And the LORD said to Satan, “The LORD rebuke you, O Satan! The LORD who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?” – Zechariah 3:2
In recent years, Tish Harrison Warren has achieved a prominent profile among small-o orthodox Christians in the United States. As well as writing regularly for The New York Times and Christianity Today, she has also penned two applauded books, Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life (2016) and Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work, or Watch, or Weep (2022), both of which won Christianity Today’s Book of the Year award. I myself am reading the former for the first time, and her thesis has plenty to commend it. In brief, she dismantles unhealthy mental barriers and habits that Christians maintain in their daily lives, by which they wall off the “spiritual” aspects of life from the humdrum. The main thrust strikes home: many modern believers would benefit from a more integrated approach to discipleship, taking stock of the “smaller” things rather despising or getting bored with them (cf. Zechariah 4:10). If Christians can agree with Socrates that the unexamined life is not worth living, then Warren is trying to help her readers live more worthily.
In Chapter 5 of Liturgy of the Ordinary “Eating Leftovers” (which makes some profound points about our habits of eating, gratitude, the Eucharist, and consumerist Christianity), Warren opens with a discussion of her own preference for eating food that is “local, homegrown, and organic” as well as having (admittedly idealized) elaborate communal meals with friends and family. But these ideals are quickly contrasted with a cheap-and-easy leftover meal of taco soup: the sort of banality that characterizes most days of one’s life. This soup serves as the chapter’s object lesson.
Here, the reader encounters a particular motif that runs through the chapter and Warren’s other writings: an activist mentality toward the world’s problems, fostered in part by a pervading sense of complicity. Unobjectionably, Warren emphasizes how even this lowly lunch should spur one to genuine gratitude. She laments, however, that modern economics has made the production of the soup opaque. Whereas a century ago (Warren supposes), she would have known many of the people involved and would have felt personal gratitude toward them, the contemporary soup is “an anonymous commodity.” Warren’s conclusions are worth quoting at length:
And with anonymity and ingratitude comes injustice. Like so much of what we consume in our complicated world of global capitalism and multinational corporations, purchasing this corn and these beans involves me, however unwittingly, in webs of systemic injustice, exploitation, and environmental degradation that I am ignorant of and would likely not consent to. I do not know where the onions in my soup came from or how the workers who harvested them were treated. My leftovers may have been provided by a man whose kids can’t afford lunch today.
A little further down:
Nourishment is always far more than biological nutrition. We are nourished by our communities. We are nourished by gratitude. We are nourished by justice. We are nourished when we love our neighbors. . . . Our primary concern is that our meal is cheap, convenient, plentiful, and requires very little from us. . . . The free-market economy can produce a kind of abundance. I have more than enough soup. And yet this appearance of abundance is false when it comes at the cost of subjecting others to slave labor or poisoning the soil.
And again: “[Scripture and Eucharist] teach me to receive these leftovers—and all of life—as a gift. And yet they also serve as judgment on my meal, a call to repentance for the systems of scarcity and injustice that I perpetuate in my average day.” Warren thus presents an acute moral paradox: despite her gratitude, she seems to feel guilt–as if from somewhere in the depths of the bowl the Accuser himself points the finger.
Soup Sacrificed to Idols
The guilt of “implication” expressed by Warren and others who dwell upon this kind of systemic injustice is, in fact, quite an old phenomenon. One ancient Greek term to describe this “implication” might be miasma, which roughly means something like “pollution” or “contamination.” Miasma could result from sin and other misbegotten deeds, poisoning entire realms and populations beyond the initial sinner. For example, in the most famous version of the myth as told by Sophocles, Oedipus’s inadvertent patricide and incest affect not just him and his family but also bring plague upon the whole of Thebes. Similarly, ancient Judaism gave much consideration to what made a person unclean. It is with precisely these sorts of instincts about contamination that Paul must grapple in 1 Corinthians 8–10, where he instructs the Corinthians in how to approach food sacrificed to idols–a real question in a city where much of the available meat might have been first offered in a cultic context. By the standards of many Christians even at the time (see Acts 15:29), Paul’s attitude is shockingly laissez-faire: the weaker of conscience may keep on abstaining, and the stronger may continue so long as they don’t cause the weaker to stumble. “Food,” writes Paul, “will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak” (1 Cor. 8:9–10 ESV).
Where Paul draws a hard line, it pertains to participation in the cult of the gods—demons—themselves:
Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?1 Cor. 10:14–22
In these chapters, Paul gravely warns against both syncretism and sacramentalism. Informed by the example of Israel’s desert wanderings (10:1–11), his red line may strike modern people as arbitrary: why distinguish so sharply between eating meat sacrificed to idols and participating in the cults themselves? (Teasing out his reasoning is possible, but that’s for a different essay). In any case, Paul concludes, “Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof’” (10:25–6). Thankfulness—and Warren would agree—is essential in all of this (10:30).
Let us remind ourselves why many Christians in Corinth would have been uneasy with food sacrificed to idols: not least for those fresh out of paganism with those associations still in mind, it would have felt much like collusion with the very same “principalities and powers” (Eph. 6:12) invoked by today’s activist theologies–from both Right and Left–to justify revolutionizing the economic, social, and political macrocosm. In other words, when they looked at such food, some Corinthians quite literally saw the demonic staring back at them.
