September 22, 2008

Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing

Category: Feasting :: Permalink

More from Michael Pollan on nutritionism, the approach to eating that focuses on the invisible “nutrients” that only experts can identify instead of on actual foods:

Another potentially serious weakness of nutritionist ideology is that, focused so relentlessly as it is on the nutrients it can measure, it has trouble discerning qualitative distinctions among foods.  So fish, beef, and chicken through the nutritionist’s lens become mere delivery systems for varying quantities of different fats and proteins and whatever other nutrients happen to be on their scope. 

Milk through this lens is reduced to a suspension of protein, lactose, fats, and calcium in water, when it is entirely possible that the benefits, or for that matter the hazards, of drinking milk owe to entirely other factors (growth hormones?) or relationships between factors (fat-soluble vitamins and saturated fat?) that have been overlooked. 

Milk remains a food of humbling complexity, to judge by the long, sorry saga of efforts to simulate it.  The entire history of baby formula has been the history of one overlooked nutrient after another: Liebig missed the vitamins and amino acids, and his successors missed the omega-3s, and still to this day babies fed on the most “nutritionally complete” formula fail to do as well as babies fed human milk.  Even more than margarine, infant formula stands as the ultimate test product of nutritionism and a fair index of its hubris. — Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, pp. 31-32.

Posted by John Barach @ 2:28 pm | Discuss (0)
September 18, 2008

C. S. Lewis the Agrarian

Category: Farm and Garden,Literature :: Permalink

From a 1930 letter to Arthur Greeves, in which Lewis is speaking about his friend Alan Griffiths (later known as Dom Bede Griffiths), who lived in a commune with two friends:

There is certainly something attractive about the idea of living as far as may be on the produce of the land about you: to see in every walk the pasture where your mutton grazed when it was sheep, the gardens where your vegetables grew, the mill where your flour was ground, and the workshop where your chairs were sawn — and to feel that bit of country actually and literally in your veins.

Tolkien once remarked to me that the feeling about home must have been quite different in the days when a family had fed on the produce of the same few miles of country for six generations, and that perhaps this was why they saw nymphs in the fountains and dryads in the wood — they were not mistaken for there was in a sense a real (not metaphorical) connection between them and the countryside.  What had been earth and air & later corn, and later still bread, really was in them.  We of course who live on a standardised international diet (you may have had Canadian flour, English meat, Scotch oatmeal, African oranges & Australian wine to day) are really artificial beings and have no connection (save in sentiment) with any place on earth.  We are synthetic men, uprooted.  The strength of the hills is not ours. — Collected Letters 1:908-909.

Never mind the stuff about nymphs and dryads.  I’m not entirely sure I understand Tolkien’s argument, for that matter.  And what Lewis says at the end seems exaggerated to me, too.  Still, I understand the attraction of the life he depicts and I appreciate what he says about a long connection between people and place.  Shades of Wendell Berry!

By the way, one of the surprises, for me, of Lewis’s letters (and also of his diary, which overlaps with some of the years in this first volume of letters) was the discovery that Lewis, bookish as he certainly was, was not exclusively bookish.  Again and again, you find him washing dishes, cleaning out the hen run, digging out stumps around his house, cutting wood, and, in short, engaging in manual labor with great vigor and enjoyment.  Furthermore, far from being the sort of bachelor who has little familiarity with the life of a bustling household, Lewis was thoroughly acquainted with domestic life and spent a fair bit of time helping Mrs. Moore, the lady he lived with, clean the house and do other chores, including teaching and, to a large degree, raising her daughter through her teens.

In short, Lewis has turned out to be much more well-rounded than I had previously thought.

