Theology on the Menu: Asceticism, Meat and Christian Diet by Dr Grumett and Dr Muers. Book cover: Kitchen scene with Christ in the house of Martha and Mary (Diego Valazquez 1599 -1660) oil on canvas.

Theology on the Menu

What we eat, how much we eat, how it is produced and prepared, and its cultural and ecological significance, has forced food sustainability onto the national news agenda. 

Theologians from the University of Exeter and the University of Leeds have recently published a book looking at these issues from a specifically Christian angle.

Theology on the Menu: Asceticism, Meat and Christian Diet, by Dr David Grumett (Exeter) and Dr Rachel Muers (Leeds) is the main output of a three-year project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). It unfolds a fascinating history of feasting and fasting, food regulations and resistance to regulation. It also examines the symbolism attached to particular foods, the relationship between diet and doctrine, and how food has shaped inter-religious encounters. 

Dr Grumett said: “Nowadays people might think of religion as being about abstract beliefs, but if you look back through history it’s been very much about people’s day-to-day lives, such as what they ate.”

The new book is the first systematic and historical assessment of Christian attitudes to food and its role in shaping Christian identity. It cites examples of major figures in Christian history who advocated abstaining from certain foods. These include Basil of Caesarea, the 4th Century theologian; William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army; Saint Benedict, the 6th Century Italian monk; and John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement.

Dr Muers said, “Basil of Caesarea advocated eating food that was grown or reared locally. William Booth was a vocal advocate of forming colonies where sustainable practices are used. The Rule of Saint Benedict prohibited red meat. John Wesley was vegetarian, and was following what earlier Christian texts said on the subject.”

She added: “It’s partly about not over-indulging our desires. But another interpretation is that this is about not taking more from the world than we are entitled to.”

The book ranges widely, examining fasting by desert hermits and medieval holy women, monastic diets, and the laws in Reformation England that banned meat during Lent. One chapter uncovers the fascinating yet forgotten tradition of Christian animal sacrifice. A continuing theme is the ambiguities of red meat.

Dr Grumett added, “Christians have found several reasons to be wary of meat, including their desire to avoid luxury and lead a simpler life. Unsurprisingly, Christians contributed to the development of modern vegetarianism. Yet historic Christian food categories do not correspond conveniently to modern ones. For example, there is no Christian tradition of abstention from fish, even though many vegetarians today see fish as unacceptable.”

The project has excited considerable interest. By focusing on everyday life, it has made an impact on many people who would not normally engage with theology. For example, Dr Grumett is appearing on What Would Jesus Eat? on BBC Radio 4 on Easter Monday.

Theology on the Menu: Asceticism, Meat and Christian Diet is published in paperback by Routledge.

Date: 1 April 2010

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