These are a Few of Life’s Crappiest Things! (Reading Ecclesiastes)

Did you know that this blog got its name more-or-less straight out of a Bible verse?

Don’t feel bad if you didn’t catch that; it comes from Ecclesiastes, which, being a frequently-neglected book of the Bible, is, naturally, one of my favorite books. (I enjoy rooting for underdogs.)

While some writers and preachers like to say that Ecclesiastes is all about how bleak life is without Jesus, it seems to me that the little book pretty well sums up many of the crappiest things about life:

1. Where there ought to be justice and righteousness, there’s injustice and wickedness.

2. Even if you’re strong, beautiful, brave, ambitious, and rich, you’re going to get painfully feeble and old, and, eventually, you’ll die. And, by the way, you can’t take all your stuff and money with you.

3. Everything people do can, much of the time, be chalked up to pride and competitiveness.

4. Rich people just can’t ever get enough money. They always want more.

5. It’s not the most deserving, or strongest, or wisest, or most knowledgeable people that get the recognition. Time and chance have everything to do with that.

6. More knowledge is usually a depressing thing.

So, yeah. Any of these could’ve come from a blog post or op-ed written, well, yesterday, but they’re from this funny little Ancient Near Eastern book that’s part of the Hebrew Bible and Christian Scripture.

By now you’re wondering what all this has to do with the title of this blog. Well, there’s this refrain (of sorts) throughout Ecclesiastes that goes something like this:

There is nothing better for a person than that she should eat and drink and find enjoyment in her work. This is from the hand of God,  for apart from God, who can eat or have enjoyment?

Because here’s the thing about eating: obviously it’s not the most important thing in the world–aren’t things like doing justice, working hard, loving God, loving neighbor, taking care of your family much more important?

Well yes. And no. Because if you don’t eat, you can’t really do anything else. It’s easy to miss this in an overfed culture, but “give us this day our daily bread” is talking about the literal stuff that keeps you alive & kickin’.

Yes, life is marked with death and sadness and injustice and unfairness and depression and general crappitude.

Yet. Yet–

This world is still a beautiful place; there “lives the dearest freshness deep down [in] things.” There is love, there is laughter, there is community, communion, companions–there is the joyful, jovial fellowship around the table and thousands of things to delight our senses.

And food is one of them, a delightful necessity. A chance to nourish others, to be nourished ourselves, and to taste just a hint of God’s goodness.

So, yes. Death and greed and decrepitude and turpitude and all manner of crappiness. And still the ancient Preacher says:

“Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart.”

Yes. Life is more than food. But in this life where little makes sense, food and wine are a spot of grace and goodness—

God’s love made edible. And delicious.

Moment by moment, sustaining us by grace.

Sometimes Old Books are the Best Books (and some thoughts on writing)

You know I can’t resist Robert Farrar Capon. His writing is so quirky (and so, by all reports, is/was he–can anyone confirm whether he’s still alive or not!?) that it defies comparison with any other; Andy Crouch noted in an email that Father Capon’s writing voice sounds like him and no one else.

(Very true. And yet. While I often year “develop a unique voice” as writing advice, I’m not quite sure that this is something that can be aimed at. George Orwell’s Six Rules are a good place to start, especially rule #1: “never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” Beyond scraping away crusty, dried-out turns of phrase, though, I suspect that a distinctive writing voice from having distinctive things to say than aiming at saying things in a distinctive way. Maybe. End of writing rant.)

Anyway. As with Babette’s Feast, which I wrote about yesterday, I feel reluctant to say much about the book, because a book by Father Capon is an experience in itself; to distill the ideas from the whole of the book is to distort them.

I’ll go out on a limb (sorry, Orwell) and say that this book is unlike any other on marriage I’ve ever read or heard of. It’s certainly the antithesis (antidote?) of a certain contemporary book on marriage that released yesterday. It’s deeply Christian and theological without being sectarian or Biblicist. As in much of Capon’s writing, he celebrates the potential of material particularities to call forth, to anticipate, to celebrate the transcendent–the City of God. The marriage “bed” and family “board” (table) are two of these particular, material places where we enact, however feebly, the glories of the Kingdom in the liturgies of the everyday:

“My bed and my board are the choice places of my healing and I go to them with a glad mind. God wills to build the city but while he makes it matter, he refuses to make it serious. The divine mirth lies behind all things and it is in his light that I begin to see the lightness of it all.”

Plus? The cover copy announces that the book

“snatches the subject of marriage away from the adjustment engineers, the sex technicians, and the whole army of statistical de-splendorizers.”

Statistical de-splendorizers, indeed! I’m stealing that turn of phrase.

