In his book In Defense of Food Michael Pollan does just what the title suggests, he defends food. Pollan argues that the presupposition behind modern food science, or “nutritionism” as he calls it, is that humans don’t need food, they need nutrients. To be sure, modern science is not yet unified on exactly what nutrients mankind might best thrive on, but they are convinced that the perfect diet is to be found not in a kitchen, but in a lab.
Says Pollan: “if you’re a nutrition scientist you do the only thing you can do, given the tools at your disposal: break the thing down into its component parts and study those one by one, even if that means ignoring the subtle interactions and contexts and the fact that the whole may well be more than, or maybe just different from, the sum of its parts.”
In other words, if you ask a scientist “what is an apple?” don’t be surprised when he answers by describing the pieces he just examined under a microscope. He’s answering the question with the skill set and worldview with which he was trained. Contra such reductionist science, Pollan argues that an apple is an entity in and of itself. Its benefits can’t be replicated simply by taking the exact dosage of Vitamins K, B-6, and E found in the fruit. No, in order to thrive, we need the apple, not simply its “nutrients.”
If Pollan is right when he says that we need food (i.e. fruits, vegetables, meat, seeds, etc.) rather than simply nutrients (i.e. vitamins, minerals, chemicals, etc.), then the answer to the question “what should we eat?” won’t be found in labs, but in kitchens. In the end, Pollan’s book is as much cultural history as it is dietary advice. Nutritionism, it becomes clear, is simply the outworking of an arrogant modernity which equates knowledge with the scientific method. It is produced by a culture which views itself, as Wendell Berry might say, more machine than human.
In his book The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies Michael Legaspi tells the same story of modernity but with Scripture, rather than food, as the subject. If the books are read together, it becomes clear that the worldview which led us from the kitchen to the lab also led us from the church to the academy. Focusing on the ways in which Scripture was used and re-imagined in eighteenth-century Germany, Legaspi skillfully shows that the Enlightenment attempted to fit the Bible into the category of “text” rather than “Scripture.”
Legaspi says it well, “Academic critics did not dispense with the authority of a Bible resonant with religion; they redeployed it. Yet they did so in a distinctive form that has run both parallel and perpendicular to church appropriations of the Bible.” In other words, the same Bible was being studied in the academy as in the church, but the academy had vastly different goals, values, and presuppositions motivating its study.
Thus, Legaspi recounts the history of modern biblical interpretation as a move from “Scripture” (which is read in the church) to “text” (which is read in the academy). If one asks a biblical scholar “what does this text mean?” one shouldn’t be surprised when he answers by simply parsing the set of words in front of him. He’s answering the question with the skillset and worldview with which he was trained. Just as modern nutritionism views food as simply a collection of vitamins and calories, never considering the context of the whole food, never mind the whole meal, so too does the modern biblical scholar neglect the canonical context in which a given passage finds itself, as well as the context in which the text was meant to be read.
For those with eyes to see, Legaspi’s use of the word “text” is reminiscent of Pollan’s use of the word “nutrients.” A text, like a nutrient, lies on the table in front of the critic, waiting to be broken into its parts and put under a microscope for scientific study. Scripture, on the other hand, is like food. It comes on its own terms, demanding to be eaten “as is.” Scripture is more than, and different than, the sum of its parts.
For example, to “know” the story of the Good Samaritan in a textual sense simply involves issues of grammar, syntax, and cultural idiosyncrasies. To “know” the story in a Scriptural sense involves all those things, but also a willingness to view the needy around you as your neighbor. Said differently, to know a text exclusively involves one’s cognitive faculties. Knowing scripture, however, might begin with the mind, but if it doesn’t end in full-bodied obedience, it isn’t truly known. This, I take it, is the point of James 1:23-25.
If the story being told by Pollan is that of nutritionism, then the story being told by Legaspi is what I’ll call “textism.” Because nutritionism and textism are both products of modernism, it will behoove those of us concerned with practicing an ancient, ecclesial, Paleo-faith to study the practices of those rejecting the dietary outworking’s of modernism. Their journey to the kitchen, in many ways, will show us the road back to the church. For example, let’s consider three of the questions Pollan recommends asking before buying food: Is this a “food?” Would my ancestors recognize it as a food? Is it local?
