Review: Good Food

Jennifer R. Ayres. Good Food: Grounded Practical Theology. Waco, TX.: Baylor University Press, 2013, xiv + 233pp., $29.95

What does it mean to call food ‘good’?

At a time when seemingly more attention than ever is paid to what we eat and how it looks, and amid the milieu of endless proponents of alternative diets, Jennifer Ayres, Associate Professor of Religious Education at Candler School of Theology, has made an important contribution to the ‘good food’ conversation. While we may shy away from close examination of the issue for fear of how it might upset our lives, few would disagree with Ayres that, ‘A quest for good food cannot be built solely on aesthetic or cultural grounds, particularly for people of faith. To call food “good” demands a moral analysis of how food is produced, distributed and consumed in society.’ [3]

Writing particularly for Christians in the United States concerned with issues of justice and “goodness” in the food system, Ayres examines the quest for good food through what she terms ‘grounded practical theology’. This approach, for her, is grounded in two senses: in a material sense in that ‘a quest for good food necessarily brings to the fore questions about agriculture…[and] requires sustained attention to the land, and all of its inhabitants,’ [x] but also in a theoretical sense, ‘Like the methods of grounded theory in sociology, grounded practical theology emerges from intimate and close observation of everyday life.’ [x]

Dividing her work into two parts, she begins with an analysis of the global food system under the four broad categories of people, places, planet and policies. In two short chapters, she provides a good introductory overview of the “dizzyingly complex” system [14] considering issues of food economics, trade and labour, animal welfare, food policy and environmental implications.

She finishes Part I with a theology and ethics of food. Reflecting on the centrality of the table in Christian tradition, she considers what it could mean for Christians today if our participation in the food system was shaped by a “table-oriented” theological framework and describes four “moral commitments” arising from such “table-reflection”: ‘the prioritization of the hungry, solidarity with and advocacy for those who work the land, the call to care gently for the land, and the reestablishment of bonds of interdependence between humans and the sources of our food.’ [65]

It is in Part II though that Ayres’ work really comes into its own. Her approach of “grounded practical theology” recognises that ‘Orthodoxy cannot, on its own, “answer” the challenges posed by the food system. Broad social analysis and theological foundations must always be accompanied by the kind of knowing that is only found in getting one’s hands dirty.’ [76]

The following four chapters are dedicated to telling the stories of individuals and communities around the United States who are creatively exploring what it means for them to faithfully live out their theology in relation to the global food system. From church urban garden projects and community farmers markets to college farms and educational travel, as she tells the stories she is ‘accompanying, as best one can in written word, people of faith as they engage the questions, make mistakes, build relationships, influence their local food systems, and discover new ways of being Christian in this time.’ [77] The church is rediscovering the marketplace… and is finding itself literally in the market.

Ayres recognises the importance of telling stories to flesh out the abstract complexity that could otherwise characterise discussion concerning a theology of food.

She is by no means the first to recognise the power of story to bring a concrete experience of what might otherwise only be thought about ideationally. Crucially though, her story telling is not naive or idealistic, nor does it leave the reader feeling personally condemned for their inaction. Instead she prizes the value of ‘little moves against destructiveness’ [161], the “symbolic significance” of small actions [96] and the cultivation of an “eschatological imagination” which ‘invite[s] all of us into deeper, more faithful dimensions of creativity.’ [163] For the scholar, for the ‘foodie’, for the activist, this is good food.

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