Tuesday, March 6, 2007

The Gastric God

Physical gluttony goes unrecognized these days. Sometimes we note its effects. Obesity is an epidemic, physicians say. But as strange as it may sound, even Jack Sprat could be gluttonous. For gluttony is not always overeating, but rather the sinful use of food and the other appetites.

But even overeating is seen more as a foolishness, rather than a sin. In our world the man with belt undone on Thanskgiving night is silly, not hell-bound. Delight in Food is a virtue for some, hence an entire television network devoted to the vice. Still in doubt? Listen for a few moments to The Splendid Table from America Public Media. Sometimes their talk of food is nearly pornographic.

C. S. Lewis once wrote:

The desire to eat and enjoy food is normal, but if people thought about food the whole day long, dribbled over pictures of food and went to watch shows in which a cover was slowly lifted from a plate revealing, just before the lights went off, a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, one could not but conclude that there was something very wrong with their appetite for food. This is precisely what our present sexual instinct is like. It is warped, to a far greater extent than our appetite for food. “…perversions of the food appetite are rare. But perversions of the sex instinct are numerous, hard to cure, and frightful.” (Mere Christianity)

Lewis was ignorant of what was to come. “Perversions of the food appetite” are not rare, but so ingrained upon us now that we do not recognize them. How often do we think of eating? When do we ask “What’s for Supper?” Already at three o’clock? Is moderation in eating a virtue? Granted, we do not go to cuisine burlesque shows, but we don’t need to–we can open nearly any major magazine and see full-color spreads of steaks and glistening vegetables. Then there’s the Food Network (again): it shows us food in action. Society completely bypassed the culinary burlesque show and went straight for hard-core food shots, hiding nothing to inflame our passion for food. We can have a fully satisfying dinner, perhaps even a snack at eight o’clock, and right before the late news begins, the temptress Outback Steakhouse reveals a steak running with juice and a gloriously golden Booming Onion and our stomachs growl and groan and Pavlov couldn’t be happier with the saliva that floods our mouth.

St. Paul wrote, “For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame — who set their mind on earthly things” (Philippians 3:18-19 NKJV).

Fasting is a help for this, a specific rejection of the gastric god and the decision to not follow every whim of my body. Fasting teaches us that eating what and when we want is not the best way. And if our bellies learn that, perhaps our other appetites as well.