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The Gift of Food | God's Love Made Delectable

We look to the bible to see if we can better understand God’s intended relationship to food.


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A loaf of bread with some cut slices in front

Photo by Colin Hoogerwerf

We look to the bible to see if we can better understand God’s intended relationship to food.

Description

The idea of food as a gift is one that comes to us frequently in scripture. In this episode we look to the bible and we see if we can better understand God’s intended relationship to food. Beginning with the Old Testament we explore how ancient Isrealites might have thought about food. In the new testament we see Jesus continually gathering around a table, feeding people, and even many of his miracles were food related. And at the last supper food takes on even more significance as the elements of communion.

This is part two of a five part mini-series.

Theme song and credits music by Breakmaster Cylinder. Other music in this episode by Tiny Music, High Street Music, Klimenko Music, Lost Harmonies, Klaus Hergersheimer, Babel, & Chill Cord courtesy of Shutterstock, Inc.

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Transcript

Stump: 

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump

Hoogerwerf: 

And I’m Colin Hoogerwerf. 

Stump: 

This is the second episode in our series about food. 

Hoogerwerf: 

In the last episode we made the claim that food can act as an important connector between ourselves and the divine. 

Stump: 

We ended last time by talking about naming food theologically. Norman Wirzba gave us an example of how language and the names we give to things can make us see them very differently, and lead to some very different experiences.

Hoogerwerf: 

Like the difference between naming something a weed or a flower or a tomato plant. 

Stump: 

And that led Norman to ask, what happens when you start to name food theologically? 

Wirzba: 

And the thing that becomes clear is that food is first and foremost, a gift. And it’s the gift of God’s love. Because if you think that God creates a world in which every creature needs to eat to live, right, which is, that’s an incredible claim to make. It’s an incredible and terrifying reality to ponder, but what that suggests to us then is that if food is a gift, that is the expression of God’s love, then we shouldn’t say that food is a commodity, we should instead say that food is God’s love made nutritious, or even food is God’s love made delectable. 

Stump: 

That’s a really beautiful idea worth repeating. Food is God’s love made delectable. 

Hoogerwerf: 

And if we name food as God’s love made delectable it changes our relationship to it. 

Wirzba: 

And I know this is a very arresting and odd way of speaking. But what it does is it immediately takes your thinking and your behavior, I would say, out of the realm of simply cheapness of price and convenience of access, because if it’s a precious gift, it’s the means by which God declares to not just human beings, but to the whole of creaturely life, that God wants you to be nurtured, God wants you even to be happy, now we’re thinking about food in a fundamentally different way. And we have to start thinking about things like what is required of us to nurture a world that nurtures us? Or how do we receive a gift that is beyond any of our comprehension? Or more basically, yet; how do you engage with a world in which the love of God is constantly operating as the power of life within it? That requires, I would argue, a different agriculture, it certainly requires a different way of how we think about the consumption and the sharing of food with each other. Lots of other issues come into play now. And I would say in a really fresh and novel way, because we’re so accustomed to thinking about food as commodity, and not enough thinking about food as gift.

Stump: 

I really like thinking about language and how it shapes our experiences, but I haven’t really thought this way about food. And it seems like this could be really important. 

Hoogerwerf: 

Let’s keep doing that. Not too far down the hallways of Duke Divinity school from Norman Wirzba’s office, and up a few staircases, is the office of Ellen Davis. 

Davis: 

I’m the Amos Ragan Kearns Distinguished Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke Divinity School.

Hoogerwerf: 

and one of the subjects that she has written a lot about is how to read the Old Testament through an agrarian lens.

Stump: 

Her work on this shows that ancient Israelites probably thought about food much more along the lines Norman suggests, as a gift.

Davis: 

I was actually thinking the other morning—I don’t know why it crossed my mind—that I have to kind of scratch my head to come up with the Hebrew word for farmer. And I can instantly come up with the Latin word for farmer. But, you know, and it’s because it’s not a very common word in the Bible. And I think the reason is because it wasn’t, you know, it was sort of as though we qualified people with who breath, you know, it just everyone did. And so there was no—if you’re a person, you were farming basically, and anything else maybe had to be qualified, if you were in that 1% of the population. So it’s almost exactly the reverse. If less than 1% of our population farms, well, less than 1% of Israel’s population didn’t. Okay. So one thing I have to help my students understand when we talk about this is that there has never in history, been a culture, a high culture, as far removed from the culture of the Bible, as we are. And so, you know, a fairly safe assumption is that we misunderstand most of it.

Hoogerwerf: 

So not only is it true that ancient people had a different understanding of food and agriculture because of how they lived but also that we have a hard time understanding a lot of what is being said in the Old Testament because of how far removed we are from that way of living. 

Stump: 

OK let’s see if we can remedy this. 

Hoogerwerf: 

Starting in Genesis chapter 1.

Davis: 

We pretty much gloss over the whole last 10 or 11 verses of that chapter, which are all about seed and food chain and adequacy of the food supply—for all creatures. And we just don’t even see that, because humans have been created, you know, it’s all good.

Stump: 

Here’s Genesis Chapter 1, verse 29: God said, ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’ And it was so. 

