Friday, June 12, 2009

The Omnivore's Reading Choices

“…and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself…” Mark 4:27

I finally finished Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, after about a month of listening to it on audiotape. Chris and I are both reading (listening to) it, as we’d heard so much about its contents from various sources, but this surely marks the first time that I have finished a book faster than my book-devouring spouse. It’s true, this might be due to her trying to complete a massive dissertation research-gathering project right now, but I’m taking a victory any way I can get it. (Commence classic Queen song… now.)

Anyway, the book’s title refers to the dilemma posed by the ancient and still daily question, “What should we eat for dinner?” Pollan divides the options into four broad categories, each of which he sees as typical of the process that led to it: First, a trip to the McDonald’s drive-thru, the end of the industrial food chain; second, a trip to Whole Foods, the a symbol of the organic-yet-still-industrial food chain; third, a trip to Polyface Farm, a place hewing hardcore to the values of an organic-and-intensely-local food chain; and fourth, an adventure hunting and gathering for food in the wild. Along the way Pollan uses his first question, “What should we eat for dinner?” to get at a much deeper question, namely “What kind of people are we?” – or maybe even more elementally, “Who are we?”

It’s a tall order for a single book, and as with most similarly ambitious projects The Omnivore’s Dilemma is full of absolutely fascinating reporting, rollickingly fun stories, and lots of question-raising – as well as, yes, a few sections where the implied argument is a little thin. But it’s well worth your reading time – and I’d especially put “your” in the plural here, as it is capable of spawning all sorts of discussions around what you and yours eat. It’s certainly sparked conversation at our little two-person dinner table.

As the book came to an end I was struck by a surprise move in Pollan’s story of his “fourth” meal. Not a religious man in any explicit way elsewhere in the book, Pollan suddenly feels moved by an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the food he is about to serve his dinner guests. His time hunting and gathering has somehow left him with a profound sense that the food he has acquired is not of his own making.

Oh, he spent plenty of time doing “work,” to be sure, trudging through the forest, on his hands and knees looking for mushrooms and even learning to shoot a gun in order to hunt for the first time, but somehow what he gained during his time spent outdoors was an deep sense of his own reliance on the work of the natural world for his sustenance and survival. Whatever chemical compounds our science provides us with – and it provides us with a lot – it is all but secondary work. “We eat by the grace of nature,” Pollan concludes, “not industry.”

What a thing to read during a week when the appointed Gospel reading has Jesus painting a picture of that very “grace of nature.” “The kingdom of God,” Jesus says,” is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow – he does not know how. The earth,” Jesus tells us, “produces of itself.” The “grace of nature,” indeed.

Yet as Jesus tells the parable, the small and scattered seeds do not simply grow for the sake of growing. They do not grow in order to compete, they do not strangle each other, they do not drown each other out to see who will be the tallest. True, the mustard seed, smallest of all seeds – and a weed at that – does grow to be, Jesus tells us, the “greatest of all shrubs,” but in Jesus’ parable, to be “the greatest” is not merely the end of some great natural game. Rather, even the mustard seed’s champion flourishing is in the service of something else.

What is that something else? I believe Jesus gave us two stories here for a reason. Each seed produces some different result, carries the chemical blueprint to infuse its plant with some specific qualities. Some shoot straight up in the air like grain stalks, some spread out all around like shrubs, some are brown, some green, some in orderly rows, some in a messy sprawl.

But the two plants – the precious grain and the pesky mustard seed – do have something in common. Both serve the rest of creation. They do not exist for their individual selves. They do not even exist only for their own kind. No, these seeds are grace-grown to be servants for the other creatures. In the parables Jesus tells us here, the seed-plants’ fruits end up serving creation at a very, very basic level: Food, and shelter.

Food: The first seed begins scattered but then grows up, step-by-deliberate-step – “first the stalk, then the grain, then the full grain in the head” – into a harvest to be gathered by someone who carries a sickle – in other words, it passes its work off, relay-style, to someone who knows what she is doing and will probably soon send that grain on to become bread that ultimately finds its way to someone who is hungry. The first seed, though it began scattered, ends up feeding the hungry.

Shelter: The second seed grows up into a mustard shrub, a garden pest, one we would at first glance be most likely to see as useless, and yet, somehow, infused with the grace of God’s kingdom, explodes beyond maybe even its own imagination and ends up as something more akin to the great and noble cedar tree Ezekiel prophesies in our Old Testament reading. And then, like his mountaintop forebear, the mustard shrub offers his inexplicably large branches to the birds of the air, that they might make nests in its shade. The second seed, though it began smallest of all, ends up sheltering the homeless.

So who are we, after all? The answer to that question must, as we have seen, begin with grace. “We eat by the grace of nature,” says Michael Pollan, and we know that this natural truth is but one reflection of the deeper truth about grace, that it saves us from death (and a deathly life) from day to day and from age to age. Saved at the seed, we grow up and out into the purpose for which we, as we remembered only two weeks ago on Pentecost, are sent, by the grace of God.

It is true: To live by grace, to grow by grace, is to be sent by grace. Like the grace-grown plant life in today’s parables, we, too, are grown for a purpose. We are sent, whether we, like the grain stalks, feed the hungry in our world, or whether we, like the absurd mustard shrub-turned-cedar tree, shelter the shelter-less in our neighborhood. There are many tasks to be done in the work God calls us to – but God sends many seeds to do them. May we sprout and grow as God’s seeds. Gracias a Dios.

No comments: