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Archive for the ‘Food/Drink’ Category

Public displays of religion are more offensive than public displays of affection, which I think partially explains some Americans’ reactions to Muslims who say their daily prayers. For many Americans, seeing someone practicing religion in public feels a bit like watching the inebriated or mentally unstable in public: What are they going to do next? Why aren’t they being rational? Why couldn’t they keep this to themselves? Which is one reason why saying grace can be a testament to a watching world that our faith is not a personal preference that we keep discretely hidden behind our “normal” public life. And insofar as saying grace defies the secular social etiquette of privatizing religious practices, it is a disruptive witness.

We certainly shouldn’t say grace in order to be seen saying grace, or to make people uncomfortable. We don’t pray loudly so that others will be shocked and disturbed by our piety. Being a “Jesus freak” just to be a freak capitulates to the game of secularism in that it turns our faith into an advertisement, a signal to others. The practice of our faith turns out to be the advertising of our faith, which is the exact kind of hollowness at the core of so many contemporary beliefs we are seeking to avoid. If our public prayers or any other public display of faith ceases to be primarily about the spiritual purpose—in this case, thanking God for his provision—and instead becomes about others seeing us be thankful toward God, then we have exchanged the thing itself for the appearance of the thing. Our motive ought to be gratitude to God, not seeking attention. But if we find ourselves actually avoiding public prayers because it feels socially awkward, or because it feels like we’re imposing our faith on our neighbors, we need to be able to call that avoidance what it is: a capitulation to secular ideas of the public square.

Another way that saying grace is a disruptive witness is that it challenges a materialist account of provision. Although there are nearly innumerable acceptable visions of fullness in our secular age, the majority of them assume that we live in a closed universe wherein everything or virtually everything can be explained through an empirical, materialist, scientific account. Physics and chemistry account for the totality of existence. We may come to many different conclusions from this assumption, however. For example, someone might look at the purely material world as a kind of nearly transcendent gift that requires our admiration and worship. Such a person may show gratitude for the idea of the Earth in all its vastness. Others may believe that the food in front of us is a testament to the human potential for greatness—our ability to cultivate the earth and produce fine food efficiently and economically. Still others may simply take provision as a given, not bothering to consider it at all except insofar as they are responsible for paying for the food.

What is uncommon is the view that whatever food lies before us is a gift from a personal God who provides for us because he loves us. The more divorced we are from the cultivation of crops and animals, and the more mechanical and manufactured our food appears to us, the less we see it as a gift. When our meals come to us carefully wrapped in paper from hands wrapped in latex gloves that took ingredients from hermetically sealed plastic bags that were created in a sanitary, automated factory, it is no easy thing to see the hand of God at work providing for us. Contingencies of weather and seasons, human errors, and animal behavior and health have been carefully, systematically, and technologically reduced as much as possible. Think, for example, of the fact that modern people expect to be able to go to the market and buy apples year-round. Humanity has mastered nature, and we owe humanity no gratitude—just some monetary compensation. This of course makes the act of giving thanks to God all the more disruptive. If I am thankful to the cook or the restaurant chain or capitalism or modern farming techniques or my job that allows me to afford the food or even a semimystical conception of Mother Earth, I am still fundamentally accepting that the food before me is completely the result of processes in the material world. But to thank God is to defy this logic. This is not a generic or impersonal sense of gratitude toward nature or the universe, but a specific thankfulness for a meal to a personal God whose common grace provides for us all.

— Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness

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Our addiction to stimulation, input, and entertainment empties us out and makes us boring—unable to embrace the ordinary wonders of life in Christ.

Kathleen Norris writes,

Like liturgy, the work of cleaning draws much of its meaning and value from repetition, from the fact that it is never completed, but only set aside until the next day. Both liturgy and what is euphemistically termed “domestic” work also have an intense relation with the present moment, a kind of faith in the present that fosters hope and makes life seem possible in the day-to-day.