In contrast to us moderns with our more expansive horizon of moral concerns, weaker consciences and cultic participation seem to be Paul’s only considerations when it came to purchasing and eating food–despite the strong possibility that the food may have originated in highly inequitable conditions. Neither Paul nor the Corinthians knew where their meat came from prior to its arrival in a temple; they didn’t know whether slaves tended the livestock, or whether said slaves were captive Britons taken unjustly in the recent campaign by Claudius or maybe descended from Gallic slaves taken by Julius Caesar a century prior, or whether these slaves were sexually abused by their masters; they didn’t know who owned the land whence the livestock came or how the owners had come by it. By contrast, they probably did know that many of the people involved in the production of the meat paid taxes to Caesar, as they themselves did. It seems, then, that one could have objected to the entire moral edifice of the economic schema if they so wished: the whole thing was morally polluting or “implicating,” from top to bottom.
And yet, Paul is basically untroubled, and he makes this into a local, prudential question more concerned about brotherly charity and outright idolatry, rather than food per se. Nor was he the only ancient Christian to shrug about such socio-economic implication. In fact, on the matter of taxes specifically, Jesus himself famously instructed his followers to pay them (Mark 12:17). If ever there were pollution by proxy, it would have come here. The anxiety of his Jewish contemporaries leaps off the page of this story in the gospels: “Surely, you cannot mean for us to actually feed the same violent, idolatrous Beast who sits atop the world’s rotten heap?”
With Great Modern Power Comes Great Modern Anxiety
Yet as is his wont and remit, Jesus defied his listeners’ expectations. “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Clever exegetes have pointed out that Jesus’s prop in this discourse is Caesar’s coinage, which bears the imperial image and likeness. The analogy is not hard to follow: everything belongs to God, of course, but human beings who carry his own image and likeness are at the top of the list. It would seem, then, that paying God “in his own coin” is to give oneself, first and foremost. Put more simply, Jesus seems to be teaching a kind of moral compartmentalization to his followers rather than an all-consuming sacralization.
What then are we to say about the ostensible casualness toward systemic injustice in the New Testament? A fuller answer must be given elsewhere, but Warren’s approach deserves a few summary remarks. In the first place, the New Testament’s outlook probably does not mean those who follow its example must reject even the possibility of addressing large-scale problems whatsoever, such as the contemporary Uyghur genocide. Still, we need to ask the right questions of zealous theological rhetoric. Zeal unconstrained by other virtues often backfires; we know this. Many Christians have gradually learned this lesson in the realm of, say, short-term international missions, which can do more harm than good. Yet for some reason, much public discourse today–Christian and otherwise–shows fairly open contempt for prudence and circumspection.
This is not a new problem. “The use of Fashions in thought,” proposes C. S. Lewis in the persona of Screwtape, “is to distract the attention of men from their real dangers.”
We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under. Thus we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm; a century later, when we are really making them all Byronic and drunk with emotion, the fashionable outcry is directed against the dangers of the mere “understanding”. Cruel ages are put on their guard against Sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against Respectability, lecherous ones against Puritanism; and whenever all men are really hastening to be slaves or tyrants we make Liberalism the prime bogey.
Peter Brown, the godfather of the historical field of Late Antiquity, reaches a conclusion similar to Screwtape’s. “In every age,” Brown suggests, “ a governing class thinks of itself as suffering from besetting weaknesses that are the antithesis and, maybe, the unwitting product of its dominant virtues.” If this is the general pattern of history, then what is a wise Christian to do?
Screwtape himself offers one approach: “Of a proposed course of action [God] wants men, so far as I can see, to ask very simple questions; is it righteous? is it prudent? is it possible?” Put another way, soft hearts should be paired with hard heads. If the former lacks the latter, one may in the end suspect the gestures and theological rhetoric probably have more to do with unwitting self-gratification. In the same vein, we should also remember that our moral responsibilities are proportional to proximity in most cases. By default, one’s duties to one’s immediate family, church, and community—namely, those realms where we have those most concrete influence—should take precedence (1 Tim. 5:4) over global or national trouble. Attention and other resources expended on one cannot go to the other. And it bears noting that Warren herself is probably at her strongest when she pushes her readers towards a more conscientious stewardship of the local and personal. In sum, then, while I am directionally sympathetic to Warren’s broader project of resacralization, we should also bear in mind that historical Christianity allows, and even demands, moral distinctions, hierarchies, and compartments without guilt.
Andrew Koperski is a doctoral candidate in ancient history at The Ohio State University. His fields of focus include Late Antiquity, Early Christianity, and Byzantium. Much of his current research examines the formation of the biblical canon and the reception of apocryphal literature.
- Tish Harrison Warren, Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016), 62↑
Warren, Liturgy of the Ordinary, 70. ↑
Warren, Liturgy of the Ordinary, 72.↑
Warren, Liturgy of the Ordinary, 73. ↑
- C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 137–8 ↑
Peter Brown, The Making of Late Antiquity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 40. ↑
Lewis, Screwtape Letters, 138. ↑