The top 10 or 20 bestselling books at Amazon.com vary slightly from hour to hour, day to day, but one thing remains pretty constant: There are always several books on spirituality, often with Protestant evangelical leanings, and there are always books on diet, promising either dramatic weight loss or astounding well-being through some “revolutionary” plan. Even within the category of “Religion and Spirituality,” some of the most popular books focus on diet and bodily health, and when they don’t, they focus on happiness via the most direct route; they’re all about “how to be successful and happy,” “how to make miracles happen,” and “how to know that there really is a heaven, and that you’re going there.”
Having been a skeptic for as long as I can remember, I’ve never had much patience with those books. If books (and checkout-stand magazines, for that matter) really held the secrets for people to “get skinny by this weekend” or “beat cancer with these super-foods,” why did people from my church choose gastric bypass surgery, and why did my father (a pastor) perform so many funerals for the non-survivors of cancer? And if miracles could happen, and people could find success, happiness and assurance of a place in a heaven that’s “for real,” why, throughout the course of my pious Bible-reading upbringing, did I never seem to find anything in the Bible that sounded remotely like that?
On a flight back from Guatemala, my first visit to a developing country, when I was still in my teens, I discovered the book of Ecclesiastes in my tattered, Precious Moments-stickered Bible. Why I didn’t hear more about that book in church and at youth group, I didn’t know. It spoke straight into my teenage angst even as it speaks to me today: positions of power and influence often go to the corrupt. If you’re expecting justice to come from the places from which justice should come, you’ll be disappointed. If you get the riches and acclaim and influence that the bestsellers tell you that you can have, you’ll find that they don’t bring you happiness. Quite a different story from “The Prayer of Jabez,” the then-bestselling volume that inspired millions of Americans to ask God to “expand” their already more-than-ample borders.
Still, in spite of my skepticism, those ample borders put the fear of fat — and God — in me. At age 14 or so, I’d decided that God would be most pleased with me if I adopted an utterly ascetic attitude toward food, not unlike the female medieval saints who claimed to be sustained solely by Jesus, and nothing else. So I dieted according to the principles in the then-megaselling Christian book “The Weigh Down Diet,” which I found on the shelves of a home in which I babysat. I longed to live a holy life and feared, above all else, the complacent expansion of my borders that would lead me inexorably to my very own extra-roomy Mom Jeans. This was my path to happiness and holiness. And in my own way, I thought I was being ‘countercultural.’
But as is true of most diets and plans for self-improvement, my ascetic path proved a lonely one, and I felt increasingly distant from other people, unable to join others in feasting, unable to leave my college desk except for trips to the library, cafeteria and, of course, classes. If I ate heartily, it was in secret and with shame. I was confused by the God who beckoned the weary with words like these:
“everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat…
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is
and delight yourselves in rich food.”
Eventually, I learned at least two things about God and food: First, that God, much like my grandmothers and great-grandmothers, loves to feed people with good food and watch them enjoy it; and, second, that God is pleased not by my asceticism, or by my efforts to get “my best life now” and to “expand my borders” while contracting my waistline, but instead, by my hospitality. By my willingness to eat, as Jesus did, with people different from me; by efforts, big and small, toward justice for those whose quality of life is impoverished by the endless expansion of portion sizes and fast-food market shares. I found that the urge to binge secretly subsided as did the urge toward pious asceticism. I learned that the secret to finding happiness — or joy, which is better — isn’t in reaching for it, but in reaching toward others.
I certainly don’t believe — or pretend to believe — that I’ve found the secret key that unlocks the door behind which lies the proof of heaven, the formula for happiness, and the recipe for the perfect and perfectly healthful body. I don’t think any such key exists, or that anyone can find happiness and satisfaction through isolated pursuits of individual perfection. But I still maintain that we can find a soupçon of happiness — even joy — through sharing food with others, through being mindful of (but not crushed by) issues of sustainability and justice and, finally, through taking to heart the idea that even in a world where everything’s uncertain and it doesn’t seem like heaven, or much else about religion, is “for real,” you can still “eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do” (9:7).