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A theology of eating: An interview with Rachel Marie Stone

Rachel Marie Stone urges us to rediscover the spiritual act of eating.

Rachel Marie Stone urges us to rediscover the spiritual act of eating.
Rachel Marie Stone urges us to rediscover the spiritual act of eating.

Rachel Marie Stone urges us to rediscover the spiritual act of eating.

In her classic book, The Art of EatingM.F.K. Fisher argued that eating is one of the most intimate acts a human can participate in. “It seems to me,” Fisher wrote, “that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.” Unfortunately, modern society often treats food and meal-sharing as little more than mechanical necessities.

This is something Rachel Marie Stone hopes to change. In her recently released book, Eat With Joy: Redeeming God’s Gift of Food, Rachel argues that God intended us to delight in our food and invites readers to recover the joyfulness and intimacy of eating. Rachel, her husband, and two sons live in Malawi where she recently welcomed me into her home with a beautiful spread of food and drinks. Here we discuss a new way to see food, the importance of hospitality, and why we need a theology of eating.

JM: Rachel, say that the “diet-culture mentality” first caused you to reflect on our modern eating culture. Expand on that.

RMS: I had bought into the diet-culture mentality–this idea that food, and our appetites for it, were basically bad and had to be overcome–at age 14. When I was pregnant with my first son—who’s now seven and a half—I realized that I had to eat in order to feed him, and when he was born, I think I caught a little glimpse of God’s pleasure in feeding us. Here was a context in which weight gain was an unqualified blessing! I realized that the cultural messages about food were really at odds with so much of what God cares about: God wants us to receive food as a gift, to share it with others, to care about stewarding the land, and more.

JM: When many of us shop for food or dine out, we’re navigating a complicated balance of finding food that’s affordable, nutritious, flavorful, and more recently, food that’s been produced justly. With all that trouble, why bother?

RMS: It does feel like a bother, doesn’t it?! Food is so basic to our existence, and most of us aren’t connected to the food we eat in an organic way—we didn’t raise it ourselves, we don’t know where it came from. I think we have to be honest and realize that a lot of the time we aren’t going to be able to find food that’s ‘perfect’ all, or even most, of the time. We just can’t do it. However, by becoming aware of the different justice issues involved in food, we can become advocates of policies that seek justice for workers and help protect God’s creation. We can and should seek to make changes on the personal level while working for the common good.

JM: Your book has been called “a practical theology of eating.” What’s theological about eating, and how does eating engage us with God?

RMS: Here’s a little experiment you can try: every time you eat out, see how many words like ‘decadent,’ ‘temptation,’ ‘sin,’ and ‘guilt’ you find on the menu. These are theological sorts of terms, and what they suggest about our culture is very interesting. We have a tendency to regard the sorts of food we most crave, and the pleasure they give us as something of a trap. What I suggest is that food is delicious as well as nourishing because God is that and more. Jesus feeds the crowds with actual bread before saying “I am the bread of life”; we are invited to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” What I’m suggesting is that the pleasures of eating are not accidental or incidental. Nor are they ends in and of themselves. The pleasures of eating invite us to taste the goodness of a generous God, who gives us the capacity to experience things that we don’t, strictly speaking—need, such as pleasure and beauty.

JM: When so many around the globe are hungry, should we really be encouraging rich, fat Americans to “eat with joy?” Explain how you clarify this tension.

Book cover courtesy of Intervarsity Press

Book cover courtesy of Intervarsity Press

RMS: We’ve been living in Malawi—one of the 10 poorest countries in the world—for about nine months now, and it’s been sobering to realize how many people in the world still really struggle with food security, how many children experience stunted growth and intellectual limitation simply from not getting enough to eat, or enough fat and protein in their diets. At the same time, encountering these hard truths on a regular basis reminds me of the importance of gratitude for what we have, the need for wise stewardship of what resources we’re blessed with, the need for programs that support sustainable agriculture and diversified farming. I think when we keep our eyes open to these realities, we can expect a renewed sense of food’s significance. We can learn that to regard food with indifference or ingratitude is a kind of blasphemy, when so many suffer from the lack of food.

JM: If God were pushing a shopping cart through a 21st century grocery store what do you think would be in God’s cart?

RMS: Wow. I’m really hesitant to presume to write God’s shopping list. I guess it depends what kind of meal God is shopping for, and for whom. If God is planning a meal for vegans, I think God would be getting stuff for a really excellent veggie curry with homemade naan bread. But I don’t think God is exclusively about organic vegetables and whole grains. I think God is also about picking up supplies to make peppermint bark, but I’m pretty sure God chooses chocolate from the fair-trade aisle.

JM: Let’s bring eating disorders into the discussion. If a man or woman suffering from disordered eating read Eat With Joy, what message would you hope he or she would take away?

RMS: I’d hope she’d realize that she’s far from alone in her struggle, and that her disorder is actually a pretty reasonable reflection of the disordered nature of the culture around food and bodies, where ever-skinnier-and-sexier images of women are as ubiquitous as fast food. Most of all, I’d hope that she would come to know that God loves to feed her and that food, and her appetites for it, are, like the rest of creation, very good.

JM: Rachel, you welcomed me into your home in Malawi to share a beautiful spread of food and drink. I especially loved your homemade Paleo brownies. Can you say something about the importance of Christian hospitality?

RMS: I love having people over and making special meals or snacks to share. It feels to me like one of the best ways to get to know someone. Food has always been an important part of Christian hospitality. Early Christian hospitality was pretty revolutionary in that it broke down major barriers—Gentiles ate with Jews; people ate together across economic lines, and so on. Food brings people together in all kinds of ways, and sharing a meal—especially a meal at home—is a great way to connect with people, even and perhaps especially people that you don’t expect to share much in common with. In Luke’s gospel, many of Jesus’ interactions with folks happen over meals, and, interestingly enough, it’s that meal with Jesus that transforms them.

Also, if anyone wants my recipe for those tasty brownies, they can find them here.