This is a repost of an article I wrote last year. In letting my old website expire, I lost the ability to reference my old posts, and with Thanksgiving just two days away, I wanted to share this post with people again.
Happy Thanksgiving to all!
Thanksgiving. If there is a feast that typifies American culture, then Thanksgiving is it. A table full of more food than should ever be eaten. A plate piled so high that the individual components become indistinguishable from one another and one is left with a bite simultaneously of turkey, gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, peas…you get the idea. Then after gorging ourselves all in a matter of a few short minutes to the point where it hurts to stand up, we loosen the belt buckle, stretch out on the couch and fall asleep to football.
Trust me, I have experienced this phenomenon myself. When I lived in China, Thanksgiving was an all day affair of eating. I remember one year in particular in which it was a small group of us and between five adults, there were five home-made pies! The following day, I stepped onto my scale to find that I had gained over five pounds, and if you know me, gaining a pound is hard work. (Let me also state that Thanksgivings in China were not simply marked by gluttony. The day truly was a celebration of feasting together with food, fellowship, laughter, and simply being with one another.)
But here is my question/issue in regards to Thanksgiving: Has Thanksgiving become such a gluttonous event that we, the American culture, now tend to equate feasting with stuffing our faces with food? And to take the question a step further, what effect does this have on our spiritual lives?
We as Americans might be at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding feasting, and eating in general, because we lack a national cuisine and a food culture that grounds our eating in something more than just physical nourishment or the latest fad. Michael Pollan discusses this point in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. He argues that because America does not have culture of food, we are easily confused and tossed about by the latest scientific findings or the latest fad. Scientific findings or food fads have thus become our food orthodoxy, determining for us what we should or should not be eating. Therefore, we tend to look paradoxically at other cultures who seem to be eating rather unhealthy foods, yet remain healthier than we, most notably the French. He writes:
That orthodoxy [driven by scientific research] regards certain tasty foods as poisons (carbs now, fats then), failing to appreciate that how we eat, and even how we feel about eating may in the end be just as important as what we eat. The French eat all sorts of supposedly unhealthy food, but they do it according to a strict and stable set of rules: They eat small portions and don’t go back for seconds; they don’t snack; they seldom eat alone; and communal meals are long leisurely affairs. In other words, the French culture of food successfully negotiates the omnivore’s dilemma, allowing the French to enjoy their meals without ruining their health. (pp. 300-301)
Because we as a culture have nothing to anchor us, everything is up for grabs to the point where we rush to the nearest bookstore to buy the latest book on what the authors guarantee will revolutionize how we view food. Or, on somewhat the opposite extreme, we will make a meal out of a protein shake that is not even food. Michael Pollan continues, “Consuming these neo-pseudo-food alone in our cars we have become a nation of antinomian eaters, each of us struggling to work out our dietary salvation on our own” (p. 301).
If Michael Pollan is correct in his observation about the American food scene (and I think he is), we are a culture then that has no clue what it means to eat, let alone what it means to feast. I would argue that this has implications, especially for Christians, in regards to our spiritual life. Take for example Jesus’ words in The Gospel of John:
Truly, truly I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. (John 6:53-57)
I don’t know about you, but when I read these words, I am tempted to think that I want as much of Jesus as I can possibly get. Therefore, more books, more Bible studies, more classes, more prayer groups, more hours spent in ministry, and more spiritual disciplines will all lead to a richer experience of Jesus. To use the metaphor of the Thanksgiving plate: a plate piled so high with religious activities that I cram myself full of in hopes of an experience of God. These items can foster a richer experience of Jesus, but my temptation is to look to them to cultivate a feeling/experience of Jesus rather than simply be with my Savior. Through this, I can become a spiritual glutton through a lack of understanding just as I can become a glutton with food through a lack of knowledge of what it means to truly eat.
St. John of the Cross warns us against spiritual gluttony in his work The Dark Night, Book 1, chapter 6. His basic point is that all Christians, at one point or another, will turn to spiritual activities for the latest and greatest experience of God. He writes:
All their time is spent looking for satisfaction and spiritual consolation; they can never read enough spiritual books, and one minute they are meditating on one subject and the next on another, always hunting for some gratification in the things of God.
We are tempted to use spiritual tools to cultivate a feeling of God rather then use them as a means to be in a relationship with the personal Triune God. I will stuff myself full of what I think is Jesus thinking that this will satiate my spiritual hunger. And when something stops giving me that feeling, I will simply move on to the next thing, as there seems to be no shortage of options for Christians today.
But what if this is not what Jesus meant when He commanded us to eat his flesh? What if, dare I say it, the French have it right? That I am meant to linger for hours with the One whom I love, not engaged in a frenetic pace of life, always doing, always eating alone. But rather maybe I am meant to simply be in the presence of Him who gave his life for me, like two friends enjoying a bottle of wine and some cheese.
I sometimes wonder what would happen if Christians began to think holistically and robustly about what it means to physically eat and the impact that would have on how we relate to God. And I wonder what would happen if we took a serious look at our spiritual gluttony and the impact that would have on our physical gluttony.
As a friend pointed out to me after I sent him a draft of this post, I do not discuss what feasting should actually look like. He does have a valid point—I don’t simply want to address what is wrong; I do want to point people to a better alternative. But I guess that discussion will have to wait for another blog post.