Folly Cove, Mass., by James C.

In the ‘Lotus Eaters’ thread, there has emerged a line of criticism that holds me to be hypocritical. Why? Because I cite that passage of The Odyssey, in which Odysseus’s mariners are tempted to stay on an island where lotus-eating makes them tranquil and mellow and forgetful of all their troubles and responsibilities, as containing a lesson for our own time. While the dream of lotus-eating is always a temptation, given human nature, our wealth, technology, and modern culture (in particular the loss of a Christian vision) make it especially tempting for us.

The claim is that I’m a hypocrite because I supposedly look down on sexual pleasure, while celebrating gustatorial delight with all my food blogging. This judgment is based on a couple of misunderstandings.

My vision of the true and the good is that of a sacramental Christian. The material world was given to us by God to enjoy, and indeed, when enjoyed properly, we partake of God’s goodness in His creation. The ultimate expression of this principle is the Eucharist itself, when (we believe) consecrated bread and wine literally become God. You may not believe this is true — indeed, many Christians do not believe it is true. But if you do believe it is true, then that truth entails a certain view of life.

I believe in fasting, and I believe in feasting, and I practice both, according to the teachings of the Church. Monks aside, to fast constantly is to misuse the gifts God has given us; to feast constantly is to do the same, is to risk giving oneself over to the passions, and to risk mistaking the gifts for the Giver. The point is this: food is good, but like any good thing, it can be misused and become an occasion of vice. As Our Lord says, “Man does not live by bread alone” — but that doesn’t imply that we should not rejoice in a good baguette.

It drives a certain kind of Christian, and a certain kind of secularist, nuts to see Christians who take joy in creation — as if we are supposed to be dour gripers, eating our bland porridge. You can watch “Babette’s Feast” for a beautiful argument against this point of view, or you can read the nutty, wonderful book “The Supper of the Lamb,” by the Episcopal priest and passionate home cook Robert Farrar Capon. Here is Fr. Capon rebuking the sort of person who says simplicity in cooking is a virtue, because it’s rational and efficient. The same sentiment undergirds the complaint that Christians who delight in cooking and eating are hypocrites:

His brand of reasoning would, if followed, render us all certifiable in a matter of weeks. It would tell the man who can afford three cars that he must, to be truly intellectual, buy three sedans — all Buicks and all black; that if he eats eggs, it is unnecessary to eat them any other way than boiled; and that, if he roasts his lamb, he must, day after day, whittle away at it in its original state until the last tired scrap is laid to rest.

A curse on them all! May an endless variety of worms feed sweetly upon their thrifty little efficiencies. Hell is the only place fit for such dismal crampings of the style of our being. Earth must not be entrusted to such people. Their touch is death to all that is counter, original, strange and spare about us. In their hands, the joy of our randomness and oddness is crushed under the millstone of monotonous consistency. God may be simple, but simplicity makes a bad god.

Capon says the day may come when a rationalist decides that we can get all our nutrition from taking pills, that cooking is a decadent luxury:

O the sad frugality of the middle-income mind. O the humorless neatness of an intellectuality which buys mass-produced candlesticks and carefully puts one at each end of every philosophical mantelpiece! How far it lies from the playfulness of Him who composed such odd and needless variations on the themes of leaf and backbone, eye and nose! A thousand praises that it has only lately managed to lay its cold hand on the wines, the sauces, and the cheeses of the world! A hymn of thanksgiving that it could not reach into the depths of the sea to clamp its grim simplicities over the creatures that swim luminously in the dark! A shout of rejoicing for the fish who wears his eyeballs at the ends of long stalks, and for the jubilant laughter of the God who holds him in life with a daily bravo at the bravura of his being!

Into outer darkness then with the pill-roller and his wife. They have missed the point of the world; they are purely and simply mad. Man invented cooking before he thougth of nutrition. To be sure, food keeps us alive, but that is only its smallest and most temporary work. Its eternal purpose is to furnish our sensibilities against the day when we shall sit down at the heavenly banquet and see how gracious the Lord is. Nourishment is necessary only for a while; what we shall need forever is taste.

… Food is the daily sacrament of unnecessary goodness, ordained for continual remembrance that the world will always be more delicious than it is useful.

In Christian scripture, heaven is presented as a wedding banquet. Not an orgy, a wedding banquet. This is important, because it shows that eating and sex are two acts that have very different moral meanings, in the Christian understanding. Sex is a great good, but only when properly used. It is not an appetite like the desire for food. They are related, obviously, but not the same thing. Chastity does not mean sexlessness, but rather living within the proper use of the gift of sexuality. Christianity tells us how to do that. I certainly don’t expect non-Christians or modernist Christians to agree with what traditional Christianity teaches regarding the proper and improper uses of sex, or food, but I do expect them to understand why Christians like me believe as we do. It has nothing to do with “hypocrisy,” and in fact is completely consistent with the faith I profess, and its teaching of what it means to be fully human. To lose a sense of what it means to be fully human — as the Lotus Eaters have — is to slide backward into barbarism.

Your problem is not that I am a hypocrite, but that you either disagree with traditional Christianity, or perhaps that Christianity is not what you think it is.