14 December 2011

1 Out of 7 Is Bad

TWO MISTAKES accompany most discussions on gluttony. The first is that it only pertains to those with a less than shapely waistline; the second is that it always involves food. In reality, it can apply to toys, television, entertainment, sex, or relationships. It is about an excess of anything.

The ancient pagans got this right. At Delphi (in lower central Greece), the sanctuary of Apollo had inscribed upon it, wisely, “Nothing in Extremes.” The problem with this, of course, was that the judge of such excessiveness was the individual, whereas for followers of Christ it is the Creator God Himself. And we know His thoughts on this subject not because we fall into some kind of trance and speak his words—as the oracle at Delphi supposedly did—but because we have his Word to us. See, for example, Proverbs 23:1–3: “When you sit down to eat with a ruler, observe carefully what is before you, and put a knife to your throat if you are given to appetite. Do not desire his delicacies for they are deceptive food.” This is basically a warning to exercise self-control when faced with the extravagance of the ungodly rich who may seek to lure you into their way of thinking.

Sound familiar? Whose life, before Jesus was born, best illustrates this for us? Daniel was the one who sat at the opulent table and “resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food” (Dan. 1:8). Again, this same principle applies to any good thing that God has created. Surely we are to enjoy them (this is no call to rigid self-denial), but we are not to consume them with ravenous gluttony, demanding more from these simple pleasures than Spirit-filled prudence allows.

Prudence, by the way, is the opposite of gluttony. Prudence, in the sense of wise frugality or temperance, is the heavenly virtue that, according to the church fathers Chrysostom and Jerome, was severely lacking in Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden; indeed, so much so that due to their wild appetite they were cast out of Paradise, for they exalted themselves as the judges (much like the ancient Greeks and Romans) of what was excessive.

Gluttony, or a lack of moderation, also leads many of us to demand all things to be exactly the way we want them. A more subtle form of gluttony, this vice is not merely tolerated in churches today but acclaimed. It has become respectable. You’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who, as the old Romans did, desired so much pleasure that after eating a meal they purged themselves in order to eat some more. But a keen eye will notice in many quarters what we may call a gluttony of delicacy.

In his Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis describes this vice as it inflicts “the patient’s mother.” She is a “positive terror to hostesses and servants . . . always turning from what has been offered her to say with a demure little sigh and a smile ‘Oh please, please . . . all I want is a cup of tea, weak but not too weak, and the teeniest weeniest bit of really crisp toast.’” Lewis points out that because what she wants is smaller and less costly than what has been set before her, she never recognizes as gluttony her determination to get what she wants, however troublesome it may be to others. She will, in fact, “be astonished to learn that her whole life is enslaved to this kind of sensuality.” And it is this kind of gluttonous sensuality, Wormwood instructs Screwtape, that has as its chief use “a kind of artillery preparation for attacks on chastity.” On the battlefield, the artillery bombarded the enemy’s defenses to prepare the way for an incisive attack. As long as we are deadened to this in us (and the fact that this is seldom discussed among us doesn’t help), we will continue on our merry way and in the end be as astonished as the patient’s mother.

Along with this gluttony of delicacy is often found a tendency to demand too much from others, thus exasperating them to the point of withdrawal or anger. Friendships (to say nothing of the marital relationship) are true gifts from God, yet they too can be objects of gluttony. Having high expectations is one thing; having unrealistic expectations—demanding more from others (like from a child) than is appropriate—for the gluttonous pursuance of pleasure is another thing entirely.

But there’s good news. Gluttony, which is admittedly a matter of the heart, is nonetheless often limited by our bodies. If we eat in excess, many times our bodies let us know. If we are too fussy about having everything just so, we’ll be told to do it ourselves. If we demand too much from others, they will not want to be around us. And all these can serve as catalysts to change.

Thanks be to God, change is possible. By the power of his Spirit, we are enabled to pursue such changes, to practice self-control and a healthy dose of self-denial (hard for us Americans, to be sure).

We Christians have unthinkingly embraced our society’s desire “for just a little more” as we pursue our supposed main objective in life — upward mobility. But these are little more than the sanctified vice of gluttony; indeed, they are respectable sins.

{Part of this originally appeared in Tabletalk 32.5 (May 2008): 12–13}

07 December 2011

Out of Africa?

THOMAS C. ODEN'S How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the Seedbed of Western Christianity made its way across my desk more than two years ago, and I have been meaning to publish this short response to it. I remember at the time having my own personal list of books I wanted to read that year already "set in stone," so I resisted the urge. But it just sat there staring me, all short and interesting looking.

So I picked it up.

And I'm glad I did—though not because Oden makes an open-and-shut case for his thesis, which is, in a nutshell, stated in the title of the book itself. The book has indeed given me much to consider and remember when it comes to the magnanimous influence African churchmen have had on Western Christianity. Now, I'm not too familiar with Oden, only by way of his Justification Reader and a few of the Ancient Christian commentaries. He's not above sometimes chipping away the corners of a square peg, as a few  reviewers of his Reader have noted. This short book is no different in that regard; one gets the sneaking suspicion that some conclusions have been slightly exaggerated. But Oden anticipates all this, which does his argument service.

The evidence for the thesis itself apparently became manifest to him (and others) during the course of his many years of work on the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. "We were not prepared for the breadth and power of this evidence," Oden writes. "Nowhere in the literature could we find this influence explained. Everywhere in the literature it seemed to be either ignored or resisted. It came only from decades of experience with African texts and ideas. Finally we learned to trace the path back from Antioch, Jerusalem, Constantinople, Nisibis and Rome to its origins in Africa" (p. 29). From this good report comes one of the more annoying features of the book, however. And that is Oden's penchant for seeming somewhat shrill in his brief and scattered diatribes against the neglect of his thesis over the past few generations of historical scholarship. But once you get used to those jarring interruptions, the easier it is to tune them out.

At its best, this short book does serve as an exhortation to be on the lookout for "European chauvinism" (p. 23), when the evidences for the history of the transmission of African Christian traditions have been largely ignored, when the movement of Christian thought headed north out of Africa instead of south into Africa.

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