In 2009 I attended a day long Marcus Borg workshop in Vancouver, at
St. Mary’s Anglican Church in Kerrisdale. I’m sure some folks here also
heard Marcus speak at some point over the years. I was new to the
church at the time, and had not yet decided (or had the call) to go into
ministry. In fact, I was still a chef in the film industry, slogging it out on
food trucks at ungodly hours of the morning. But something Borg said
that day clicked for me, something lit me up in a way that called me
forward. He said that there were many images for
transformation/salvation in the Bible, but there were three key
repeating motifs- the movement from exile and estrangement to return
and connection (we could think of the Exodus story); the movement
from sickness and woundedness to wholeness and health (for example,
the many healings of Jesus); and the movement from injustice and
violence to justice and peace (a vision held by many of the prophets, and
the Book of Revelation).
These are powerful archetypal themes, and as I was getting deeper and
deeper into the food movement and reading about food at the time, I
noticed that in our current relationship to food in our Western societies,
we’re in the left hand column of all three motifs. We’re in exile,
estranged from the non-human world. We’re sick in our bodies from the
type of food we’re eating. And we’re perpetuating deeply unjust food
systems, which exploit animals, workers and the soil. But it also
occurred to me that we could enact all three of these great journeys
toward salvation through a renewed relationship to food. We can return
home to the earth, we can heal our bodies and our ecology, and we can
support new more just food systems.
And so it’s this journey that I want to speak about today. I want to talk
about the spirituality of food, the practices that we can engage in to
bring about this much-needed exodus towards wholeness, health and
reconciliation with the earth. And the good news is that it’s something
we get to do one great omelet, one freshly baked loaf of bread, and one
juicy plum at a time. But before we get to that, I need to set a little
context for how we got to where we are today.
With the growth of modern society and capitalist industrialization, came
the eventual industrialization of our food supply. Food systems became
more centralized, efficient and organized around rational principles.
Traditional preservation techniques were turned into industrial
practices, slaughterhouses were invented, and the mass production of
food grew up alongside mass marketing techniques to sell it to
consumers. The successes of this system should be noted- it had
profoundly positive outcomes for those in many nations, particularly
Western ones. Famines were finally eradicated by the late 19th century,
and most of us in ‘developed’ countries now have a life expectancy much
longer than it used to be. We also enjoy general levels of comfort and
wealth never before seen in history (1).
But over time we’ve increasingly come to realize that this explosive
material advance has come at a very costly price. Giant animal feedlots
have become places of untold cruelty, and the use of antibiotics and
other drugs to try and keep these crowded animals from getting sick,
have had negative impacts on human health. The industrialization of
fishing fleets, and the use of weapons of mass destruction such as
bottom trawling nets, has torn apart and all but emptied the oceans (2).
The reductionist modern view that the only thing plants need to grow
are nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, led to the creation of chemical
fertilizers, which have polluted waterways and stripped soils of their
fertility, soils that took thousands of years to reach their level of
richness and complexity (3). The nutrient levels in our vegetables have
been in steady decline for decades, as food corporations choose or
create varieties based on their color, shape and shipibility, but not on
their taste or nutrient quality. Hence the cardboard tomatoes and
strawberries we so often find in the supermarket (4). Obesity and food
addictions have skyrocketed as food manufactures realized that humans
were evolutionary hardwired to crave sugar, salt and fat, because these
were in low supply during much of our evolutionary history, so we were
wired to eat as much of it as possible when it was in supply. There’s a
reason you can’t just eat one Pringle. It’s been designed that way (5).
Through this modern food system and culture humans have become
profoundly sick. Food writer Michael Pollan says that, “The chronic
diseases that now kill most of us can be traced directly to the
industrialization of our food…Cancer and heart disease and so many of
the other Western diseases are by now such an accepted part of modern
life that it’s hard for us to believe this wasn’t always or even necessarily
the case. These days most of us think of chronic diseases as being a little
like the weather- one of life’s givens” (6). Think about the toll that all of
this illness takes on families, on communities, and on the general fabric
of society, not to mention the health care costs that also come along
This is a description of general exile. To use some old time religious
language, we might say that this is a society of the damned. Theologian
Norman Wirzba, who wrote a book called Food and Faith, writes that,
“The scope and scale of today’s ecological degradation is one of the
clearest signs that the memberships of creation are broken” (7).
