grew up in a world—and I’m not that old—where there was no such thing as organic food. You didn’t go to the grocery store and make a conscious choice between organic milk and the “regular” kind.

Not only that, but we also have a much broader selection of sources to choose from than ever before. Are you going to shop local? If you go local, how local are you going to go? The farmer’s market? The farm itself? If you don’t go local, are you willing to brave the Food Lion? Or are you going to Kroger? Harris Teeter? Trader Joe’s? People have strong opinions about this, you find out. Grocery store loyalties can be super-entrenched.

What else? It hasn’t been all that long since the word “foodie” passed into our vernacular. Some would consider our town [Charlottesville] to be a hot bed of foodie activity. We just finished Restaurant Week, and there are promising new establishments opening here every day. I am glad about this, by the way. Who doesn’t want to live in a town where there is an abundance of affordable, delicious food?

So this is not an anti-food sermon. Food nourishes our bodies. Food brings people together. Food is an area of tremendous creativity and artistic expression. Furthermore, if you read the New Testament, food is everywhere. Christ connected with sinners over food. And then there’s that thing we do every single week, remembering Christ, as he implored us, through the breaking of bread and sipping of wine. Eating and drinking.

And yet, alongside the renewed attention to diet and cuisine, food has become the focus of an enormous amount of moralism and anxiety. It has become an avenue for all sorts of judgments. That is, people feel judged by their food choices, and they’re right to feel judged by their food choices because they are being judged by their food choices. As comedian Jim Gaffigan so memorably observed, heaven forbid you run into a good friend at a fast food chain and have to fall all over yourself to make excuses: “Of course I don’t eat here. No, no, no, this is just for the kids.” “Actually, no, sorry, my kids never eat this garbage; this is for the babysitter.” You would think you’d been caught at an adult entertainment store rather than a place where millions and millions of people dine.

Food today incites hiding (and shame). Maybe you’re a person who has a chocolate stash. Maybe you’ve lied to a spouse more than once when asked to explain about a curious charge on your bank statement. That BBQ line item? A friend at work had left their wallet at home and needed me to spot them for lunch.

We say things like, “Oh I was bad, I had a brownie”; or “I’m not eating that tonight, I’m being good.” Good? Bad? These are much stronger terms than healthy and unhealthy. The second you bring good/bad into the discussion, you are in the realm of morality. At least, you move from the piece of food itself being good or bad, to the person eating it being good or bad. No wonder you hear folks apologize so often for what they eat. “I’m so sorry I’m eating this right now; please look the other way while I pound this burger.”

I make light, but for many of us, meals have become a daily and sometimes hourly drama of discipline, deprivation, and self-satisfaction, or conversely, indulgence and guilt. I’d also wager that food has become a more reliable indicator of social class in America than bank balance or zip code.

Perhaps it goes without saying, then, that food has also become heavily politicized. The writer Alice Waters once went so far as to say that “every single choice we make about food matters, at every level. The right choice saves the world.” Now, that is an incredibly strong statement to make about anything let alone what goes into your mouth. Our grandparents would’ve likely interpreted such an assertion as verifiably insane.

What accounts for all this food-related moralism? There are a number of contributing factors, of course. But I’ll highlight a couple. First, in the vacuum left by the decline of organized religion, people clearly crave some area of life where terms like “good” and “bad” still apply, and where we can agree on their meaning. We cannot agree on much these days, but we can agree on what constitutes a well-cooked steak and what constitutes a poorly-cooked steak. We can say, “That is a good tomato, and that is not.” So food seems to be one area of public discourse where objectivity is still allowed to thrive, where moral categories have not been explained away by context or brick-walled by their political implications. And we love that; it implies a sense of order and security.

Critic (and NYC Conference speaker) William Deresiewicz wrote a fascinating editorial in the New York Times in 2012, in which he claimed that food has replaced art in our country’s high culture, that people talk about meals the way they used to talk about paintings:

Food now expresses the symbolic values and absorbs the spiritual energies of the educated class. It has become invested with the meaning of life. It is seen as the path to salvation for the self and humanity, both.

Just imagine, you’re standing in front of the pearly gates and you come to the seat of judgment. Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln and Mother Teresa are there. Are you really going to step up to the mic and say, “Hi, my name is Dave, and I ate local?” I don’t think so.

Again, I don’t mean to suggest that food is unimportant or innocuous. It has real consequences. Some foodstuffs are healthier for us than others. We can eat things that make us feel better, or worse. There are ethical questions to be answered about where we get our meals from, about how animals are treated. These are legitimate.

