This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.
“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20
Understanding the Great Commission Expansively
It is sometimes easy for evangelicals to fall into the trap of thinking that the Great Commission is just about saving souls. However, when Jesus told His us to make disciples of all nations, He seems to have had more in mind than simply getting individuals into heaven, important as that is. Discipling the nations also involves bringing a Christianizing influence to civilization and culture. We are called, not merely to save individuals, but to redeem the communities and cultures in which we live.
At least, that is what I recently argued in an article I wrote for my personal blog. Pointing to the example of the ancient missionary Boniface and the modern missionary Jim Elliot, I remarked,
“When Jim Elliot and the other missionaries, and later some of their wives and sister, took the message of Christ to the Waidoni Indians in South America, the result was the emergence of a Waidoni Christian civilization that remains strong to this day. When Boniface took the message of Christ to the wild Germanic tribes, the result was a Christian civilization that remained in existence for hundreds of years.”
My point in these examples is that the work of evangelizing the world cannot be separated from the work of building Christendom, not only because the latter is the inevitable result of the former, but because by having the latter in view, it effects how missionaries do evangelism. For example, because Boniface believed that the success of his mission should be judged in terms of generations and centuries, not merely the fruit produced during one lifetime, he put mechanisms in place to assist the progress of the gospel after he was gone. This included planting schools to increase literacy so that the young could be more easily discipled and become strong in the Word. He also worked to bring art, music and poetry to the barbaric tribes. He established libraries and put men to work copying manuscripts so that the next generation would have access, not only to the Bible, but to other great works of literature.
Boniface did this because he knew nothing of the false dualism between building a Christian civilization and saving souls. The two projects may be distinguishable but they should never be divisible.
So what does transforming a civilization for Christ actually involve? John Frame gave some pointers in his The Doctrine of the Christian Life:
“The gospel, you see, is not only a message for individuals, telling them how to avoid God’s wrath. It is also a message about a kingdom, a society, a new community… This simply means that if you are a Christian artist, car repairman, government official, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
In other words, transforming civilization for Christ involves hundreds of little things that we often do not even associate with the gospel. “Realizing that Gnosticism is bad,” remarked Douglas Wilson in a 2005 blog post, “we need to remember that grace results in far more than forgiveness of sins (which does, however, remain at the center). It also extends into other things, like advancements in dentistry, glorious poetry, and the building of suspension bridges.”
Grace also extends to the area of diet and food. At least, that is what my friend Renée DeGroot argued in her 2010 book Health for Godly Generations: A Reformational Perspective. “If ‘Culture is religion externalized,’” she writes, “and if diet preferences are an element of culture (which they are, since diet is not universal but is shaped by geography, people groups, and traditions), then all food practices, including harvest, preparation, nutrition, and consumption, are associated with the working outward of a people’s religion….A distinctively Christian and reformed view of culture will likewise affect our food preparation and diet choices.”
What makes me suspect that deGroot is onto something is that it is true to history. Throughout history when the gospel has permeated an area, one of the knock-on effects is often that the quality of the eating improves. While this is often simply the byproduct of the civilizing influence of Christianity over savagery, resulting in vices as well as virtues becoming more refined and sophisticated, the civilizing influences in the area of food remain significant and are an important part of cultural reform.
Charlemagne and the wines of Liechtenstein
One example of this is Charlemagne and the wines of Liechtenstein. The quality of these world-famous wines are themselves a testimony to the influence of the gospel on food (or, in this case, drink). James Foster Robinson explains about this in his article ‘The Wines of Liechtenstein’:
“…with the introduction of Christianity into the area in the 4th Century, vine growing and wine producing was re-established. The Christian monks, preaching the word of God, encouraged agriculture including wine.”
Charlemagne, who ruled over the area around 800 AD, owned the vineyards on the flanks of the hill on which Gutenberg Castle stands in Balzars. The vineyards yielded him three thousand gallons of wine a year. Among Charlemagne’s many accomplishments was his hygiene reforms. He was especially concerned about the traditional method of pressing the grapes. He forbade the Raetians to stamp out grapes with their bare feet, but they refused and continued in the old ways. Charlemagne then tried to improve the hygiene by ordering all men to wash their feet before treading out the grapes and to wear garments to prevent perspiration from running into the juice.
