On Taunting the Cows

The task this morning is to follow up on some reasonable questions raised in the comments of the previous post, God’s Bistro. The basic outline of my response will be to grant a point at the center, but to differ as to what the appropriate responses and applications ought to be.

The questions I want to address concern the pervasive force and influence of advertising, questions about justice in the production of food (e.g. fair trade), and the matter of basic health issues and diet.

I quite agree that advertisers and mass marketers have figured out that there are a lot of people out there who are like sheep without a shepherd. They want to prod and steer everybody into various purchases and brand loyalties, and they industriously work at it. This is something we should respond to, but my suggested response would not be to say that people have to choose between Ads and Adbusters, between corporate and fake alternative corporate.

Protesting the new global economy and actually escaping it are two different things.

Fawkes Factory

My response has been to encourage the establishment of Christian schools that teach kids how to think like Christians, how to identify fallacies, how to stand up to group-think, and so on. Nothing is more truly counter-cultural than holiness. There is nothing new about any of this — the choice is the same in every generation, and that choice holiness or the world. There is nothing new under the sun, including the lie that there actually is something new.

So we must not trust in worldly alternatives to the world. That just gets us opting into secular right/left divisions, or becoming a Laurelist instead of a Hardyist. And we can’t fix things by opting for a thin Christian veneer of these right/left distinctions — Sean Hannity or N.T. Wright.

God’s Bistro

What is the balance to be kept when it comes to saying that God “doesn’t care what you eat,” which He doesn’t, and saying that we are to exercise dominion in all that we do? If there is no neutrality anywhere, and there isn’t, then how does this fit with statements like “God doesn’t care”?

The answer is that God cares about everything, but He doesn’t care about things the same way we do. Our job is to learn how to care the way He does, instead of invoking His name to make it seem like He cares the same way we do. There is a way that seems right to a man, but the dead end of that cul de sac is death (Prov. 14:12). Men have a way of esteeming things that God considers below dumpster scrapings. “And he said unto them, Ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15).

So there no neutrality anywhere, but this is not the same thing as saying that everything matters in the way we want it to. For example, say that somebody started saying that a particular brand of white tee-shirt was guaranteed to make you holier, wiser, and healthier than you are now. I would be willing to say that God doesn’t care about whether you wear that tee-shirt or not because His Word leaves that kind of decision up to us and our preferences. But this doesn’t make us “tee-shirt neutral.” God cares if those who made it were doing the best job they could given their resources, He cares if we cheat people or not when we sell it, He cares if it was shoplifted, He cares whether it is folded in a drawer or dumped on the bed all the time, and He cares if we make spurious claims about how holy, wise, and healthy it might make us. If someone claims that this tee-shirt he is selling can cure my cancer, and I dispute it, it is not an adequate comeback for him to say, “I thought you believed there is no neutrality!” There is no neutrality, but “no neutrality” doesn’t mean any thing can do everything.

Fear, Shame, and Guilt at Lunch

My friend Toby Sumpter has written a series of posts on food here (starting with his Free Range post), and this has generated some back and forth in various places, both online and off, and I thought I should join the discussion. But first some exegetical background.

In John 6, the Lord fed the five thousand, and when they thought this was a good reason for making Him king, He got away from them across the water. However, some who found His message for the belly particularly compelling tracked Him down. Jesus told them that they were following Him because of the physical loaves, which was the wrong reason. He told them to work for the food that endures “to everlasting life” (John 6:27). Do not work, He said, for food that perishes. And if we should not work for food that perishes, we shouldn’t get worked up over food that perishes.

They asked what they needed to do in order to work the works of God. Jesus told them that the work of God is believing in Jesus. In other words, when people believe in Jesus, God is at work. This is not the work we do for God, it is rather the work that God does in us.

They asked for a sign, and since it was getting close to lunchtime, the sign they suggested was manna from Heaven (v. 31). That would be a good one, one calculated to keep them interested in theology.

