That Hideous Food by Nathanael Devlin


That Hideous Food

Nathanael Devlin on Preserving Physical & Spiritual Nourishment

Today there is a voice within the agricultural world whose insights about farming and food may be instructive to those who are seeking to live with integrity as the church in the world. Joel Salatin is a self-described Christian, libertarian, environmentalist, capitalist, and lunatic farmer in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. He has written numerous books, but his tenth, The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs, is, according to Salatin, his coming-out book. Here he addresses Christians, saying,

The bottom line for me, and the theme of this book, is that creation is an object lesson of spiritual truth. Just like object lessons for children point them to biblical principles, so the physical universe is supposed to point us to God. "The heavens declare the glory of God," the psalmist writes in Psalm 19 (NIV). Indeed. If that is the case, then what does a forgiving farm look like, a beautiful farm, an ordered farm, a neighbor-friendly farm? And not just a farm, but an entire foodscape?

Salatin is a complex and occasionally controversial fellow. He is one of those persons who have the ability to both encourage and offend all sides. But with respect to the church, he may be an unwitting ally whose commitment to a healthy farm can serve as a model for the church, and whose concerns about food may alert us to lurking spiritual dangers.

The War on Food

When I was growing up, our family's daily lunch regimen consisted of one of two sandwiches, the tuna-fish sandwich or the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I grew up on PB&J and have literally eaten hundreds and hundreds of those sandwiches. But today I am absolutely prohibited from sending my daughter to preschool with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The PB&J has become for many a sign of sickness, disease, or even death. Bread is increasingly inaccessible to those with wheat allergies or gluten intolerances; jelly is made with high-fructose corn syrup, an ingredient many believe is contributing to our nation's obesity crisis; and peanut butter is known to cause life-threatening anaphylactic reactions in a growing number of our children. The prohibition against PB&J is not unique to our little preschool but is an issue in many public schools as well: if the sandwich is not prohibited, its eaters are relegated to a special "peanut table," essentially quarantined from the rest of the cafeteria.

How did the beloved PB&J sandwich go from a staple in American kitchens and schools to public enemy No. 1 in just one generation? This phenomenon is not true of PB&J alone. There is a growing list of foods that are becoming inaccessible or even dangerous to the eater, requiring greater and greater regulation, legislation, and litigation. Where did this war on food come from?

Salatin points to the modern food economy, and he may be correct. All of us would do well to think critically about our food habits, where our food comes from, and how our food choices support or enervate certain farm and food production practices. But could there be more? Could the war on food be an object lesson for spiritual truth as well?

In the time leading up to and following the infamous Obergefell decision on "same-sex marriage" by the Supreme Court, many people in the church and on the conservative side of the political spectrum talked about a war on the family and a war on marriage. And indeed, there has been a war on marriage and the family, but this war long precedes developments in American politics and

After Adam and Eve fell, God spoke a word of good news to all humanity by telling the serpent, "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel" (Gen. 3:15). Since that day, the family has been targeted by the evil one. The family was under threat from the increasing wickedness on the earth, but salvation came through Noah's family on the ark. The family was under threat by the evil edict of Pharaoh in Egypt, but salvation came through a family who defied Pharaoh and placed Moses in a basket among the bulrushes. Even the Holy Family was under threat by the evil machinations of King Herod, but the Lord saved Mary and Joseph so that Jesus could be the salvation of the world. The family has been under threat since the beginning because of the close connection God made between the family and his salvation.

Food & Salvation

In a similar way, Jesus made a close connection between food and salvation. The Apostle John reminds us that Jesus said,

I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. . . .

I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my
flesh. . . .

"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. . . . This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever." (John 6:35–36; 48–51; 53–56; 58)

Jesus identifies himself and his work of salvation with food. Jesus is the bread of life. This is not only true symbolically; it is true sacramentally. On the night that Jesus was betrayed, he took the bread and said, "'Take, eat; this is my body.' And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, 'Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins'" (Matt. 26:26–28). Food is a sign that points to Jesus, a symbol that reveals Jesus and a sacrament that mediates the grace of Jesus.