Davis: 

So God is setting up a workable system. And humans have been created, and God says, “look, I have given you all of this and given this for all of the creatures.” So whenever we’re told exactly what it is to be created in the image of God, but I think if I were an Israelite farmer, seeing God lay out for me, the perpetuation of blessing through adequacy of food for all creatures, I would think that has something to do with me and how I ought to be in the world. Also, remember, the ancient world was a hungry world, ours as a world of surfeit, not necessarily healthy surfeit, but we take food for granted. Nobody in the ancient world took food for granted. 

Hoogerwerf: 

That brings us to a verse in Genesis that is pretty important for a discussion about food. Genesis 2:15, first in the words of on Old Testament Scholar:

Davis: 

And then the load Gods set the Adam, the human being in gan eden in the garden of delight, le obedah ulesomerah.

Hoogerwerf: 

Which in the NRSV translation is: The Lord took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. Other translations have till and tend it. 

Stump: 

This sounds like God’s first intention for humans was for us to be farmers. 

Davis: 

The problem is neither one of those is an agricultural term. They’re just exceedingly common Hebrew verbs that occur hundreds and hundreds of times.

Stump: 

Well, maybe not. If they’re not agricultural terms, then what are they?

Hoogerwerf: 

So starting with that first word, avad.

Davis: 

The first of them le obedah avad, means to serve it, to work it, to work for it. It’s most often used of serving a master either divine or human. Obedah is service, very often divine service. Okay, worship. So who’s in charge here? Whose needs are primary here?

Stump: 

In contrast with our usual understanding of “to till”, which clearly puts in charge the person holding the rototiller or pulling the plow.  

Hoogerwerf: 

And it’s not like there wasn’t a word for that kind of work. Davis pointed out that the garden is probably more of an arboreal garden, so maybe a hoe or a plow wouldn’t have been used, but there were plenty of agricultural terms that could have been used here. 

Davis: 

No, it certainly doesn’t say hoe it or thresh it, you know, yes, there’s specific agricultural terms This one is only used once or twice for working land and the whole Bible. So, you know, it’s not an impossible understanding. But if that little tiny tip of the iceberg of working land, which as I say, appears once or twice, otherwise, if you think about then the whole rest of the iceberg, which is referring to serving the needs of someone who is more powerful than you, the picture changes. 

Stump: 

Ok, so are we supposed to get from this that the charge God gave humans wasn’t so much to till the land like a farmer, but to serve the needs of land. It might sound funny to some of us to think of the land as our master, but this text certainly suggests that the land is not just a commodity or resource to be used as we wish. We should serve the land, not exploit or misuse it.

Hoogerwerf: 

Well let’s talk about the second word. Shamar

Davis: 

Ulesomerah shamar means to watch something to observe it, to keep it. My sabbaths, my statutes, my ordinances, is the most common verb for that. So it’s an honoring, it’s a careful attention, it’s preservation, that’s implied there. That just sounds really different than till it and tend it. 

Hoogerwerf: 

I know you found this conversation about till and tend pretty interesting from our conversation and from reading Davis’ book: Scripture, Culture, Agriculture…does this reading of till and tend change anything about how you have thought about this passage? 

Stump: 

Yes, it doesn’t sound so much like I’ve often heard this passage described, in which we are the stewards of a resource. I think that’s still true in some sense and the Genesis 1 passage perhaps leans further in that direction, but here in Genesis 2, it is actually saying more than that. It’s placing a higher calling on us with respect to the land than simply being a steward.

Hoogerwerf: 

It seems like in that first interpretation, where we’re stewards of a resource, it can lead to good care for the land, but can also leave room for a kind of commodification in a way that is destructive. Davis’ interpretation doesn’t seem like it leaves any room for that. According to this reading we start to see that creation is very intentionally set up as a place where food is abundantly given as a gift and the role of humans is to avad and shamar that gift, to serve it as we would serve the needs of a master and keep it as we would keep our closely held beliefs.

Stump: 

That sounds really different than push a plow through it and keep the weeds and pests away, though it might include doing those things. 

Hoogerwerf: 

Let’s keep moving along then to Genesis 3, where things start to go wrong.

Davis: 

And as you know this care for the garden involves observing a limitation. So even when humans are in the ideal state, which is the garden of delight, the gan eden, they still live within limits. And, of course, there’s only one rule, and they violate it. 

Stump: 

A violation that comes in the form of eating. 

Davis: 

It’s not coincidence that it’s an eating violation. You know, we think if it was really serious, it would be a sex violation or something like that. But I mean, we just don’t take seriously the content of the violation at all. But I don’t think that would be true in the ancient world. I think they’d understand that if you eat against the rules, you know, then the game has totally changed.

Hoogerwerf: 

Back to Norman.

Wirzba: 

What I think this first story in Scripture does about the violation is the violation of limit, the transgression of limit and the desire to install human beings as the masters over everything. And this is, of course, the great danger because the desire for a limitless life where we can grasp and take as much as we want, whenever we want—this sort of posture, which has given us what we now call an Anthropocene world. Right? This conception of mastery has gotten humanity into so much trouble that we are now contemplating a world that will in many of its places become uninhabitable. This is an incredible development that would have been entirely alien to say the Scripture writer that they could have imagined a world in which human beings become so rapacious in their desire that the world simply becomes uninhabitable for them and for other creatures. 