The Gravy of Grace and Gratitude

If you like to eat what you like to eat, this means that you are a human being. If you are morally indignant about the food choices of others, this means you are well on the way to becoming a food leftist.

Leftism is that impulse that wants to establish coercion and call it community. Apply the coercive impulse to food and farming choices, and you have the food leftist.

And it begins with the indignation. Once the indignation is established, it becomes possible to draw on a hidden premise that too many Americans share — that sins should be crimes — and move from that position to the idea that made up sins should be made into real crimes.

Food Libertarian

From time to time the authorities haul in some renegade cheese maker, and those who love bureaucratized food safety all breath a sigh of relief. This kind of tyranny is heavy-handed enough to get noticed by those who yearn for food freedom — as I do — but not so noticed generally that we can get the food fascists to stop it. Yet.

There are two basic points that need to be made about this. The first is that the government does have a role in food safety — but it is not the role of preventative regulation. Rather, in a realm of food libertarianism, the government would set the definitions and standards. This is what a fluid ounce is, and that is what counts as cleaning a chicken.

These standards would not be enforced by food inspectors before the fact, but would rather be used whenever an action had been brought by a dissatisfied or food-poisoned customer. The civil magistrate would publish, before the fact, what weights and measures they are going to use to adjudicate legal actions and disputes. An action could be brought either against Tyson or Ma Beedle’s Chicken Ranch.

Hen-pecked . . . But Still Free Range

One of the ways to tell if an issue has become politicized is by seeing if qualifications, when appropriately made, are actually heard. For example, if a member of faction y says that from time to time members of faction x have been convicted of corruption, the politicized two-step works like this. First, the intentions of the person making that statement are discerned by telepathy, along with the trajectory of future hypothetical statements. He only said that some members of our party are corrupt because it is the desire of his heart to maintain, sometime in the future, that all of us are. Therefore, I will respond in the present as though he has already said that.

Now sometimes this guesswork about the future happens to be right, but many other times it is wildly wrong. Sometimes the qualifications are made in the interests of speaking the truth.

I say this because the subject I am about to broach — food — is a place where I see this happening all the time. Ironically, when this kind of circling the wagons happens, it contributes to the very polarization it claims to be resisting. So let me say at the outset that the phenomenon I am describing is not a universal one. I am making no across-the-board-claims whatever. What I am saying is that this sometimes does happen, and that the “hooray for our side” approach to many of these discussions enables this problem to continue to happen more than it ought to. It means that someone who is guilty of this can count on the factional support of someone who isn’t guilty of it, but who is flying the same partisan flag. This is how these things go.

“For I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish—that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder” (2 Cor. 12:20).

I hope that is qualification enough. If not, I will be happy to qualify some more. That said, I believe that some wives, in the way they pursue “healthy” menu choices for their home, are inadvertently trying to teach their husbands and children how to cheat. In saying this, I do not wish to justify the sin of husbands who fail to stand up to their wives, or to justify a pattern of deception to work around the consequences of not standing up to them. I am saying that sin breeds more sin, and that each of us should repent of our own.

A school district in New York just recently dropped the First Lady’s school lunch program because the kids were hungry all the time. What happens in a family where the first lady there has implemented a similar regime and does not have buy-in from her husband and kids? One of the obvious things is that the husband often has the resources to fix things at lunch with a greasy burger, after obtaining a vow from his co-workers to “not tell a soul.”

A husband should not be given any encouragement (or apparent excuses) for living any kind of a double life. If that encouragement is foolishly given, he is still responsible for what he is saying and doing, but one of the purposes of marriage is to help us resist sin together — but too many husbands and wives live as stumbling blocks for one another. And a man should not work to put food on the table, his own table, and then come away from that table hungry.

One of the best scenes in the marvelous film Sweet Land is when Inge feeds Olaf a dinner with “just food.” The sexual overtones are obvious, but are as wonderful as the dinner clearly was. And in both areas, it is crucial that the home not become a place of tight-fisted denial, where wives become the governess of no, instead of the mistress of yes. When that no happens, as a result the world outside is positioned to take up the role of promising satisfaction to cheaters. That is an invitation that many husbands need like a hole in the head.