So how do we repair those memberships? How do we walk out of the
shadow of this valley of Death, and find our way toward a new
Before I turn to specific practices to take up, I think there’s an important
conceptual shift we can make to frame and help spur on this new
spirituality of food. Norman Wirzba’s next book after Food and Faith
was called From Nature to Creation, and in it Wirzba argues that
Christians should shift away from the term nature and back to the more
biblical term creation. When we talk about God’s creation, it
immediately shifts our relationship to the world around us. It’s hard to
conceive of savagely strip-mining the oceans when we’re consciously
talking about strip mining God’s immanent presence in the world. It’s
harder to do; it tweaks our conscience in a different way. It can actually
seem downright blasphemous.
Wirzba asks what would happen if we instead saw “eating as receiving
God’s creation”? (8). What happens when we see creation as God’s gift?
What would happen if we looked at a fresh picked tomato, cut in half
and salted, and took it into our mouths with the same gratitude and
presence we bring to the Eucharist? The writers of the Psalms speak in
this way. Psalm 145 says, “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them
food in due season. You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every
living thing”. Psalm 65 says:
You visit the earth and water it,
you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
you provide the people with grain,
for so you have prepared it.
You water its furrows abundantly,
settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
and blessing its growth.
You crown the year with your bounty;
your wagon tracks overflow with richness.
The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy.
There’s an awareness in those words that sees the world as supported
and permeated by the divine. It’s God’s ongoing gift. This is an
awareness largely lost on the material rationalism of modernity, and
one that I think needs to be rediscovered going forward. So I think this
shift from nature to creation is an important one. It helps to frame and
to support our practice of the spirituality of food. It sets the tone and the
context, and it starts to free us from some of the shadow elements of the
modern worldview that are no longer serving us, or creation.
The other place we can turn to inspire and guide us in our journey into
the spirituality of food are the stories and teachings of Jesus. Food was
central to the life of Jesus and the metaphors he chose to teach by. He
did call himself “the bread of life” after all. In his book Eating Your Way
Through Luke’s Gospel, Robert Farris says that, “In Luke’s Gospel Jesus is
either going to a meal, at a meal, or coming from a meal” (9). But more
than this, it was the way Jesus ate at these meals that eventually got him
killed. In Jesus’ table ministry everyone was invited to the table, even the
socially unclean. This was a radical hierarchy-destroying gesture that
scandalized the religious leaders and made him an enemy of social
stability. For Jesus all people were invited to God’s feast. Nobody was to
It’s my view that today we’re being called to not only uphold Jesus’ table
ministry, but to draw the circle wider still. It’s time that all of creation is
welcomed at God’s feast, including the plants, the animals, the insects,
the water and the soil. These are the very things out of which we
humans were formed, and on which we all still depend. All of this is to
be part of God’s kingdom on earth. All of creation is to be included in the
ongoing cosmic drama of redemption and salvation. Those who follow
the way of Christ could be a powerful force for a cultural shift in this
direction. And as with Jesus, if we’re doing it right, we’re sure to make a
few powerful enemies along the way.
So what then can we actually do to make this happen, what practices
maybe we bring into our daily lives?
We can start by simply making more time for cooking again. This is
something that’s been in steady decline over the past two generations.
But cooking with whole foods is healthy, it’s economical, and it can be an
important social space if we include kids, partners or friends in the
process. Time is the enemy of our culture I know, but if we make food a
high value and priority then cooking can become central to our lifestyle,
not just something we do to fuel up on the way to the next activity in our
busy lives. Michael Pollan says that the most important thing he learned
while learning to cook were the three words- “patience, practice, and
presence”. He says it was about learning to “really BE in the kitchen,
without fighting it — without thinking about all the other “pressing”
things you might be doing with the same time” (10). This allows for
cooking to be more enjoyable, and it creates the space for us to really
start receiving creation as God’s gift. St. Paul says something similar in
1st Corinthians (10:31) when he writes, “Whether you eat or drink or
whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God”. Do everything so that
you allow for God’s presence, God’s splendor, to be seen, to be felt, and
to be tasted. That’s great advice. So cooking itself, given the right time
and presence, can become a form of spiritual practice.