Stump: 

This original limitation, which was not respected, eventually leads to the framework of limitations spelled out in so much detail in the Torah—which notably include a lot about what you can and can’t eat.

Hoogerwerf: 

So here’s a confession of sorts. One of the things I hope to get out of this series is that it will provide for me with a set of rules I can follow, and maybe I’m even a little bit jealous of the simplicity of a set of rules like Leviticus that just says “this is good eat” and “this is bad to eat”. 

Eating well is hard. Eating healthily, eating locally, eating in an affordable way, eating in a way that feels morally right, it all involves so many decisions that having a long list of rules sometimes feels like the easiest solution. 

Stump: 

I don’t know that Leviticus is going to help you very much unless you’ve got a craving for bats and lizard meat, both of which are specifically prohibited. 

Hoogerwerf: 

Right, along with seagulls and rats? Yeah, I don’t want Leviticus. And I’m not quite sure I get their distinctions about what is good and bad, anyway. They obviously weren’t informed by the same scientific categories we have. Still, I’m curious if there’s anything in Leviticus that can be helpful for us today in understanding how to eat. Charles Foster had a helpful response to this question. 

Foster: 

I take those dietary rules, which I don’t follow myself to be a general prohibition on casualness in our eating, and a general instruction, that every time we eat, we’re supposed to reflect on and reflect the general way that the world is and should be, ultimately will be. So every meal should be looking back to Eden and on to Isaiah’s vision of the holy mountain, when the wolf is going to lie down with the lamb. As a general encouragement to reflect on the way the world was and is and will be, and a general requirement to be deliberate in everything we do and compassionate and thoughtful. The spirit of these rules, if not their letter, might be useful. 

Hoogerwerf: 

And here’s Ellen Davis. 

Davis: 

The eating rules in Leviticus, for all of the things that we don’t know about them, and we’ll never know about them, they help us to think about what it is to be creatures, among other creatures. And knowing that our life depends upon the life of other creatures.

Stump: 

Well, here’s my confession: I’ve never scored very high on rule-following metrics. Rules are helpful for grouping things together. They’re a shortcut so you don’t have to think through every individual situation. But we have to remember that rules are supposed to serve a greater purpose. And there can be times when blind obedience to a rule makes us serve the rules, rather than the rules serving us. So we ought to be looking for the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law. I’m hoping this series points us to the spirit of how we should approach food, even if that won’t answer every individual question we might have every day about what we should eat. 

Hoogerwerf: 

I suppose that means there won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution, and the answers are probably going to be different for everyone. 

Davis: 

So I think it has to be discerned within a community. I can’t tell you. But I think within a community of practice, you have to think about what makes sense.

Stump: 

It’s easy to look at Leviticus and think just about the individual rules that are detailed, and then get to the New Testament where Jesus and Paul were challenging those rules and advocating for more freedom. But I wonder if it is better to think that both Leviticus and the New Testament were trying to apply the same spirit of the law in different circumstances and cultures.

Hoogerwerf: 

There are a lot of places where food and growing food and eating come into the Old Testament, like the manna from heaven in the desert or one of my favorite verses from Isaiah “eat what is good and you will delight in the richest of fare.” But I think it’s time to turn to the New Testament. Food is all over the place in the gospels. Jesus always seems to be having meals with people, many of his parables include food, and many of his miracles were food related miracles, including his first recorded miracle when he turns water into wine at a wedding in Cana. 

Stump: 

And then there’s the feeding of the 5000. It seems like there might be something more significant going on here than simply Jesus showing off his miraculous powers.

Wirzba: 

There’s so many people that have come to hear him. They’ve been there for a long time on this hillside and they’re getting hungry and the disciples say, let’s just send them away so they can go get food. And Jesus says, whoa, whoa, wait a minute. That’s not what we do. Right? We’re gonna provide for these people because that’s what love requires, right? You nurture the ones that you love. And so Jesus sort of says, what do we have available? And there’s this boy in the crowd who’s got some loaves and fishes. And I love to say that what happens there is that Jesus builds on the love of this boy’s mother, because the mother provided the boy with enough food to actually share some, which is already an indication that the whole point of eating is about sharing in the life with each other, and sharing in the life of the land, right. 

Stump: 

If this story, and when he turned water into wine, were the only stories we had about Jesus and food, we might be tempted to think that Jesus’s goal was simply to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty. But without negating those physical realities, it seems like Jesus was interested in something more.

Wirzba: 

Because if you’re a community that is on fairly intimate terms with hunger, what could be better than to have a Messiah who can produce food on demand. But Jesus says, That’s not who I am. I’m not like Moses, who called down manna from heaven. 

Stump: 

Right, so think of  the story of Jesus being tempted in the desert. Satan says “If you’re the son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But Jesus answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Hoogerwerf: 

So what are we supposed to make of that?

