Food, Literature, and Religion
Deliciousness in food is a form of delight, something that Horace and Aristotle identify as crucial to a work of literature. But unitary taste sensations rarely elevate a food or a book to the ranks of the delicious. Too heavy a concentration on one taste sensation might, in fact, spoil the meal. Adding too much sugar to a recipe or too much sappiness to a romance earns the label of “saccharine.”
Recently, food researchers have discovered a fifth taste called “umami,” a complex, deeply satisfying taste produced by mixing seemingly incongruous ingredients, such as bonito flakes and parmesan cheese together. Such multi-layered complexity as results also applies to literature I consider “delicious.” Aristotle makes clear, for example, that “delight” in literature does not arise simply from a text’s production of joy or happiness in the reader. For Aristotle, the tragedy is a powerful engine for the stimulation of such delight in the reader or audience of the play.
We discover deliciousness in food because of the physical response of our taste buds. Similarly, we discover delight in literature from our physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual responses to it. We hear the sounds of the words and rhythms of the sentences. We feel deeply moved by certain storylines, characters, experiences recorded in the text. We find certain expressions of ideas or philosophy exciting. Just as our nose, teeth, mouth, lips, and throat experience all the various textures, tastes, smells that create deliciousness, our senses apprehend the richness and complexity of a text. To apply another food metaphor, a delicious text gives me something of substance to chew on.
I am grateful to Kelee Prince, a former student of mine, for the title of this blog which applies this principle of deliciousness to sacred texts in particular. A double major in religion and English, Kelee recognized that sacred texts, as well as theological commentaries upon them, often come to us in literary forms and as linguistic expressions. The term “theologically delicious” suggests an approach to scripture that derives from our apprehension of our delight—or the text’s deliciousness.
Kelee used this term in class discussions and in an essay she wrote about the relationship between ancient Hebrew mythology and that of the surrounding fertile crescent region from which the Israeli tribes emerged. Reading scripture with knowledge of the similarities between these tales and attuned to the information such stories give about a culture and its world view is a “theologically delicious” experience. When you read in such a way, you have substance to ponder. You can really sink your teeth into it.
I find Kelee’s term particularly appropriate in relation to how some American evangelical group make an idol of a supposedly “literal” reading of the Bible, a book that comes to us in various translations. The term “theologically delicious” disrupts the equation such groups try to draw between literalness and truth; it shatters the expectation that words can convey unambiguous, concrete truths when in fact words are notoriously slippery. Dictionary entries are long and sometimes contradictory. When we write sentences, we try to balance the words together in a way that clarifies and delimits meaning, but the final communication is never perfect or unambiguous. When we seek the “theologically delicious” in scripture, however, we reject the idol of a literal truth and allow ourselves to savor the open-ended nature of verbal communication.
The equation between fact and truth that the literalist position tries to make falls apart when we consider how our sacred texts work. Those who object to the notion of the Garden of Eden as an example of a mythological tale should consider Christ’s use of parables, stories created to communicate an important point to the members of his audience. Is the idea of the woman who models faithfulness by donating her last few coins less true if Christ was not referring to an actual woman? In fact, such a story, similar to ancient myths, depicts something that has happened not only once but many times.
Figurative language, an important generator of complexity, is an important ingredient in a “delicious” text, one found frequently in Biblical texts. In the Song of Songs, the husband says his lover’s hair is “like a flock of goats,” her teeth “are like a flock of sheep just shorn, coming up from the washing” (4:1-2). The point of these similes is not that a feminine beauty literally involves goats in one’s hair or woolly teeth. Instead, it opens up the love poem to reveal the values of the culture in which the lovers live. Thus, figurative language broadens our thinking rather than narrows it. It complicates rather than simplifies our understanding. It opens our eyes to notice multi-layered connections between things as diverse as female beauty and a society’s images of prosperity, between desire that leads to sexual reproduction and the environmental factors that make possible and sustain such reproduction.
The slippery nature of language makes it a troublesome medium for the communication of concrete, absolute truths. God, as the creator of language, is most certainly aware that language’s greatest power lies in the use of fruitful ambiguity, of saying multiple things at once. Such an understanding of how language works suggests that perhaps we misunderstand the actual point of scripture when we insist on an elusive “literal” interpretation of scripture, when we denounce any interpretation of the text that doesn’t exactly reproduce our own.
The ancient Jewish tradition of Midrash offers a striking alternative to the view of Bible as codebook. A bewildering array of sometimes divergent commentaries that approach scripture from a wide variety of perspectives, Midrash operates from the understanding that the work of scripture is to generate conversation and debate, to bring readers together into a community that listens to each other. As community members study scripture together, then, the images, themes, and ideas of scripture pass through the forge of each human participant’s experiences, which fuels the continuous transformation of how we understand the text, humanity, and divinity.
This positioning of scripture as subject to community debate strikes me as a powerful way of bringing the word to life within us. Lively debate over scripture might sound like disunity. Enthusiastic participants might raise their voices. Excited readers might chomp at the bit to share the insights into the text that arise from personal experience. This is the work of the English literature classroom such as the one in which Kelee Prince participated. And English majors understand how powerfully the sharing of interpretations can open up a text to new understandings for the entire group.
My experiences as both a participant in and leader of the English literature classroom frames the content of this “Theologically Delicious” blog. Please enjoy my attempt in these pages to use literary tools in order return the text of the Bible to the heart of a community of lively debate and imaginative interpretation. And please play your part in this community by responding to my posts and those of other readers, thus keeping the scripture alive and in motion as it flows from the page, through the community, and into our minds and hearts.