But…when someone pays close to $10 for a small bottle of green juice, nutrition and taste are not the only forces at work. Or you might say, when we fork over $8 for a cup of coffee, we are buying more than the coffee. What you are buying is purity. You are buying righteousness.

No wonder our conversation about food is so soaked in religious terminology! Think about it: foodie culture has even brought fasting back into pop culture. A practice once reserved for religious fanatics has become something “regular” folks brag about on social media. They just call it a cleanse—which only makes the dynamics more transparent. You are cleaning out your insides, purifying your “system.” Cleanliness, purity. These are religious terms.

Of course, food has always been linked to religion. Just read Deuteronomy. Kosher laws are wide-ranging; same with Halal.

Food is so tempting as a religious object because of the control it affords, whether that be over your body, or image, or more often than not, your feelings. After all, many of us use food to dole out rewards to ourselves. Ice cream after a long hard day. A candy bar during a break from work. A cheeseburger on the way home from the gym. Word has it that some people withhold food in order to punish themselves, or for the sake of other rewards. Someone told me recently that nothing tastes better than skinny. Clearly he hadn’t tried Talenti sea salt caramel gelato. That goop definitely tastes better than skinny.

Food is also tempting as a religious object because of its tie to mortality. We believe that if we eat the right things, we will live longer.

Of course, if Keith Richards has taught us anything, it’s that that is not necessarily true. Healthy people die all the time, and unhealthy people live long lives, sometimes when we wish they wouldn’t. We want to believe, contra Christ’s words in Mark 7, that it is what goes into a man that defiles and defines him, not what comes out. We instinctually embrace an outside-in approach to managing our lives, our identities, our sin. We talk about comfort food because it comforts us, and we want comfort. Life is hard. Food represents a sincere attempt to meet a core need, and that core need is the need for love.

Alas, Jesus is 100 percent right here. An outside-in mentality simply doesn’t work. It’s a reality with which I am on embarrassingly intimate terms. A couple of weeks ago, I was under quite a bit of stress. It was late at night, and my wife and I had just watched another one of these cooking shows. I was extremely hungry—why we watch these things before bed is beyond me. So I wandered downstairs, under the auspices of needing to turn off all the lights. What I actually did was consume an entire box of my kids’ Girl Scout cookies, and then burst into tears.

What was/is going on inside me that I need that much comfort? I mean, did it work? Of course not! I felt better for the few minutes that I was actively downing Thin Mints, and then terrible for the rest of the night. The outside-in approach doesn’t work.

Conversely, when people fall in love, oftentimes the first thing that happens is they lose weight. They get in shape. They find themselves wanting to take care of themselves. The inside-out approach works where outside-in fails. That is, if anything is going to work, long term, it’s the change-of-heart route.

This is true not just in life but in the Bible. Whether it be Whole Foods or the Golden Corral, the Garden of Eden or the Upper Room, the old adage holds, er, weight: what we seek to control all too often ends up controlling us. For example, it is no coincidence that, as our veneration of food has grown more and more pronounced, so have our struggles as a culture with obesity and anorexia. Neither affliction can be reduced solely to eating habits, but certainly neither occurs independent of a freighted relationship with food (and control). That which we seek to control, controls us.

How does St. Paul respond to those who have absolutized food? Those who have given food a misplaced value? He’s very clear. He relativizes it. He writes that food will not bring us close to God. Those are his exact words in verse 8: “Food will not bring us close to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat and no better off if we do.”

This is presumably what Green Bay Packer quarterback Aaron Rogers meant in a post-game interview recently when he said that God doesn’t care about football game outcomes. He didn’t mean that God isn’t involved in all the parts of life, but that sports are of secondary importance.

Same with food. To Saint Paul, food does not occupy a place of ultimate importance. Or you might say, the god we’re trying to appease in our religion of food—of comfort and discipline and looking good and feeling good, of outside-in–that god does not exist.

Robert Capon wrote that “the last secret of the cult of nutrition—the mystery to be guarded at all costs—is that the implicit promise of immortality is bunk. The idol in the innermost sanctum doesn’t just have no clothes, it isn’t even there.In other words, there is nothing to be threatened by in the religion of food.

Capon’s words remind me of something that happened this past week. I told my five-year-old son that if he ate any more clementines, he was going to turn into one. Maybe someone told you that when you were a kid. It’s a pretty common tactic. Well, this was the first time I’d used the line on him, and not for a second did he believe me. In fact, he thought it was the funniest thing he’d ever heard. “I’m not going to turn into a clementine!”