Stump: 

Well I’ve always been hugely influenced by the treatment of this story from Dostoyevski’s “The Grand Inquisitor” in the Brothers Karamazov. The inquisitor is interrogating Jesus and says, “You could have had everyone following you if you had turned the stones to bread, but you wanted to preserve their freedom and only offer them “heavenly bread” instead. The masses want real bread.”

Hoogerwerf: 

Ok. We’re going to need to talk more about what heavenly bread is. But I want to talk about real bread first, because it’s something both you and I have taken an interest in. I think we can both admit we’re pandemic sourdough bakers. But can we also defend ourselves and say that we’ve become more than that by sticking with it? 

Stump: 

Yes, I baked bread some before the pandemic, but then on my second try during the pandemic I got a sourdough starter going from scratch, and have continued to bake a loaf almost every week. And without any humility can say that my loaves have become quite a hit among the small groups who regularly get to eat them.

Hoogerwerf: 

I’ve had a few of your breads. But what do you typically make?  

Stump: 

I’ve experimented with quite a few different kinds, but my standards are a high-hydration sourdough loaf in a Dutch oven; and a focaccia bread with different kinds of toppings. How about you and your bread baking?

Hoogerwerf:

We picked it back up in the pandemic too but I’ve come to a point where I’ve worked it into my routine to make about two loaves once a week, probably pretty similar to your recipe. And I count it a success that my kids often choose my homemade loaves to the store bought ones and hope that the smell of baking bread will forever be something that reminds them of home. 

Stump: 

Nice. Of course fresh bread tastes better, but for me it has also become about the process of making it. Even if it tasted the same as a store-bought loaf, I’d still prefer to make my own. There is something about the mixing, and kneading, and even the waiting that I find really satisfying and even centering… almost like that is what we were designed to do. I think you feel this way too.

Hoogerwerf: 

I do. And I think this is one of those practices that once you’ve done it you start to understand and read a lot of bible passages differently. There are all kinds of mentions of yeast in the bible and the metaphor of the kingdom being like a little bit of yeast helping to rise the whole loaf.  

Al-Attas Bradford: 

Yeah, it ends up being a central metaphor in the way both the early Jewish community and Christians thought about how people change.

Hoogerwerf: 

This is Aminah Al-Attas Bradford. 

Al-Attas Bradford: 

I am a scholar of Christian thought in practice, but I’m working in NC State’s public science lab for ecology, evolution and biodiversity of humans and food.

Hoogerwerf: 

As a scholar of Christian thought in an ecology lab, Aminah gets to research all kinds of interesting questions including how early Christians have thought about yeast.

Al-Attas Bradford: 

All they knew was that if you had a bit of grain and it had fermented, it was a little bit of changed grain, that when you took that, and you put it into the larger whole, it shared its transformation or its new powers of rising and bubbling and heating with the rest of the loaf. And so Christians used this language to make sense of salvation when they were in the early days of the church trying to figure out but how does a whole race get saved by one person at one moment in history?

Hoogerwerf: 

And this all starts to make a lot more sense when it happens in your kitchen, when you see that just 25 grams of starter—which isn’t more than a couple tablespoons—can make 1000 grams of water and flour—a whole mixing bowl full—rise into two loaves of bread. 

Last year I stumbled on a book called By Bread Alone. It was written by Kendall Vanderslice and I wasn’t even able to wait until I finished the book before I sent her a message. She’s a baker and a theologian. And it turns out she leads spiritual bread-baking retreats. 

Stump: 

OK, if we laughed at my last name on the trees episode, we have to laugh a little about a theologian/baker with the name of Vanderslice! [laughs]

Hoogerwerf: 

Yeah, pretty fitting. So we pretty quickly found a time to get down to Durham where Kendall is based for one of her retreats where we sat around a table and made some baguettes.

Vanderslice: 

I like to encourage people, whatever kind of a baker you are, that you can find joy baking bread, that you think we can learn something new about God in the process of baking bread, and that when we slow down, and really pay attention to what’s happening in our hands. I think God reveals God’s self to us in new and creative ways.

Stump: 

This was really interesting, and fun, and delicious… I learned a few new techniques about the importance of surface tension in the dough, and it certainly made me think more about the spiritual metaphors with bread. Do you think bread is peculiar in this? Could we have taken a spiritual retreat about woodworking and gotten the same thing out of it?

Hoogerwerf: 

Hmm. As a woodworker, I’m tempted to say yes, but I think you’re looking for something different here. And I think there are some differences. One of the things that’s different about bread than any other kind of contemplative practice you could do, I guess, is that bread takes some active interaction on our part, just like with woodworking, but it also does something on its own and just requires waiting and patience. And if you build a table, you may be able to eat on it, but you can’t eat it. Bread baking results in an actual piece of physical nourishment. And there’s obviously something about bread that makes it an important theological metaphor. It is all over the bible. 

Stump: 

I assume that part of the prevalence of bread in the Bible is simply its prevalence in the lives of ancient people. 