Posted by John Barach @ 11:51 am | Discuss (2)
September 15, 2008

Nutritionism

Category: Feasting :: Permalink

As eaters we find ourselves increasingly in the grip of a Nutritional Industrial Complex — comprised of well-meaning, if error-prone, scientists and food marketers only too eager to exploit every shift in the nutritional consensus.  Together, and with some crucial help from the government, they have constructed an ideology of nutritionism that, among other things, has convinced us of three pernicious myths: that what matters most is not the food but the “nutrient”; that because nutrients are invisible and incomprehensible to everyone but scientists, we need expert help in deciding what to eat; and that the purpose of eating is to promote a narrow concept of physical health.  Because food in this view is foremost a matter of biology, it follows that we must try to eat “scientifically” — by the nutrient and the number and under the guidance of experts. 

If such an approach to food doesn’t strike you as the least bit strange, that is probably because nutritionist thinking has become so pervasive as to be invisible.  We forget that, historically, people have eaten for a great many reasons other than biological necessity.  Food is also about pleasure, about community, about family and spirituality, about our relationship to the natural world, and about expressing our identity.  As long as humans have been taking meals together, eating has been as much about culture as it has been about biology.

That eating should be foremost about bodily health is a relatively new and, I think, destructive idea — destructive not just of the pleasure of eating, which would be bad enough, but paradoxically of our health as well.  Indeed, no poeple on earth worry more about the health consequences of their food choices than we Americans do — and no people suffer from as many diet-related health problems.  We are becoming a nation of orthorexics: people with an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating.

The scientists haven’t tested the hypothesis yet, but I’m willing to bet that when they do they’ll find an inverse correlation between the amount of time people spend worrying about nutrition and their overall health and happiness.  This is, after all, the implicit lesson of the French paradox, so-called not by the French (Quel paradoxe?) but by American nutritionists, who can’t fathom how a people who enjoy their food as much as the French do, and blithely eat so many nutrients deemed toxic by nutritionists, could have substantially lower rates of heart disease than we do on our elaborately engineered low-fat diets.  Maybe it’s time we confronted the American paradox: a notably unhealthy population preoccupied with nutrition and diet and the idea of eating healthily. — Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, pp. 7-9.

The shift from “food” to “nutrients,” which Pollan documents more fully in the first chapter of the book, interests me, especially because it leads to the second myth Pollan identifies, namely, the idea that we need scientists and experts to teach us how to eat.

That development, mind you, applies just as much to people who are into “natural foods.”  You’ll meet people in those camps, too, who talk at length about nutrients, about how they have to eat this and that and avoid the other, about whether this is the “right” sort of butter or salt or milk or water, about why raw food is best, about the all-important missing nutrient that someone has just discovered to be a veritable fountain of youth, and so forth.

But in all of these discussions, food is reduced to its biological role and is seen as a conglomeration of nutrients, so that we depend on someone — whether a scientist or a dietician or the author of the latest “alternative” book to come out, but always someone who presented as an expert — to tell us what to eat. 

That someone, mind you, is never your mother or your grandmother.  And that, Pollan suggests, is because Americans, for the most part, unlike the Italians or the French or many others in the world, lack deep-rooted, long-standing traditions of food and eating and so we are blown hither and thither by every wind of “nutrient” doctrine.

Posted by John Barach @ 2:49 pm | Discuss (0)
September 11, 2008

Dreaming of Virtue

Category: Theology - Pastoral :: Permalink

Here’s a snippet from one of C. S. Lewis’s letters to his friend Arthur Greeves.  He is discussing some books by George Macdonald:

Another fine thing in The Pr. & the Goblin is where Curdie, in a dream, keeps on dreaming that he has waked up and then finding that he is still in bed.  This means the same as the passage [in Macdonald's Lilith] where Adam says to Lilith “Unless you unclose your hand you will never die & therefore never wake.  You may think you have died and even that you have risen again: but both will be a dream.”

This has a terrible meaning, specially for imaginative people.  We read of spiritual efforts, and our imagination makes us believe that, because we enjoy the idea of doing them, we have done them.  I am appalled to see how much of the change wh. I thought I had undergone lately was only imaginary.  The real work seems still to be done.  It is so fatally easy to confuse an aesthetic appreciation of the spiritual life with the life itself — to dream that you have waked, washed, and dressed, & then to find yourself still in bed. — Collected Letters 1.906.