My son knew something that we in our foodie culture have forgotten. We are not what we eat. And that is good news. Very good news, in fact.

Paul is able to relativize this subject that is causing real division among the Corinthians because he knows that the only thing that truly matters in life is our standing before God—and that has already been established by Christ.

This means that Christianity is not the beginning of a new set of superstitions. Christianity is the end of superstition. The gospel is the exact opposite of the view that my actions will influence the way that my life turns out. It has to do, not with the exercise of control, but with the surrender of it to a God who we do not have to appease.

Because what else does Paul write here? He says that for us “there is one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” God relates to you and to me not on the basis of what we do and don’t do, or what we eat and don’t eat, but on the basis of his son, on Christ’s action on your behalf. The threat of failure, judgment, and condemnation, which so often drives us to the comfort of late-night cookies, has been removed.

In his life, by his death, and with his resurrection, Jesus secured for us all the things that we come into this world hungry for, yet are incapable of securing for ourselves: all the pardon, all the approval, the purpose, the righteousness, the purity, the significance, the worth, and the affection you crave are already yours in Christ. And nothing you put into your bodies can add or subtract from that. The heading under which a Christian lives does not read, “Do more, be more, eat better”; it reads simply, “It is finished.”

So today, as you head home to relax and eat what I hope is a delicious spread, feel free to open a few umbrellas indoors.

Just don’t forget that the real banquet is yet to come.


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7 responses to “Hungry for Religion”

  1. cp says:

    This was rock-solid good. I wanted to add emend something into this, namely about the ‘manner’ in which we eat. St. Paul says nothing we eat is inherently polluting, and St. Peter was told to eat, but we’re also warned of turning our belly into a god. Now belly means more than food down our throat, but a general inordinate posture of being led by our desire, especially our desire to consume. There’s something disturbed about the person who shoves food into their mouth, there’s something perverse about the intricacy of taste that people bring to food in order to savor it the longer. One of the destinations of sin is to take us to a pre-Human animal state, living by instinct and craving.

    So what we eat (or don’t) won’t save us, but it’s perhaps worthy to say that how we approach food reveals salvation being worked out (in fear and trembling!). The Romans of the Late Republic became infatuated with food to the extent that one gourmand notoriously killed himself when he ran out of money for delicacies (namely oysters). Life wasn’t worth living without taste. While we shouldn’t be wary of food, perhaps we ought to be wary of how easily we become delusional with the allure of these things.

    Food for thought,

  2. Rick Koconis says:

    David, you had me crakin’ up. I can just imagine your kid’s face when he said to you, “I’m not going to turn into a Clementine!” Thevideo’s of SNL and Gaffigan especially had me in tears. And the New Yorker cartoons are priceless… $30 Lemonade cleanse… It wouldn’t be half as funny if it weren’t so true. I’m pretty sure humor was not you primary objective, but for whatever it’s worth. Thanks.

  3. Keith Kenny says:

    You could have added the ritual of preparation, the sacred words, and the need to separate themselves from/denounce the unclean. This is great fun, but I see these people as searching for comfort in the wrong directions. May they find God and find peace.

  4. Wendy says:

    I love this so much. Thank you David!
    “In his life, by his death, and with his resurrection, Jesus secured for us all the things that we come into this world hungry for, yet are incapable of securing for ourselves: all the pardon, all the approval, the purpose, the righteousness, the purity, the significance, the worth, and the affection you crave are already yours in Christ.” Tears… Yes! Amen! I can’t wait for that banquet that is yet to come. Thank you Jesus!

  5. Tasha says:

    Assigned text for this coming Sunday is this same text. As I was prepping for my sermon this was the first site I went to for research. Thanks for all the great work and if I steal anything from your sermon I promise to attribute it to you and Mockingbird. 🙂

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Hungry for Religion – David Zahl

David Zahl / 2.1.15
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3 responses to “Hungry for Religion – David Zahl”

  1. […] if they decide to invest in a toy kitchen, they can keep it artisanal. The foodie revolution keeps pushing the vanguard, god bless ‘em, ht […]

  2. […] Look. It’s not Satan. It’s just Eggnog. And please, for the love of all that is good and holy, stop naming yourself as “bad” for eating delicious food. I’m all for people naming themselves as sinners in a hurting world. But you eating a gingerbread […]

  3. […] not bring us close to God.” I took that as a cue to ruminate on the religiosity of food from the pulpit, and it seems to have struck a […]

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