Friday, June 29, 2012

The Cult of Food – How to Smash the Idol of Food

This is good food.

I have a friend who was not allowed to have candy as a child. He came across a huge sum of money ($10) and decided the best possible use of the money was to purchase candy. He ate the candy defiantly, overwhelmed with the forbidden pleasure. He ate and ate and ate. There came a point when he stopped enjoying the candy, but still he ate. Later, he felt sick, but he did not stop. He continued to eat. Finally he vomited.

We are so busy trying to follow our food taboos, we forget the moral world. Eating is an important human activity because it is a moral activity; animals eat by instinct, but people have spirits. We may be gluttonous and eat too much (as above); we may be vain, desiring the praise of men, and eat too little; or we may be both gluttonous and vain and drink Diet Coke. But though the dog may eat to the point of vomiting, men need not do so. Humans can practice virtue every time we sit down to eat. We can practice Temperance thrice daily, eating that which is good.

Temperance is stopping to think: what actually tastes good? How much of it is most enjoyable? Like all virtues, Temperance does not mean less pleasure, but more. Temperance is stopping eating before you vomit. Temperance is eating enough to prevent starvation. The problem of gluttony is not that we seek too much pleasure, but that we do not seek it hard enough.

John Piper wrote about how we were created for enjoyment, both ours and Gods. God gave us physical pleasure and is glorified when we take pleasure in it. He wrote “How to Drink Orange Juice to the Glory of God.” And I think this is the medicine for our disease: to enjoy eating. To consider the mystical union we have with God and His Creation, when we transform matter outside of us into the flesh and fuel of our bodies. To be mindful of the multitudinous flavor of our food [think grape], to be grateful for having any food at all, to be loving to those around the table. Monounsaturated fat is not a good thing, but gratitude is. Omega-3’s are not good, but community is. Fiber is not good, but beans are. We don’t need experts and rituals to know what is good; just ask yourself, “Did eating that make me feel good afterwards?”

We perpetually talk about ‘health.’ But the first thing to remember that such talk is not truly a sign of health; healthy people talk about the things their health allows them to do, not the thing itself. Sick people are ever concerned about health. We have replaced “Good” with “Healthy” when we really want that which is Good. We should eat because food is Good, not because it is Healthy. The word for “diet” comes from Diaita in Greek, and meant “a manner of daily living.” We have made it into a monomania for a particular food or nutrient. Rather than asking, “Is this food healthy?” ask, “Is this food Good?” Or better yet, don’t ask anything and just get on with enjoying it.  As Chesterton writes in Heretics, “A man ought to eat because he has a good appetite to satisfy, and emphatically not because he has a body to sustain. … The food will really renovate his tissues as long as he is not thinking about his tissues.”

Let us remember that food is Good, and the eating of it. Let our eating be worship, but not an orgy before Pleasure, nor a dirge to Thinness. Let us use food and its pleasure to build friendships. Let us pursue culinary arts to give great pleasure in good things to our families. Let us prevent them from robbing the mystical act like a temple, leaving it sterile and bare. Let us get such pure pleasure from our food that we can thank its Creator with a nourished body and uplifted spirit. Our answer is not to compose some happy life as a food-fearer or food-worshipper. The answer is to smash the idols. Let us reclaim food as a human possession, not a god.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Cult of Food – Anorexia and Obesity as American Idolatry

We have a food problem in America. We cannot seem to decide whether food is a thing to bow before and worship with Super-Size fries or an unclean thing, something to expel from the body like a poison. Should we celebrate it in raucous festivals in red-and-yellow temples, or should we fear it with a violent asceticism?

Like some ancient cult, we are dominated by mystic fears about food. Don’t touch this (it has sugar). Don’t eat that (it has artificial sweeteners). Our “diets” are no better than focused taboos. “Carbs are bad,” “Stay away from fats.” A hundred thousand priests with a hundred thousand rituals have arisen to meet our needs to worship Thinness, the wasting of human bodies, ever chanting that it is healthy. Doctors and nutritionists and psychologists all attempt to describe how to appease the vengeful god. Pious to a god that hates pleasure, we have drained enjoyment from eating like blood from a slaughtered animal.

The ancient and terrible god Molech demanded that his devotees make their children “pass through the fire,” throwing their infants into the welcoming arms of his red-hot idol. One million of our women have been burned by the fire of anorexia. Though we don’t use wood, we offer our young by the fires fueled by glucose, consuming their bodies no less than literal flames; though our fires are secret, they are no less lethal than our ancient forbears'. And according to the ancient tradition, Moloch hungers for the flesh of the most beautiful among us. By ferocious irony, our richest are made to literally starve themselves to death. Millions more are secret followers, mingling guilt with every meal. Women especially are burdened with a perpetual shame, reminded always by the most devoted ascetics on billboards and movies that they are not thin enough.

But our madness has two faces. In this very same society, we also cannot stop eating. One in three Americans is obese. Not just “overweight;” obese. Obesity has spread like a plague of the soul, born out of the South, leaving no corner of the country untouched. The map looks like some zombie outbreak. I wish that, like zombies, we really did hunger for brains; maybe then we’d be able to stop and think. Largely because of this plague, ours may be the first generation in the modern era that will not live longer lives than our parents; the advancement of public sanitation, vaccinations and antibiotics will be reversed by this new kind of blight.

There are two idols before whom we worship, sometimes on the same day. One demands our surrender to pleasure, the other to our body. One worshipper pays homage to food by eating the flesh of creatures raised in horror before golden arches; another worships food by violent asceticism, rejecting pleasure entirely for fear and guilt, and making a carrot stick a meal. Diet Coke has become a symbol of our duality. We lust for the short-term pleasure of sweetness, but fear the consequences of eating. So we eat that which does not satisfy and drink that which does not fill.