Saturday Afternoon Book Review: Norman Wirza

Norman Wirza, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011). $24.99; £16.99. ISBN-10: 521146240; ISBN-13: 978-0521146241.

Reviewed by Wesley Vander Lugt

If how we live inevitably demonstrates what we believe, then eating may be one of the greatest indicators of our theology. Every time we eat, we are forming and performing our beliefs about God, his world, and our role within it. For many of us, this does not bode well. If our eating habits are self-centered, consumeristic, environmentally inattentive, and relationally shallow, what does this say about our theology? By contrast, Norman Wirzba, Research Professor of Theology, Ecology, and Rural Life at Duke Divinity School, offers a vision for eating that corresponds with a God-centered, others-oriented, environmentally attentive, and relationally robust theology.

The vision begins with God himself, who created the world and humans out of sheer pleasure to reflect the communion of his trinitarian life. It also begins in a garden: a place of perfect peace and embodied relationships. God is the great Gardener, which both literally describes God’s creative activity and metaphorically expresses all God’s works and ways of cultivating beauty. As his creatures, we have the responsibility to receive and participate in “God’s gardening ways.”

While this calling applies to every aspect of life, Wirzba notes how the actual practice of gardening is a school for learning the habits of attentiveness and responsibility to God and the rest of creation. Instead of navigating life on our own terms, blind to local conditions, gardening forces us to slow down and serve the soil in order to produce something beautiful. In short, godly gardening is self-giving instead of self-glorifying. “When we garden well, creatures are nurtured and fed, the world is received as a blessing, and God is glorified” (70).

Ever since Adam and Eve’s original exile from the Garden of Eden, however, human gardening and eating have exhibited patterns of exile. As a result of human sin, creation is in ecological exile, evident in destruction and contamination of the atmosphere, forests, soil, water, and genetic diversity. We also experience economic exile, where practices that could sustain places and communities are replaced by practices that obscure these concerns in order to procure maximum profit. We experience this exile in our bodies as they bloat and break down, because when profit is paramount, health takes second place.

Amidst these exilic conditions, however, there is hope of return. There is a different way of eating and existing in relationship with creation: the way of sacrifice. Wirzba works his way through the biblical drama, demonstrating how sacrifice is not a violent act in an exilic world, but a fitting way to receive life from death. Not only did the sacrificial system give God’s people a visible representation of life received through a substitute death, it was also “the practical context in which people were taught to care for the gifts of animals and vegetable food” (135). When Jesus sacrificed himself as the ultimate substitute, sacrifices for sin may have ceased, but sacrifice continues in the form of a self-sacrificial life, giving ourselves as God gave himself for us. Food is still at the center of our sacrificial service, since the Eucharistic meal is the most salient reminder of and participation in Jesus’ sacrifice, as well as a foretaste of the heavenly wedding banquet to come. Furthermore, both fasting and feasting are forms of eating that enable us to maintain and enact this “sacrificial sensibility,” receiving and giving food as “the precious gift of a self-giving God” (142). Sharing our food with others, and not just our friends, is another aspect of sacrificial living. Just as the early church needed to learn new habits of hospitality, breaking down division between Jews and Gentiles, we too need to be reminded again and again that meals are places and times to enact reconciliation, not just to satisfy our appetites and keep us alive.

This reconciliation begins with Jesus’ sacrifice reconciling us to God and extends to our sacrifices to each other and the rest of the world. As such, we need to recognize that reconciliation includes “animal husbandry, patient gardening, advocacy for farm workers, and sharing food at table” (178). In other words, we either participate in or resist God’s reconciling ways every time we eat. According to Wirzba, “saying grace” is an appropriate way to appreciate food’s place in the drama of redemption and to receive food as God’s gift with thanks and responsive attention. Attentiveness is a central theme in the book as a whole, because Wirzba maintains that attentiveness enables us to recognize our embeddedness in particular places, receive food as a gift, realize the needs of others, and respond to these needs with sacrificial service. In short, attentiveness “manifests a willingness to love the world” (55). Inattention is the predominant characteristic of a consumer mindset; attention is a primary virtue of a Christ-like servant. Do we really notice the food we eat? Are we paying sufficient attention to the whole process by which food is cultivated and distributed? Or are we through inattention participating in violent economies and greedy practices, each driven by self-centered desires? If these questions make you uncomfortable, you may be like Stanley Hauerwas, who confessed in the Foreword that paying attention to these issues is painful, because we see our “unrelenting desire to degrade God’s good creation” (ix). It may be more comfortable to remain inattentive, but God is calling us to pay attention.

