Maybe the Seventh Story starts with Food - Martha Tatarnic
Seeking a New Story
I boarded a plane in the middle of the night to meander my way across several airport connections taking me from Toronto to Austin, Texas. My first book has been published this spring, and although it wasn’t yet out when the inaugural New Story Festival was offered at the Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, I had applied to be a speaker at the event and had been thrilled to be accepted for a Saturday workshop. I went so that I might meet some fellow authors, have some people engage with my material with me, soak up a few rays and eat a bit of barbecue.
On the first full day, I settled myself on a patch of grass at the main stage and listened to Brian McLaren and Porch editor Gareth Higgins share the book they had co-authored, Cory and the Seventh Story. It is an illustrated book, and as was clear by the rapt attention with which they held the Saturday morning crowd, it speaks to people of all ages. As Gareth writes,
“Currently, six primary stories shape our lives as individuals and as societies. They give our lives meaning, direction, and drive, even though many of us have never given them a name. As soon as we name them - domination, revolution, purification, isolation, victimization, accumulation - we start to notice something: these stories do not work. Instead, they drive us apart, create more suffering, and fail to answer the question of how to make a better world. The sun is setting on our old stories.”
I led my workshop in the afternoon and that evening went to hear Nadia Bolz-Weber. Nadia wove humor and personal anecdotes through her account of her relationship with Jesus. She named key events in her life and the abiding love she has felt for Jesus throughout, the promise of love she has always received in return. Nadia sees that relationship with Jesus as a corrective to destructive messages that she hears Christians speak all too often in Jesus’ name. There was nothing in her language or presentation to suggest that she had lined up her words to fit with Gareth and Brian’s over-arching message. And yet, it was also abundantly clear that she, too, had been steeped in those six stories that are so easy for us to tell and that we discover don’t work in a thousand heart-breaking ways. I could hear in her message that same possibility of a seventh story.
I also had not prepared my material for New Story with anything in mind other than trying to distill the essence of my 200 page book into a 45 minute presentation. And I couldn’t help but to hear in my own words a calling out of those six stories and my own wildly hopeful search for another possibility.
My writing over the better part of the past decade has centered on food and our relationship with our bodies. Gareth and Brian’s storytelling quest has looked outward into the ways that our stories parlay into politics, global relations, environmental activism and interfaith dialogue. Nadia’s work is currently honing in around sexual politics and how Jesus might offer a corrective to those destructive narratives around sex that get the most air-time.
My own journey starts with an eating disorder. I was bolstered in my dark and obsessive experience by the non-stop messages of guilt and dissatisfaction I got around food and body image, as well as the dangling carrot of a mythological dietary salvation that was mine for the taking, if I just figured out the right diet and was disciplined enough to adopt it.
Part of my healing from that eating disorder has involved the slow realization that it was not mine alone. I think we have a collective eating disorder. We have destructive messages that we accept with the rarest of questions, and we tell them all the time about our bodies and the food we put into them.
I knew this before the New Story Festival. But as the weekend unfolded, I began to see an inescapable connection between those six stories identified in Gareth and Brian’s book and our culture’s relationship with food and the human body.
We eat a Story of Accumulation / We eat a Story of Domination
The Story of Accumulation plays out in a myriad of interrelated food industries. The fast food industry sells quick solutions to the inconvenience of having to feed our bodies. The junk food industry is ready to reward us with tantalizing layers of salt, sugar, and fat for every stress we endure and every celebration we honor. The diet food industry sells long, unpronounceable lists of preservatives and chemicals, along with reductionist promises of how many calories are contained in each offering. Whereas fast and junk foods need strange ingredients to make low-quality products taste irresistible and last on the shelf, diet foods need to manipulate low-calorie, low-fat products into tasting like “the real thing.”
The Story of Domination convinces us that we are at war with our bodies. We “battle the bulge” and we lose ground daily to the enemy of obesity. We are kept combat-ready by the fat shaming of famous people who have put on a few pounds and been foolish enough to be photographed with cellulite. And we award motivational badges of honor to both the celebrities and the “Average Joes” who have lost noticeable amounts of body fat, especially if they can also give us a quick and easy diet for our next showdown in the mostly unwinnable war of coercing our bodies to lose weight and keep it off.