It is possible that industrial agricultural practices are among the factors contributing to the growing and proliferating food disorders in our modern culture, but it is also possible that another factor is at work: a spiritual malevolence that seeks to threaten food because of its close association with Jesus and his salvation. If food is a part of creation, then, according to Salatin's logic, it is an object lesson of spiritual truth, even Christological truth. A threat to food, then, is a threat to the intelligibility of Christ to the world. If food is meaningful, life-giving, satisfying, and healing, then Christ is revealed as such, but if food is understood as diseased, pathogenic, unhealthy, or even life-threatening, then Jesus is something to avoid.

Unnecessary Food

Food can be dangerous, but what may be worse would be for food, along with eating, to be rendered unnecessary, an outmoded convention of a bygone era. C. S. Lewis imagined such a disposition in the third installment of his space trilogy, That Hideous Strength. Late in the book, the protagonist, Mark Studdock, is eating dinner with a N.I.C.E scientist, an Italian named Dr. Filostrato. The Italian is in good spirits because he has just given orders to have some beech trees cut down. Mark is puzzled by this decision and mentions that he is rather fond of the trees. Filostrato tells Mark that he much prefers artificial, aluminum trees. They are light, easy to move, and have "no leaves to fall, no twigs, no birds building nests, no muck and mess." For Filostrato, the aluminum tree is a great improvement on the old, real trees; in fact, he would be happy to see all organic life abolished.

It is here that Filostrato brings Mark into one of the secrets of the N.I.C.E. He directs Mark's attention to the moon and informs him of a superior race that lives on the lunar surface. This race has nearly abolished its material life and ascended to pure mind. These moon beings inspire Filostrato because, unlike us, they are purified. He explains to Mark that they are

[a] great race, further advanced than we. An inspiration. A pure race. They have cleaned their world, broken free (almost) from the organic. . . . They do not need to be born and breed and die; only their common people, their canaglia do that. The Masters live on. They retain their intelligence: they can keep it artificially alive after the organic body has been dispensed with—a miracle of applied biochemistry. They do not need organic food. You understand? They are almost free of Nature, attached to her only by the thinnest, finest cord.

We may not yet be at the place of material emancipation that Lewis imagined, but there is evidence from our culture's seemingly unquestioning trust in the power of science and technology to suggest that the spirit of Filostrato is alive and well. Science has taught us that food is really just nutrients; raw material made up of amino acids, proteins, and other organic atoms and molecules. It has no integrity of its own and should be manipulated according to our designs.

If this is true, then what we grow and how we grow it becomes a matter of choice. Not only can we choose what foods to grow and how, but soon we will question whether we need to eat at all. Growing and harvesting, shopping and cooking, serving and eating and then cleaning up—it all seems such an unnecessary hassle. There must be a more efficient way to deliver the essential nutrients to our bodies. It is not hard to imagine a future where the TV dinner—which subverted the home-cooked meal and was itself subverted by the meal-replacement drink and energy bar—will be replaced by a nutrient-rich capsule that you ingest once a day in the morning so that your mealtimes will be freed up for more meaningful activities. And when food becomes unnecessary in a culture, Christ will surely be deemed unnecessary as well.

Christological Implications

Joel Salatin has issued a clarion call for Christians to participate in a foodscape that is integrated with our Christian beliefs. There is a physical, moral, and confessional dimension to this call, and there is a spiritual dimension, too, because food is an object lesson of spiritual truth. We as Christians must heed this call. We should not concede this war on food, perhaps for the reasons that Salatin raises, but certainly because of the deeply Christological dimensions of food.

The Apostle Paul reminds us that Christ is

the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Col. 1:15–17)

For Christians the world is creation, ordered toward and held together in Christ, and this includes food. Even something as ordinary, everyday, and mundane as eating has profound spiritual, even Christological implications. Food has something to teach us about Christ, about our discipleship, and about our being in the world. As such, it deserves our attention. Our health and our integrity as witnesses to Christ might even depend on it.  

Nathanael Devlin is the Associate Pastor at Beverly Heights Presbyterian Church (EPC) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is a graduate of Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. He and his wife have three children and live in Mt. Lebanon.