Just think of it: Charlemagne, the great Christian king who is largely responsible for the Christian Europe of the Middle Ages, was concerned with wine being healthier and more hygienic! Charlemagne may have realized that God cares about the artefacts we produce, or he may have simply wanted his wine to taste nicer. Whatever the reason, the wines of Liechtenstein remain a lasting testimony to the fact that the gospel fleshes itself out into all areas of human creativity and production, including food and drink.
Glorifying God With Artifacts
What is true of food is actually true of any area of life. Think back to the quotation I shared earlier from John Frame. If I am a Christian architect, I can glorify God by trying to be the best architect I can be; if I am a Christian king, I can glorify God by trying to be the best Christian king I can be; if I am a Christian slave, I can glorify God by trying to be the best Christian slave I can be. Similarly, if I am involved in the production of food and drink, I can glorify God by trying to produce food in the very best possible way that I can. That often means sacrificing expediency for health and taste concerns. In the case of the Liechtenstein wine-makers, this meant taking a little extra time to stop and wash their feet before treading on the grapes for the sake of a healthier product.
The point is that God cares about culture even down to the details of what we make. Culture itself is largely made up of the artifacts we produce, as Andy Crouch has shown in Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling. God cares about the paintings on our walls, the harmony of our music, the rhyming of our poetry, the strength of our bridges, the beauty of our clothes and the precision of our computers. And He cares about our food.
Food and the Aesthetic
I know many Christians who would be quick to say ‘Amen’ to everything I wrote in the last section except for what I said about food. When it comes to cultural production in the area of food they will be quick to point out that God just doesn’t care. This is an area, they will say, where it is a category mistake to even speak about reformation and maturity, since the only thing God cares about when it comes to what we eat is that we do not sin. According to this line of reasoning, it is the attitude in our heart, not the food in the pot, that is important to the Lord.
One of the reasons that Christians adopt this erroneous position is that we live in an era in which the ‘art’ of food preparation has been disengaged from the medieval sense of ‘craft.’ We can thank the Enlightenment for this since this was the time when the fine arts were separated from the mechanical arts. The unfortunate corollary of this separation was that the mechanical arts were loosed from aesthetic criteria while the fine arts became increasingly disengaged from ordinary life. As the fine arts were separated from the aesthetic, they began to be conceived in purely functional and utilitarian terms. Think of the types of houses that many of my readers probably live in; they were built to be functional rather than beautiful. Diet is another area that has fallen victim of the dichotomy between the mechanical arts and the fine arts, with food largely falling into the category of the former. The result is that many Christians will acknowledge that aesthetic relativism is wrong in the art gallery but will embrace relativism in the kitchen. Such an inconsistency often arises as the unconscious consequence of a purely functional concept of eating in which the objective categories of the aesthetic have been evacuated, having migrated over to the fine arts.
However, we cannot say that God is indifferent to the content of our diet without lapsing into aesthetic relativism. We cannot say it is important to God that our music, art, architecture and poetry should be good, but that food is neutral unless we have first assumed that food is separate from artistic craft. I confess much of the way food is treated in our day and age tends to fortify such an impression. Thanks to the commercialization of food as well as the decline of family meal times, we often think of food as a commodity not a craft, a product not an artifact. Consequently, we tend to divorce diet from the objective categories of the aesthetic.
By contrast, Renée DeGroot has argued convincingly that Christians should once again view eating through an aesthetic lens. “True beauty” she writes, “is sought as we cultivate food in the way God created, preparing it purely and wholesomely to nourish and strengthen us, and serving it lovingly at the family meal table. We can use the natural beauty and pleasure of food to build godly culture. Science and inventions not used for God’s glory, however, can lead to the making of food products that are not good and wholesome, and which do not beautify our bodies and the earth….Meals eaten together as a family are a place where children are discipled in Christian aesthetics…”
Culture and Worship
To say God takes an interest in the production of cultural artifacts, whether smoothies or symphonies, cup-cakes or couplets, is simply to say that these are areas that can be legitimately touched by a Christ-glorifying cultural reformation. And to be sure, these are areas where we should be patient and be content for God to take His time – if need be, hundreds of years – in letting the implications of the gospel percolate into every area of life. But being patient with cultural reform does not mean being unconcerned about it. On the contrary, a passionate concern for cultural reformation should spring out of the fact that our cultural artifacts are an expression of our worship. This was a point articulated by Luke Jankovic in an article for Credenda Agenda:
The word “culture” is downstream from the Latin colere—to tend, cultivate. In Genesis 1, God gives Adam marching orders: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth” (Gen. 1:28). Adam’s calling was to tend and cultivate the earth—to rule it. Before the fall, he was wholly capable of doing so and, being made in the God’s image, it came naturally to him. Adam’s communion with God (his worship) and his calling (cultural dominion) were one and the same. The two were intertwined. The link between worship and culture was not lost on the post-fall descendants of Adam, which is why “cultus” (worship) also shares lineage with the Latin parent colere. The cultivation of land, the tending of the natural world, and the production and consumption of food (initial culture) have been tied with up with worship since the Garden. When Adam broke communion the connection between worship and the calling to tend and inhabit—to create culture—didn’t disappear. The nature of the communion changed, but not the calling.