Posted by John Barach @ 12:23 pm | Discuss (1)
September 10, 2008

The Light of the Reformation?

Category: Bible - OT - Genesis :: Permalink

In the comments on the previous entry, someone pointed me to this quotation from the Reformation Study Bible on Genesis 11:10-26:

As is common in ancient genealogies, it is apparent that this genealogy contains gaps. It if were precisely sequential, the events of chs. 9-11 would cover less than three centuries, all of Abraham’s ancestors would have been still living when he was born, and Shem would outlive Abraham by fourteen years. The purpose of this genealogy is to record the advances of the messianic line.

Given that I wrote a fairly lengthy couple of responses, I thought it might be helpful to move that material up here as a main entry.

In my response, I’m drawing (heavily, I might add) on James Jordan’s The Theology of Biblical Chronology and From Creation to Solomon (Studies in Biblical Chronology 1 and 2).  The latter opens with an essay an essay interacting with the arguments of Francis Schaeffer, B. B. Warfield, and William Green on the subject of the chronologies in Genesis 5 and 11, on which, I suspect, the author of that note in the Reformation Study Bible is drawing.

1. As is common in ancient genealogies, it is apparent that this genealogy contains gaps. 

Notice that the RSB approaches this question from the standpoint of “ancient genealogies,” not directly from the standpoint of Scripture itself.  But so what if “ancient genealogies” do contain gaps? How does that make it “apparent” that this genealogy contains gaps? So far, the quotation provides no proof of gaps.

2. It if were precisely sequential, the events of chs. 9-11 would cover less than three centuries, all of Abraham’s ancestors would have been still living when he was born, and Shem would outlive Abraham by fourteen years.

So? Apparently we’re supposed to take this statement as some sort of reductio ad absurdum: because we think it’s absurd that Abraham’s ancestors would still have been living when he was born, we must conclude that there are gaps in the genealogy.  But why should we think that it is absurd for Abraham’s ancestors to have been living when Abraham was born? What is strange about that?

3. The purpose of this genealogy is to record the advances of the messianic line.

It sounds as if (following Warfield and Green?) the RSB is suggesting that this passage can have only one purpose and, if that purpose is “to record the advances of the messianic line,” then the passage cannot also intend to give us an accurate chronology of this period.  But there’s no reason to believe that a passage of Scripture has only one purpose.

Those are all the “arguments” the RSB puts forward for not taking Genesis 11 (or, for that matter, Genesis 5) as an accurate chronology.  Not one of them is compelling.  But we can press further:

4.  The RSB note keeps talking about the “genealogy.”  But a genealogy and a chronology are two different things. They happen to go together here, but they are distinct.

Even if there are gaps in the genealogy here, even if “X begot Y” can be applied broadly enough so that X could really be the grandfather or great-grandfather of Y, so what? Genesis 5 and 11 still tell us how old X was when Y was born and how many years X lived after Y was born. Whether Y was X’s son or grandson or great-grandson doesn’t matter for the chronology.

Jordan’s charge of gnosticism, it seems to me, still sticks. The gnosticism here comes in this form: “The purpose of these passages is not to give us accurate dates, a reliable chronology. It is only to give us something else (e.g., a history of the advances of the messianic line).”  The gnosticism is the belief that we can discount the chronology and still cling to the message of the text, as if the chronology isn’t part of that message.

One more thought: It unfitting that this note was found in the Reformation Study Bible, which purports to be “bringing the light of the Reformation to Scripture” (an unfortunate slogan, that! — as if poor Scripture is dark until the Reformation begins to shine some light on it).

I say it is unfitting because the Reformers themselves wouldn’t have agreed at all with such a statement.  Martin Luther wrote:

But Noah saw his descendants up to the tenth generation. He died when Abraham hwas about fifty-eight years old. Shem lived about thirty-five years after Abraham. Shem therefore lived with Isaac about 110 years and with Esau and Jacob about fifty years. It must have been a very blessed Church that was directed for so long a time by so many patriarchs who lived together for so many years” (Commentary on Genesis, p. 199).

