Monday, December 9, 2013

Food and Idolatry

In 2008, I had the opportunity to hear food author Michael Pollan speak at Washington University in St. Louis. He was receiving a literary award from the English Department. The venue was packed – the room haled 600 comfortably and it was standing room only. I was clearly out of my demographic – the vast majority of people in the audience was students and under 23 years old.

In the middle of telling an entertaining story about fighting a mole in his vegetable garden, Pollan was describing how he flooded the mole’s tunnel with gasoline and set it alight, hopefully to force the animal out or kill it. “I was,” he said, “the Westmoreland of the vegetable patch.”

The room roared with laughter.

I was surprised that so many people seemed to understand the joke. I got it, and the older faculty members got it, but almost 600 people under the age of 23? (If you don’t get the joke, William Westmoreland was the army general in charge of U.S. forces in Vietnam, and the one associated with the use of napalm against the enemy.

I leaned to the laughing19-year-old next to me and whispered, “Who’s Westmoreland?”

“I don’t know,” she replied. “But isn’t Michael wonderful?”

That’s when I understood that Pollan wasn’t a journalism professor or author or food activist. He was a rock star, and what I was witnessing was popular culture at its most uncritically laudatory and undiscerning. It was cool to like Pollan. He was performing for his audience and they loved it, even if they didn’t get the jokes, allusions or examples.

In many ways, this is no different than Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus.

Last week, in the introduction to the book discussion on Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty by Brett McCracken, I mentioned how Christians have adopted many if not all of the various communication forms of popular culture – movies, television, and rock music, among others. This adoption isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but we often don’t consider how the form of communication shapes the message we’re trying to communicate.

And over the past decade, one of the communication forms of popular culture has become food. Fifty years ago, sociologists talked about the phenomenon of conspicuous consumption (keeping up with the Joneses). Today, it’s conspicuous virtue, and food has become caught up within it.

So, for example, consider one of the main tenets of the food movement that Pollan is so much a part of is to eat local. When it first became popular, local was defined as no more than five miles from where you lived – you should eat only what was grown five miles or less from your home. It took no time for most people to realize that such a definition would not likely appeal to, say, a resident of New York City or Boston, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco (Pollan’s hometown) or Los Angeles. The definition has changed over time, and is now 400 miles, which to my mind really stretches the idea of “local.” Even then, it means that if you live in New York City or San Francisco, you shouldn’t eat bananas. And no seafood for Denver or Des Moines. And none of us in the United States can have coffee or tea.

It’s an appealing notion – you should know who grows your food. And it’s possible for some of us. But what study after study has also shown is that “eat local” is not as environmentally sustainable as “eat globally.”

But “eat local” is a conspicuous virtue. It’s not enough to pursue it. We want people to know we are doing it. And that’s where the line can be crossed, especially for Christians.

This section of McCracken’s book was disappointing. He uncritically accepts much of what passes as popular wisdom today on food. He tries to make the case for how important food was to Jesus, but it falls flat – food in the Gospels was never about the food itself but about the relationships and the people Jesus was eating it with or miraculously providing it to. And it’s difficult for me to read a rather rapturous description of a ten-course meal (even in small portions) and consider how many people, and children, in the wealthiest nation on the planet go to bed hungry every night.

McCracken does warn of the danger of food snobbery, but it’s one small part of two lengthy chapters. And while he cites the need to know about where our food comes from, he doesn’t cite the need to be discerning about all of the people, including Christians, who tell us about the spirituality of food and how we should eat.

The problem isn’t food snobbery. It’s food idolatry.

Over at The High Calling, we’re discussing Gray Matters. I didn’t mean to go on a rip, but I think I was expecting something more insightful from these two chapters than what can be found in any secular popular magazine. To see what others are saying, please visit The High Calling.

Photograph by Petr Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.


Anonymous said...

Interesting how
everything can be used
as a form
of communication.

Just as we are
used as a form
of communication.

The question is,
what is behind the communication?

or who,
is really in control
of that which is
coming through the form?

It is obvious to me
that some of us
are given the ability
to choose
some of what
comes through us.

To see, or not to see,
who is really speaking and
what is being said.

Where does our food come from?

That is the true question.


Laura said...

Yea, I hear this, Glynn. It's like these are two different cultural conversations, isn't it? Feeling that need to go deeper. There is so much rich meaning around the meals Jesus shared in the Bible. I'm glad you dipped lower here.