Virtuous Eating, Part 2: The Two American Extremes

(This is the second in a series of three posts on the Christian’s relationship to eating. Here is the first post. The final post will examine the Eucharist and fasting.)

Better befitting the brainchild of a cruel author of dystopian fiction than the plans of a gym manager, my fitness center has a number of TVs hanging from the ceiling which perpetually show images of food. Who knew there was a show called Man vs. Food? And, why is there a one hour special on ice cream? Or pizza? Most of all, why am I exposed to these images while pursuing healthy activities? I like to think that I am too optimistic about humanity to suspect my gym manager of purposefully showing unhealthy foods in order to tempt me into unhealthy eating so I must keep returning to the gym. (This may go along with my habit of liking to think things that aren’t true.)

Upon seeing the title Man vs. Food from my perch on the elliptical, my first response was, “I’ve already read that one. It was in Genesis. We lost.” My second reaction was, “Then again, there was that rematch in the gospels. We won that.” After fasting forty days in the desert, the tempted Jesus answered with what Adam and Eve should have said: “Man does not live by bread alone.”

Christ’s interactions with food have nothing to do with calories or the appropriate balance of carbohydrates to protein. They don’t relate to body image or fitness. They aren’t vegan, and they aren’t raw. Rather than emphasizing the measurement of portions, he breaks bread with such miraculous abundance that twelve baskets are picked up after everyone is full. He fasts in the desert. He feasts with the apostles. He has a rather pronounced taste for figs. He’s thirsty on the cross, and stops drinking the vinegar after a taste. He’s ready to eat after the resurrection.

This attitude toward eating does not match one extreme of America’s philosophy of food: our “virtuous” eating. In this view, food is taken to be immensely powerful, the source of life. In one documentary on veganism, Forks over Knives, an expert even states that careful diet choices will allow us to avoid all of life’s tragedies. Though he presumably refers to heart disease and cancer, the superlative coloring of this statement is relieving. At the heart of it is a salvation narrative which sounds more like the Pharisees’ than like Christ’s. The narrative is this: if you simply follow the rules of clean eating carefully enough, you will live forever. At least the Pharisees believed this had something to do with the soul. Americans have somehow duped ourselves into believing that, if filled with all the right things, the decaying body will never die. Asked point-blank, the healthy eater would admit that her body will eventually die, regardless. But, that is an eventually the healthy eater forgets frequently. At least for myself, while making smoothies out of broccoli and kale, I know that I am lying to myself a little bit about the fact that, one day, I will grow wizened and wrinkled and I will die.

On the other side of the spectrum is the American who does not watch Man vs. Food from a treadmill after a fat-free lettuce wrap, but from a couch with a pizza box on her lap. This person understands something which the health-food nut willfully forgets whenever opening the fridge: man is mortal. By choosing tasty foods, this person at least anticipates something true about food. After all, aside from one divine exception, food is much more likely to bring us pleasure than immortality.

However, this appetitive way of life is only more pitiable. What virtue it has in understanding something true about the function of food is overshadowed by its radically false assumption about humanity. While our mortality must never be forgotten, neither should our immortality. Our divine secret is that humanity, assumed and rescued in Christ, exists as more immortal than mortal. When we live recklessly, driving our bodies into the ground through wild pursuit of immediate pleasure, we ignore the reality that man consists in spirit and body working in an eternal bond. It seems as though our ability to be pleased is quickest in the body, but deepest and more subtle in the spirit, and a satiated body tends to dull that more desirable sense of spiritual pleasure. I read once that someone who is too full of food has a hard time praying; it’s true. I find myself dozing and unfocused if I come to prayer after a second helping of ice cream.

Our culture’s philosophies of food are strangely well represented in the tension of a healthy eater sweating on a treadmill in front of television sets showing a man eating a pizza slice the length of his arm. Our culture offers two choices. On the one hand, we can be Pharisees, believing that what we don’t eat will save us. On the other, we can be gluttons, assuming that what we do eat will fulfill our needs. Neither of these two American extremes are viable to the Christian.

Christ regards food differently. One aspect of food that nutritionists in an individualistic society don’t consider, or even regard with something approaching suspicion, is social eating. Yet, food is radically social in Christ’s life and resurrection. Christ doesn’t eat alone. Instead, food serves as the background for his relationships. It is the canvas on which he displays his compassion for the hungry crowd, his fulfillment of the Passover feast, and even his third day resurrection, which is punctuated by the foods he eats to prove embodiment. It is gift and object lesson, apologetic and evidence. In the life of Christ, food is never an end in itself, but the means of love.