What do food and following Jesus have to do with each other? An interview with Rachel Marie Stone

Today we have a real treat (a witty pun–give it a minute): an interview with Rachel Marie Stone, author of Eat with Joy: Redeeming God’s Gift of Food. This isn’t a “guide to healthy eating” but a book that redeems food–it shows how food and shared meals are means of relating to God and each other. In other words, this is a theology book of the most practical sort, and her words of wisdom ring deeply true.

Rachel is a regular writer for Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics blog. She has also written for numerous publications, including Christianity Today, Books and Culture, and Relevant. Her next book is God’s Upside-Down Kingdom, the third volume of the children’s Bible curriculum Telling God’s Story. Rachel lives in Malawi and blogs at rachelmariestone.com. You can find her full bio here

 

Food and religion. There are thousands of books on these topics, and more and more, we’re seeing them combined. How is yours different from the others?

I think what makes it most different is that it’s an Ecclesiastes kind of book.

A lot of these books argue for a particular plan that’s very specific, or a particular idea of “what it means to eat” and a plan you must follow. They set you up for massive changes that many people find difficult, or impossible, to make; changes that make it difficult—or impossible—to eat with other people.

I think we’ve all gone through periods in which we thought that what we needed was a better plan, updated “rules,” more motivation to “improve.” My book is upfront about the fact that none of us is doing it right, and by “it,” I mean everything.

But by thinking through things a little differently when it comes to food, I think we might be able to put grace back on the menu, and maybe even find a little bit of joy.

 

When I first picked up your book I worried that it would make me feel guilty about eating Oreos. But you said, “It’s not that kind of book.” Why not?

Do we really need another person to tell us that Oreos are “bad” for us, bad for the environment, bad, bad, bad?

Look, I’m not going to say, “let’s eat Oreos three times a day WITH JOY and we’re good.” I might ask questions about the ethics of advertising Oreos to kids (there are even Oreo-sponsored math books where kids ‘learn’ by counting the Oreos) and about how the recipe is tweaked for “hyperpalatability”—meaning they are actually engineered to be as addictive as possible.

But when it comes down to it, if Oreos are your favorite treat, and you like sharing them with your wife and kids on a Saturday afternoon, I’m not going to say, “don’t have them.” We’re too quick to make huge and unrealistic changes, like “I’m never eating sugar again,” when maybe what we should do is stop eating ice-cream every day and save it for weekends and holidays.

Food restrictions have become an identity-marker for people, but I think it’s healthier and saner to follow that very old festal-ferial pattern. Not every day is a feast. Not every day is a fast.

 

OK, good, good. Nearly there. Walk with me one more step: how about eating Oreos for meals? 

No, that’s just dumb, Pete, and you don’t need me or the Bible to tell you that.

 

Gotcha. OK, so is this book a sort of theology for obsessive ‘foodies’?

Look, I like organic. I like local. I like food that tastes wonderful. I care about food being justly produced. But I think food also has a long, LONG history of being meaningful in other ways.

Civilizations grew up around agriculture, societies formed around the division of food-related tasks, and people were friends—or foes—with each other and with their god/gods based on what they ate or didn’t eat. Food is, in other words, a “site” for fellowship and justice, or injustice, as the case may be.

It’s not so different in the Bible, where we see food as both a gift from God and an opportunity to fellowship with God and with others, a way to enact reconciliation and do justice.

We can see this in the book of Ruth, for example, which is in many ways a story of food justice. Boaz actually breaks the law to fulfill greatest law; he’s not supposed to offer bread and water to Ruth, who’s a Moabitess, but he offers her that and more.

 

What’s going to make people uncomfortable about your book?

You mean aside from the part where I say that Jesus is pro-union? (Kidding. Sort of.) Seriously, though, I think the thing that still makes ME uncomfortable is Jesus’ radical call to us to be the kind of people that don’t simply hand food out to poor hungry people, but to be the people who are actually willing to sit and eat with poor, lonely, outcast, or just plain different people.

I won’t lie. That’s not easy. It makes us feel good to be the one dishing out stew at the soup kitchen, but we don’t exactly want to sit down and eat with people who are society’s rejects.

Right now I live in the 8th (or so) poorest country in the world, and the social classes are really stratified, very visibly so, unlike in the USA. To think that Jesus calls his disciples to eat with those across such huge divides—rich/poor, Jew/Gentile, “righteous”/”sinner”—is huge.

To think about how Jesus calls me to live (and act) in relation to the person who is crippled at age 30 from working an underpaid and overtime job in the packing plant so that I can have cheap meat makes me uncomfortable.

 

So, where is the joy?

The joy is in realizing that while none of us gets it right, most of us have the opportunity to eat three times a day, and most of us have the capacity to enjoy it, and to share with others. The picture of the kingdom of God is a joyful feast. If we can enact that in some small and imperfect ways, we might find that bit of joy in this Ecclesiastes world.