Luther is wrong about the dates, but the quotation shows that he doesn’t believe there are gaps in the chronology.

Calvin writes: “The world … has not yet attained six thousand years” (Institutes I.14.1). Elsewhere he talks of those who mock the Bible’s teaching on predestination, the Trinity, and biblical chronology: “They will not refrain from guffaws when they are informed that but little more than five thousand years have passed since the creation of the universe” (III.21.4). And, in his commentary on Daniel, Calvin recommends Oecolampadius’s work on biblical chronology.

Archbishop Ussher famously developed a chronology of the world, which is sometimes ridiculed, but he wasn’t alone in holding to the accuracy of the biblical chronologies. Similar views were held by John Owen, Matthew Henry, and, more recently, C. F. Keil and Geerhardus Vos.

That is “the light of the Reformation,” and it isn’t shining here in the Reformation Study Bible‘s comment at all.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:51 pm | Discuss (16)
September 5, 2008

Evangelical Gnosticism vs. History

Category: Bible - OT - Genesis :: Permalink

If downgrading the material world is one part of the gnostic tendency in evangelicalism, a tendency to eternalize time is the other.  The Bible is filled with chronological information, and it clearly presents an unbroken chronology from the creation of the world to the Babylonian exile.  Nobody in the Church ever questioned this until the late nineteenth century.  It has become commonplace now, however, to hear that the Bible is not really concerned with chronology, that there are “gaps” in the biblical chronology as it stands, and so forth.  Indeed, the nineteenth century became an age of gap theories as far as evangelicals were concerned: Gaps were inserted between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2, into the chronologies of Genesis 5 and 11, into the chronologies of the kinds of Israel and Judah, and into the seventy weeks of years in Daniel 9.  Such a cavalier approach to a text that abounds in detailed chronological information is only possible when men have already begun to think that chronology and history are not all that terribly important. — James B. Jordan, Creation in Six Days, p. 76.

Posted by John Barach @ 8:54 pm | Discuss (3)

The Farm and the City

Category: Farm and Garden :: Permalink

The relationship between the farm and the city, the rural and the urban, is more complex than I had supposed.  Contrary farmer Gene Logdson points out one aspect of that relationship that often goes overlooked:

… the proving ground for real change in farming has almost always been the garden.  Commercial farmers are good at improving their existing technologies, but rarely do they initiate pivotal new practices because they are financially strapped to the mass market and can’t afford to risk the possible profit loss of changing horses in mid-field.  New agricultural ideas come from gardens where financial profit is not a necessary goal; generally these gardens are city gardens.  Fresh new ideas in any institutionalized activity (and nothing is more institutionalized than agriculture except religion and education) almost always come from the outside.  Writes Jane Jacobs in her provocative 1969 book, The Economy of Citites: “Modern productive agriculture has been reinvented by grace of hundreds of innovations that were exported from the cities to the countryside, transplanted to the countryside, or imitated in the countryside.” 

For example, alfalfa was a medicinal plant in Paris a century before it became a farm crop throughout Europe.  Edward Faulkner wrote his revolutionary best-seller, Plowman’s Folly, based on experimentation he did in a garden near Elyria, Ohio, not on a farm.  It was city gardeners, not farmers, who, with ample supplies of manure from livery stables and street sweepings, brought real sophistication and efficiency to the use of animal manures for food production, as is amply clear from books like Benjamin Albaugh’s The Gardenette or City Back Yard Gardening, published in 1915.  It was urban influences, following the work of chemist Justus von Leibig in nineteenth-century Germany, that introduced to resisting farmers an agronomy based on chemicals.  Today it is city gardeners, following scientists like Sir Albert Howard and Dr. Selman Waksman, who have introduced, again to resisting farmers, the notion of an agriculture based intentionally on biology.  Leibig disproved the prevalent nineteenth-century notion that plants got all their food from humus.  But in proving that plants “eat” minerals, not humus, Leibig went to the opposite extreme and demeaned the practical necessity of humus, and humus-derived nutrients, for a sustainable and efficient agriculture.

