“How can we farm and talk about food with college girls without thinking about body image?”
How could I possibly have missed this? Any serious consideration of food with young people had to include consideration of bodies. The two necessarily go together.
It was January. I was seven months into my role as Director of the Farminary, and I found myself at a table with a handful of stellar seminary students, a colleague who specializes in Christian Education and Formation, and a tremendous opportunity.
A group of eleven high school graduates—who all happened to be young women—were coming to the Farminary for a week in June, and the task of designing and implementing a formational service and learning experience fell to us.
We dreamed big dreams. The entire 21-acre Farminary was our classroom. We talked about food justice and food deserts. We reviewed the complexities of contemporary agriculture and food production. We brainstormed documentaries that could be screened and plants that could be grown. We considered countless possible Scripture passages and theological doctrines that could guide our time. Like seeds spilled on fertile soil, ideas and possibilities sprung up haphazardly in our midst.
The recognition of the links among farming, food, and bodies shot a clarifying light through our planning. Whatever we did, we would have to honor those connections, and we would have to ground those connections in the God we encounter in Jesus Christ.
The interconnectedness compelled us.
Identity and Integration
Our impulse to help the young people make these connections finds an echo in the literature of both youth ministry and human development which has suggested for decades that the goal of adolescence is an integrated self. In Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church, Kenda Creasy Dean draws on the work of Erik Erikson, David Elkind, and Robin Maas to argue the importance of integration on the journey of identity formation. Dean notes that the postmodern context and consumer culture too frequently contribute not to an integrated identity, but rather to an identity that is fragmented or atomized1—“deprive[d] of meaningful ties to others”2—what Elkind referred to as “the patchwork self.”3
The adolescent ego, by definition, is a work in progress. With the onset of formal operational thought—the ability to think about thinking—the young person recognizes for the first time a “proliferation of me’s”: the “me” at home is different from the “me” at school, and the “me” who is in love with Shannon is different from the “me” who plays in a band with friends. Integrating all the “me’s” is a daunting task under any circumstance, but for young people new to the quick-change artistry required by multiple demands on the self, integrating the “me’s” represents a full-time, and often overwhelming job.4
The struggle for integrity certainly antedates postmodernity. However, what is new in the contemporary context is the normalization of fragmentation. “[T]he growing assumption [for postmodern youth is] that this fluctuating self is normative; maturity is no longer necessarily a goal of adolescence. … Increasingly, adults function with serial selves instead of integrated ones. Adolescence itself has become a lifestyle.”5 Fragmentation, dis-integration, and division have become normal. The adolescent identity—whether housed in a fourteen- or forty-year old—is divided from itself and its community.
Body and Soul; Body and Soil
As we planned for the arrival of the young women, we recognized a dis-integration analogous to the fragmentation which Dean describes, but which she does not explicitly name. The division that the adolescent identity experiences from its own psyche and its community extends without interruption to the adolescent body, food, and the land. The adolescent body is divided against itself, it is divided against food, and it is divided against the land—and these divisions typically go unquestioned in the contemporary context. The land, food, and the adolescent body have all been reduced to commodities which may be exploited for profit, and harmonious relationships between self and body, and between self and food, become nearly impossible to imagine.6
We are still trying to overcome the destructive bifurcation of body and soul. We struggle to recognize that the division of body and soul follows quite logically from the division of body and soil. For without a meaningful connection to the land, a meaningful connection to the fruit of the land becomes tenuous and we struggle to perceive the reality that we, too, are fruit of the land. Human health depends on healthy food which depends on healthy soil.
Now, it seems, we may stand on theologically tricky ground. Is a renewed relationship with the soil really the answer to a fragmented identity? No. Not by itself. What the soil does, however, is point us to the possibility of an integration that lies at the depths of the Judeo-Christian theological tradition.
The creation stories in both Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 paint the picture of an interrelatedness of God, humanity, food, and the whole creation that is marked by grace and overflowing with vitality. In Genesis 1:29–30 God highlights the provision of food within the created order, “‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’ And it was so.” This takes place in the context of the whole creation which God pronounces “very good.” In Genesis 2, God places the first human in the Garden of Delight and again highlights the provision of food (2:16). In both creation accounts, food and bodies exist as gifts from God.
Furthermore, the Genesis 2 account describes the formation of the first human with direct reference to “the fertile soil of the ground.”7 In farmer-like fashion, God scoops up the fertile soil, breathes into it, and brings to life the first person—human from humus (Genesis 2:7). In the terms of human identity, Genesis 2 inextricably links human identity with the soil. The food God provides for humankind comes from the plant life which God has also formed from the fertile soil (2:9). The identity of humankind simply cannot be separated from either the life of God or the material world.
The import of the material world extends into the new covenant when God takes on flesh via the Incarnation. The Word takes on flesh. And then the One professed to be fully God and fully human invites his closest followers to remember him not by reading the book he wrote or memorizing the creed he composed, but rather by consuming grain and grapes transformed into bread and wine.
There it is again. The life of God, humanity, food, and by extension the whole created order dynamically interconnected, integrated. In the Eucharist, that paradigmatic marker of the identity of the people of God, food and body are inextricably linked. “Take. Eat. This is my body.” Yet this invitation to consume does not divide Christ from his followers, but rather unites them with each other, with Christ, and with the whole creation which groans alongside humanity for redemption. Is not the Lord’s Supper a picture of an integrated whole which necessarily brings together the life of God, the life of humanity, and the life of all creation?
Our Last Supper
When the young women came to the Farminary in June, I have serious doubts that we covered all this ground. But we did spend significant time on the ground, planting seeds, tending soil, and turning compost. During our last evening together, we partook of our own Last Supper. We harvested parsnip, radish, spinach, lettuce, potato, onion, garlic, and peas from the Farminary garden; we procured other groceries and spices from local farms and vendors; and then we gathered in the kitchen to prepare the feast of a lifetime. We were graced by the presence of a phenomenal chef who guided us as we transformed the bounty of the land into a meal that stretched on for hours.
We served each other and that service could not be divided from our service to the soil and the bounty which the soil returned to us. We did not celebrate communion in the typical sense, but we most certainly communed. And we remembered. We remembered Christ’s presence among us, and I have no doubt that Christ was as much present in the parsnips as in the people.
No one left that meal with the work of identity formation finished. That work is more a journey than a destination. Yet there’s no doubt we were slightly more integrated when the meal was finished than when the day began, and I think it is safe to say that we knew more clearly who we were and whose we were as we crawled into bed that night, recalling the sense of wholeness that filled the evening air.
I’m not ready to proclaim that an integrated self is impossible apart from direct contact with the soil. I believe we observed, however, that our contact with the soil—when suffused with theological reflection on (i.e. attentiveness to) the interconnectedness of the life of God, the life of humanity, and the life of the whole created order—integrates us. It unveils our interdependence; it unveils our dependence on death and the interconnectedness of life and death. It opens space for humanizing conversation. It unites us through common and shared labor. It connects us with the depths of the Judeo-Christian theological tradition. It grounds us, and it points us to the One who holds all things together in perfect integrity, the only source of our true identity.
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The Rev. Nathan T. Stucky, Ph.D., hails from Kansas but lives in Princeton, NJ, where he serves as Director of the Farminary Project at Princeton Theological Seminary. An ordained Mennonite (Mennonite Church USA), Nate’s work with the Farminary integrates theological education with small-scale, sustainable agriculture at Princeton Seminary’s 21-acre farm. He and his wife, Janel, are the happy parents of Joshua, Jenna, and Isaac.