The other day, I was driving somewhere and heard a woman on Christian talk radio explaining her discoveries in relation to dieting. She said that her strategy works like this: We have to go back to the Bible and see what food is for. God created food for fuel. And so for the first several weeks, we want to take the enjoyment out of meals and plan our meals only as fuel for our bodies. After that time, when we have this perspective firmly in our minds, we can begin to add in some of the ingredients that make our food more enjoyable, but the fundamental thing we have to remember is that food is fuel.
Well, who can deny that food is fuel? But is that all food is? Is that all that the Bible tells us about food?
This blog entry is hardly sufficient for a complete biblical theology of food, but notice that in the Bible food is first presented without any reference to fuel at all. It is simply given to Adam and Woman: “See, I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be for food” (Gen 1:29). I suppose one might argue that God gave the herbs and the fruit to Man and Woman as fuel, but notice that that’s taking a step beyond what is actually said. Yes, fuel is part of what’s in view here, but we cannot conclude that it’s the only thing in view.
Similarly, in Genesis 2, we hear that God filled His Garden with “every tree … that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (v. 9). Does “good for food” mean that the fruit is good as fuel? Undoubtedly that’s part of it. But notice how the context emphasizes enjoyment: These trees are “pleasant to the sight.” And that suggests that the goodness of their fruit as food includes not just their ability to give us the energy and nutrients we need, but also their ability to give us pleasure as we eat them. Fruit tastes good, and Genesis 2 doesn’t warrant approving the sugars in fruit for their ability to give us energy while disapproving of the way those sugars taste in our mouths.
Jumping ahead in Scripture, we find that food, far from being only fuel, is also reward. After Abram conquers an army of invaders, Melchizedek gives him “bread and wine” (Gen 14:18). In fact, if you want to work this out further, you can think of food (following James Jordan, who has written extensively about this) as Alpha Food, the kind of food that gives you fuel and helps to strengthen you, and Omega Food, the kind of food that gives you rest and pleasure after your labors. Bread is a good Alpha Food: you start the day with bread. But wine is Omega Food: if you try to start the day with a couple of glasses of wine, you’re not going to get to work, but at the end of the day, wine and the relaxation it brings is a good reward. Interestingly, Scripture also tells us to give wine to certain people for comfort (Prov 31:6-7). We shouldn’t think that there’s something bad about “comfort food.”
The use of food in connection with offerings in the Bible teaches us something else about food: Food is communion. Think, in this connection, of how Paul presents the Lord’s Table and the table of demons — that is, the food eaten at the table of the idols. In both cases, communion is taking place as one eats and drinks, either communion with the Lord or communion with the demons who are “behind” the idols. Food is communion: When you eat together, you commune together.
There’s a lot more that could be said about food, but already we see that if we really go back to Scripture to learn about the purpose of food, we won’t conclude that food is merely fuel. Food is also for enjoyment, for rest, for comfort, for reward, for communion. While it may be necessary for some Christians to diet, it seems to me that an approach to dieting that depends on eliminating all these other aspects of food in favor of presenting food only as fuel is wrongheaded.
Around the same time that I heard this advice on the radio, my bedtime reading with my children was Valenti Angelo’s The Hill of Little Miracles, which contains some great passages about food, passage like this one, describing the festa after the main character’s little sister is baptized. The Italian family is gathered around the table when the Irish policeman stops by:
The group shouted with joy when a huge platter of rice, cooked to a golden brown in a rich sauce of olive oil, mushrooms, tomatoes, chopped onions, and chicken livers, was brought in. Soon after that, a large round platter of fritto misto, a mixture of chicken, zucchini, celery, young artichokes, eggplant, all fried in egg batter, took the place of honor on the table. So Patrick stayed a little longer, just to praise Mamma Santo’s fritto misto. Incidentally he washed the fritto misto down with another glass of zinfandel. The Santo house was filled with friendliness, and everyone praised and enjoyed the good food….
Papa Santo sang happily as he went down into the cellar. He returned with three bottles of wine. And Patrick stayed just a little longer. The fritto misto had disappeared. The salad was brought in. Romaine lettuce with chopped red onions, sliced tomatoes, stalks of young celery, sprinkled with black olives and fillets of anchovies, with dressing of olive oil mixed with vinegar and garlic. After each plate was scraped clean of chicken bones, everyone took a large helping. Salami and soft white cheese, called Monterey cream cheese, was placed on the table. A ponderous pot of black coffee sent out a steady thin stream of steam from its spout (49-50, 51-52).
Now, isn’t that a good and biblical way of looking at food? Loads of it, tasting good, with family and friends all rejoicing around the table. I suppose that I shouldn’t have been surprised when I finished the chapter and turned out the light, only to hear my kids say, “I’m hungry!” (Incidentally, a lot of the great books for children in the past were full of glowing descriptions of food, and the best essay on the subject can be found in Annis Duff’s “Bequest of Wings.”)
At first sight it would seem that the pessimist encourages improvement. But in reality it is a singular truth that the era in which pessimism has been cried from the house-tops is also that in which almost all reform has stagnated and fallen into decay. The reason of this is not difficult to discover. No man ever did, and no man ever can, create or desire to make a bad thing good or an ugly thing beautiful. There must be some germ of good to be loved, some fragment of beauty to be admired. The mother washes and decks out the dirty or careless child, but no one can ask her to wash and deck out a goblin with a heart like hell. No one can kill the fatted calf for Mephistopheles. The cause which is block all progress to-day is the subtle scepticism which whispers in a million ears that things are not good enough to be worth improving. . . . Things must be loved first and improved afterwards. — G. K. Chesterton, “In Defense of a New Edition,” The Defendant, pp. 7-8.