The whole organic farming movement, which now extends even to cotton, a crop once thought impossible to grow without toxic chemicals, was of course inspired by city gardeners. — Gene Logsdon, The Contrary Farmer, pp. 40-41.

Logsdon goes on, giving more examples.  You will have noticed, of course, that his list of examples includes some things that haven’t been great developments.  But good or bad, Logsdon says, many of the important developments in farming have been developed in and tested on gardens, urban gardens. 

Posted by John Barach @ 1:57 pm | Discuss (2)
September 4, 2008

Brueggemann on Lamech

Category: Bible - OT - Genesis :: Permalink

How strange is this?  Here’s a chunk of Walter Brueggemann’s commentary on Genesis 5:

Worth noting is the attitude and presentation of Lamech here (vv. 28-31), quite a contrast to the vengeful man of 4:23-24.  While the contrasting presentation of the same man may be explained on grounds of different sources, it is important that this two-sidedness is preserved in the tradition.  Lamech prefigures the tendency we all know of trying to serve two masters (Matt. 6:24); in his case, self-security (4:23-24) and the vision of uncursed earth (5:29) (p. 69, emphasis added).

Why in the world does Brueggemann think that the Lamech in Genesis 5 is the same guy as the Lamech in Genesis 4?  According to the text of Scripture itself, Genesis 4′s Lamech is a descendent of Cain, while Genesis 5′s Lamech is the descendent of Seth.  I suppose with some genealogical jiujistu you might be able to construct some way for them to be the same person, but why?

It’s far more fruitful to notice the similarities between these two Lamechs and to compare and contrast them.  Not only do they share the same name, but they are both associated with the number seven: Cain’s Lamech is the seventh from Adam and he speaks of a vengeance that involves multiples of seven; Seth’s Lamech lives seven and seventy and seven hundred years.  But what a difference in character: the one a violent and self-reliant man, but the other hoping in God’s promise of rest through the seed, the son.

I’ve heard people recommend Brueggemann from time to time, but my opinion of him as an exegete has reached a new low.  Anyone read the rest of this commentary?  Any reason to keep it?

Posted by John Barach @ 10:19 pm | Discuss (1)

Regulations & Food

Category: Feasting :: Permalink

Joel Salatin asks: “What is the biggest impediment to your being able to eat farm friendly food?”  It’s not that there aren’t enough organic supermarkets, he says, or that Wal-Mart doesn’t carry food fresh from the farm.  It’s not that there aren’t enough government grants to support alternative programs.  Here’s his answer to his own question: “government regulations that deny farmers and food buyers from doing business without passing the transaction through a gauntlet of prohibitive requirements” (Holy Cows and Hog Heaven, pp. 102-103).

He gives some examples:

1.  You can go deer hunting, shoot a deer on a 70 degree day, toss it on your gas guzzler as a hood ornament and parade around town all afternoon before returning to the back stoop to dice it up and feet it to your buddies and their children anyway you choose, but you can’t dress a beef steer and sell one T-bone to your uncle (p. 103).

2.  You can eat sushi in a landlocked state and buy it from anybody, but you can’t buy raw milk from a neighbor’s cow even when you stand and watch it being milked (pp. 103-104).

3.   Scallions can be washed in non-potable water and sold in fast food restaurants, but a neighbor can’t sell you canned tomatoes at the farmers’ market (p. 104).

He sums up:

The bottom line for me is this: If you want to come to my farm, ask around, look around, smell around, and make a voluntary informed choice to patronize my product, it’s none of the government’s business.  Period.  But how did we get to the point where such sensible freedom would be denied in the land of the free and the home of the brave? (p. 104).

There’s some answer to that question in the rest of the chapter, and I suspect there’s more in Salatin’s newest book, Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal, but it’s certainly a question worth pondering.

Posted by John Barach @ 2:48 pm | Discuss (1)