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Books: Theology on the Menu

October 1st, 2010

I’m reading Theology on the Menu: Asceticism, Meat and Christian Diet.  I’ve just gotten through the first section on early Christian asceticism and so far it looks pretty good.

This is my first experience with e-book format (Kindle for Mac) and one of the things I notice is that I don’t have page numbers to give with the quotes below.  Odd.  Apologies for that.

In situating early monastic asceticism and the associated hagiography the authors make these positive points in particular:

1)  They compare the difference between the Christian and Greek ascetics by how each type of specialized community related to the population at large and by the nature of their asceticism.  They characterize the Christian ascetics as remaining engaged with the greater community and having stricter dietary regimes.

The authors conclude that “the ultimate hope of the hagiographers  was that the desert would spread into the city as fascinated readers themselves voluntarily adopted these practices.” (Given what the modern reader can see in some of these texts about the differential presentations of gender and ideals of what we would call “physical health,” I’d have to raise an eyebrow at the notion of “fascinated readers voluntarily adopting these practices.” Then again, some contemporary representations of the idealized female body can be shocking on the same terms … emaciated, prized for an explicit lack of femininity.)

2) They rightly point out the extent to which “modern accounts of early Christian asceticism frequently fail to acknowledge its origins in political theology and biblical theology” and place undue focus on the sexual aspects of their practices.  This results in an understanding of those practices that view dietary abstinence as “little more than pathological denial of desires that are fundamental to human flourishing.”  The anchorites did connect food with lust, and this wasn’t unique to them, but then that in turn was connected with the larger conception of how the individual relates to the community.  Lust “implicates the individual in social networks of consumption that would impede spiritual contemplation … [by way of] the social ties it would be likely to bring.”

Further, they note that rather than interpreting monastic life through the modern lens of sexuality, the “prominence and quantity of detail about the paucity of foods eaten suggests, instead, that the bodily temptation uppermost in the minds of many desert fathers was not lust but gluttony.”   By the very nature of the anchoritic communities, these concerns are rooted firmly in larger social and economic contexts.

Finally, from the conclusion of chapter 1,

In accounts of early monastic practices, meat abstinence transforms the whole natural order, reconfiguring the relationships existing between humans and animals, and among animals themselves.  Nonetheless, in seeking to understand the importance of this tradition for theological reflection on food, excessive focus on the status of animals detracts from more significant issues.  These include the ancient tradition of Christian reflection on the meanings of food, in which biological and social considerations are interrelated and both are understood theologically.  The physical body of the ascetic and the social body of the monastery become sites of blessing for a wider community.  Food practices, especially abstention from meat, both enact and convey this shared blessing.

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