The Bread of Life: A Cookbook for Body and Soul
By Episcopal Church Women
Morehouse Publishing, 320 pp.

"The Bread of Life"--by Episcopal Church Women, no less--sounds like it might be one of those ubiquitous parish recipe collections your grandmother used to buy, offering 19 ways to fry a chicken. But "The Bread of Life" is not your run-of-the-mill ladies' auxiliary cookbook. This book doesn't just help readers cook; it helps them recognize that cooking, performed intentionally, can be a spiritual exercise.

The brainchild of Christian publishing maven Ellen Rolfes, "The Bread of Life" combines recipes for old favorites--gazpacho (the recipe contributed by St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Lake Worth, Fla.), beef Wellington (St. Basil's Episcopal Church in Tahlequah, Okla.), and the Ultimate No-Bake Chocolate Cheesecake (from St. John's Episcopal Church in Huntington, N.Y.)--with meditations on food and faith, written by the Reverend Beth Maynard. Apposite Scripture verses decorate the margins of the pages: David distributing bread, meat and raisins to the people of Israel (II Samuel 6:17-19), Jesus breaking bread with sinners (Matthew 9:9-13), the virtuous woman rising before dawn to cook for her family (Proverbs 31:15-16), the Ecclesiast on the joy of feasting (Ecclesiastes 10:19).

"Bread of Life" is one hallmark of what might be called the Zenification of American Christianity. As Phyllis Tickle writes in her introduction, a "new restiveness of the spirit" has characterized American Christianity in recent years. Christians have gotten hip to spiritual practices. They want to cultivate intention and mindfulness.

Christians are also getting hip to the fact that we'd rather be Christians than Buddhists. In other words, Zen Buddhism doesn't have a monopoly on mindfulness, or any other spiritual buzzword, and there are ancient, distinctively Christian ways of being spiritual. Some of the new interest in cultivating spiritual disciplines has led to a revival of liturgy, a renewed interest in the lectionary, and an embrace of centuries-old Benedictine and Ignatian prayer traditions. But it has also led Christians to look at day-to-day activities, like cooking, through a self-consciously Christian lens.

Naysayers may roll their eyes: Is eating a bowl of chili really a spiritual act? The book insists it is: Chowing down on that chili is spiritual, because meals, eating, and bodies play key roles in the Christian story: "In a faith that tells us that God took on flesh, ate and drank with us, and left us a meal to remember him by, we cannot allow ourselves to label only a select few of our activities as spiritual and all the others as secular. Any separation between the two is artificial."

The meditations in "The Bread of Life" recover a distinctively Christian spirituality of food--preparing it, sharing it, and eating it--primarily through an emphasis on Christian community, a community that begins around the table. The book reminds readers that sharing meals is a good way to cure the "community-starved" anomie that plagues post-modern life. But it also suggests that hospitality and community--what Christian ethicist Christine Pohl has recently called "making room"--mean more than inviting folks over for celebratory meals. It also means paying attention to whom you invite. Your table should look like the Body of God, not like your clique of buddies at the country club. "When we build community at our tables, we lose something if the hospitality is limited to friends alone," writes Maynard.

Curiously, this book all but overlooks the Eucharist, which ought to be the foundation of any Christian spirituality of food. Ideally, the Eucharist is not a discrete, churchy, once-a-week snack; ideally, it is inseparable from one's French-toast breakfast or bread-and-cheese supper. It is no accident that Christians who undertake the discipline of receiving Communion daily often comment that they are unable to sit down with a ham sandwich without remembering the Eucharistic wafer and, with it, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Christians need more books like "The Bread of Life"--more books that carve out distinctively Christian approaches to the spirituality of day-to-day life. "Mystery," as Tickle puts it, ought not be relegated "strictly to our ecclesial lives."

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