Vanderslice: 

So bread baking is kind of at its core, incredibly simple, and also infinitely complex, that it is made up of four basic ingredients, flour, water, salt, and yeast. You could go without the salt, it’s going to affect the texture, it’s going to affect the color, it’s gonna affect the flavor, but you could do it without salt. You could go without the yeast, obviously, unleavened bread is all throughout Scripture and many different cultures. So really, at its core, it’s as simple as flour and water. But also it is infinitely complex.  

Hoogerwerf: 

We could probably do a whole episode just on bread, like we’ve done on trees or water. There’s so much interesting history with bread and the science of breadmaking is pretty interesting too, but we’re not going to have time for all that here. But one thing that Kendall did tell us about while we were measuring our flour and shaping our baguettes is about how different kinds of bread and different kinds of flour have been closely tied to differences in class and race and has informed many theological conversations.

Vanderslice: 

Up until really, really recently, a crusty loaf of bread like this, and a bread that has a high percentage of whole grains would have been the bread of the poor because it was so expensive to sift away the fiber and the brand, that a white flour would be like the finest kind of flour.  

Stump: 

The baking of sourdough back then was probably not as much an artisan craft as it was purely a necessity for people to make bread from what they had available. 

Vanderslice: 

So there were actually kind of three tiers of bread. So the highest, like most expensive would be the purely white bread. And the middle would be essentially a whole grain bread. It’s just the whole wheat intact. And then the bread of the poorest and if it was sent to prisoners, or sometimes just the poorest was just the fibers and bran pieces that have been sifted away. So you have the bread get sifted. The poorest get the fiber and the bran, the richest get the white flour. But I mean, it’s also like in theological tradition, like the bread for communion was only ever supposed to be the white flour. This is part of why is like such a small amount per person. But it was considered like if we’re going to represent—if Christ is in the bread and has to be the finest bread and it has to be this finest white wheat.

Stump: 

Kendall has brought us to the obvious place where bread was going to take us, which is to communion. 

Hoogerwerf: 

Yeah, earlier after talking about the feeding of the 5000, Norman Wirzba was saying that Jesus was differentiating himself from just being a guy that could make bread appear from nowhere. And we cut him off before he was able to get to communion because we weren’t ready to go there yet. But I think we’re ready now. 

Wirzba: 

But Jesus says, that’s not who I am. I’m not like Moses, who called down manna from heaven. He says, I’m the bread of life. And unless you eat me, you have no life in you. And in the Greek verb, there is trogan, which is to chomp and chew right? So you’re supposed to masticate on Jesus’s flesh. And the question is, why would this sort of vulgar language be used? Because we know that Jews were horrified when Jesus said this, because that sort of overtone of cannibalism. 

Stump: 

Ok. We’re going to pause on Norman again, though I’m sure he’s got more to say here to actually explain some of this. But like the disciples, who must have been pretty confused at this kind of language, I don’t know that 2000 years has helped me to understand communion any better. 

Hoogerwerf: 

It probably doesn’t help that over 2000 years the practice of the Eucharist has gone through all kinds of changes and varies a lot from one tradition to another. You and I have talked before about how your experience of communion never left you with a really good understanding of what it was all about. What’s your story with communion? 

Stump: 

I come from a very low church tradition. We took communion as a church once a quarter, and it was passed around the pews in trays. My main memory of this practice as a teenager was sitting over on the side of the sanctuary with my friends, and we’d always get a kick out of watching the several hundred people tip their heads back in unison as it looked they were all doing grape juice shots. I’m sure there was some kind of instruction or teaching about communion, but I don’t remember it. I just felt like this is something we were told to do, and so we did it. It wasn’t at all integrated into what it meant to be a follower of Jesus or to be part of a meaningful tradition.

But how about you? What was your experience of communion? Something deeper than mine, I hope? 

Hoogerwerf: 

I don’t know that it started out all that much different than yours. I grew up in the Reformed tradition, and I remember communion being a regular part of the church experience. I think it was probably a once a month kind of practice. Usually little squares of cut bread were passed around on a plate followed by another plate filled with tiny plastic cups of juice. I mostly remember being terrified of dropping the silver platter of juice glasses. It wasn’t until college maybe that I had any deeper communion experience. In college we did communion once a week at the end of our big Sunday evening service called the Gathering. There it was practiced by intinction, where you go up front and receive the bread and dip it in the cup. It was still a really private and somewhat solemn part of the service. I liked that about it at the time. But then after college, probably the most meaningful communion experience I had was at the camp I worked at, Camp Fowler, where the staff gathered in the chapel around tables laid on the floor and after we took turns telling our own versions of the gospel stories that we remembered we all shared bread and wine with each other. It felt much more like a meal and the mood was joyous and celebratory. I guess I’ve been chasing after that kind of communion service ever since with the idea that communion can be something that’s really personally meaningful. 

DeWit: 

What’s interesting to me is when I think of what communion what Eucharist has become in my life is practically very different than what you described.

Hoogerwerf:

This is Matt Dewit. At the time of the interview he was pastor of youth at Sherman Street Christian Reformed Church, which happens to be the church I attend. He’s now a licensed therapist. I sat down with Matt and also with Jen Holmes Curran, one of the senior pastors at Sherman Street who we’ll hear from in just a bit. But back to Matt and his communion story. 

