Why Food Matters—An Interview with Dr. Norman Wirzba, Author of Food & Faith: A Theology of Eating
I spent the 2010-2011 academic year working on a Master of Theology degree at Duke Divinity School. While this was a challenging experience in and of itself, having my program and thesis overseen and directed by Norman Wirzba made it an even greater privilege.
Since 2008, Professor Wirzba has served as a professor of Theology, Ecology, and Rural Life at Duke Divinity School. He earned his doctorate from Loyola University in Chicago in 1994. He is also a graduate of Yale Divinity School (1988). Before coming to Duke, he taught for many years at Georgetown College.
He is the author of numerous books and articles, including The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age (OEP, 2007), Living the Sabbath: Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight (2006) and The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry (2003). More recently he has authored a fascinating work on a subject we seldom view as “theological”—food. Food & Faith: A Theology of Eating was published by Cambridge University Press in 2011. The Englewood Review of Books has recently named it the 2011 “Book of the Year.” The Helwys Society is pleased to have him answer some questions about his recent monograph for the Forum.
Helwys Society: Professor Wirzba, thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions about your intriguing and important book, Food & Faith. I think many of the Helwys Society Forum’s readers would be fascinated simply by the fact that a Christian theologian has written such a book. What primarily motivated you to produce this book?
Dr. Wirzba: There is a lot of popular writing in the press these days on eating and the destructive character of much of today’s food system. Christians have done some writing on these topics too. I wanted to write a book that would take a very wide and comprehensive look at why food production and eating should be of major concern to Christians. What we eat, how we grow and produce it, how we share it – all these are matters of deep theological significance. In the past Christians have focused on vegetarianism and food distribution amongst the poor. I want to help people see that Scripture is interested in much, much more than that.
Helwys Society: One of the themes throughout the book is how eating brings us into a network of biophysical and social worlds beyond ourselves. In other words, pulling up to the table reminds us of our ultimate dependency. You attribute this partly to modernity’s emphasis on autonomy. Given the so-called shift from modernity to postmodernity, how might we explain all of the faulty thinking about food among consumers today?
Dr. Wirzba: Food is primarily about fellowship. When we eat we enact our dependence on other people (farmers, cooks, friends), on the land and animals around us, and ultimately on God. As eaters we are part of one vast membership of creation. Autonomy or rugged individualism encourages us to forget or deny our dependence. This is a huge mistake because as individualists it becomes too easy to deny our responsibilities to gardeners, chickens, and vibrant ecosystems. Another problem connected with the development of modernity is that food has been transformed into a commodity that registers primarily in terms of taste, convenience, and price. But as a commodity, we don’t see how food connects us to life and death, neither of which is cheap or convenient. We may purchase meat but there is no trace of bone or fur or feather. We buy a pint of strawberries and have no thought about the poison sprayed or the strawberry picker abused. We need to become more knowledgeable about the sources of our food and what is necessary for that food to be safely and justly produced.
Helwys Society: We could perhaps debate how effectively the public education system inculcates healthy ways of thinking about the environment and particularly nutrition. However, what do you think are the practical implications of teachings such as the Food Pyramid in the areas of science and health?
Dr. Wirzba: Education programs are good, but it is hard for them to be effective when billions of dollars are spent each year promoting all the foods that are very unhealthy. Food companies and lobbies are immensely powerful in politics, which explains why we have a dishonest food pyramid. Virtually every nutritionist will tell us we need to eat less meat, less refined sugars and fats and flours, but that is not what the current pyramid communicates. Another matter that needs much more public attention is the Farm Bill. It should be called a Food Bill. What we have now greatly promotes the production of commodities that are unhealthy for us and not good for the land or animals. Rather than subsidizing corn, we should be supporting vegetable and fruit growers, along with various conservation efforts that will protect our soils and waters.
Helwys Society: You propose concrete practices such as gardening and the Eucharist as being central to appropriating a meaningful theology of food and eating. What might be some other practices in everyday life that Christians could attend to that testify to the world that we value creation?
Dr. Wirzba: I think saying grace is very important because when we do this properly, with adequate time and stillness of attention, we become more mindful about what we are doing when we are eating. So much of our eating today is mindless, done on the run or in a hurry. As a result, we don’t deeply appreciate food or food providers. We can’t be deeply grateful. When we become attentive we will also be in a better position to make wiser and more just eating decisions. Eating together with others is also very important. When we practice hospitality we will also become more mindful about how we all live through the gifts of others.
Helwys Society: One of the more interesting sections of your book is when you discuss the historical, cultural, and theological significance of bread and its production. As you also note more generally, having local grocery stores frequently makes our participation in the food-production process unnecessary. What would your recommendation be to those who have limited knowledge and skill who want to be more involved in producing their own food?
Dr. Wirzba: Don’t try to grow a big garden. That is a lot of work and requires a lot of knowledge and intelligence. Start small. Grow just a little bit of food, even if it is in a pot or on a window ledge. Knowing about the life cycle of plants, their vulnerabilit[ies], is so important so that we learn not to take food for granted. Another really valuable thing to do is to get to know a farmer if you can, help them with their work. That will open our food imaginations. If that is too difficult to do, become involved in a community garden.
Helwys Society: You comment briefly about how the media idolizes certain shapes and sizes concerning the body. Do you think it is possible for Christians interested in taking food seriously as a gift to still retain some concern about dieting and exercise? If so, what cautions or warnings might you offer about such a balance?
Dr Wirzba: Food and eating are deeply personal matters. Few of us know all the reasons why we eat the way we do. That is why it is so important that we not become judgmental with each other. We also need to know that bodies come in all shapes and sizes. We have to stop letting companies tell us what we should eat and look like. They say the things they do not because they are good for us but because they can make a lot of money having convinced us with their often unhealthy or damaging ideas. The key is to eat a sensible and nutritious diet. Do more of your own cooking with whole ingredients, and avoid processed or prepackaged food as much as you can, because then you will see what is going into your own food. You will likely eat better and be healthier.
Helwys Society: Just for fun, how much should we read into the fact that we were created with taste buds? Is this just an idle fact for those interested in natural theology to ponder?
Dr. Wirzba: Taste buds are not trivial at all. I think we should be daily astounded by the fact that God created a world that has so much potential to taste good. We should not forget that food is the daily demonstration of God’s love for us made delectable. Our world and our life would be so impoverished if we never ate good food.
Helwys Society: Are there other titles and authors that you would commend to our readers who may desire to further explore this subject?
Dr. Wirzba: There is a lot of good writing out there now. Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is wonderful for helping us understand today’s food system. Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma is still a very important book. Shannon Jung has written some useful books on Christian responses to food and eating. For general background, study the books written by Wendell Berry, starting with The Art of the Commonplace.
We thank Dr. Wirzba for interviewing with us. Please read more about Dr. Wirzba here.