 

  • Andrew

    I also think that Jesus’s call for an “open-table” open to those most on the outskirts, those considered the most ‘unclean’ and unwanted, to be one of the most powerful/invigorating but challenging components of His ministry. Unclean in 1st century Judaism was a social marker and we definitely still have people designated as “unclean” all around the U.S. (and definitions can vary across communities) Not just in eating, but we often don’t want what could be called “expendables” in our neighborhoods, in our schools, in our churches (!) and even near us physically. I think we are all guilty of it to a degree and should be a focus of our Christian orientation; to not pre-judge and treat all human beings as children of God.
    And to preempt a counter-point, this doesn’t equate to being naive and inviting a mentally disturbed person to your family dinner or not being wary of groups of potential gang-members in certain neighborhoods . . plenty of ways to open our table without being stupid, but as an additional kicker Jesus tells us to let go of our fears and not worry what tomorrow brings. Challenging stuff!!

    • http://rachelmariestone.com Rachel Marie Stone

      Exactly, Andrew. There’s quite a bit in the book on the significance and importance of eating together. I think the challenge of Ruth is particularly interesting to think about in light of Jesus’ table fellowship with all kinds of outcasts…Boaz is breaking the Biblical LAW to fulfill the law of love in the breaking of bread with Ruth.

  • http://lisesletters.wordpress.com Lise

    The topic of this book is important for the two ideas articulated 1) appreciating God’s gift of food and 2) eating with others. As someone who has done extensive clinical work with individuals living with eating disorders, I have learned that people’s relationship to food can be very complex and not always about food. Yet when I teach a public education course on mental health issues which includes a section on eating disorders, I also realize that although the number of people with eating disorders is not statistically high, many people share about having a disordered or unhealthy relationship to food. “I shouldn’t have eaten that. I was bad…” is a common mantra and very few people I know like their bodies. This is a shame for our bodies house our souls and are vehicles of both functionality and grace.

    As a culture we are becoming disembodied. It is hard for many of us to be comfortable in our own skin. To actually breathe and sit still. To feel a feeling let alone take pleasure and appreciate the moment and a meal.

    Food is nourishment and nurturing. From the moment we’re infants, we are fed while simultaneously being held. And often the question to ask is, “What am I hungry for?” metaphorically speaking. I would imagine most of us are hungry for belonging, acceptance, affection, community, safety, respect, and God.

    Andrew, your comments are great but I would encourage you to think differently regarding how you refer to someone who may be mentally disturbed. I don’t think any of us just invites a stranger into our home without getting a sense of who he or she is, whether they are agitated, or what not. But just because someone lives with a mental illness doesn’t mean they are necessarily any different to eat with than someone who lives with cancer.

    • Andrew

      Lise, please know I didn’t mean the term to be all-encompassing but more as a reference to a more extreme example . . say, a man on the street who erupts without warning in screaming fits and who is perhaps dealing with substance abuse as well as mental health issues (such a person is sometimes loitering outside where I work). I would think most would be wary, and with reason, of inviting that person to their house for a meal. But could that person be a delight to eat with after getting some treatment and after we get past our preconceptions? Absolutely, it’s possible. Thus the difficulty.

  • http://brandonmichaelwilliams.net/ Brandon

    Dammit…now all I can think about is Oreo’s!

  • http://preachermike.com Mike

    Rachel – As a foodie, a lover of Ecclesiastes, and one who believes deeply in sharing, I loved this article. Can’t wait to get the book. Thanks!

  • http://lisesletters.wordpress.com Lise

    Andrew – thanks for your kind and sensitive reply and I hope I didn’t come off as condescending or punitive. The blog format can lead to all kinds of miscommunication. :) I am a little hyper-sensitive on this issue because there is so much stigma surrounding mental illness. But speaking of meals, I I have known folks with chronic mental illnesses living on meager disability checks in board and cares. To many of them, a great meal means the world. I have also known some in that same category who have taken their meager disability checks and used a portion of it to sponsor a child in Mexico less off than them through their church. Sometimes I wonder who is teaching who….

    • http://rachelmariestone.com Rachel Marie Stone

      Lise, there’s quite a lot on disordered eating–especially the sort of ED-NOS (eating disorder, not otherwise specified) you allude to in your comment–in the book, and a lot, also, on the power of communities/families to support a loved one through disordered eating. Peace to you, r.

  • http://lisesletters.wordpress.com Lise

    Rachel – it sounds like a wonderful book. I will definitely check it out. There is such a need for good material on this topic. And many congrats on the book being out!

  • rvs

    Ruth–food justice–beautiful. Thanks for that insight.

  • gingoro

    Oreo’s are long gone ever since I developed Celiac disease. Now due to the damage gluten has done to my gut I am limited to 26 ingredients as I am allergic to a great many things almost anything that tastes good and is worth eating. Even microscopic amounts of gluten brings on nausea and other gut unhappiness. The implication is that we never get invited out any more as people are unable to prepare food that I can eat. It gets very lonely. Sometimes I consider just giving up eating altogether. Even gluten free communion bread makes me sick since it contains potato or corn starch so in effect I feel excommunicated.
    DaveW

  • Pingback: Some Kind Words | Rachel Marie Stone


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