DeWit: 

So when I did my run away from the church, prodigal son thing, when I came back, I landed at a Episcopalian Church. And Eucharist is every week, it’s the focus of the service, it takes 45 minutes, you know, the sermon is eight minutes long, right? And what became so important to me, was the consistency of the ritual, and that I wasn’t the center of it, that it didn’t matter how I felt. I was participating in a ritual that had existed for so long, so many people are doing it at the same time, every day. Right like, and that to me, the decentralization of myself in the participation of the sacrament, actually allowed my faith to rekindle in a way that I don’t know that it could have in a setting that hinged upon the people I was with, or the beauty of the—like it was, it was hinged upon the fact that in a lot of ways I don’t, I don’t matter how I feel doesn’t matter. But that grace is always abundant and available.

Hoogerwerf: 

This is really interesting to me and I’ve already started to change the way I think about communion since I heard it. Maybe this chasing after some specially meaningful service where all the variables are tuned to things that spark some emotional or spiritual response for me, is not at all the point of communion. Here’s Pastor Jen Holmes Curran. 

Holmes Curran: 

We put so much on each individual to have all the right beliefs, and all the right feelings and all the right practices throughout the week, and all the right behavior. And our faith just really isn’t about that. So I want people whose faith is in shambles, or whose life is just a mess right now, to be able to come to the table and say, this thing is true. I can settle here. Even if I don’t have the feelings, or even if I have, like, opposite feelings, I can eat this. And that means something. And I don’t have to have everything figured out. This is where I can just, this is my practice of my faith. And to participate in Jesus in that way, assured by the grace of God not assured by all the things you have figured out or worked on.

Miller: 

I’m feeling like, every angle of this.

Stump: 

And we’re bringing in another pastor. 

Miller: 

Jason Miller, lead pastor South Bend City Church

Stump: 

Jason is the pastor of the church I was attending before I moved out of South Bend. Besides being a pastor Jason is also a foodie and he invited us over to cook a feast for us and so we talked about communion while eating his Bolognese and my focaccia bread and your homemade cheese.

Miller: 

A whole other thing that’s powerful and beautiful is like, I’ve traveled, you know, other places in the world. I know you guys have too, where I find a church, and we are literally 1000s of miles, literally geographically, culturally. But there’s the Eucharist.

Hoogerwerf: 

Jason resonated with communion being a meaningful and emotional experience at time, but he also echoed a similar corrective as Matt and Jen.

Miller: 

I don’t know why it was in the news. Maybe it’s a little bit weird that it was in the news. A few years ago, somebody caught Bono, of U2 fame, in like I think a very small kind of rural Catholic Church in Mexico, in line receiving the Eucharist. To me, that also was really important to see like, he’s not he’s not he’s only special in the same way that everybody is special in that room. But I kind of liked seeing Bono relegated to congregant status, right, which was not about his uniqueness. And it’s not about how special he is except that everybody is welcome there. And I was thinking back to when I’ve been places where I was a total stranger to a community, but I received it. There was another kind of power to that for me that said, we believe that something about this meal draws us into a bond that we say it exists even if there’s no other bond between us, you know? And I know that might not be experientially satisfying, but theologically, it seems important.

Hoogerwerf: 

Ok, so we don’t necessarily go to communion to have a bunch of good feelings. I’m also not hearing that occasionally having some feelings or finding some communion practice to be especially meaningful is a bad thing either. But I’m still wondering whether there is a bad way to do communion and maybe a better way to do communion? Like is communion supposed to be a shared meal and a shared experience as opposed to a very personal moment during a Sunday service? 

Stump: 

It sure seems like Jesus had the shared experience more in mind. 

Miller: 

Maybe we started going wrong, the minute it’s like about you and your personal Jesus and your personal sin problem, because it’s a shared meal. That’s the starting point for it, right?

Holmes Curran: 

I think Jesus intended communion to be when you eat a meal, remember me? And then the church, I think, through I think a misinterpretation of the like eating and drinking judgment on yourselves started to get real scared of communion. And so then they didn’t, they’d started practicing it less and less.

Miller: 

Like, should it be a potluck? Really? Is that a more true Eucharist maybe? 

Hoogerwerf: 

So this leads me to more questions…if communion is a shared meal, does it always have to be bread and wine? And why isn’t every time we put food or drink into our mouths a practice of communion? 

Stump: 

That first part of the question, why bread and wine, is probably the easier to answer. We’ve already talked some about the significance of bread. And wine is pretty similar to bread in a lot of ways. 

Miller: 

They both live at the intersection between our effort and something that—we can’t make, we don’t do what the yeast does. The yeast has a life of its own that we just, which comes back to image bearing, I think right, which is always about applying ourselves in our efforts to a work that’s ultimately made meaningful through grace, right? Like, we have our part to play. But if we just did our part, and these other things didn’t do their part, we wouldn’t end up where we ended up, right?

Hoogerwerf: 

I like this idea a lot. These of course aren’t the only food elements that come through a process of work and waiting, you could say the same about cheese and beer but it does seem a lot different than using a raw carrot and a glass of water or something, two things which can come straight from the earth. The elements of communion are elements that were brought through a process of creation by other humans. And at the same time, Jen points out that they are also ubiquitous. 

