A story is told about a man who made an impression on his dinner guests in such a way that the memory stayed with them for decades. The man was known to many as one of the foremost Christian ministers of the twentieth century. His dinner guests, who were of a different persuasion, did not recall striking attempts to convert them or winsome arguments for the Christian faith. They remembered this: “He carved the meat with such dignity.”(1)
Much could be said of this observation. Much could be said of the kind of theology that shapes dinner parties, consumption, even the way one carves meat. And this is particularly true, I believe, in a world where the disconnect between farm and freezer is often so great that the origins, let alone the dignity, of our food is entirely unknown. A former professor tells a story about serving a roasted chicken for Sunday dinner as a special treat. His young son, far more accustomed to seeing chicken in less-identifiable “nuggets” or packaging, stared with fixation at the chicken on the table, slowly coming to recognize its form—body, wing, legs—when suddenly he yelped a cry of utter disgust. “It’s a bird!” He screamed. “Gross!”
My own disconnect with food and faith is not always so far off. In one of the more memorable scenes of the classic work Supper of the Lamb, priest and gastronome Robert Farrar Capon, noting such a disconnect, instructs the reader to take a moment to connect with an onion. Seated before your onion (resisting the temptation to feel silly), you will note to begin with, he writes, “that the onion is a thing, a being, just as you are… Together with knife, board, table, and chair, you are the constituents of a place in the highest sense of the word. This is a Session, a meeting, a society of things.”(2) Step by step Capon then leads the reader through the process of examining this confrontation, examining self and onion as fellow living things. At one point, reducing a piece of the onion to cell and skin by simply pressing the water out of it, he reflects on this “aqueous house of cards” with storied depth. “You have just now reduced it to its parts, shivered it into echoes, and pressed it to a memory, but you have also caught the hint that a thing is more than the sum of all the insubstantialities that comprise it. Hopefully, you will never again argue that the solidities of the world are mere matters of accident, creatures of air and darkness, temporary and meaningless shapes out of nothing.”(3)
There is indeed something dignified about this world of living things, about all the solidities around us, about eating and dining and breaking bread with others who share our mean estate. For the Christian, all of this dignity is understood as rising from the graciousness of God as creator and provider, and thus accordingly, the goodness of every living thing and creature God has made. This, I would argue, is the very worldview that was reflected in the way the thankful theologian served dinner all those years ago. In fact, fifteen years after dining with his guests, the man had occasion to hear about the mark he had made. His response to his impression of dignified meat carving was not one of surprise, but doxology. “Well, the animal gave its life for me!”
Like the remembrance of Christ in the breaking of bread, his carving was noteworthy to his guests not because it was a covert attempt at Christian symbolism, a religious act meant to persuade in abstraction. It was noteworthy because it was as real as the meal before them. And this is precisely the sort of kingdom into which Jesus invites the world: a kingdom of solidities, a kingdom of dignity and sacrifice, a kingdom ready to house God’s creatures even now. As Capon concludes of thing and creature, “One real thing is closer to God than all the diagrams in the world.” Thus, the dignity of God can indeed be found in meat-carving. The love of the Trinity in a gathering of friends. A taste of the creator in broken bread. The kingdom of God is not in words, Jesus said, but in power. In this world of living and dying things, his table and the invitation to join him is a real meal, an impressive offering.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Story told by Mark Greene of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.
(2) Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection (New York: Macmillan, 1989), 11.
(3) Ibid., 17.