It was almost four years ago that I started blogging about our family's Year of Plenty in which we committed to consuming only items that were local, used, homegrown, or homemade. Here's the linkto the first blog post with pictures of our fated attempt to make a flamingo pinata. It has been four enriching years of learning and writing about food, agriculture, consumerism, the environment, and faith. Our YoP experience has led to wonderful friendships and conversations that have sparked our imaginations for more learning and more exploration, especially when it comes to the role of food in Christian faith practices and spiritual formation.
In recent years I've been struck by the strong connection between faith formation in the Bible and food practices. I've developed what I call a foodie hermeneutic of the Bible, reading the Bible through the lens of food and food practices, and I've been amazed at how central food is to the unfolding story of God's people in the Bible. It starts with the words to Adam, "You are free to eat," and ends with the grand vision of a feast. From manna during the exodus to Jesus fasting in the wilderness to Peter's hunger-induced vision of unclean foods in the book of Acts, the path to following God's will is often negotiated at some point on food's journey from field to table.
In contrast to this prominent role of food in the Bible, I've been surprised by the relative absence of food as a means of spiritual formation in my experience as a Protestant Christian in the west. I never thought much about it until our YoP experiment led us into conversations with locavores, slow food foodies, vegans, sustainable agriculture activists, and others who all seem to understand the powerful role of food choices in the formation of a person. In these communities we have found people fleshing out the meaning of life and embracing food as a central practice in that process. While most of these movements are considered "secular," they often have a sacred feel to them.
For example Novella Carpenter writes in her book about her experience raising a pig named Harold:
Although I usually call myself an atheist, a lonely universe offers little comfort to a person confronting death...But to hold Harold, this amazing living creature, to know that his life force would be transferred to me in the form of food, felt sacred.
Michael Pollan writes at the conclusion of about a dinner with friends that he calls the "perfect meal":
The stories, like the food that fed them, cast lines of relation to all these places and the creatures living (and dying) in them, drawing them all together on this table, on these plates, in what to me began to feel a little like a ceremony. And there's a sense in which the meal had become just that, a thanksgiving or a secular seder, for every item on our plates pointed somewhere else, almost sacramentally, telling a little story about nature or community or even the sacred, for mystery was often the theme. Such stories food can feed us both body and soul..."
Bestselling books like Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver and Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, preach the gospel of food as spiritual formation and the message is resonating.
Alexander Schmemann, a prominent Eastern Orthodox theologian sums up this situation well in his book, For the Life of the World:
Centuries of secularism have failed to transform eating into something strictly utilitarian. Food is still treated with reverence. To eat is still something more than to maintain bodily functions. People may not understand what that ‘something more’ is, but they nonetheless desire to celebrate it. They are still hungry and thirsty for sacramental life.
Just as our Year of Plenty experiment was launched out of a desire to answer questions about how our faith speaks into contemporary issues around consumerism, this Tables of Plenty project is motivated by a desire to answer questions about how our faith speaks into these contemporary conversations around food. With Michael Pollan and Novella Carpenter, we have a sense that there is something sacred about what we eat and we suspect that there is a rich Biblical and historical tradition in the Christian faith that has been mostly lost in current expressions of church. Like so many, we are hungry and thirsty for a sacramental life, so we're going to read, and explore, and eat our way through the year, hoping to reconnect with sacred food practices and maybe even help others do the same.