Food and Faith

A Theology of Eating, 2nd Ed.

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Norman Wirzba
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , November
     2018.
     288 pages.
     $29.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781108455961.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Nods are due to Norman Wirzba for a commendable book on the most basic of functions and survival-sustaining practices. Originating out of his previous books, new monasticism contributions, Agrarain Theology movement participation, and constructive-practical theology affirmations, Wirzba has thoughtfully and earnestly expanded to cull and integrate an amazing amount of challenging material to commend—for readers, a virtual manifesto. It is clearly written, masterfully researched, and bearing a soulfully grounded faithful, public, and prophetic witness. 

There are other writings on food and aspects of its pervasiveness in its pertinence for faith practices. For example, there is Cathy Campbell’s important contribution of recent years on Stations of the Banquet: Faith Foundations for Food Justice (Liturgical Press, 2003); there are meaningful resources provided by biblical scholars on the centrality of food in just the gospel of Luke, such as Robert Karris’ Eating Your Way Through Luke’s Gospel (Liturgical Press, 2006); and that is by no means all—there are virtually daily meditation readings on food as what comes online this very day, via Curtis Almqist of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist. To wit: “Jesus … spoke to groups, he fed groups, ate with groups, healed people in groups … It’s not about me, individually, or you, individually; it’s about us.”. However there seems, thus far, no comparable and comprehensive treatise as what Wirzba offers. 

The chapter headings include representative themes: “It’s about Fidelity”; “Thinking Theologically about Food”; “The ‘Roots’ of Eating: Our Life Together in Gardens”; “Eating in Exile: Dysfunction in the World of Food; Life Through Death”: Sacrificial Eating; Eucharistic Table Manners: Eating toward Communion”; “Saying Grace”; Easting in Heaven? Consummating Communion.” This second edition adds updated references, learned annotated footnotes, an “Introduction: Who Is the You That Eats?”, and an “Epilogue: Faithful Eating in an Anthropocene World.” There are helpful indexes—including author, scripture, and subject—an expected foreword from theological colleague Stanley Hauerwas, and a warmly inviting preface that includes an instructive “how to read this book.” Along the way, there are choice phrases—including “fasting and feasting (as) primary ways we enact relationships” (191), “reconciliation deficit disorder” (226), “our most intimate journey with the bodies of creation” (227), and the “complex coabiding” of Jesus with (true) bread (211). Mind the reader, the index could use some additions, such as specific page references for “justice” (61,81,113, and 169) as well as “injustice”—also additional page references for the vast topic of climate change, such as the whole of chapter 4’s “Eating in Exile,” the epilogueand one for Michael Northcott (xv, xix, and 184). Nonetheless, all of this and of course, more contributes to this book being a valued resource for bible study, core volunteers of a food bank or soup line, a worship committee or ministerial association, social justice or faithful public and prophetic witness networks, and above all, for theological students, teachers and researchers. Press on, indeed.

Globally, as well as locally, this book is as much a socio-ethical offering on important issues of our time as grounded and related to food, the land, support systems, and the whole of our species’ relations, as it is a constructive and practical theology offering that should stand the test of time for those of us engaged in the climate crises, food ecologies, liturgical theologies, and interfaith conversations. It is constructive theology in the careful research and clear ways Wirzba attends to the issues that make food, and in socially, ecologically just ways—a deep ecology treatment—and bringing them together for the sake of shared understandings and the possibilities of action for the public or common good. Several classical Christian doctrines are enriched in the process (as would a preacher’s work with the lectionary). If there is one suggestion for a revised, expanded or third edition, one commends the now classical socio-ethical work of a Reinhold Niebuhr and the whole Christian realist perspective since they steadfastly labored to note how much the advocacy and practices of justice work—though grounded and informed in love—require taking the harsh realities of powerful self- and collective-interests to heart and, via the equally long dedication of organizations such as the Industrial Areas Foundation, the necessity of organizing power so to do justice for the sake of the common good, including duly now, the bio and eco-spheres. May there be time.

The book is also, thankfully, a timely example of doing practical theology where there arises multidisciplinary-and-interdisciplinary thinking, consultations, and shared experiments in faith and life practices. This is where common grace before meals—“a remembered presence” (209)—receives its own due chapter, as does a serious epilogue meditation on the possibilities of our era going extinct despite rationalized compartmentalisations (“Faithful Eating in an Anthropocene World”). This apt epilogue heralds an urgency for our priorities including, as some name it, a realistic panic while there be time (e.g., David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, Tim Duggan Books, 2019). As Wirzba concludes “[a]pology and repentance will be regular markers of our shared life. Being around a table, however, sharing food, sharing work, and sharing life, is surely one ideal place for the learning of these habits … our attachments will invariably bring us face to face the abuse and hurt we have caused. The temptation in these contexts will be to give up or walk away. Our need to eat, however, means that we can do neither. The better way is to pursue the ways of fidelity and hospitality, knowing that we will have much to learn and much to ask forgiveness for … insofar as people become faithful eaters in the world, they might yet discover how to nurture the world that nurtures them.” And ever the unapologetic theist and continuing practitioner of the faith that nurtures, sustains, and compels him to want to teach, research, write, and take deep urgent offerings out on to the circuit rides of intersecting conversations, Wirzba confessionally adds “Christians have the inspiration of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit” (310).

Urban ministry will well glean from this book. For one, the making and serving of meals as modest offerings of a simple hospitality goes a long way and deeper than one can imagine—especially as mutuality is respected. For another, in our desperate societal fragmentations and dislocations, growing and sharing food from even church (freely) loaned gardens, or pot-lucks, or food buyers clubs may contribute a simple and minimally threatening way to actually share—slowly but surely. Lastly, the basic awareness of where food comes from, and how it is threatened from soil to stores to tables, given the mammoth production and commercialization pressures that Wirzba depicts so comprehensively, yet concretely—challenges even small churches, preferably in concert with others, to name, unmask, and engage the evil (via Walter Wink) that may thwart, reduce, and starve one being by another in its activities (via Niebuhr) in trying to live in this world with decency, security, and, nourished in prayerful hope.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Barry K. Morris is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
July 19, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Norman Wirzba is Professor of Theology and Ecology at Duke Divinity School, and Senior Fellow at Duke's Kenan Institute for Ethics.

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