Food stories are a standard part of the news repertoire – and I suspect they have more impact on most people’s daily lives than high politics or war. This week’s (apart from Jamie Oliver’s beans-on-toast) was about the Co-op’s introduction of labels showing the fat and salt content of foods on their shelves. Another prompt to healthy eating. Food, diet, and health are not just news items, they are now part of the entertainment industry. This is the third week of BBC 1’s ‘Fat Nation’ series, diverting us couch potatoes with the progress to virtue of residents of a Birmingham street, as they give up burgers and take up skipping. Part of what fuels all this is a desire for people to be healthy. Discovering that the nation is idle and obese, the government fears for our well-being, and even more, for the cost to the health services in the long run.
If, as Christians, we seek to be good stewards of a divine creation, of which we are part, surely we should wish for ourselves and for others to live healthy lives, in body as in mind and spirit.
But I have a few questions about all this. Two come from the damaging ‘do nots’ of the Christian tradition. We stand in the shadow of the long history of Christian ambivalence towards the body: restricted diet and physical stress have long been used as ways of denying or diminishing our being as bodily creatures, and consequently becoming closer to God. It is a tradition which has been challenged only relatively recently, as we have sought to recover a sense of the goodness of our bodily being.
And then there is another strand in Christian thinking, a strand which we characterise as ‘puritan’, and which tells us that whatever is enjoyable cannot, by definitition, be of God. I’ve caricatured it in those few words, and there is no doubt of the value of setting aside much of what we do and get in a consumer society; but surely we are called to delight in the lavishness of creation, remembering the creator, rather than to withdraw from it as ungodly.
In contrast to these negative traditions, we set images of food and feasting at the heart of our worship: to do so is to speak to a fundamental human need and to use a universal language. But how do words about being called to the heavenly banquet sound to someone on their umpteenth diet? How do they sound to someone with a serious eating disorder, a group whose numbers are increasing as our image of an ideal body becomes more and more distant from the reality with which most of us live.
In my prayers for all those who use our community centre, I find myself at certain times praying for Slimming World and Weightwatchers, for the aerobics class and the line-dancers. And as I offer those prayers, I am increasingly aware of the ambiguities: am I praying for lives of physical well-being to be found through self-dislike and self-punishment, or for a growing acceptance of our different sizes, shapes, and life-styles? I hope I am praying that we are good stewards of ourselves and of each other – but I’m not quite sure what that stewardship involves.