The next things we can do are eat at a dinner table more often, and eat
together as much as possible. Too often now we eat alone, or at separate
times then our family members, and this has a decaying effect on
society. The family dinner is actually a very old and cross-culturally
important institution. It’s where kids are civilized, where they’re taught
to share and listen, where they hear adult conversation and the news of
the day (11). Several studies have been published showing that kids
who eat more often at the dinner table with family have much better
long-term outcomes in life. They are less prone to high risk behaviors, to
depression, are more resilient in the face of challenges such as bullying,
the list is a long one (12). Food is for sharing and fellowship, and eating
together breaks that separation that is such a central part of our current
state of exile.
Another thing we can do is to say grace before meals. For those of us
who go to church this might seem like an obvious one, but I know from
experience how hard it can be. I often slide down onto my chair at the
table and start in for my meal, when I remember about saying grace.
And I often don’t want to stop either, a little part of me actually gets
annoyed. It’s hard in our busy world to even allow this momentary
gesture, but doing so brings forth gratitude as we remember all of the
creatures and plants and human hands that helped grow this food and
bring it to us. If we can eat consciously and slowly in this way, and not in
front of a screen- another difficult one- we come naturally into the
realm of what Christians call doxology, or the praise of God and creation.
Hallelujah, this bread and jam is amazing!
Another thing we can do is plant something, even if we only have a small
amount of room for herbs on a windowsill. This brings us back in touch
with the sun, with seasons, with plants and with soil. We evolved for
most of our history in intimate relationships with plants and animalswe
even lived in the same dwellings as our livestock for thousands of
years!- but the industrial food supply and the urban modern world have
profoundly severed us from this important connection, another
contributor to our exilic condition. To plant something, or go foraging,
are ways to reconnect again and heal this rift. And there’s more and
more research coming out that gardening cures depression and is
generally healing for the body-mind (13). Planting, foraging, preservingall
these arts restore a lost connection to the world, and are part of a
spiritual practice of food.
Knowing where our meat comes from, if we choose to eat it, is an
important part of supporting the growth of food systems that are more
just when it comes to animal welfare, not the mention the consequences
to the environment of these giant feedlots. This will inevitably mean
eating less meat, because it will be more expensive, but the flavor of
properly treated animals is far superior, so I think it’s a welcome trade
off. Buying local produce when possible also feeds the growth of local
and sustainable food systems, increasing food security and building
community connections, and produce that’s been recently picked is
higher in nutrients, so there’s a healing dimension to eating local
As Michael Pollan has famously put it, we get to “vote with our fork”.
There are few issues where three times a day we get to directly affect
the systems that surround us by choosing what we give our money to.
The growth of the food movement in the past 15 years has fueled an
explosion in farmers markets and the growth of regional and small-scale
farming, and this has grown off of the backs of more and more people
voting with their fork.
We might ask at this point, what can our churches do in this whole area
of food? A few suggestions would be: we could pair with a local food
justice organization, and work with them. We can plant some garden
boxes on our property and have it be a part of children’s church, and if
there’s bounty, share some with a local food bank. We can continue to
serve meals to the least of these, a long-term practice of the church. We
can do more congregational meals, so we can break bread together and
get to know each other in a different setting. We could host interfaith
meals. These are just a few ideas, and I’m sure we could come up with
many more together.
Lastly, when it comes to the practice of the spirituality of food, I think
Paul is onto something when he advises his congregation in Rome to not
judge what others eat (Rom. 14:1-6). No one likes a self-righteous so
and so getting up in our face about eating the right foods or whatever.
That doesn’t serve the growth of the shift we’ve been talking about, it
only creates discord and division. But it’s also not necessary. It’s not
necessary because properly grown food in well-treated soil, tastes
better. As chef Alice Waters put it, this is “a revolution that tastes good”.
I had this experience with my brother-in-law. I didn’t lecture him on
going to the farmers market and buying good meat etc. I just brought
some big strangely colored heirloom tomatoes over to his place and put
them on a lamb burger I made for him. He ate the tomato, and asked,
“What the heck is that?!” And I said, “I know. It’s a tomato”. After eating
out of the industrial food supply, it really is a revelation. My brother-inlaw
was off to the races after that, and now gardens and has
transformed his relationship to food. No judging lecture needed. Just the
glory of a beautiful tomato.
