Recently, HuffPost blogger Lisa Turner offered five religiously inspired rules for eating:
1. Eat mindfully, being aware of the food and your body.
2. Eat for the purpose of nourishing your body; treat your body as a temple.
3. Eat only fresh, clean, light foods, avoiding foods that are processed or canned.
4. Eat only what you need, without overeating or binging on food.
5. Eat for the purpose of bettering yourself spiritually.
As a set of rules for eating -- and living -- it's hard to do better.
I disagree. I think we can do a lot better.
I have sort of a love-hate relationship with lists and rules. Part of me loves to believe that everything -- even things as complicated as food and eating and living! -- can be simplified down into three or five or seven rules. And part of me knows that rules, even good rules, don't really help that much. Who, by now, hasn't heard No. 4 (don't overeat) or No. 3 (avoid processed foods)?
It may surprise you to learn that the Bible itself isn't all that keen on rules, given that so many of the people who claim to love the Bible tend to focus on, well, rules. But even St. Paul admitted that though he knew all the good rules, he couldn't follow them. Jesus broke one rule after another to prove the point that following God was about loving other people, not getting the rules right, an ethic that's not new to him but is in fact a theme in the Hebrew Bible.
Take the little book of Ruth for example. Ruth's a Moabite -- the descendants of a group that refused to give hospitality in the form of bread and water to the Israelites as they left Egypt. This insult led to a prohibition against the Moabites in Deuteronomy 23:3:
"No ... Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the 10th generation [Hebrew-Bible-speak for, 'seriously, not ever!'] none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord."
But when Ruth turns up, hungry and destitute, in the field of the well-off Israelite, Boaz, he doesn't say, "Oh, hey, I'm sorry for your bad situation, Ruth, but your ancestors insulted mine, and this biblical rule means I have to do the same to you."
No: he breaks a law to fulfill the Greater Law, you know, the one that goes "you shall love your neighbor as yourself" -- the one that appears in virtually every world religion.
Breaking bread to share trumps breaking a law.
Which brings me to the thing that's most disturbing about Turner's list: it's entirely self-focused, as if eating is exclusively (or at least primarily) a self-improvement exercise. There's no mention of what is, by my lights, one of the most important aspects of food: the fact that it brings people together.
Dr. Stephen Bratman, author of "Health Food Junkies," once lived in a commune that attracted "food idealists" -- diverse people who all aimed for a kind of spiritual and physical enlightenment through a perfect diet. He writes:
"The act of eating pure food begins to carry pseudo-spiritual connotations. As orthorexia progresses, a day filled with sprouts, umeboshi plums and amaranth biscuits comes to feel as holy as one spent serving the poor and homeless. ... The need to obtain [perfect food] put nearly all social forms of eating out of reach."
Then one day, Dr. Bratman tells the story of being offered a piece of processed cheese by an elderly gentleman, Mr. Davis, who he'd been caring for. To Bratman at that time, this food was total poison. But Mr. Davis would have been insulted by his refusal. Bratman writes: "I chewed the dread processed product. To my great surprise, it seemed to have a healing effect. My cold symptoms disappeared within an hour. It was as if my acceptance of his gratitude healed me."
I'm not telling you to go eat processed cheese, or that all food rules are bad and doomed to become pathological and isolating. It's just that there's more to food than just its ability to confer health, or even spiritual enlightenment. It can be the vehicle of love -- of the love of God, for those who believe, and, for all of us, the love and caring and nourishment that comes whenever one person offers food (however imperfect) with love and another accepts it with gratitude.
Rachel Marie Stone lives in Greenport, N.Y. She blogs on food and faith at EatWithJoy and has written for Christianity Today, Books and Culture, Sojourners and Relevant. Her book, "Eat With Joy: Redeeming God's Gift of Food," is forthcoming from InterVarsity Press in 2013.