Everyday Spirituality: Baking Bread

Everyday Spirituality: Baking Bread July 26, 2012

Part of an ongoing series on Everyday Spirituality.

He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’

I’ve become a fan — and something of a student — of yeast. It’s an amazing thing, a living organism, that gives rise to fermentation in bread and beer.

Yeast gets a bit of a bad rap in the Bible. It takes too long during the Exodus, so they ditch the yeast and unleavened bread becomes the spiritual food of Israel to this day. In the Christian scripture, Jesus does equate yeast with the kingdom of heaven, but he also warns of the “yeast of the Pharisees” seeping into his followers’ spiritual lives.

I’ve been baking a lot of bread lately — 2-3 loaves per week — and that’s got me thinking about yeast. I’ve been reading about it, too, in William Alexander’s fascinating book, 52 Loaves: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust. In his chapter on yeast, he makes an interesting point: for thousands of years, bakers and brewers relies on yeast, but they had no idea what it was or how it worked.

It wasn’t until the first microscopes were invented that scientists could see that yeast was, indeed, a living organism. In fact, it can live with or without oxygen. It’s fascinating.

And, if you’re a baker or a brewer, you also know that yeast is temperamental. Too hot or too cold, and it won’t activate. Too much sugar or not enough, and it won’t have eat. Often, when you’re sure you’ve done everything right, your loaf doesn’t rise; and the converse is also true.

I’m currently using a yeast in a sourdough starter that was given to me by a Swedish woman I met at a Walker Art Center Open Field night. She’d made it from Swedish yogurt and smuggled it past TSA. I’ve kept that starter going all summer. (I know a baker in Dallas who’s kept a sourdough started going for two decades.)

There are so many connections between baking bread and Christian spirituality that I could write a book about it. But, for starters 🙂 I’ll note these:

  • That the sourdough starter is a living organism that I have to feed regularly;
  • That it was given to me as a gift by someone I’d never met before and will likely never meet again;
  • That the yeast is fickle;
  • That my spiritual ancestors used it for millennia, yet didn’t know how it worked;
  • That they even feared it a little;
  • That a baker works the yeast into the dough, then leaves it and waits, not quite knowing how it will turn out.

It’s that last one that is most instructive to me, especially as I’m struggling with why we pray.

If you’re a baker, what connections do you find between baking and spirituality?

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  • I wrote about bread in my book on Sabbath, because it’s something I did on our sabbath days. It was a great spiritual discipline in that context because there are three things at work: the effort of the baker, the ingredients, and of course, time. So there’s a relinquishing of control involved.

    Some of my loaves turned out well and others didn’t, but that was part of the learning as well.

  • When I am brewing, yeast either makes the beer or destroys it. Such a fragile organism and it is extremely frustrating to work for hours on a batch of beer to only have it ruined by bad yeast.

  • Dan Brennan

    Tony, my wife loves to make bread. For years she has contended it is quite a spiritual experience for her.

  • Heather

    Quiet patience is what I have to be willing to connect with hen I’m baking bread, which is pretty darn spiritual for me.

  • Tony, You also might be interested in grinding your own flour. The closer we get to the source the deeper the meanings go. You also might be interested in naturally occuring “yeasts” in the air that can also be used in breads. We have a baker at the Farmers’ Market who cures his dough utilizing these yeasts. The cool thing about this is that different climates and locales have yeasts with different flavors and characteristics so breads will be different in MN than the bread in WA. There’s a book I’ve been trying to work through titled “Six Thousand Years of Bread: It’s Holy and Unholy History.”

    I’m interested in the historical role of bread and Christian faith. A quote from the “Six Thousand Years” book is worth exploring: “The Hebrews learned to bake bread in Egypt; but they would not have done so had they remained shepherds. Bread requires permanence and patience.” So the bread at the center of the Christian faith has its roots in Israel’s slavery in Egypt. The Passover meal celebrating God’s deliverance from slavery utilizes the bread they learned to bake while in slavery. The bread at the center of the Christian eucharist can also trace its lineage back to the Egyptians that taught us how to bake. There is also some irony today that Egypt’s bread culture has become desperately dependent on importing the grains they no longer grow.

    I’m also intrigued by the “permanence and patience” line.

    Also, if you haven’t tried challah bread yet, it’s fun, easy, and delicious. The kids love braiding the bread.



  • gillian

    You have to read “i am somewhere else” by Barbara glasson about her bread church in Liverpool. Beautiful

  • Jeff

    Tony, these “Everyday Spirituality” pieces are wonderful…keep them coming.

  • Steve
  • It is because I am a baker that I realized a new view of yeast is possible other than the bad rap in the Bible. I also wrote about this at http://healingsciencetoday.wordpress.com/2011/10/24/wine-and-bread-making/
    Cheryl Petersen

  • Sara

    You should read, Artisan Bread Everyday, by Peter Reinhart. Or anything else by him. He is a brother and writes persuasively on breads deeply nourishing abilities.