While Food and Faith unfurls a stunning vision for paying attention to God and the world around us, resulting in more godly habits of relating to food, there are several issues that Wirzba skims over rather than explores in depth. For example, he mentions that “a refusal to eat meat may reflect a refusal to come to terms with the life and death that characterize creation” (133), and even though I appreciate the humility in the “may” here, some readers will long for a more direct discussion of why Stephen Webb might be wrong that vegetarianism is “good eating.” And although Wirzba encourages participation in local food economies, promotion of sustainable agriculture, and appreciation of Slow Food values, there is little practical engagement with these movements to help us see what these commitments might look like on a daily basis. I respect that Wirzba intentionally stepped back from these issues to provide a broader vision, allowing us to come to our own conclusions on particular matters and promoting diverse practices. But without specific examples of what this theology of eating means for hunters, farmers’ market aficionados, fastidious label readers, Walmart shoppers, or grape-juice-and-tasteless-wafer Communion people, the robust theology may not sink in.

As a result, perhaps the best way to read this book is with a group of friends, discussing and digesting each chapter while enjoying and digesting home-cooked meals. That way, we will be practicing what Wirzba encourages: attentiveness to and enjoyment of food, one another, and God the Gardener and Giver of all good things. If we take this book seriously, we will be people “who not only ingest and digest their food but relish it as the medium of life and love.” When we do, we are participating, “however imperfectly, in the paradise of God” (180). I think it is appropriate to end with a toast Wirzba quotes from Robert Farrar Capon in The Supper of the Lamb:

“To a radically, perpetually unnecessary world; to the restoration of astonishment to the heart and mystery to the mind; to wine, because it is a gift we never expected; to mushroom and artichoke, for they are incredible legacies; to improbable acids and high alcohols, since we would hardly have thought of them ourselves; and to all being, because it is superfluous…. We are free: nothing is needful, everything is for joy. Let the bookkeepers struggle with their balance sheets; it is the tippler who sees the untipped Hand. God is eccentric; He has loves, not reasons. Salute!

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • There is something inherently wrong with the state of Christianity when our theologians are now writing books entitled, “A Theology of Eating”. Too much time on our hands perhaps and not enough doing? Too much thinking and not enough serving? Is this just another example of too much excess in Western society? Would Eastern Christians living in Third World countries write or read such things?

    I don’t know. Thinking out loud. Please forgive my candor. Just seems very unnecessary.

  • tim e

    i think you are missing the point five dills. whenever God did something big in history, there was always food involved. His covenant with Abraham, the passover meal b4 the exodus, the sharing of the lord’s supper and the future wedding feast of the lamb. Food is so important to God that Jesus even included petitioning for our daily bread in scripture’s most important prayer!

  • Georges Bpujakly

    I echo time e.
    With obesity rates in the USA, at all ages, our relationship to food must be scrutinized. Our stewardship of our bodies is a serious enough matter that it should occupy some of our attention. Who better to help us with these matters than a Theologian of repute?

    Also, we spend more time and energy shopping, gathering, buying, storing, and preparing food than many other activities including religious ones that it seemed appropriate to me to consider our relationship to the food we consume from the Bible and theology’s POV.

  • Joe Canner

    If Prof. Wirzba is encouraging environmentally-sensitive eating habits but has theological concerns about vegetarians, then me must be missing out on a lot of recent research on the environmental impact of eating meat. It takes an average of about 10 pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef. See for the environmental impact of various meats and vegetables.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    Regarding Mr. Canner’s concern regarding vegetarianism and eating meat, Barbara Kingsolver includes a relevant, even if not explicitly Christian discussion of this in her Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a discussion of her family’s move to farming and simple food.

    Personally, I have been blessed to be able to treat gardening, eating, sharing and hospitality as spiritual disciplines with neighbors and loved ones. I really do believe that gardening is a discipline in that it forces us to slow down and to rely on God and his provision. It also opens up opportunities for the rest of what Mr. Wirzba addresses in his book.

    Randy G.