Eating the Bag Itself

This morning I sent out a link to what I called an edifying food rant, which you can read here. Having done so, I thought it might be good for me to summarize a few basic observations about food and the modern Christian. This is by no means exhaustive, but it should give the lay of the land. This is why this subject is of such major concern to me.

The basic food law for Christians is love. The basic food law for Christians is that of reducing friction to table fellowship. Adding diet barriers increases potential points of friction. Whenever diet barriers are necessary for medical reasons (as they often are), we should work with them, of course. But we should all recognize what our shared goal should be — free table fellowship, for all Christians, in every direction. Two Christians, with completely different brown bag lunches, should be able to laugh and talk together over those lunches, even though one bag is filled with food that is full of pure thoughts and the healthiest thing to do with the other lunch would be to eat the bag itself.

Whenever I write about food, which I am constrained pastorally to do, one of the standard dismissive responses that I see in comments and web chatter is that I am not educated on the subject, that I have not read the right studies, etc. But I am not making these observations as a food expert (though I am reasonably well-read on the subject). I am making these observations as someone who has been studying people in depth for four decades or so. I couldn’t recognize gluten under a microscope to save my soul, but I can recognize monkey-see-monkey-do when I see it. I do know how to identify a young woman with daddy issues that are all heaped up on her nearly empty plate. I know what food wowserism looks like. I can recognize a green produce pecksniffian. I know what a moralistic crusade looks like.

For those whose food choices are different from mine, and who are not doing these weird people things, then I am quite prepared to bless God for every one of their menu choices. Honestly. But to appeal to that great Seinfeld line — “People! They’re the worst!”

So the issue is the people, never the food. Jesus declared all food, as such, clean. He didn’t just declare what I like clean. He declared the following clean — sun-dried raisins, bacon, clam chowder, tofu, GMOs, Wonder bread, Grape-Nuts, and the yogurt, strawberries and granola I just had for breakfast. When the food is just food, and God is thanked for it, and there are no hidden ideological agendas, I couldn’t care less what my brother eats. I wouldn’t dream of taking him to a restaurant and ordering for him. And when he orders, I wouldn’t dream of turning up my nose at his choice, saying, “You know, studies have shown . . .” Okay, I might say something if he ordered grits with shrimp, but only in a jolly, comradery way.

As one sage has said, knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in the fruit salad. This principle of knowledge and wisdom applies to more than just tomatoes.

Sixteen Sausages in a Row

A few days ago, I republished a post from a few years back on food allergies. This was mostly because I am still sorting things out in my new WordPress surroundings, and wanted to see how to repost something. Tinker with this, click on that, you know. A new commenter had just referenced that old post, so I just reloaded that one, just for grins. But it has generated some fresh discussion, as these things always do, some in the comments, and others with me in real time.

I know that when I write on things like this, I routinely try to qualify what I am saying, so that nobody can say I am mocking the sick and the infirm, or being hard-hearted toward those who are truly hurting. But those qualifications can be taken (as some have taken them) as simply a pro forma sort of thing, giving myself plausible deniability, in case someone’s feelings get hurt and I wanted to have something to point to while maintaining that I didn’t say that. But no, I really believe my qualifications. So in this instance, let me frontload them, and then after that move on to the basic points I am seeking to make in these posts.

So here is a full paragraph of qualifications, and a longish paragraph it is too. First, I understand that these things operate on a sliding scale — it is not the case that you either go to the hospital all swoll up with your life on the line, or your problem is entirely imaginary. Some allergies are very serious immediately, while others should be filed under certain foods “not agreeing with” your constitution. There are food allergies, with varying degrees of seriousness, and there are food intolerances, with varying degrees of seriousness. The law of love should govern in all instances. Hosts should be thoughtful hosts, and guests should be thoughtful guests. Also, when it comes to particular cases and instances, with people I deal with directly, I am not trigger-happy in offering the suggestion that the problem might not be “real.” Actually, the problem is always real in some way, but it is sometimes not real in the way that everybody first thought. But if I am counseling someone, for example, and begin to suspect that some kind of self-delusion is going on, it will usually take me months to get to the point where I would suggest that directly. There would be a lot of other ground to cover first. And what this means is that I am not making snap-diagnoses at a distance of particular individuals in any of my posting on this subject.

