An upcoming CBS interfaith special titled, "Food, Faith & Culture" will explore the deep connection between food and faith in world religions. When I first saw the headline I was excited to see a high-profile exploration of this topic. I just finished following the Ramadan fast as part of a larger effort to learn about Christian food practices, so I had hopes that this show might help me on the journey, but I was surprised to learn that Christians are not one of the featured world religions. CBS explains:
This program looks at the relationship between food and faith in three world religions: Judaism, Islam and Sikhism. These three traditions are rich and varied, and an interesting way to learn more about what they believe and why.
This omission may not be as glaring as it appears on the face of it. Perhaps the intent from the beginning was to use food as an access point for understanding non-majority religions in the U.S. It's likely that the recent Sikh temple shooting shaped the composition of faith communities featured in the show, but the exclusion of Christians is surprising, especially considering the producers:
This documentary is produced in cooperation with the National Council of Churches, a consortium of Roman Catholic organizations, the Islamic Society of North America, the Union of Reform Judaism and the New York Board of Rabbis.
Notwithstanding the admirable efforts at interfaith understanding, I suspect there is another reason why Christians didn't make the cut: American Christians don't have much to offer on the topic of spiritual food practices, especially in comparison to other world religions.
The Ramadan fast is one of the five pillars of Islam, kosher food is a core strand of identity for Jews, and Sikh's are famous for serving up their free twice-daily vegetarian meals. By contrast, modern American Christians are known to randomly give up chocolate for Lent and occasionally make a Friday pilgrimage to Long John Silver's. Some Christians might passionately embrace Chick-fil-A sandwiches as an act of cultural solidarity and others might work tirelessly to distribute food to the poor, but with few exceptions, when it comes to food practices as an avenue of spiritual formation, the American church cupboard is all but empty.
There have been some admirable recent efforts to recover the vital connection between Christian faith and food. One of my favorites is the book, "The Spirit of Food" by Leslie Leyland Fields. I wrote a review on it here. The book approaches the topic of food and faith through the perspectives of 34 authors who offer personal testimony about the task of integrating their food and faith lives. The chapter by Lauren Winner (an excerpt from her book Mudhouse Sabbath) helpfully illustrates the great opportunity for Christians to recover food traditions, but also the crisis of the disconnect.
Winner was raised as an Orthodox Jew but converted to the Christian faith in college. She writes with deep appreciation for the kosher food laws she grew up with:
Keeping kosher cultivates a profound attentiveness to food...Only after I stopped keeping kosher did I fully appreciate that kashrut had shaped more than my grocery lists. It also shaped my spiritual life. Keeping kosher transforms eating from a mere nutritional necessity into an act of faithfulness.
I can't help but hear a sense of loss in these words, especially in comparison to her efforts to find Christian food practices that reflect the values of her cherished kosher food experience. She mentions the writing of Robert Farrar Capon and learning to appreciate that "Food is part of God's creation." She also names Barbara Kingsolver and her advocacy for seasonal eating as someone who has an "intuitive appreciation for the logic of kashrut."
In conclusion she reflects,
For the first time since I became a Christian, I have found myself thinking about what food I put in my body...
I am struck by the reality that her conversion to Christianity did not mean a transition from one set of spiritual food practices to another, rather it was a transition into no food practices and years after her conversion she was left to negotiate food and faith connections on her own. She went from an all-encompassing menu of faithful food choices rooted in communal history to a meager line-up of eclectic ala-carte options.
I wasn't raised Jewish, but I can relate to Winner's efforts to reconnect to something that is missing in the American landscape of Christian spiritual formation. I can relate to her loss. I am heir to Reformation-era paranoia about Catholic fasting rituals and also the free-agency of pietistic individualism that makes communal practices hard to negotiate. Like Winner, for the first time since I became a Christian, I am thinking about the food I put in my body and the significance that might have for my journey with God.
After months of experimenting with various food traditions I am hopeful that American Christians can recover and embrace food practices as part of a life of spiritual formation. As I look to the end of my Ramadan fast experience this weekend I'm also aware that Christians have something to learn from other religious traditions that emphasize a strong connection between food and faith. I'll be tuning into the CBS special with that in mind.