Holmes Curran: 

The main reason for bread and wine is because they are common. I think they’re like, that’s what you eat at a meal. Everybody has bread. Like even every culture, like if you ask—one of the questions I like, like it is just a good question to ask a group is, what’s a memory you have around bread? Because everybody has something. And often it’s, they’re very distinct. Because different cultures have very different kinds of bread, but everybody seems to have bread of some kind. And then wine was just what they drank.

Stump: 

You’re asking why use bread and wine instead of some other food items. But you could ask why use food items at all? Why not get together and play a game, or why not all walk a certain path?

Hoogerwerf: 

This bring us again back to Wirzba:

Wirzba: 

Now, it’s no accident that Jesus uses bread and wine, as symbols of abiding with each other. Because the abiding that we are supposed to do with each other, and the abiding that we’re supposed to do with Jesus needs to happen at this very intimate, visceral level, right at the level of our guts. What does this then do to the way you live? The way I describe it is that the Eucharist is that regular focused time, where we come to the table, to eat in memory of Jesus, so that the life we live upon leaving that table reflects Jesus’s own life in the world, a life that is marked by feeding, healing, reconciling, right nurturing. That becomes a way of now living into the world, in a way that is so different than the way many other people come to the table, which is to grasp and hoard or to sort of establish one’s position, right? And the Gospels have ways of speaking about people who want to be at the head of the table. 

Stump: 

I don’t know if that answers all of your questions. But I still have some questions and maybe exploring those will also get at this question you have of whether everytime we eat should be communion. 

Hoogerwerf: 

Alright, let’s hear it. 

Stump: 

My question has to do with how we understand both the symbolic and practical sides of communion. We could start by comparing communion to footwashing. 

Hoogerwerf: 

Makes sense I guess, another sacramental practice from the early church.

Stump: 

But there’s something different about the two. Back then footwashing had a real practical use along with the symbolism it took on when Jesus did the footwashing. But today, if we practice foot washing as a ceremony it is completely symbolic. We just don’t have a culture where it’s important to wash our feet before entering a space. But communion is different, or at least it could be different. When we practice communion we are eating food. But it seems like we approach communion now in the same way as footwashing, that it is just a purely symbolic practice, just a remembering. And we forget about the part where the elements are literally becoming part of our bodies. So I think this does relate to your question about communion being a meal. I really wish it could be more like a potluck because I think it would bring out more of that practical side, of Jesus being spiritually and physically nourishing to us. 

Hoogerwerf: 

If we really take the physical part of eating seriously as a sacramental practice then this does get back to my question of whether every time we eat it could be a practice of communion. 

Stump: 

But it’s not just the physical part. There is also the symbolic part that makes something communion. Symbolism has that “seeing as” component I keep talking about. The physical reality isn’t any different when someone eats a hunk of bread and has a swig of wine, than when a priest blesses it or a pastor gives a homily before it, and we do it with that intentional remembrance of Christ’s body and blood, broken and shed for us. So we take these things we believe, and they transform our experience of the eating and drinking. That could happen in settings other than a Sunday morning worship service, like the experience you mentioned around a campfire. But I don’t think it happens every time we engage in the physical act of eating. There is something more that needs to be added to that.

Hoogerwerf: 

And of course different denominations have different metaphysics going on about what really happens to the bread and wine. That’s not our concern here as much as the intentionality, what we bring to the experience, and Christ’s focus on heavenly bread.

If we were able to develop a good sense of food as being spiritually relevant, a gift of God, I wonder if we would approach communion closer to the way that Jesus intended or maybe even start to practice communion differently. And maybe seeing food as a gift would make all eating more communion-like even if not every time we eat is communion. That wouldn’t be so bad would it?
While we were talking Jen pulled up a part of a sermon she gave on food a while back. I think it’s a good way to wrap up the episode. 

Holmes Curran: 

I’ll just read what I said: And I truly believe that if we can learn to love these gifts as gifts, we’ll see Shalom spring from them. If I can learn to appreciate a carrot as God’s good gift to me, I might start by learning how to slow down and pay attention to its flavors. That would begin to make changes in my health. Because when people eat slowly, they tend to eat more carefully, they tend to actually eat healthy, more healthfully, and often less. I might also see the complexity of the carrots own flavor, rather than just the butter or sugar I can put on it. And again, I would see changes in the health of my body. I might out that I have more energy with which to serve God in whatever ways God has called me. I might find myself being more creative in the ways I prepare my carrot and so engaging in got in the Creator, start engaging with the ways I prepare my carrot, and so engaging with the Creator God’s image and me, participating in God’s likeness. I might start to see that there are people who cannot afford my carrot, and do not have access to enough even to survive. And now I start to hunger not just for food, but for justice. From there, I might begin to revel in how this simple root provides so much nutrition and see how good soil adds both nutrition and flavor. And so I start caring about the quality of the earth that the carrot has grown in. And my gratitude for the carrot has become care for all of God’s good creation. I might also start to start to see where this little gift comes from and so grow my own carrots and become becoming even more connected to God’s mysterious provision of all that sustains us. And as I’m buying seeds for my garden, I realized that there are many different types of carrot and colors of carrots: purple and yellow and red and white along with the orange. And so I might try a few different kinds, deepening my appreciation for this strange little gift, and also doing something new that is good for the earth by promoting diversity. And I might want to share all that I have learned to love and so I invite my friends and family, those who do not have enough to my table. And I learn about love and relationship in this new way. And all of this shalom flows directly from my rightly ordered love of a carrot, a simple and miraculous gift from God. 