Daily life, dishes in the sink, children that ask the same questions and want the same stories again and again and again, the long doldrums of the afternoon—these things are filled with repetition. And much of the Christian life is returning over and over to the same work and the same habits of worship. We must contend with the same spiritual struggles again and again. The work of repentance and faith is daily and repetitive. Again and again, we repent and believe.

A sign hangs on the wall in a New Monastic Christian community house: “Everyone wants a revolution. No one wants to do the dishes.” I was, and remain, a Christian who longs for revolution, for things to be made new and whole in beautiful and big ways. But what I am slowly seeing is that you can’t get to the revolution without learning to do the dishes. The kind of spiritual life and disciplines needed to sustain the Christian life are quiet, repetitive, and ordinary. I often want to skip the boring, daily stuff to get to the thrill of an edgy faith. But it’s in the dailiness of the Christian faith—the making the bed, the doing the dishes, the praying for our enemies, the reading the Bible, the quiet, the small—that God’s transformation takes root and grows.

— Tish Harrison Warren, Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life

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The immanent frame comes in different forms. It is possible to feel that we live in a closed immanent frame, which means that there is no higher, transcendent reality. The material universe we live in is all there is and ever will be. But it is also possible to experience life within an open immanent frame. By this Taylor means that although our daily experience isn’t imbued with the supernatural, we believe that some transcendent being exists and that he can break into our world at certain times and places. What is notable here is that even when the immanent frame is open, it is still the immanent frame.

To get a sense of what this look likes, consider for a minute what it is like to attend church on Sunday. You are awakened by an alarm on your cell phone, an amazing piece of technology and testament to the power of human mastery over the natural world. You eat eggs for breakfast. They come, almost miraculously, clean, large, and white in a carton that has been inspected by some government agency to ensure it is safe. The carton lists the nutritional composition of the eggs along with a few words about their health benefits. Everything has been considered. You get dressed in clothes that you bought ready-made. You drive to church in a glistening, energy-efficient sedan with advanced safety features, and glance occasionally at the cars next to you, in which people are completely preoccupied and content with the technology around them. As you drive through the city, everything you see appears as a work of human achievement: stoplights, fire trucks, businesses, freeway overpasses, and skyscrapers. By chance you see a bluebird, and you immediately reflect back on a recent episode of an animal show you watched that featured the bluebird. “Bluebirds are part of the thrush family,” you say to no one in particular. At church, you sing songs praising God’s provision, his mercies, his creation, and his grace. But everything you experienced on the way to church, from the food you ate to the beauty you witnessed, testified to humanity’s ingenuity and mastery of the world. Your experience of the world was a testament to humanity, not God, because everything in your experience conditioned you to look to this world and its physical laws. It all makes sense as a self-sufficient immanent world, even though you know that Jesus is our Creator and Sustainer. And so, we experience life in the immanent frame even as we confess that it is open to an outside, transcendent force.

— Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness

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A natural consequence of being mentally engaged all the time is, first, that it is easy for us to live with internal conflicts and contradictions with little cognitive dissonance. When confronted with a deficiency in our ethical code, it takes no real effort to ignore it. Imagine, for example, someone who believes that people who rely on government assistance are freeloaders, but then this same person cheats on her taxes in little ways. Her hypocrisy should cause her a pang of guilt, but guilt requires attention in order to grow into reflection and repentance. And the structure of our day and our bodily habits are so oriented toward the next thing that she soon finds herself onto some other concern. We are certainly still capable of reflection and meditation, but our default response to cognitive dissonance is to simply do something else. The rhythms and practices of our modern world militate against reflection. There are so many immediate incentives for going with the flow; meanwhile, the recognition that we are not living up to the moral standards we identify with is costly. It certainly requires time, but it may also require changes to our lifestyle or to our moral standards. When we think of cognitive dissonance as the problem, rather than a symptom of an incoherent belief system, there are a number of effective and less costly ways of fixing things by moving on.

So, a belief in the essential goodness of humanity can live quite comfortably alongside a racist suspicion that certain people are inherently more prone to criminality. We are not interested in sorting through the validity of our convictions. We are about the next thing.

