The Processed Church
Michael Pollan’s documentary film series, Cooked, ends with the final episode on Earth, which describes the culinary act of fermentation. The penultimate episode dealt with Air, and mainly featured the baking of bread with an inspection of what process is involved with changing wheat kernels into flour. Previous episodes dealt with Fire and Water.
To watch as food is changed from form to form, by the action of fire, or bacteria or yeast, or simply time, makes you aware of how far we have become separated from original methods of processing food. How we now substitute manufacturing processes in order to produce cheap packaged products that last a very long time on store shelves. We know we lose something for convenience, and for costs.
What is that something?
Maybe we hide something. Or substitute something for another. Is this a kind of game we play, a trick? A pretense?
A loaf of genuine sourdough bread baked in one’s very own oven is not the white bread held in plastic bags stacked neatly on supermarket shelves. We call both bread. One is; the other is something else we merely call bread. The essence in the latter is hidden, to the point of vanishing.
I could make the same point comparing a finely made home-brew to Budweiser. Or a home-made yogurt to Yoplait.
One has been changed, processed out of existence. Bit by bit. To discover the original you have to go back to the very basics, before the manufacturing of profit and loss and indefinite shelf-life.
Modern religion is the processed food of the spirit. To wonder as the first wondered you have to remove yourself from the church, from the dogma and doctrine. You have to eliminate the answers others have penned in, pinned on, and concentrate on the questions.
This is the lesson of the Gospels. Jesus is portrayed in these stories as a man shoving aside the assumptions of the religion of his day. Prior to the doctrines concerning his divinity, the docetism, the christologies, there was the profound question: Who is this man? This man that says these things? When he died, his followers were shocked, I believe. They most likely had been told by him that he was the messiah. That was why he was killed, after all. How could it be he died without achieving the kingdom that he spoke so much about? He had spoken to them, had convinced them that the kingdom of God was at hand. And so they believed...until it wasn’t...and then they didn’t. But then new ideas crept in, new doctrine, and the rest is history.
The process of changing Jesus into God, of a small gathering of disciples into an empire, took many years. Layers of argument formed the concrete of liturgies and theologies. Lasting for almost two thousand years. The process of layering dogma upon dogma protects and hardens against almost all internal dispute. But there are always some who ask what was it like in the beginning, before the rules, before the answers.
Transformation is a change, an alteration from one thing to another. Processed foods are transformed, but we call the natural baking of bread, in its simplest form, a transformation, not a process. This is simply saying that processed things have a negative connotation, and transformation a positive one. Likewise, the fermentation of wine and beer use the natural transformation via yeasts omnipresent in the air and on surfaces to change into alcoholic beverages. The yeasts seated on the ground grain bubble up to breathe within a dark, warm, wet environment and produce sourdough.
Transformation reaches back to the natural beginnings, as we look for the reasons for a change, in order to discover the how’s and why’s. Perhaps that is really where mankind discovered science, in the laboratory of a dish of fermented grapes or grains. The transformation became both religion and science. We wanted to know what was hidden that delivered such a life-giving product to us. Dionysus was worshiped for the amazing properties of the foods and drink which gave us that fermented magic. Later in history that same wonder gave us science, which is really just a tool to answer questions, which then gives us more questions. And all along our history we sat looking, wondering at all the hidden things in life, creating works that showed what we were, how we thought: Art.
It is the question that alters, the question that spurs.
If one were to take a medical text from the 17th century and use it today to train our doctors and researchers we would be in a very bad way. Not only would people die needlessly, we would also be asking the wrong questions, the questions we have learned to ask since that book was written; we’d ask about how the humours influenced us, perhaps about the astrological influences, about the need for bleeding. We are doing precisely that when we go to church and use the Bible for our only spiritual guide. We ask what does the Bible say about homosexuality? What does the Bible say about the role of women in church? About the age of the earth? The Bible should not be tossed aside (nor should we toss aside our 17th century guide) as worthless, but we should learn to use it alongside other guides that we have learned are quite useful and that have taught us much, taught us too about the Bible, what it really is, how it was really put together.
Religion has become the hardened answer to what used to be a wonderful question. In science we form a hypothesis and see what turns out to be true, experimentally. “Is this the way things happen?” How? Why? What. Is. This. Really?
Similar to the kingdom of heaven is leaven that a woman, taking, hid in three measures of flour until was leavened all. --Matthew 13:33
This yeast, is hidden within the flour--and a great deal of flour it was. What Jesus was saying, I think, is not so much an allegorical teaching as a pointing to the essence of ourselves, or at least our spiritual selves. He saw the kingdom of God as a community, a community where everyone saw everyone else as themselves, as members of a whole body, living in common, taking care of each other, a family of God. And as God within nature supports his creation naturally so does God support us. As the leaven, hidden, works its magic until it blossoms as a loaf of living bread.
Jesus was describing the kingdom of God: the hidden --but discoverable!-- source of life. Jesus himself was turned into the very symbol of that life, later worshipped as that source. The eucharist, a marvelous magical symbol, the transformation of the bread to Jesus Christ, delivered a symbol of a symbol of a natural source of God’s goodness: bread.
And then so many words were written to wrap Jesus up and deliver him to the people. In time he was processed like a plastic-wrapped package of Wonder Bread, words that held him like chains, so enwrapped and involved him that he is not even seen through them. So where to sit and try and view him, find him again?
Maybe an orchard, maybe in some baker’s kitchen. Hidden for a short while, but just wait a bit.