Man vs. Fools

Internally Displaced Person

Food is for the stomach and the stomach is for food, but God will do away with both of them. I Corinthians 6

It seems that everywhere I turn, someone is talking about food. When I channel-surf, there’s a network, The Food Channel, devoted to the subject, and another, The Travel Channel, where the actual travel is, as often as not, from the site of one meal to the site of the next.

People are either testing their mettle in various food challenges, reminiscing about the best thing they ever ate, or teaching you how to make it. That is, when they aren’t browbeating us about how fat we are.

As Han Solo told Obi Wan at their first meeting, “Well, that’s the real trick, isn’t it?” I don’t spend anywhere near this much time thinking about or obsessing over food. I couldn’t imagine eating the food—not just the quantity but the quality (as in nutritional content)—that these denizens of Foodie Nation do. Yet people assume I’m the glutton.

B.R. Myers of the Atlantic kind of understands my frustration. In “The Moral Crusade Against Foodies,” he is so dismayed by the foodie tomes he’s reviewing that he compares putting them down to “stepping from a crowded, fetid restaurant into silence and fresh air.”

Myers’ principal objection to “foodie-ism” is its cruelty, or at least its insensitivity to the suffering of the animals being served. He dismisses the whole pre-occupation with “free-range meats from small local farms” as moral window-dressing. According to Myers, while the foodie “claims to believe that well-treated animals taste better . . . his heart isn’t really in it.”

I don’t presume to know where people’s hearts may or may not be, but when I read about a foodie “watching four people hold down a struggling, groaning pig for a full 20 minutes as it bled to death for his dinner” and then calling the pig “a filthy beast deserving its fate,” it’s clear where that person’s heart was located.

In any case, that’s not the source of my frustration—although I confess to unresolved ambivalence on this issue. The real problem lies in another characteristic Myers has identified: “these people really do live to eat.”

One restaurant critic writes about “[spending] the afternoon—or a week of afternoons—planning the perfect dinner of barbecued ribs or braised foie gras.” Another one, whose best-known work is holy writ for foodies, has written about “36-hour dinner parties.” As Bill "the Butcher" Cutter said in Gangs of New York, “What $%*#@ are you talking about?” Who has a 36-hour dinner?

Then there’s what Myers rightly calls the “pomposity and sermonizing.” He dispatches the moral pretense with a lot more elegance than the four people displayed in dispatching the aforementioned “filthy beast.”

[The] refined palate rejects the taste of factory-farmed meat, of the corn-syrupy junk food that sickens the poor, of frozen fruits and vegetables transported wastefully across oceans—from which it follows that to serve one’s palate is to do right by small farmers, factory-abused cows, Earth itself. This affectation of piety does not keep foodies from vaunting their penchant for obscenely priced meals, for gorging themselves, even for dining on endangered animals—but only rarely is public attention drawn to the contradiction.

Consider your attention drawn. The word for all of this is gluttony. Of course, foodies reject that label: A food writer assigned to write a book on the subject as a part of series on the Seven Deadly Sins essentially defined gluttony as overeating “whose effects are visible, written on the body.”

You don’t have to a foodie to be this wrong about gluttony. Ask a random sample of people whom is more likely to be guilty of gluttony, a thin guy who obsesses over food and someone who looks like me, and the vast majority, without hesitation, will choose the latter.

Even well-intentioned Christians—not to mention moralizing scolds—think this way. They tell you things like “you’re overweight because of a sin,” seemingly oblivious to the fact that, one, many gluttonous people are not overweight and, two, we don’t really know why two people who have almost identical nutritional habits and whom are equally active can have very different bodies.*

Genetics is a prime suspect in these mysteries. Age is another.** Not taking this into account or, even worse, not realizing that it needs to be taken into account, makes the whole “because of a sin” counsel pernicious and unintentionally cruel.

Even worse than the scientific ignorance/obliviousness is the theological kind. Gluttony is not being overweight or even obese—it’s, as St. Thomas Aquinas taught us, an “inordinate desire” for food and drink.

What makes desires “inordinate” is the way we fallen humans seek to gratify our senses in lieu of seeking our fulfillment and happiness in God. This appetitive quest for sensual gratification, which—I beg the forgiveness of all my theology professors for this mangling—Aquinas and Augustine called “concupiscence,” is what St. Paul was referring to in Philippians 3: “whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things . . .”

Aquinas and Gregory the Great before him listed some examples of gluttony in action, only one of which had anything to do with quantity. These included eating food that is expensive, food that is “daintily cooked,” fussing over seasonings and sauces, and eating at wrong time.

Sound familiar?

All of these not only put our souls at risk but may predispose us to other ills such as “unseemly joy, scurrility, uncleanness, loquaciousness, and dullness of mind as regards the understanding.”

I don’t think that Aquinas and Gregory are saying that we shouldn’t enjoy our food or take pleasure from its preparation. At least I hope not. I am certain that, in the Christian tradition, gluttony is not a matter of Body Mass Index.

This matters not only because of my own story but because, at this point, I’ve had it up to here with people making a hash out of the Christian tradition. Whether it’s war and peace, money, sex or the food we eat, I want to tell these clowns “put the tradition down, back away from the table, and keep your hands where I can see them. You have no idea what you’re talking about, so just shut up!”

Of course they don’t shut up. They never do. Even worse, their ignorance is often matched by an inordinate ability to draw attention to themselves. Pardon me while I step out for some fresh air.

* Good sources for understanding how little we understand about this subject include Rethinking Thin by Gina Kolata, The Obesity Myth by Paul Campos, and the “comedy-documentary” Fathead.

** Lots of people, including me, lose a lot of weight in their twenties—I even ran a marathon.

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I'm reminded of the powerful passage about gluttony in "The Screwtape Letters," where Screwtape's example is the elderly lady who eats like a bird but has to have everything "just so."
In an advanced society, wasting food is the most common type of gluttony.
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