Monday, May 7, 2012

liturgical thoughts on the book, French Kids Eat Everything

Recently I had the pleasure of reading Karen Le Billon's book, French Kids Eat Everything, a book I highly recommend to you, dear reader.  It describes, by means both of autobiographical anecdote and informed research, the stark contrast between the French food culture and that of North America (to be sure, America is not singled out-she continually uses the language North America-her main experience on this side of the ocean being in Vancouver).  There is more to life than the two party American political divide, how much moreso when that divide is dumbed down and oversimplified into ignorant caricatures.  Therefore let me just remind and assure my more overtly Republican friends that France is a friend of America, and there are valuable aspects of French culture from which we could learn and benefit. 

In the case of the present study, the French attitude toward food, and the culinary aspect of education, is described in detail. This is an education that is not limited to the school, nor to an elite class, but begins almost from birth, and is supported by every aspect of daily life.  Raising the child to appreciate food and truly to enjoy and respect food is part of what it means to raise him to be bien éduqué.  As such, it is essential to expose the child, by stages, though beginning quite early and aggressively, to a great variety of foods-fruits, vegetables, fish, meats, etc, their smell, taste, feel, look, and texture.  To accomplish this, the child is raised naturally to expect to try whatever is on his plate, rather than to have the freedom to choose not to eat something if it doesn't strike his fancy.  What is important in this approach is not so much fostering the child's personal freedom, but teaching him to develop his taste.  As a result, he develops a very mature appreciation and taste for good food, which also happens to be very good for him.  By contrast, the American tendency is to cater to the child's desire-to feed him exactly when he wants to eat, to feed him what he wants, and to allow him to refuse to eat something that he has decided he does not like.  What is important in this approach is the child's individuality, and the integrity of his sense of personal freedom.  As a result, he develops likes and just as many dislikes, regardless of whether those likes or dislikes are qualitatively good for him, and he will, by and large, settle into a lifestyle that is largely oriented toward junk food and his more immature culinary tastes.  In contrast to the French, we must admit that the American approach too often raises a child to be an adult who is stuck in a culinary infancy.  This is the briefest of summaries, and as I say, I commend the book to your own study. If I ever find the time, I would like to discuss it in detail here.

For the present, however, I wish to draw a connection between the contrast in food cultures as described in this book and what this contrast might teach us about where we are going wrong liturgically in the modern Church.  The modern approach to liturgy, certainly in the American Confessional Lutheran scene, tends toward preserving the people's sense of their own personal freedom in the Gospel, their freedom of liturgical choice, we might say.  The people get what they want, and when they want it.  I might add here that another dynamic which very much factors into the liturgical dimension of pastoral ministry is fear, and I believe this is often the case even among those who might not routinely and overtly sense this fear.  It is naturally never very far from the surface, for the people have the power to punish, even fire and evict, a pastor who displeases them.  For those whose experience prevents them from accepting this as plausible, except where the pastor "must have done something wrong," I assure the reader it has happened many times and will happen again. 

And so we emphasize the slowest and most "sensitive" approach to change, if at all.  We know the value of waiting till everyone is "on board."  Even better to make change happen so slow that the people don't even notice it happening.  Like the American parent with the temperamental child, we don't want to upset the people.  Maybe stretch it out to, say, a fifty year plan.

Many of the same Confessional scholars and church leaders who emphasize this Gospel freedom in their approach to liturgical leadership astutely admit that the wonderfully rich and healthful diet of the traditional liturgy would be good for our people, and so they come up with well intentioned ideas of long term change, and in some cases unproven social experiments, such as creating a dumbed down version of the traditional liturgy with the hope that it will eventually lead the people on to something better, not unlike giving your children McDonald's food because, after all, it is better than Doritos, Twinkies, and doughnuts, hoping that one day they will express a desire to eat real, natural, healthy cuisine. 

It has been openly admitted, for example, that the inclusion of the "Setting Four" in Lutheran Service Book was intended merely for those congregations that have lacked a historical practice, with the intention of introducing them to a form of the liturgy that will at least be an improvement over the practice to which they had been accustomed.  (See this Gottesdienst discussion, including the comments.)  Whether this odd contrived experiment has resulted in an improvement in the practice of some congregations will certainly be argued by some advocates, though there is no evidence that it will lead them to a true appreciation for a richer diet of the traditional liturgy.  Just as importantly, notice what else has manifestly resulted.  This order has become a regular part of the liturgical diet of many congregations.  My own parish is one example, a church with a reputation for better than average liturgical practice.  Once a liturgical order has been introduced, it will have its fans and advocates, and since the people's taste and desire, their freedom, is of central value, it will stay in rotation, and eventually become domesticated and be considered quite normal.  Scholars will one day sing its praises, like now happens with "Setting One."  Elbowed further to the fringe in this process is the order with real, organic connection to our liturgical tradition.  And pushed even further to the fringe, as a mere oddity of taste, are those more solemn aspects of the traditional usage, earning for themselves the suspicion of legalism and Romanism. 

My point, I hasten to clarify, is not to use this whole discussion as a guise under which merely to pick on Setting Four.  Picking on Setting Four would require a separate blog entry, and it would be a worthy endeavor, like picking on Setting One and Setting Two.  Rather, it is an effort to promote the conversation in what is perhaps a new, but I think a healthy, direction. 

Another point of contact we might make between the French approach to food and the Church's liturgical life is the French aversion to snacking.  It leaves one at times with the real feeling and sense of an empty stomach, or what we might even term "feeling hungry," yet this is not seen as a bad thing.  It helps to promote an anticipation for and true appreciation of the next meal, which is usually a wonderfully thought out and well prepared meal.  Likewise, I suggest our eucharistic piety would be greatly edified (that is, the rich feast of the Lord's Holy Supper would be more fully appreciated) if we would more actively promote the traditional practice of fasting, which helps, among other things, to increase our sense of need for the gift of the Supper.  Bon repas doit commencer par la faim.  The other lesson we might draw from the non-snacking culture of the French is the fact that there is a rhythm to the Liturgical Year; that is, we cannot fully appreciate the feasts of the liturgy if we practice it at will all year round.  Rather, we liturgically "fast" from aspects of it in certain seasons, and learn to slow down, and more fully sense and enjoy the whole rhythm of our liturgical life.

Our modern approach infantilizes the Church and its liturgical tastes.  I suggest we could learn from the French approach to food education, in which even the infants, out of love for them, are brought, sensitively but quite actively, out of infancy and finally to the maturity of good taste.

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