August 22, 2001

According to the Bible, when Jesus found himself surrounded by 5,000 followers eager to hear his divine message but hungry for some earthly food, he turned five little loaves and two scrawny fish into a banquet for the masses.

But some Christian scholars think if he were alive today, he might rethink the menu.

In books, on Web sites and in scholarly research, they've created a new acronym for Christians questioning how to live their faith. It's WWJE: What Would Jesus Eat? It's a spinoff of the widespread term WWJD, What Would Jesus Do?

Citing a range of Scripture passages, from a Genesis account of the diet of Eden to the apostle Paul's admonition to treat the body as a temple, Christian vegetarians claim that if Jesus were alive today, he'd be a vegetarian.

"Jesus taught a ministry of love and compassion," said Stephen H. Webb, the author of a new book, "Good Eating: The Bible, Food and the Proper Love of Animals," scheduled for release in October. "It was love and compassion for all of God's creation."

Webb is an associate professor of religion at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind., and the chairperson of the international Christian Vegetarian Association. He describes himself as an "evangelical theologian" whose vegetarian lifestyle is biblically based. He argues that the Eucharistic celebration itself may be one of the most powerful symbols of a divine diet: a vegetarian meal that harks back to the meatless Garden of Eden and looks forward to the Revelation promise of the lion and the lamb coexisting in peace.

It's a theology, he admits, that departs from the mainstream Christian view of the animal kingdom, where a glazed ham is the Easter bounty and a baked turkey is the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal.

"It's rarely on the radar screen of traditional Christianity," said Webb. "It's a topic almost too hot to handle. Any minister who would preach it would risk coming off as 'holier than thou' to his congregation. It's easier to say we should not engage in adultery. People will still do it, but at least they don't do it so openly."

Unlike members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, whose theology specifically proscribes vegetarianism, the leaders of the Christian Vegetarian Association (CVA) come from a variety of Protestant and Catholic denominations with no doctrine on diet.

Webb was raised in an independent evangelical church, but is now a member of the Disciples of Christ. His work is among a wave of recent books that explore the theology of a meatless diet. Among them are Keith Akers' "The Lost Religion of Jesus," J.R. Hyland's "God's Covenant With Animals" and Richard Alan Young's "Is God a Vegetarian?" Also on the list is the book "Why Christians Get Sick," by George H. Malkmus, a former Baptist preacher who created the "Hallelujah Diet," a kind of evangelical Christian Weight Watchers with diet counselors who lead support groups for those on Malkmus' low-fat vegetarian diet.

The books differ somewhat on their use and interpretation of Scripture for the basis of a meatless diet, but all launch their arguments beginning with Genesis 1:29. God presents Adam and Eve with the menu of Paradise: "I give you all plants that bear seed everywhere on earth ... they shall be yours for food."

In the Genesis story, God also creates the animals and gives Adam "dominion" over them, but Christian vegetarians would argue that God created animals as Adam's companions and helpers, not as his supper.

"I read the passages to mean that all God's creation is sacred," said Webb. "All creation is made to glorify and magnify God."

What Jesus ate 2,000 years ago is a subject of debate among Christian vegetarians. Some argue that Biblical passages describing Jesus eating and multiplying fish have been incorrectly translated through the centuries, with fish incorrectly imposed for fruit.

Webb, though, would concede that Jesus likely ate fish with his disciples, as described in Luke 24:43, but he'd argue that if Jesus found himself in a modern-day context of factory-farming, environmental pollution from animal waste, and rampant cancer and heart disease, he'd turn to a vegetarian diet.

"In some parts of the world, humans need to eat meat to survive," said Webb, "but not in America. We eat meat to satisfy our taste."

To abstain from meat, said Webb, is an act of Christian self-sacrifice, part of a long tradition of abstinence and fasting in the name of faith.

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