Skip to main content

Food and Faith in Christian Culture

Ken Albala and Trudy Eden
Published by Columbia University Press in 2011

Reviewed by David Grumett, Divinity, University of Edinburgh

From a range of historical and social anthropological fields, the contributors to this collection examine how Christians have used food to deepen their spiritual discipline, define their common identity, and spread their faith. Their eleven chapters cover widely diverse contexts, from a medieval Vallombrosan monastery to current dieting programs. Yet in her introduction, Trudy Eden identifies four unifying threads – commensality, fasting, sacramentality, and health – venturing that these link early modern fasting with postmodern dieting (4). Nonetheless, Ken Albala, her co-editor, rightly notes that despite Christianity’s profound impact on modern diet, this impact has not, until now, been analyzed globally and trans-historically (18). This collection’s primary achievement is to pioneer such an approach.

Some contributors wish to correct what they regard as an excessive focus by previous expositors on Christian abstention rather than on Christians’ healthy enjoyment of food. This is well illustrated by the studies of the monasteries that comprise the book’s opening and closing chapters. Salvatore D. S. Musumeci praises the ability of the monks of the medieval Florentine Monastery of Santa Trinità to “fit, with resourcefulness and care, what they grew as well as purchased within the strictures and guidelines of their liturgical life” (21-22). Yet he celebrates their “costly wines, roasted meats, and musical entertainments” and notes that the nearby butcher and monastic farms gave the monks access to the lamb, veal, and pork they “needed” (23, 27). Richard Irvine, writing about Downside Abbey, casually observes that its dining patterns “do not differ radically from those of the wider English population” (222). But he reports that the monks of Downside consume two meat meals a day, a frequency of meat consumption that ever fewer secular Britons would match! He suggests approvingly that the monks now practice moderation rather than austerity.

That several contributors do not simply describe practices but evaluate them is one of the collection’s key strengths. But the decline of asceticism is not an inevitable product of modernity, nor benign, and needs to be subjected to greater critique. It is simply untrue that the Florentine monks “followed the letter of Saint Benedict’s Rule as to what foods should be eaten when” (34). Had they done so, they would never have eaten red meat. Neither can Benedictine moderation be equated with the “elimination of austerity” in contrast with a “legalistic approach” (224). In Benedict’s Rule, meat is prohibited to all healthy adults and the fast should be kept for as long into the day as practicable, meaning that it forbids the early morning meal we now call breakfast. Why try to reinterpret the Rule’s plain and unambiguous requirements rather than re-embrace them in order to promote a renewed asceticism? Burgeoning numbers of vegetarians, vegans, raw foodists, pescatarians, and the like have rebranded asceticism for the present day. Might not monasteries and churches have something to relearn from these new, secular dietary movements, not least as part of their response to ecological instability, health problems, social inequality, and global trade injustices?

Other contributors raise important issues for further reflection. Samantha Kwan and Christine Sheikh call into question simplistic judgments, influenced by ascetic discourses, that fatness is bad. They deserve thanks for bringing into sharper relief the implicit anti-asceticism of several of the book’s contributors. One might add that classic Christian conceptions of gluttony concerned far more than body fat index. The time and circumstances of eating as well as the recipes chosen were just as significant. Furthermore, critiques of fatness are not prominent until the late medieval excoriations of monks and friars exemplified in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Two of the collection’s most important chapters are by Johanna B. Moyer and Sydney Watts, who make material relating to the decline of Christian dietary discipline in France in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries available in English for the first time. This enables the situation in France to be compared with that in England, where the Puritan Commonwealth (1649–1660) abruptly terminated the essentially medieval pattern of dietary regulation. In France, however, the corresponding renegotiation of church–state relations did not occur until well over a century later. Moyer examines how, at the Reformation, the sumptuary regulation of food grew and enjoyed strong Catholic support. Protestants, in contrast, tended to favor restrictions on clothing. Watts continues the story in his discussion of Lent, showing how, in France, inconsistent enforcement of the rules, special arrangements for hospitals, dispensations, and finally, in 1774, general licenses to sell meat, each contributed to a decline in the civil enforcement of Lenten abstinence from meat that was far more gradual than in England.

