One of my favorite shows on NPR is the Canadian based “WireTap” hosted by Jonathan Goldstein. If you’re unfamiliar with the show it’s a bit hard to explain, but it’s a combination of fiction and non-fiction monologues, stories, interviews, and conversations that range between comical and informational. I recently listened to a podcast that kicked off a series on the Seven Deadly Sins, and they chose to begin the series with Gluttony.
This particular episode opened with an interview with Professor William Miller. He is a professor of Law at the University of Michigan but he also has a personal interest in Medieval history and has written numerous books on the topic. Some of what he shared about the history of gluttony was new information to me, so I wanted to share an excerpt from the interview with you today:
Miller: When the 7 deadly sins first got listed in the 4th century—around the 300’s—gluttony was number one. People actually understood the sin of Eve in the Garden to be eating. She was eating when she shouldn’t have, and that was chalked up to gluttony. And the Medieval people who thought about these sins, they understood that gluttony just generates spiritual shallowness to take that much concern with your mouth and your gut.
Goldstein: Why was it considered such a sin?
Miller: There’s another aspect to the sin of gluttony in Medieval times. Any time you saw a big fat person or somebody gorging themselves, you could in fact accuse them of homicide. We would call it suicide now: You’re eating yourself to death, you’re fat, you’re going to get a heart attack. In the Middle Ages there was a scarcity of calories—there just was not enough to go around—so if you see somebody gorging themselves and feasting daily, they’re taking food out of the mouths of the poor. Where in our culture it’s the poor who are fat.
Goldstein interjects: –Because of unhealthy eating–
Miller: No more than a hundred years ago, portliness was a sign of being upper class because you had enough to eat. So there’s a kind of perverse kind of thing where the poor actually determine the body type that will be considered the desired body type. So if the poor are fat, then the rich starve themselves. If the poor are skinny because they’re starving, then the rich pork up.
You know even in the Middle Ages they were aware that gluttony isn’t just over-eating. It’s about over-doing sensations. So I would say a kind of prissy foodie type nowadays would qualify as a glutton in the Middle Ages because they are just excessively concerned with what goes into their mouth…. [It’s about] spending our lives devoted to the wrong ends.”
A couple things stood out to me about this interview. The first is the lens through which Eve’s sin was interpreted given the historical moment. This is not an unusual trend in the church’s history. Eve’s sin has been interpreted as everything from polytheism (Theophilus was making a larger argument against polytheism, and used this Biblical passage as an example) to more modern beliefs that women are more easily deceived than men (a belief that is arguably borne up by the fact that, historically, women have received less education than men).
All of that to say, Miller’s point about gluttony is an example that our culture not only provides different insights into our interpretations of Scripture, but it can also skew our interpretations.
This leads me to the second thing I liked about this interview. While I am not convinced that Eve’s sin was that of gluttony, I believe we can learn from those Christians in the Middle Ages who emphasized its danger. Aside from anti-obesity campaigns today, this is not a topic Christians discuss very often. If anything, Christians like myself are more concerned about women who are starving themselves, not eating too much. Yet I was challenged by Miller’s statement that gluttony produces a kind of “spiritual shallowness.” The implication here is that gluttony or excessiveness of any kind stands between us and spiritual depth.
This of course leaves me wondering: What practice do I engage in so excessively that it takes time, thought, and energy away from God? What do I depend on for that deep gut satisfaction more than Christ? Is it food? Shopping? Seeking the praises of others? Being a good wife?
Not all of us struggle with food, although it is certainly an ever-present temptation in a prosperous country like ours. But regardless of the object of our struggle, we all have the same broken wiring. The soul that replaces God with food can replace God with just about anything. In the United States where we are surrounded by abundance and the world is at our finger tips, I think we do well to remember the danger of gluttony. As the saying goes, those who are rich do not know they are rich, but those who are not rich know.
I wonder if we don’t know we are gluttons. I wonder if we don’t realize just how much we have replaced genuine dependence on God with something else.
Food for thought.
Good insights here Sharon. I will be teaching on Fasting in the context of a Spiritual Disciplines class and am very interested in how you have tied gluttony in with other self-satisfying impulses: “The soul that replaces God with food can replace God with just about anything.” Each of us would benefit from honest self-examen.