Hoogerwerf: 

Food is God’s love made delectable!

Stump: 

I’m hungry! Let’s go eat.

Credits

BioLogos: 

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the Fetzer Institute. Fetzer supports a movement of organizations who are applying spiritual solutions to society’s toughest problems. Get involved at fetzer.org. And by the John Templeton Foundation, which funds research and catalyzes conversations that inspire people with awe and wonder. And BioLogos is also supported by individual donors and listeners alike you contribute to BioLogos. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Our theme song is by Brakemaster Cylinder. BioLogos offices are located in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the Grand River watershed. If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode, find the link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Or visit our website biologos.org, where you’ll find articles, videos, and other resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening.


Featured guests

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Norman Wirzba

Norman Wirzba is the Gilbert T. Rowe Distinguished Professor of Theology at Duke Divinity School, and a Senior Fellow at Duke’s Kenan Institute for Ethics. He is the author of several books, including (most recently) This Sacred Life: Humanity’s Place in a Wounded World and Agrarian Spirit: Cultivating Faith, Community, and the Land.
Ellen F. Davis Headshot

Ellen F. Davis

Ellen F. Davis is the Amos Ragan Kearns Distinguished Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke Divinity School. The author of eleven books and many articles, her research interests focus on how biblical interpretation bears on the life of faith communities and their response to urgent public issues, particularly the ecological crisis and interfaith relations. Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge University Press, 2009), integrates biblical studies with a critique of industrial agriculture and food production. Biblical Prophecy: Perspectives for Christian Theology, Discipleship and Ministry (Westminster John Knox, 2014), explores the prophetic role and word across both Testaments of the Christian Bible. Her most recent books are Preaching the Luminous Word (Eerdmans, 2016), a collection of her sermons and essays, and Opening Israel’s Scriptures (Oxford University Press, 2019), a comprehensive theological reading of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. A lay Episcopalian, she has long been active as a theological consultant and teacher within the Anglican Communion, especially in East Africa. Her current work explores various arts – music, dance, poetry, visual arts, and translation –  as modes of interpreting Psalms.
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Charles Foster

Charles Foster is an author and a Fellow of Exeter College, University of Oxford. His books include the New York Times Bestseller, Being a Beast, and many others - many of which have won or been short- or long-listed for various literary prizes. He won the Ig Nobel Prize for Biology in 2016. He lives in Oxford and a remote part of the Peloponnese.
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Aminah Al-Attas Bradford

Dr. Bradford is an Arab-American theologian and research scholar at NCSU where she works in the department of Applied Ecology's Public Science Lab for Ecology, Evolution and Biodiversity of Humans and Food, blending issues of science and religion and hosting cross-disciplinary conversations. She is currently writing her book on a theology of the microbiome. Dr. Bradford has worked in higher education for eighteen years and in Chaplain’s offices for more than eleven years. She is a fellow at the Berggruen Institute where she serves as an ethics and religion consultant on projects related to the future of humanity and non-anthropocentric ways of governing. In her spare time Dr. Bradford loves to walk in the woods, work in her ceramics studio, best her husband and two daughters in Farkle Championships, and start reading books, which lately include Thích Nhất Hạnh’s How to Sit, Sandor Ellix Katz’s Fermentation as Metaphor, Halldor Laxness’ Independent People, When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams, Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer, and The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson. She will not finish any of these…but she will try.
Kendall vanderslice headshot

Kendall Vanderslice

Kendall Vanderslice is a writer and baker in Durham, North Carolina. She is the founder of the Edible Theology Project, a nonprofit connecting the Communion table to the kitchen table. She holds an MLA in Gastronomy from Boston University and a Master's of Theological Studies from Duke Divinity School. Find her writing on Christianity Today, Christian Century, Religion News Service, and Bitter Southerner.
Jen Holmes Curran headshot

Jen Holmes Curran

Rev. Jennifer Holmes Curran serves as one of the co-pastors at Sherman Street Christian Reformed Church.

Matt is a licensed therapist in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Jason Adam Miller Headshot

Jason Adam Miller

Jason Adam Miller is the founder and lead pastor of South Bend City Church, an eclectic Christian community known for its thoughtful teaching, inclusive vision, and commitment to its city context. An advocate for artists and peacemakers, his work beyond South Bend focuses on cultural headwaters and conflict zones, where he serves an international constituency of leaders. He holds a master’s degree in theology from the University of Notre Dame. His first book, When the World Breaks, explores the Beatitudes as transformative paradoxes that lead us into healing. Find him on Instagram at @jasonadammiller, or learn more at jasonadammiller.com.