We are so seductively, painstakingly, and thoroughly sold into this war with our bodies, and we are sold it from all sides by industries that have ganged up on us. We buy their weapons willingly, and we wield them against ourselves. We keep relying on the Fast and falling for the Junk, which makes us seek the Diet. The Junk and the Fast and the Diet all reinforce the same battleground messages. Our bodies threaten us with disappointment and disorder. Our bodies are not to be trusted or listened to, but rather fooled. Our bodies fall short of the standard set for them. We are at war with our bodies.
We eat a Story of Isolation / We eat a Story of Victimization
Meanwhile, the Isolation and Victimization Narratives give me both the message that my own individual needs and desires trump anything else, and also that I am not good enough. I am taught to be an isolated individual, alone in my quest to attain my perfect body and perfect health. I am told I am the center of the universe, but then the body I am seeking is held up to the world for judgement, turned into a product to be labelled “good enough,” or, more likely, “needs work.” I am encouraged to obsess about something that is also labelled as fundamentally inadequate. “You are not good enough” combines with “you deserve it” to cycle us between giving in to temptation and feeling badly for doing so. I am promised that nothing trumps my individual desire, individual convenience or individual lifestyle only to repeatedly discover that none of these endless consumer choices make me feel any less empty.
We eat a Story of Revolution / We eat a Story of Purification
When I am at this point, then I am ripe for Revolution and Purification Narratives. Although the media sell us mass messages, they have an effective knack for intimacy. “Weight loss secrets no one ever tells you”—a chatty celeb or self-proclaimed dietary expert dishes the dirt on what sort of throw-down is needed against which eating practices, what food staples now need to be permanently excised from our pantries, in order to attain the coveted victory of a vanishing body. The list of weight-loss solutions I have tried or that have been shared around the office water cooler, at supper with friends, or across the walls of Facebook is epic. Each has been marketed as the one great key, and each has failed to produce any lasting change in any body I have ever known.
If you cut out carbs…If you separate carbs and proteins…If you eat these vitamins…If you eat these vitamins in combination with cutting out carbs…If you spend twenty minutes a day on these stretches…If you eat flax seed three times a day…If you mix in this protein powder…If you replace two meals with these milkshakes….If you count your calories…If you don’t eat after 7 pm…If you eat small amounts regularly….If you don’t snack….If you measure your portions….If you buy these portion-controlled meals…If you take this pill….If you research your blood type….If you drink caffeine….If you don’t drink caffeine….If you cut out red meat…If you add in low-fat dairy….If you cut out dairy….If you buy sugar substitutes…If you eat honey….If you avoid sweets…If you drink diet pop…If you eat whole grains…If you go gluten-free…If you do regular “cleanses”….
Each of these diets allow for a radical sense of purification, results are quick and noticeable, but ultimately the practices are unsustainable; weight lost is quickly weight re-gained. They provide an appealing, but very temporary, sense of relief from the extra psychological and physical weight we are carrying, and they require that we keep cycling back into taking up that burden again, and with it all of the disappointment and guilt we’ve learned to ingest into our bodies.
Why we need a Seventh Story
For many, how we eat is a new religion. We have different denominations, each claiming their own particular scriptures. There are varying levels of piety and purity and adherence. We judge who is in and who is out based on which practices are adopted and how well. Our media gather us around the shared practices of both worshipping and hating the body. We turn the gift of food, meant to support and nourish us, into a system of rules and regulations, with guilt as the sheepdog herding us constantly into the pen of complacency.
There are far-reaching ramifications to embracing these messages. It is not just that I am relentlessly taught to both obsess over and distrust my body. I am also given the subtle and consistent message that bodies do not matter—third-world bodies, animal bodies, the complex multi-body chain of life.
We seek our convenient food and stuff our landfills with appalling amounts of plastic packaging. We obsess about lean-proteins and low-carb diets. We crave fast, generic meat, cleverly prepared to disguise any resemblance to an actual animal. And our demand is both created and met by massive industrial farms and slaughter-houses, raising animals in appalling conditions, pumping them full of hormones and cheap feed to maximize profits and yield. We import our food products from the developing world in mass quantities, throwing out a staggering forty percent of our available food in North America, while food insecurity plagues an astonishing percentage of the planet. Meanwhile, the collateral carbon dioxide damage of food transportation costs and livestock farms chokes our airways and waterways.