So as people who go to church, and try and follow in Christ’s way, I hope
we can take the leadership in this shift from nature to creation, and to
seeing creation as God’s gift. But you might be thinking, well this is all
well and good, but we’re only so many and these are giant and powerful
industrial systems we’re up against. How can things really change in the
full way that’s needed? I invite you to consider fermentation. The
process of fermentation can take something like wheat, that would give
us zero nutrition if eaten raw, and transform it into a substance (bread)
that people can live off of indefinitely. Isn’t it interesting that the two
symbols Jesus chose for the Eucharist, bread and wine, are two
fermented foods? And more than that, he describes the kingdom of God
as like leaven (Matt. 13:33), which is a remnant of fermented dough
that’s used as a starter for a new batch of dough. So the kingdom of God
is something that starts small, but ferments and grows to create
something much bigger, and something life sustaining. Let’s be that
leaven then. And let’s enjoy it one great omelet at a time.
May it be so. Amen.
“The boundary between living and nonliving is actually removed in
food. Food is natural communion- partaking of the flesh of the world.
When I take food, I am eating world matter in general, and in so doing, I
truly and in reality find the world within me and myself in the world, I
become part of it". - Sergei Bulgakov, Philosophy of Economy- The World
As Household (1912)
(1) For this paragraph Cf. Ed. Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo
Montanari. Food- A Culinary History. US: Penguin Books, 1999.
(2) Cf. Grescoe, Tara. Bottomfeeder- How to Eat Ethically in a World of
Vanishing Seafood. Canada: HarperCollins, 2008.
(3) “To reduce such a vast biological complexity to NPK [nitrogen,
phosphorus, and potassium] represented the scientific method at its
reductionist worst. Complex qualities are reduced to simple quantities;
biology gives way to chemistry...When we mistake what we can know
for all there is to know, a healthy appreciation of one’s ignorance in the
face of a mystery like soil fertility gives way to the hubris that we can
treat nature as a machine. This reductionist science works by breaking
such systems down into their component parts in order to understand
how they work and then manipulating them — one variable at a time”.
Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. US: Penguin, 2006. Also: Dave
Montgomery- Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations.
(4) In his book The End of Food, Thomas Pawlick begins by investigating
the sad quality of North American supermarket tomatoes, with their
thick outer membranes and their cardboard taste. He interviews some
of the biggest tomato producers in the United States, and asks them to
give a list of the top seven things they look for in the tomatoes they
produce. The answers included- yield, large size, uniformity in shape
and color, disease resistance, and shipability. Not once did a producer
mention taste or nutrient content, both of which have been declining for
decades. Pawlick, Thomas F. The End of Food. Vancouver: Greystone
Books, 2006. Ch.1.
(5) Amazon.com blurb- “From a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative
reporter at The New York Times comes the troubling story of the rise of
the processed food industry -- and how it used salt, sugar, and fat to
addict us. Sugar, Salt, Fat is a journey into the highly secretive world of
the processed food giants, and the story of how they have deployed
these three essential ingredients, over the past five decades, to
dominate the North American diet. This is an eye-opening book that
demonstrates how the makers of these foods have chosen, time and
again, to double down on their efforts to increase consumption and
profits, gambling that consumers and regulators would never figure
them out”. Moss, Michael. Salt, Sugar, Fat- How the Food Giants Hooked
Us. US: Signal Publishing, 2013. See also The Dorito Effect by Mark
(6) Vancouver Sun. ‘Michael Pollan Interview’. November 3, 2010.
And: Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food. US: Penguin Books, 2008.
(7) Wirzba, Norman. Food and Faith- A Theology of Eating. New York:
Cambridge University Press, 2011. p.80.
(8) Jon Tschanz. ‘Feeding Bodies and the Theology of Taking Lives- An
Interview With Norman Wirzba’. The Other Journal. June 13, 2011.
(9) Karris, Robert A. Eating Your Way Through Luke’s Gospel. Minnesota:
Liturgical Press, 2006. p.14.
(10) Tracey Taylor. ‘Pollan: We teach kids about sex, why not cooking?’
berkleyside.com. March 15, 2013.