The contributions of Trudy Eden and of Antonia-Leda Matalas, Eleni Tourlouki, and Chrystalleni Lazarou are notable for their positive assessment of abstinence from meat and other foods. Eden shows how the abstention of New Thought practitioners was a result of their belief in a pervasive life force that could be ingested by eating vegetables. This methodological linkage of food choices to metaphysics could be tested instructively in other religious contexts, such as medieval Christianity. The following chapter is about fasting by Greek Orthodox Christians. It informatively describes the detailed pattern of abstinence required through the year and its deep cultural roots. This is still widely observed, to dif-fering degrees, by many Greek and other Orthodox Christians. It is undoubtedly the most significant continuing instance of collective Christian dietary abstinence in the modern world.

Writers on food, culture, and religion face the challenge of needing to synthesize a mass of often-disparate material and situate it historically. Misunderstandings are likely to arise in the course of such an endeavor and this collection is no exception. In England, the civil enforcement of Lenten discipline collapsed in the 1660s, not at the century’s end (49), and King Henry VIII, not Edward VI, issued the first fasting proclamation (75). Medieval Catholics did not accept as normative the definition of Eucharistic presence to which Berengar was forced to subscribe (85) – in fact, many with good reason found its language of crushing Christ’s body between the teeth highly problematic. Lent did not last forty days but forty-six days, including Sundays, which were days of abstinence like other days (106). Christian ascetic capacity is classically viewed as the product of divine grace, not personal willpower (192, 202) or works righteousness (50). Caroline Walker Bynum does not regard the social disruption caused by medieval fasting women negatively (233-234) but as a means by which such women could gain a measure of freedom within the gendered social confines they inhabited. In these and other instances, a more collaborative mode of working between the contributors might have enabled points of fact and interpretation to be honed in the course of writing and review.

The collection has a strong interdisciplinary feel, with different contributors employing historical, social anthropological, and cultural studies methodologies to varying degrees. Moreover, its concluding bibliography is excellent and every reader will glean new sources from it. I would have loved to have learned more about the authors, but the absence of a contributor list or information about the project’s genesis left me unsure of how or why they had been brought together, or even in many cases of contributors’ disciplinary identities.

Despite this uncertainty, the collection obviously and predictably contains no contributions by theologians. This is understandable, as there are few who possess interest in the topic. Most prefer to address more abstract subjects – even, in many cases, those working in the field of “practical theology” – or more contentious issues like war, gender issues, or abortion. But the cumulative impact of the innumerable small decisions taken each day about food make it a topic of tremendous importance with which scholars in all disciplines need to engage. Theologians cannot regard the subject as adequately treated by religious studies, which employs primarily descriptive terms. There is a pressing need for theologians to bring their own critical and constructive tools to bear to the issues.

That there is no conclusion indicates the need for further discussion of the many im-portant issues this book raises. In concluding I shall identify three. First, in the early modern period, dietary discipline was enforced by different legal methods in different European states, and the mechanisms of its decline also varied. There is a great need for further comparative study of these diverse processes. Second, the relationship between religious (for example, monastic and conventual) and secular abstinence requires further research. Although the contributors shed great light on secular Christian dietary discipline, the idea that the religious orders broadly aligned themselves with secular Christian norms, at least before the fourteenth century, is simplistic. Third, study of the practices surrounding the Eucharistic bread and wine, including their ingredients and manufacture and the different doctrinal understandings of what happens to them in the liturgy, has the potential to bridge the current divide between the approaches to food taken by religious studies scholars and theologians.

Cite this article
David Grumett, “Food and Faith in Christian Culture”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 40:2 , 88-91

David Grumett

University of Edinburgh
David is Senior Lecturer in Theology and Ethics in the University of Edinburgh.