A superficial but constant engagement with media also invites us to unreflectively adopt ethical and political positions, creating a hodgepodge worldview. From a film on the treatment of animals in amusement parks we develop a fleeting concern for animal rights. A documentary on modern farming practices makes us see shopping local and organic as a moral issue. A hashtag campaign draws our attention to the evils of human trafficking, perhaps even while we look at porn on another browser tab. Causes are as easy to pick up as they are to put down. Or, more accurately, we don’t put causes down so much as we forget them. Putting them down would require some intentional meditation on the validity of the cause. Instead, we simply move on to something else. Humans are tremendously gifted at hypocrisy and inconsistency, but a ubiquitous, powerful stream of information and interaction driven by technology enables these gifts to flourish. And that is precisely the problem.

— Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness

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America is of course a land of bounteous variety, and for a long time after we first moved here I was dazzled and gratified by the wealth of choice everywhere. I remember going to the supermarket for the first time and being genuinely impressed to find that it stocked no fewer than eighteen varieties of incontinence diaper. Two or three I could understand. Half a dozen would seem to cover every possible incontinence contingency. But eighteen–gosh! This was a land of plenty. And what a range of choice they offered. Some were scented, some were dimpled for extra comfort, and they came in a variety of strengths from, as it were, “Oops, bit of a dribble” to “Whoa! Dambusters!” Those weren’t the labels they actually used, of course, but that was the gist of it. They even came in a choice of colors.

For nearly every other type of product–frozen pizzas, dog food, ice creams, cereals, cookies, potato chips–the choices were often literally in the hundreds. Every new flavor seemed to have pupped another flavor. When I was a boy shredded wheat was shredded wheat and that was it. Now you could have it coated in sugar or cinnamon, in bite-size morsels, with slices of genuine bananalike material, and goodness knows what else.

And this applies to everything. You can now choose, apparently, among thirty-five varieties of Crest toothpaste. According to The Economist, “The average supermarket in America devotes 20 feet of shelving to medicines for coughs and colds.” (And never mind that of the 25,500 “new” consumer products launched in the United States last year, 93 percent were merely modified versions of existing products.)

After twenty years in England this copious abundance was, as you might imagine, almost intoxicating. Lately, however, I have come to suspect that perhaps you can get too much choice. I found myself edging around to this view recently when I was at the airport in Portland, Oregon, standing in a line of about fifteen people at a coffee stand. It was 5:45 A.M., not my best time of day, and I had just twenty minutes till my flight was to be called, but I really, really needed to get some caffeine into my system. You know how it is.

It used to be if you wanted a cup of coffee that’s what you asked for and that’s what you got. But this place, being a 1990s sort of coffee stand, offered at least twenty choices–plain latte, caramel latte, breve, macchiato, mocha, espresso, espresso mocha, black forest mocha, americano, and so on-in a range of sizes. There was also a galaxy of muffins, croissants, bagels, and pastries. All of these could be had in any number of variations, so that every order went something like this:

“I’ll have a caramel latte combo with decaf mocha and a cinnamon twist, and a low-fat cream cheese sourdough bagel, but I’d like the pimento grated and on the side. Are your poppyseeds roasted in polyunsaturated vegetable oil?”

“No, we use double-extra-lite canola extract.”

“Oh, that’s no good for me. In that case, I’ll have a New York three-cheese pumpernickel fudge croissant. What kind of emulsifiers do you use in that?”

In my mind’s eye, I saw myself taking each customer by the ears, shaking his or her head slowly eighteen or twenty times, and saying: “You’re just trying to get a cup of coffee and a bread product before your flight. Now ask for something simple and scram.”

Fortunately for all these people, until I have had my first cup of coffee in the morning (and this is particularly true during hours in single digits) all I can do is rise, dress myself (a bit), and ask for a cup of coffee. Anything else is beyond me. So I just stood and waited stoically while fifteen people placed complex, time-consuming, preposterously individualized orders.