Find yourself a copy of this book, or really, any by Father Capon. Tomorrow, I’m going to talk about two other recent marriage books–The Meaning of Marriage and Real Marriage by Timothy & Kathy Keller and Mark & Grace Driscoll, respectively. On Friday, we’ll look at another contemporary book on marriage–Are You Waiting for The One?–that far surpasses its contemporaries.

Is Food Sensual?

Don’t read that wrong–sensual, not necessarily sexual.

(Although it might be that, too.)

sen*su*al |ˈsen sh oōəl|
of or arousing gratification of the senses and physical

Last week I read (and really enjoyed Amy Frykholm’s) newest book, See Me Naked: Stories of Sexual Exile in American Christianity.

One of the things that surprised me most about the book was how much Frykholm talked about food in a book about sexuality. (Perhaps I could’ve anticipated this, being as she’s one of the contributors to The Spirit of Food, which I wrote about not too long ago here.) But food and sex share the dubious honor of being sites that are (or are thought to be) in conflict with what is spiritual. Frykholm’s reflections on her stories and those of others are stories of incarnation–of journeying toward and sometimes arriving at a place where faith is not disembodied and flesh with its needs and desires, is not seen as a threat to the spirit.

In the book, Frykholm presents a pretty compelling picture of how American Christians of various stripes have viewed the sensory world with suspicion, a suspicion that cripples people by putting that which is embodied and that which is spiritual in conflict. Do you see American culture in this:

Instead of learning from the sensory world, we aim to control it. We put ourselves on diets to control rampant eating, but we are pitiful at tasting. We make budgets to control rampant consumerism, but we know very little about actual pleasure.”

At one time in my life, I felt pretty sure that if I could just love Jesus more, I would not need to eat much more than the bare minimum needed to live. Those were the days of diet Coke, butterless toast, and  “just vinegar on the salad, please.” Those were the days when I though enjoying food was dangerous if not sinful. I am glad those days are gone.

Because despite what a current popular Christian diet book says, food is God’s love made delectable. Sure, the fact that food sustains us points to God’s sustaining love. But the fact that food is delicious, beautiful, and pleasurable is not an accident, a trap, a temptation, or something unfortunate. Food is delicious, beautiful, and pleasurable because God is.

{Read Rachel Kramer Bussel’s post at HuffPo Food on the sensuality of food here.}

Sensational & Salacious Stories & Scandals

One of the most discouraging things about blogging is that posts that tend toward the scandalous, sensational, and disturbing are by far the most popular. I say “tend toward” because not much on this blog is ever all that scandalous or sensational. But “bad” news is more popular than happy news, I’m afraid. There are bloggers out there (like Amanda Blake Soule–“Soulemama”) who do a brisk business writing exclusively happy crafty sunshine-y posts, but around here, the most-read, most-searched posts tend to be the ones involving eating disorders, deaths, and celebrity gossip.

What can I say?

Those things are more ‘thrilling’ than, well, soup. 

Most of life, though? Much more soup-and-salad than salacious-and-scandalous.

As Robert Frost wrote:

“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned in life: It goes on.”

And it does. I was struck by this in a new way last week, when, after our friend Sam’s funeral, we shared lunch with a few other friends at a small pub in Philadelphia. Here we had spent more than two hours reflecting on, mourning, and crying over the life and death of our friend, and then in the next hour there we were with food and drink around a table. Because even grieving people get hungry eventually. Eating after funerals is a time-honored tradition–remember the very end of The Brothers Karamazov?

“Well, now we will finish talking and go to his funeral dinner. Don’t be put out by our eating pancakes–it’s a very old custom and there’s something nice in that!” laughed Alyosha.”

Even if most of us prefer to read about something more exciting than soup, I’m comforted by the ordinary soup-and-bread kind of days: these things make up a sort of “litany of everyday life.”

Besides, while we anticipate the Supper of the Lamb, what do we pray; of what do we partake?

Of course.

Our daily Bread. The Bread of Life.

And that–and He–is better than thrilling.

When you eat real food, you don’t need rules.

That’s rule #24 in Michael Pollan’s Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, now out in a whimsically illustrated edition. As Laura Klein of points out in a recent post on the HuffPo food blog, if you follow this rule: “eat real food,” you don’t need other rules.

I love this one. Of course, it’s not really a stand-alone rule–it assumes you know what’s meant by “real food” and it assumes a food culture that supports the eating of said real food.

One example of the way our family follows this “rule” is with respect to bread. I feel that a good, fresh baguette (the kind that’s good only on the day it’s baked) is better than the kind of bread whose oxylated/ethylated-whatevers keeps it fresh for weeks–even if that kind is brown and  screams “Whole Grain!!!” while the baguette sits in its serene whiteness. The baguette is more ‘real’–no unpronounceable chemical ingredients, stales and rots quickly, and has a long tradition.

(Besides, we ate baguettes every day in France with Nora. How could the memory of that alone not imbue them with special healthfulness?)