Our attitude to the individual body and our attitude to our collective body are fundamentally linked. When we name our own bodies as inadequate or disappointing, we also create a culture of disrespect for the bodies within which we exist and have life. As the wants of an individual body justify harming the systems of life within which it exists, the loop is completed—we further disrespect the individual body, the individual body which actually does not and cannot live in isolation.
Brian and Gareth’s tale of Cory leads to this: “There is a Seventh Story, misunderstood and hidden, but available to everyone … a story that upends what we think we know about religion, politics, economics, art, and even storytelling itself.”
My struggle with an eating disorder ultimately led me to write my book, The Living Diet, but not before discovering something of that seventh story myself. It was a glimpse, here and there, now and then, of how my body might be flawed and imperfect and beautiful and powerful. It was the barely articulated draw to be something other than an isolated, alienated individual imprisoned by stories that are so destructive.
The Christian Alternative: The Seventh Story starts with Food
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, the Gospel of John preposterously claims in its opening poetic description of Jesus. It is an explicit statement of a current of controversy running throughout the four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life. It is the belief, finally and wildly embraced by early Christians, that was (and still is) so scandalous, not only to those not following Jesus, but sometimes even to those who are. Whereas “chili con carne” means “chili with meat,” Incarnation means “God with meat.” We believe that we discover who God is through the bodily, fleshly, meaty person of Jesus.
God was revealed to us in the body. In Jesus, our physical existence is forever marked as good, as valued, as holy, as bearing the possibility of revealing truth and life, as intimately connected to the world. It is a scandalous and messy proposition. The Christian Church often pushes back against its own teaching—as Nadia Bolz-Weber, Gareth Higgins and Brian McLaren each make abundantly clear—finding ways of presenting instead a neatly packaged disregard for our own physical existence—the baser physical existence must be brought under heel by the elevated life of spirit.
Jesus understood intuitively a simple truth. These first six stories don’t work because they are based on a lie. Our physical bodies are not self-contained individuals, they are relationships. It is an inarguable physical truth—that our bodies exist in relationship. Every time we eat, we affirm this truth. We must ingest life from outside of ourselves in order that we ourselves can live. How we eat is a literal embodiment of the way that we see and honour our relationships with others and with the earth, air and water around us; it is also an embodiment of how we understand our relationship with ourselves. Jesus had important ways in which he wanted to reconfigure our religious and political stories, he was heavily invested in the work of more justly distributing resources for the benefit of all and teaching people that they are not trapped by guilt, dissatisfaction and inadequacy. In order to do that, he kept showing up just in time to eat.
God’s promise was delivered to the people of Israel by the prophet Jeremiah, “I will make a covenant with my people. I will put my teaching within them and write it on their hearts.” (Jeremiah 33). Jesus took Jeremiah’s promise one step further: the love of God is written in our bodies. More specifically, Jesus located this spiritual path and spiritual knowledge not just in our bodies, but in our stomachs—how and what we eat, the hunger inside us. The Seventh Story, a story of healing the fractured relationships of our lives, of honoring and living into the relationships that actually physically mark us, begins with food. Jesus broke the basic act of eating open for his followers and showed the way of relationship, community, healing, and union. Right relationship with hunger and body was the marker for right relationship with God. Bread, water, wine, banquet, hunger, thirst, breaking, and sharing became the signposts for the possibility of a Seventh Story, a New Story.
On my final day in Austin, I met up with a new friend for breakfast: Terra, a local pastor I met in line when we were registering. I had lunch with my editor Milton and two other fellow creatives. As we broke bread, we traded stories about writing, forming community, leading the way into uncharted waters, and the adventure it is to follow that long-ago promise God is still placing upon our hearts: “See I am doing a new thing!”
The liberating, barrier-breaking vision articulated so well by Gareth, Brian, Nadia, and countless others across the New Story Festival—the possibility of that seventh story to heal and strengthen relationships in contrast to all that currently tears us apart—felt so close I could taste it.
Martha Tatarnic serves as the rector of St. George's Anglican Church in St. Catharines, Ontario. Her book "The Living Diet" is now available.