When at last my turn came, I stepped up and said: “I’d like a large cup of coffee.”

“What kind?”

“Hot and in a cup and very large.”

“Yeah, but what kind–mocha, macchiato, what?”

“I want whichever one is a normal cup of coffee.”

“You want americano?”

“If that means a normal cup of coffee, then yes.”

“Well, they’re all coffees.”

“I want a normal cup of coffee like millions of people drink every day.”

“So you want an americano?”

“Evidently.”

“Do you want regular whipped cream or low-cal with that?”

“I don’t want whipped cream.”

“But it comes with whipped cream.”

“Look,” I said in a low voice, “it is 6:10 A.M. I have been standing for twenty-five minutes behind fifteen seriously selective people, and my flight is being called. If I don’t get some coffee right now–and by right now I mean right now–I am going to have to murder someone, and I think you should know that you are on the short list.” (I am not, as you will gather, a morning person.)

“So does that mean you want low-cal whipped cream or regular?”

And so it went.

— Bill Bryson, I’m a Stranger Here Myself

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My mother was not a great cook, you see.

Now please don’t misunderstand me. My mother is a wonderful person–kindly, saintly, ever cheerful–and when she dies she will go straight to heaven. But believe me, no one is ever going to say, “Oh, thank goodness you’re here, Mrs. Bryson. Can you fix us a little something to eat?”

To be perfectly fair to her, my mother had several strikes against her in the kitchen department. To begin with, she couldn’t have been a great cook even if she had wanted to. She had a career, you see-she worked for the local newspaper, which meant that she was always flying in the door two minutes before it was time to put dinner on the table.

On top of this, she was a trifle absentminded. Her particular specialty was to cook things while they were still in the packaging. I was almost full-grown before I realized that Saran Wrap wasn’t a sort of chewy glaze. A combination of haste, forgetfulness, and a charming incompetence where household appliances were concerned meant that most of her cooking experiences were punctuated with billows of smoke and occasional small explosions. In our house, as a rule of thumb, you knew it was time to eat when the firemen departed.

Strangely, all this suited my father, who had what might charitably be called rudimentary tastes in food. His palate really only responded to three flavors–salt, ketchup, and burnt. His idea of a truly outstanding meal was a plate that contained something brown and unidentifiable, something green and unidentifiable, and something charred. I am quite sure that if you slow-baked, say, an oven glove and covered it sufficiently with ketchup, he would have declared, after a ruminative moment’s chewing, “Hey, this is very tasty.” Good food, in short, was something that was wasted on him, and my mother labored diligently for years to see that he was never disappointed.

— Bill Bryson, I’m a Stranger Here Myself

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Both ideals [of “meaningful work” and “self-reliance”] are tied to a struggle for individual agency, which I find to be at the very center of modern life. When we view our lives through the lens of this struggle, it brings certain experiences into sharper focus. Both as workers and as consumers, we feel we move in channels that have been projected from afar by vast impersonal forces. We worry that we are becoming stupider, and begin to wonder if getting an adequate grasp on the world, intellectually, depends on getting a handle on it in some literal and active sense.

Some people respond by learning to grow their own vegetables. There are even reports of people raising chickens on the rooftops of apartment buildings in New York City. These new agrarians say they get a deep satisfaction from recovering a more direct relationship to the food they eat. Others take up knitting, and find pride in wearing clothes they have made themselves. The home economics of our grandmothers is suddenly cutting-edge chic–why should this be? In hard economic times, we want to be frugal. Frugality requires some measure of self-reliance–the ability to take care of your own stuff. But the new interest in self-reliance seems to have arisen before the specter of hard times. Frugality may be only a thin economic rationalization for a movement that really answers to a deeper need: we want to feel that our world is intelligible, so we can be responsible for it. This seems to require that the provenance of our things be brought closer to home. Many people are trying to recover a field of vision that is basically human in scale, and extricate themselves from dependence on the obscure forces of a global economy.

— Matthew Crawford, Shopclass as Soulcraft

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