Essay: Food for Thought
If Americans are anything, we are consumers, and in addition to AirPods and McDonald’s we have an appetite for stories. In fact, we devour them. When we observe a billboard, scroll through social media feeds, or tune in to the news we consume numerous ideas and suggestions of how the world works or should work or what constitutes a happy life or which toilet paper is most efficacious. And before ever considering whether we’re full, we move on to the next, easiest, or most attractive idea. The problem with this sushi conveyor belt of stories is that the majority of them don’t get chewed or digested before they stick to our insides. Many of them are swallowed whole; some will make us choke once we realize what we’re eating. There are two possible unfavorable results: we develop unhealthy bodies (minds), or our roles shift from that of predator to that of prey.
I began to think about ideas as food, or of thinking as eating, through my own experience of both literal and figurative eating. I don’t know that I have a favorite meal, but I do have a favorite mouthful. There is no bite or sip of anything that tastes so good to me as the individually parceled rice cracker and thimble of wine that I consume every Sunday morning. The flavor is one that I’ve tried and failed to recreate; its substance is even more important. Perhaps it’s because the meal is so slight that it invites my reflections on it; perhaps it’s because the bread and the wine, though small, constitute a meal in their own right, namely the Lord’s Supper. I think, though, it is because this morsel, since its inception at the Last Supper, always claimed greater significance than the sum of its parts. When Jesus first gave the bread and the wine to his disciples he announced that it was symbolic. The bread and the wine were his body and his blood. To eat it, then, was and is not merely a matter of nutrition or even of physical sustenance but a matter of cognitive, emotional, and volitional consideration. When I eat the Lord’s Supper I come to know Christ’s world as a child does, with my mouth.
But not all that a child eats belongs in its mouth. While other narratives don’t so readily corollate with a physical act — not least one of eating — this doesn’t mean that they don’t operate like food inside of us, some of which heals and sustains and some of which poisons and some of which seems utterly innocuous. One of the biggest dangers, though, lies not in the specific constitution of ideas — many of which are obvious — but in the manner of our consumption of them. In part due to the fact that story is so pervasive in American society in the form of advertising or social media or therapy, we often take in stories without first considering their merit, let alone their content. In doing so, we can become participants in stories of which we do not approve or — worse — stories which are immoral. Consider an implicit message of television programming during the 50s or 60s. Programming from this period featured white people almost exclusively at a time when America’s ethnic demography was incredibly diverse. The story here might be rendered as “only white people are Americans” or, just as pernicious, “only white people are worth representing and relating to”. Such a story will rot the bones, and it has, in fact, done so.
But the danger doesn’t end there. Left unchecked a bad story will dominate its hearers in such a way that they are, in a sense, consumed by them. This is a natural consequence of the above example in which people or culture mindlessly absorb whatever implicit narratives thrive around them, and trauma is one way in which this consequence is observed. If a child experiences sexual abuse and then enters adulthood without ever carefully examining her own story, she’s likely to live in such a way that confirms the implicit narrative that she’s bad — even evil — and deserving of mistreatment. This belief is inclined to result in poor decision-making, toxic relationships, and self-destruction; each result pays tribute to the implicit belief. A milder example comes from my own experience. When I began taking communion as an adult, I would carefully examine myself to discern whether I was worthy of Christ’s body and blood. Many times I abstained because I noted a persistent sin in my life or because I felt my faith to be insufficient, and even when I did eat I would feel unworthy. I know now that I was caught in a battle between stories. I was painfully aware of the fact that I didn’t deserve the grace of God, but often instead of embracing that reality as qualification for God’s grace, I clung to the notion that my merit — good or bad — had the final say. As a result shame ruled in my life as I starved myself of the kindness of Christ. A final example: in Paradise Lost Satan appears to Eve in a dream and suggests to her that the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is good for her to eat, and she doesn’t succumb to the temptation until after the subtle idea has festered for a time in her imagination. She is suggestible before she is willful before she and her progeny are overcome by the story of sin. This is how bad stories dominate.
Now bad stories are just one kind of story, and you may be asking, “What about the good stories? Is is not equally praiseworthy when we unwittingly partake in them?” This is material for another essay, but it’s worth noting a couple things. Good stories entail working against the current. The legacy of humanity is one of willfulness and weakness in the face of temptation, and it’s therefore much easier for bad stories to proliferate than it is for good stories to subsist. Secondly, when people act heroically regardless of their stated beliefs, it’s hardly concerning. These instances are worthy of note, praise, and duplication because they are the minority.
I’ve focused mostly on the negative consequences of our insatiable appetites for narrative, so I want to end with a hopeful metaphor. In 12 Corinthians 10:5 Paul characterizes the Christian life as a battle between the flesh and the spirit. He exhorts his hearers to avail themselves of the power of Christ’s gospel to “destroy strongholds . . . and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God”. He says that we do this by submitting every idea — every story — to Christ. In his words we “take captive” every thought to interrogate it and discern whether it grows from or militates against Christ’s vine. As hungry storytellers, then, we can recline at the buffet of cultural stories so long as Christ is our liver.