A Rabbi With a BLT

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A great question was raised in the previous thread which I would like to bring to the top of the discussion. There is an important aspect of all this that we can’t let slide. Andrew asks:

“I’m hoping you will respond to Matthew’s more general question, which is the same one I’ve had since you started the “Creation and Food” string: why, if aesthetics is so important in every other area of life, are you so silent on it’s application to food? If we are Biblically mandated to seek the “true, beautiful, and good” in other areas, why not in food? And if there are standards for judging the “goodness” of food, should we not actively seek to conform to those standards, and not settle for the lowest common denominator? It seems to me that cultural slide into bland architecture, slovenly dress, and bland and slovenly fast food are all part of the same cultural rebellion against standards of any kind, a trend which you are usually assailing.”

This is an important question, as I said, but I cannot answer it without descending into autobiography just a tad. I was born in 1953, and grew up, not surprisingly, eating fifties food. I was taught to say grace over all that food, and I am not about to take any of that back now. I am truly and eternally grateful for the cassaroles, for the simple fare, for the food I was provided. It was given me by parents who loved me and fed me, and it was given them by a Father who loved us all. God is great, God is good, let us thank Him for our food. We thanked Him for the food, incidentally, and not for food substitutes. Food substitutes would only have resulted in substitute feeding, and if that was what was happening, I would be dead by now.

I was also taught by my parents that we needed to grow up into Christ, and we needed look to Scripture for light and guidance in every aspect of life. We were taught that it is easy for a fish to swim downstream, even if it’s dead. Grow up. That desire to grow up into Christ, as the Scriptures invite us to do, has been a central feature of the ministry here. We can do better, without disparaging what was given us before.

But there are two kinds of doing better. One is growing up from good to better (without disparaging the former), and the other is repenting of sin and turning to righteousness (where disparagement is unavoidable). It is essential that we not confuse the two.

I love the gospel songs I grew up on, the kind that we sang at Sunday evening service in the Southern Baptist Church we attended. I find myself singing snatches of them to this day as I walk around town. I don’t want to sing them in church — we grew past that. But if I didn’t want to sing them in church because I despised them now, then in actual fact, I wouldn’t have grown past anything. Rather, that would be regression and falling from my first love. Some songs need to be repented of — for the flippancy, say. But many others need to be loved, honored, and used as a platform to reach higher.

We have very much applied this principle to our food, and to the rituals of our eating. I am not an egalitarian when it comes to food, and I believe that God invites us up into greater and deeper delights. But He doesn’t chase us up to higher levels with the whip of guilt. This is a get to, not a got to.

When I was growing up, every evening we would sit down together for the shared family meal. I can’t thank God or my parents enough for that. I wouldn’t take a hundred billion for it. While my kids were growing up, every evening we would sit down together for the shared family meal. For a number of reasons, all having to do with the grace of God, a culture of feasting has taken root in our church community here, for which we are extremely grateful. And a culture of feasting, incidentally, is not a culture of gorging. Neither is it a culture of snide remarks about people who can only afford to get their milk at WalMart.

Our family still has a sit down meal every evening, and now that we have grandkids, the whole clan sits down every Saturday night for our Sabbath dinner. On that occasion, we have a toast, we have delighted answers to the Sabbath catechism questions, and we have the best meal of the week — and the meals are great all week. So do I believe in applying aesthetic and reformational principles to our food? Heh. As the apostle Paul might say, I am out of my mind to talk this way, but I have eaten more cheese potatoes than you all. And of course, the real hero in this is Nancy, who puts on the equivalent of a weekly Thanksgiving feast for 22, and that’s without any company. And she routinely does it with cloth napkins and wine glasses, the whole shebeal.

So, to answer the question above. Yes, I believe in food reformation. Yes, I believe aesthetic principles apply. Yes, I believe we must grow to maturity in this area as in all areas. Christ is Lord. So what am I going on about in these posts? What’s my deal? It is pretty simple, really. When you have a garden, the first rule is to keep dragons out of it. And pride, snobbery, and false guilt are nothing but three little dragon eggs. That’s my deal.

First, aesthetic superiority cannot be achieved simply by laying claim to it. If it were that easy, there would be more famous painters than there are, and more world renowned chefs. In my posts thus far, I have kept out of the discussion what I believe to be better food, not because I don’t have views on the matter, but rather because that is not the central point — at least not at this place in our cultural discussions. We need to master gratitude first, lest we regress. Let us live up to what we have already attained. I would be hard pressed to come up with my favorite verse from the Bible, but one of the contenders would surely be this one:

“And in this mountain shall the LORD of hosts make unto all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined” (Is. 25:6).

I want to be a puritan, not a purist. I want to reformational, not revolutionary. I am a slow food reformer, not a fast food reformer. I am a food catholic, not a food sectarian.

And this brings me to my second point. In any area, the purists are routinely the enemies of any kind of sustained reformation. As Lewis shows in English Literature in the 16th Century, it was the high classicists who killed Latin. Sayers makes the same point elsewhere. Over-reaching kills the thing it claims to exalt, right on schedule. If you want the people to listen to (what you deem to be) quality music, 24-7, all you are going to do is create a situation where human nature revolts. You can want musical reformation, as I desperately do, but still recognize that all toney, all the time, is only going to create a backlash, and a right-minded disgust with the attempts to make the soundtrack of your lives into something supplied by National Public Radio. When housewives want to blow through cleaning the kitchen and two bathrooms, what is needed is some Dwight Yoakam, or Fleetwood Mac, or Asleep at the Wheel, turned up to eleven, and not, say, some 17th century music for five recorders, including two of the big ones. It would be terrible to be halfway through the first bathroom and have everybody show up for the wine and cheese party. Not that there is anything wrong with that, mind you. Everything in its place.

Purists who insist on their ideal being implemented across the board are their own worst enemies. Everybody needs to get out more. Lighten up. Back to the music example, one of the presents I got for Christmas was the book 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die. I started at the beginning and, thanks to www.lala.com, have been listening through the whole thing. I have found some great stuff, but there is some pretty weird music out there, let me tell you. When I am done, will I be richer or poorer? Even though one of entries in the A’s was ABBA, I will still be the richer.

In that same spirit, everybody who is into organic food really needs, at least three times a year, to go outside the city limits and have a quarter pounder. And they need to do it without looking like a rabbi who was just handed a BLT. And they can’t call it “cheating,” or compromising their principles. Their principles should include it. Budget for it. But fair’s fair, and they aren’t the only ones who need to stretch themselves. Ecumenism at the table is a healthy exercise, and so I do want to say that I know what escargot, tofu, and art salad taste like. And I didn’t used to know. God is great, God is good, let us thank Him for our food. All of it.

“My soul shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness; and my mouth shall praise thee with joyful lips” (Ps. 63:5)

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