What does Jankovic’s observations have to do with food? Simply this: if God calls the descendants of Adam to create cultures the glorify him, then the role of food cannot be dismissed as irrelevant to this project. This is because, to quote Mark Kurlansky from his book Choice Cuts, “Food is a central activity of mankind and one of the single most important trademarks of a culture.”
So where to start? In bringing cultural reformation into the kitchen, I want to suggest three final areas where Christians, and particularly Christian parents, can follow Charlemagne’s example and start glorifying God today.
Food and Education
The first area is education. Building on the comments in my earlier post, ‘God Cares What’s in the Pot (Part 1)’, I want to suggest that parents can begin educating themselves about the origin and nutritional value of the food they put on the table for their kids to eat, even as Charlemagne educated himself about the processes of wine production. Parents can begin to learn the difference between healthy oils and unhealthy oils, why sugar is preferable to corn syrup, and why the government’s food pyramid is one of the myths perpetuated by the agricultural lobby. Renée DeGroot’s book Health for Godly Generations: A Reformational Perspective can be an enormously useful resource here.
Food and Love
Second, parents should self-consciously recognize the relationship between eating and love. My friend Brad Littlejohn recently shared some important insights on his blog concerning the relationship of love and healthy eating:
“All three levels of horizontal Christian love apply–love of ourselves, love of others, and love for the creation. God does desire us to love ourselves–to be concerned with our well-being, that we may enjoy him and serve him and others effectively. Obviously, what we eat is absolutely central to our well-being. If we eat foolishly and destroy our bodies, or weaken them so that we have to spend thousands of dollars on medical care for chronic and easily preventable conditions, we are exercising extremely poor stewardship, harming ourselves and indirectly others. So, to this extent, while surely even the worst foods are essentially harmless in sufficiently small quantities, we can say that in general, God does care (in our carefully qualified sense) if we eat too much…refined sugar or ‘processed stuff made out of something that used to be like corn.’
God desires us to love others–to work for their physical and spiritual well-being, and to be mindful of the ways in which our actions directly or indirectly help or harm them. Obviously this means, in the case of food, that we should care not only that we don’t destroy our own bodies with foolish eating, but that, as much as reasonably possible (mindful of the thousands of taxing duties that parents have, and their very human limits) we protect our children from it as well.”
The Family Meal
Third and finally, no discussion about the role of food in cultural reformation would be complete without saying something about the family meal.
Eating a satisfying meal three (or even two) times a day helps to mitigate against the tendency to snack. More importantly, however, the family meal is a time where relationships are solidified and enjoyed. It is a time to connect with each other, to tell stories, and for our children to learn the art of conversation and debate. One of the casualties of our fast-paced society, however, is that the family meal can easily be lost. Even when families do eat together, it is often centered around the television, thus depriving children of the communal aspects of the eating ritual. This is unfortunate given that the institution of eating, especially the family meal, plays a formative role in shaping culture and perpetuating it to the next generation. Michael Pollan had this to say about the family meal in In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,
“That one should feel the need to mount a defense of ‘the meal’ is sad, but then I never would have thought ‘food’ needed defending, either…It is at the dinner table that we socialize and civilize our children, teaching them manners and the art of conversation. At the dinner table parents can determine portion sizes, model eating and drinking behavior, and enforce social norms about greed and gluttony and waste. Shared meals are about much more than fueling bodies; they are uniquely human institutions where our species developed…this thing we call culture.”
- Chewing at God’s Blessings
- God Cares What’s in the Pot (Part 1)
- Food and Teleology
- Jesus, Junk Food, and Christian Charity
- Response to Doug Wilson’s Food Sectarianism