Processed Christianity and Spiritual Sugar

By Jeff Mallinson

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In America’s health-conscious but simultaneously malnourished culture, we find, ironically, that diet fads feed into the same inward sickness at the root of our current obesity epidemic. We consume and we get consumed by vicious marketers. In short, we’ve got a bunch of stuff to eat, but we lack enough genuine food.

On this week’s Virtue in the Wasteland podcast, we sit down with Dr. Terry Olson, Associate Dean, and Chair of Exercise Sports Science at Concordia University Irvine, in order to sort through the madness of the health fad hustles. He explains that the confusion about nutrition and food goes back to the 1960s and 70s, when studies revealed that Americans were eating too much fat. Olson explains:

So if you think of us as hunters-gatherers, if you look at it just through diets, we had a situation where calorically it was small, but nutritionally it was big. Our society today is opposite. Calorically it’s big, nutritionally it’s small. What happened, as a result, was that everything that we consume today is usually from a grocery store, and the majority of it is processed foods. So, when you’re asking these questions about this versus that, whether this is good or that is bad, what we really come down to is that, as a society, we’re all about making money. So, in order for certain food companies to stay in business they’ve got to create food that tastes good. But the problem happened here: what we did in response was that we decreased the fat that was in normal foods, but …have you ever had a rice cake? It tastes horrible, so all they did with our food products was, take out the fat. [Companies thought] I’m going to go ahead and comply. Now the body craves two things, it’s basic to our human instinct: carbohydrates and fats. And so what we did with our food was we boosted up the sugar that’s in all of our foods, which is a huge thing, and is the basis of our epidemic today.

Catch what happened here? The dietary rules (whether legislated or based on public pressure) indicated that fat was bad, but instead of turning to a fresh, non-processed solution, the market demands on food production led to products that remained weak nutritionally, but got a boost of sugar to stimulate consumer taste buds. Flavor without substance: this is a major cultural problem in America.

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You can listen to the podcast in its entirety to catch up on the ways in which modern snake oil merchants use our concern for health to sell useless products, from unhealthy energy bars to ineffective supplements. In reflecting on the conversation, however, I’d like to consider an analog to this culinary quagmire: unhealthy liturgical diets and consumer-driven approaches to spirituality today. Many American Christians, in the last century, wanted to get rid of the emotional and spiritual cobwebs of traditional church practice. They wanted church experiences that appealed to the seekers. Some of the old corrosion may well have needed to go, just like fat from processed foods. But the proposed cure, unfortunately, turned out to be at least as unhealthy as the original disease. Churches bought into jacking up the spiritual sugar content of their fare.

Stay with this analogy for a moment and something will become clear. Many of us are addicted to unhealthy, sugar-saturated foods and beverages, but few of us are proud or satisfied with such choices. We may have weak wills, or maybe we think we can’t afford fresh, natural food. The same should be true with respect the way we think about church. Granted, we find throngs lining up to have their ears tickled, and drink their lattes in comfortable mega-churches. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re deeply satisfied. Like folks who’ve never tasted quality food, perhaps such churchgoers don’t know what they’re missing. They are becoming bloated on self-serving religious experiences and Sunday morning entertainment.

This makes me wonder, do church growth entrepreneurs treat their callings as cynically as the big food companies do? Is it all about numbers, profit, and institutional sustainability? These questions are important. And I doubt that the majority of leaders in this realm intentionally think they are doing any harm. Perhaps they rationalize compromises the way executives at the Walmart, Philip Morris, and McDonald’s do, saying to themselves: We would make it healthy if people would buy it, but they don’t, so we just give them what they want; the moral problem is with the consumer not the producer.

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Nonetheless, why need we take such an approach to church in the first place? Do we need to keep buildings and institutions and administrative staffing going? Or are we in the business (if we must use that word) of trying to feed people? The answer to this pivotal question should be addressed by every church council and every pastor before trying to figure out what to “do” with declining numbers. If we, like a publicly traded food company, are primarily interested in financial success, we may indeed need to continually invent gimmicks to help lure people into coming to church each Sunday. Give the masses what they want! But, on the contrary, if we are about serving people Christ alone, our approach must be different.

We must remember that, just as when going to the grocery store, we can’t count on the purveyors of products to protect our health or the health of our families. We must be discerning and vigilant. Likewise, we must attend to our spiritual health by being fed a substantial diet. What’s that diet? According to the Reformers, the faithful menu involved the means of grace: the Word faithfully preached and the sacraments rightly administered. In my tradition, these are delivered in the Divine Service.

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Now, who’s serving whom at a church service? Some think church is about serving the experiential sweet tooth of the man or woman in the pews. Some think church is about performing the right acts in order to serve God by offering our best musical and financial sacrifices. Neither of those kinds of service are what we are after. The Divine Service is where we are served God himself. Take out the essential ingredient of Christ given for us, and we’ve got nothing but empty calories. If you find yourself in such a situation, you may feel like you’ve consumed a lot, but you’ll be starving in reality. Therefore, if you take care of your body and monitor what your children eat, perhaps it’s time to also ask yourself: Is my market-driven church experience calorically big but nutritionally small? If so, it may be time to explore new places to get your food.

Bon appétit, fellow travelers. Taste and see that the Lord is good, and may your meal with the whole communion of saints become a foretaste of the nutritionally superior wedding supper of the Lamb.

—The Wayfaring Stranger

Composed in the desert near Joshua Tree, sipping on nothing but pure water for rehydration, between chapters of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man.

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One thought on “Processed Christianity and Spiritual Sugar

  1. “Some think church is about performing the right acts in order to serve God by offering our best musical and financial sacrifices. Neither of those kinds of service are what we are after. The Divine Service is where we are served God himself.”

    I appreciate the Lutheran emphasis on church being something that God gives to us, rather than something that we give to God.

    In the tradition I came from, church is all about whether or not we are doing what God wants us to do and whether or not our worship is faithful and pleasing to God.

    In a lot of contemporary Christian music, it becomes “is our emasculated, pseudo-sincere worship leader singing in a voice that is aspirated enough to make God happy?”

    Certainly, I don’t want to promote unfaithfulness to God or to what he commands, nor do I want to promote insincerity. However, when church becomes the means by which we serve God, or the means by which we demonstrate our faithfulness to God, then we are missing the point.

    God is self-sufficient and needs nothing from us. Despite this, he has chosen to be loving, kind and gracious to us sinners who deserve none of it. Church and worship are truly about taking hold of Christ by faith. It is about, as you say, the reception of Christ for us.

    What could be better for the strengthening of Christian faith and the promotion of Christian joy?

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