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February 01, 2007

Eat, drink, and be wary

I'm an unabashed foodie. While other people remember influential teachers, I remember fabulous cooks. So two articles caught my eye this week, both dealing with the subject of food.

Occasionally, we get questions about how a particular topic relates to Christian worldview, and you may be wondering now what food has to do with worldview. The thinking seems to be that a subject has to be devotional or esoteric to be spiritual. But worldview implies limitlessness, as in, one's view of everything in the world.

So it was with delight, and a worldview mind, that I read a review in The New Yorker of a new book chronicling vegetarianism. Steven Shapin, the reviewer, asserts that three arguments have historically dominated the debate over eating meat.

There was the religious question, concerning the implications of Scripture for human alimentation; there were medical questions about the effects of eating meat on human health and character; and there was a philosophical debate about the proper relationship between man and other animals. There was no distinct category you could call moral, because all of them were, as they remain, intensely moral.

Shapin, presumably echoing the book he is reviewing, goes on to talk about the Biblical injunctions for and against meat eating, the Pythagorean heresy that prohibited meat on the basis of reincarnation, and a debate over whether the curse that fell on Adam and Eve when they sinned and were banned from the garden doomed them to eat herbs or flesh.

While vegetarianism, according to the review, has often been viewed as a more spiritual path, Christians run up against the problem that much modern vegetarianism has been popularized by Eastern religions; and we can all discard the notion that vegetarianism is a sign of holiness with the knowledge that Nazis promoted it, apparently due to certain digestive issues Hitler had. Still, modern Christians jump on the farm wagon, notably, as the reviewer points out, in recent bestsellers like What Would Jesus Eat? and The Maker's Diet.

So what should one eat? In "Unhappy Meals" in the New York Times, journalist Michael Pollan argues for eating food.

Pretty obvious, right? Except, he asserts (and, reading the article, you'll be hard-pressed to disagree), we eat a lot of things that aren't really food. At least not foods that would have been recognized or even available a hundred years ago.

While this article is long and technical and promotes a fairly obvious agenda, I found it interesting because of what it says about science. So often, we hear the word "science" and think "fact." The trouble is, science is, well, an imperfect science. It's a moving target. We learn more and change our minds about the truth, as revealed by science; but how can we be sure that the scientific "truth" we now "know" won't be considered ridiculous, or at least hopelessly incomplete, in another century? Pollan demonstrates this by describing the history of food science. Take this, for example:

When William Prout isolated the big three macronutrients [in the 19th century], scientists figured they now understood food and what the body needs from it; when the vitamins were isolated a few decades later, scientists thought, O.K., now we really understand food and what the body needs to be healthy; today it's the polyphenols and carotenoids that seem all-important. But who knows what...else is going on deep in the soul of a carrot?

Pollan also exposes how we (speaking very broadly) betray our disbelief of Darwinism by not letting the fittest survive and the weak do what they're supposed to do, unclutter the gene pool.

It might be argued that, at this point in history, we should simply accept that fast food is our food culture. Over time, people will get used to eating this way and our health will improve. But for natural selection to help populations adapt to the Western diet, we'd have to be prepared to let those whom it sickens die. That's not what we're doing. Rather, we're turning to the health-care industry to help us "adapt." ...[Medicine has] gotten good at extending the lives of people with heart disease, and now it's working on obesity and diabetes.

Debates about what to put into one's body have been going on for centuries. And, of course, Jesus taught us that what comes out of our mouths (our words) is more revealing of our spirituality than what goes into our mouths. Still, if our worldview really encompasses how we see our whole world, won't it also cover the world of food? It's food for thought.

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One would think that Genesis 9, and Peter's vision would have settled the matter, but as people reject the authority of God via the Bible, vegetarianism shows up again and again.

Katharine Eastvold

I think Kristine's point was that Peter's vision and Jesus' and Paul's statements on the matter give us liberty to eat all kinds of meat, but that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with being a vegetarian. There are many reasons a Christian might choose vegetarianism: among them health, personal taste, and concerns about the treatment of animals raised for their meat (which is a separate moral question than whether animals ought to be killed and eaten at all.) What the Bible says to vegetarians, I think, is that they shouldn't insist that their position is THE Christian position and shame others into adopting it. In Paul's terminology (although I don't think he meant "weak" in a pejorative sense), vegetarians would be the "weak," and those who eat all kinds of food would be the "strong." But just as the weak shouldn't act in a judgmental fashion toward the strong, the strong shouldn't cause the weak to stumble either.

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