I like Chick-fil-A’s 440 calorie fried chicken sandwich. I like the testimony of the company’s founder, and I like that they’re closed on Sunday. The way Americans eat food is a kind of parable for how we eat God’s Word, and I imagine a fast-food restaurant chain is not the greatest model for following Christ and being the Church. Physical health and spiritual health are related in significant ways.
Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food offers a compelling call to rethink how we think about and eat food. I read his brilliant book and followed his logic. I agree: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” But I couldn’t help but read his critique of the industrialization of food from another angle, that I’m sure Pollan never intended. His “Eater’s Manifesto” is a call to rethink what it means to follow the Lord Jesus and to grow in Christ. Pollan’s In Defense of Food became for me In Defense of Discipleship, prompting me to ask what does it mean to belong to the church—the household of faith. Unfortunately, there is a connection between “the Western diet” and Western Christianity.
The Western Diet
Pollan attributes America’s dominate philosophy of food to the ideology of nutritionism, which he emphasizes is not the same thing as nutrition. Nutritionism means well, but the scientific isolation and analysis of nutrients consistently skews our understanding of healthy eating by promoting processed foods like margarine and minimizing the value of whole foods. For more than a generation, eaters thought they were reducing their saturated fat consumption by eating margarine instead of butter only to find out that hydrogenized vegetable oil produces unhealthy trans fats, “fats that we now know are more dangerous than the saturated fats they were designed to replace.” The popularity of the low-fat diet with its high-fructose corn syrup proved to be a health disaster. Pollan writes, “Americans got really fat on their new low-fat diet—indeed, many date the current epidemic of obesity and diabetes to the late 1970s, when Americans began bingeing on carbohydrates, ostensibly as a way to avoid the evils of fat.”
The food industry uses nutritionism to promote the sales of processed food. Pollan claims that the “genuinely heart-healthy whole foods” are in the produce section of the grocery story, not in the center aisles. He claims real food doesn’t need fancy packaging and bogus health claims to meet expectations. As he says, “Don’t take the silence of the yams as a sign that they have nothing valuable to say about health.” Pollan advises his readers to escape the Western diet whenever possible by forsaking the supermarket, the convenience store, and the fast-food outlet. He opts for farmers’ markets and family/community gardens. His advice: spend more time in the supermarket’s produce section than in the center aisles!
Pollan is convinced that our preoccupation with nutrition, diet, and eating healthy are only making matters worse. The same could be said about American Christians who are preoccupied with experiencing Jesus in ways that satisfy their felt needs and existential longings. We have a spiritual diet rich in processed and packaged biblical truth which has been engineered and altered for cultural compatibility. There is a link between the consumer appeal of highly processed food, refined grains, and “the superabundance of cheap calories of sugar and fat” and Western Christianity’s appetite for convenient, cheap, and entertaining spirituality. When it comes to taking in God’s Word, we have grown impatient. We eat and run.
Chick-fil-A Christianity has changed the way we do church. We get our fast-fried-food-fix, and we’re on our way. Instead of savoring worship and dwelling on God’s Word, we’re in-and-out and onto the next thing. Everything is built around the individual consumer’s expectations and tolerances. Individualism is the ideology that is impacting Western Christianity, not to be confused with individuality. The problem is that we make Christianity about ourselves (about me) rather than Christ, about out hopes and dreams, not God’s mission. I’d venture to say that pastors are intimidated by the refined sugar tastes of a crowd that shows up on Sunday eager to feel better about themselves. Our spiritual disciplines and devotions may be on par with our eating habits.
The French Paradox
Michael Pollan’s take on the French and their love of food is reassuring. American nutritionists compare the carefree French diet with their relatively low rates of heart disease compared to the American diet with our substantially higher rates of heart disease. Nutritionists, not the French, tag the comparison “the French paradox.” Eating for the French is much more than biology. Food is integrated into their cultural life. It is about community and family. It is more about living than consuming. The French are just not a fast-food, eat-it-on-the-run culture. It is not about “eating more and more.” Eating is about enjoying food in the company of family and friends.
Christians savor God’s Word in the household of faith. We soak up the gospel story and let it saturate our lives. We belong to the Body of Christ, heart, mind, body, and soul. We’re not just admirers of Jesus, spiritual consumers taking what we want and quietly dismissing the rest. We are Christ’s followers, at home around his table, saved by his grace and alive in his Resurrection life. As the late Eugene Peterson wrote, “Christians don’t simply learn or study or use Scripture; we assimilate it, take it into our lives in such a way that it gets metabolized into acts of love, cups of cold water, missions into all the world, healing and evangelism and justice in Jesus’s name, hands raised in adoration of the Father, feet washed in company with the Son.”