First, is this a “food?” As we’ve seen, when Pollan uses the word “food” he’s trying to undermine modern nutritionism. He wouldn’t want us to consider a pill which claims to have the same nutritional make-up as a squash equivalent with a squash. If you want the benefits of a squash, there is no pill, or for that matter cereal, which can equate the actual eating of a squash. Thus, when we go to the grocery store, we have to reckon with the actual creature in front of us, rather than viewing the object as a collection of mere nutrients.
When we open our Bibles, we have to ask “is this Scripture?” By answering in the affirmative, we will undermine the modernist attempt to neuter the Bible into a “text.” A text is private; Scripture is public. Textism has produced a private reading of Scripture which, at best, will demand the reader take every “spiritual” thought captive to Christ. A Scriptural reading will call the reader to take every thought captive: from politics to business to family-life. There isn’t a sphere in which the King, speaking through the Scriptures, does not demand obedience from the reader.
Likewise, a text is read rationalistically; Scripture is read theologically. A theological interpretation of Scripture is the natural consequence of recognizing the Scriptures as such. If the same Spirit who inspired Micah inspired John, then making intertextual, typological connection is not artificial, but natural, and indeed necessary! A text has one author; Scripture has two. While the divine author is never in conflict with the human author, we should expect the divine authorial intent to be “thicker” than the human author’s intent. Said differently, the same Author who started the story (in Genesis) had the climax (in the Gospels) and the ending (in Revelation) in mind all the way through. Thus, it is only natural that we recognize the substance (the thing typified) in the shadow (the type).
Second, would my ancestors recognize it as a food? Pollan points out that while your ancestors might mistake Go-Gurt® as yogurt, they certainly wouldn’t recognize its gelatin or modified cornstarch as food. At some point, modern eating has departed from what traditional cultures would recognize as food. In the same way, Scripture demands to be read in a way congruent with the past. To be sure, Scripture always trumps any past interpretation of itself, but we would be fools to neglect the wisdom of our fathers. Thus, we can read, say, the account of Jesus’ baptism with the Trinitarian creeds in the back of our minds. We do this not with a slavish obedience to “tradition,” but with the humility and confidence which comes with being part of a church that transcends time and space.
Third, is it local? The modernist worldview has made the purchasing of food as abstract, impersonal, and unaccountable as possible. The orange we eat this morning was just as likely to have been picked in Mexico as Florida. The ways in which the farmer treats his employees, we’re told, is not our business. However, when one buys locally, not only is the grower made accountable to the eater, but the eater is brought into a relationship with the farmer, the merchant, and indeed the land. In other words, to buy locally is to subject yourself to a community.
Scripture, likewise, must be read locally, in community. Texts are read individually, often at a desk, with a pen and dictionary in hand. Of course, it is perfectly appropriate to study the Scriptures on one’s own; but that is not the natural way in which to read the Scriptures. The Scriptures were written to be heard, and rehearsed, in the context of a church. Thus, if one tries to exclusively read, say, the Psalms on one’s own, the lament Psalms are either muted, or applied to fairly trivial matters. If read in community, these Psalms are read (or sung) with the experiences of others in mind. True, every individual person may not be suffering in a given congregation, but someone in the church is. And, when read communally the suffering person’s burdens are borne by the whole community.
Additionally, when Scripture is read in community, the interpretation of each reader is accountable not only to the ancient church, but to the local church. The perspectives of various genders, ages, cultures, and ethnicities work as a safeguard for any one person’s interpretation. Reading Scripture is a communal act in which each individual reader is brought into an accountable relationship with every other reader.
Michael Pollan feels compelled to defend food because he lives a midst a people whose obsession with nutrition has left them malnourished. They keep eating nutrients in what he calls “food like substances,” but never pick up what our ancestors would recognize as food. Likewise, the result of textism is a people who don’t know how to read the text of Scripture. Modernity has deceived us into reading the Bible privately, individually, and rationalistically. What is needed in our day is a pilgrimage away from the academy and to the church. What is needed is a call to read the Bible publicly, communally, and theologically. Indeed, what is needed is Scripture. After all, man cannot live by texts and nutrients alone.
Dustin Messer teaches theology at Legacy Christian Academy in Frisco, TX. Additionally, Dustin is senior fellow of theology and culture at the Center for Cultural Leadership and pastoral associate at Christ Church (PCA) in Carrollton, TX. A graduate of Boyce College and Covenant Seminary, Dustin is completing his doctoral work in religion and ethics at La Salle University.
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