I have been dealing with people in pastoral ministry for decades, and have pretty much seen it all. I have seen enough to know that there is a true category out there of hypochondria, and there is another category of people who are genuinely sick — and some of them with illnesses that are quite mysterious, and hard to pin down. Now the fact that I believe there is such a thing as the former category does not mean that I deny the existence of the second, or the seriousness of what people in the second category face, or the difficulties they confront when they are afflicted with something that might look to outsiders like they are making it all up. To all such — my heart goes out to them, and they don’t have worry about any snide comments from me. I have never been talking about them.

This being the case, why do I run the risk of being misunderstood by some with a genuine ailment? When I am attacking abuse in this area (as I frequently do), it is because I have seen the real damage, in real time, that play-acting can do to marriages, families, and friendships. I have also seen a situation where someone in genuine pain just soldiers on through because she will not be lumped in with those who have their boutique allergies. This is a situation created by the fakery, and not by recognition that there is such a thing as fakery and/or self-deception.

Here are the principles I am most concerned about:

1. The first point is that table fellowship is one of the most important ecclesiastical issues found in the New Testament. We need to remember that, and act accordingly. Some of the fiascoes I have seen were the result of ignoring that truth. We have gotten to the point where there is widespread disruption of such table fellowship, and I simply think that more of us should act like it is a big deal. Just to be clear on the point, genuine food allergies, etc. do not disrupt table fellowship because they provide an occasion for love. The disruption is caused by manipulation and selfishness, which is the opposite of koinonia fellowship.

2. The second issue concerns the nature of knowledge. I could care less what other people eat — provided they are having a good time with it. But I care very much about truth and verification. I care very much about irrationality being given a free pass simply because it is what Smith or Murphy “are into.” Once the principles of unreason are well-established in our midst, we will find that we cannot turn them off with a switch, simply because we are now dealing with something more serious. We are to love the Lord our God with all our minds, and I have to say that I have seen some striking instances of that not happening. The post hoc fallacy is not the queen of the sciences.

3. The third point concerns frequent abdication on the part of fathers and husbands. Many times, emotional and spiritual issues show up in the lives of women as food issues, and the men involved are often too weak, or cowardly, or defensive about their own causal role, to address it in the way they ought to. Women are prone to be deceived (1 Tim. 2:14), and men are prone to let them be deceived. This is an area where I have seen radical unsubmissiveness on the part of some wives, and radical cowardice on the part of some husbands, conspiring together to destroy families. The food is just a symptom; the real problem is located somewhere else entirely. And wives, don’t read this and go off to demand that your husband tell you if this is true. It might not be, but if it is, you are unlikely to get a straight answer from him. Get on your knees and ask the Spirit if it is true. He’s not afraid of you.

4. And last, if any reacted to my earlier use of the phrase boutique allergies, and assume that anyone who uses phrases like that must be attacking you individually, then this illustrates the heart of the problem with “qualifications.” There is no good reason I can think of for someone with a real broken leg being defensive on behalf of someone who is faking a broken leg. To make the point bluntly, referring back to my second concern, if I write that Smith is faking his broken leg, it is not germane to the discussion to post a picture of your son, who is not a Smith at all, with the bone sticking out. My belief that there is such a thing as a boutique allergy industry does not mean that I believe that you are a customer. I mean, I don’t even know your name. But those shops are out there, and they do have customers.

But let me return to my earlier qualification. I really believe that there are many genuine food allergies and intolerances. I myself react quite poorly to sixteen sausages in a row. Um . . . joke . . . didn’t mean to make light of . . . no, no, not really . . . sorry.