Home > Uncategorized > Scripture Study in an Age of Nutritionism

Scripture Study in an Age of Nutritionism

As I was preparing some essays to teach for my freshman writing course, I came across Michael Pollan’s “Unhappy Meal,” a NY Times article where he lays out his eater’s manifesto: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” The essay offers an indicting assessment of American food culture by arguing that we have gotten too scientific in our approach to eating. That is, we have prioritized “nutrition” over “food,” focusing on vitamins and anti-oxidants rather than plain old fruits and vegetables. Scientists and dietary experts have parsed and categorized wheat into carbohydrates, dietary fiber, and Vitamin B; chicken and beef has become protein, and oranges are nothing more than Vitamin C pills. Once food has become the sum of its nutritional parts, it is easy to combine those nutritious parts together and form “healthy” processed food, like breakfast cereal bars. Yet in this quest for satisfying our daily vitamin and nutritional requirements, we end up consuming much more processed food that, frankly, is not as healthy or as wholesome as it makes itself out to be. Plus, “nutritionism,” this obsession with proper dietary standards, sucks all the pleasure out of mealtimes as eating becomes barely different from refueling your car. Pollan argues that if we were to abolish nutritionism and instead just eat real food—food that even our grandparents would recognize—we would be much healthier and enjoying eating more.

What does this have to do with scripture study? It struck me as I read Pollan’s essay that we might be doing something similar with the way we read the scriptures. Instead of feasting on the word in all its varieties and flavors, we tend to break down each chapter and verse into a series of gospel platitudes that we take as more “satisfying” than the scriptures themselves. The scriptures themselves become secondary to the moral they supposedly teach or the doctrine they apparently prove. The book of Job is distilled into a reminder to endure trials; in Romans, we gravitate to the 8:16-17, where it talks about being the children and heirs of God, and then quickly pass over the rest. Scriptures are valued not on their own terms, or for what their audience might have understood them to mean, but on how we can utilize them as proof-texts for specific doctrines or as motivational tools for obedience.

I’m thinking primarily about how we study the scriptures in Gospel Doctrine classes. Every year, we rotate through the four canonical works, but the lessons themselves never seem to change. No matter whether you’re talking about the Old Testament or Doctrine and Covenants, there’s going to be a lesson on fasting. Whether it’s the Gospel of Luke or Third Nephi, we’ll hear about tithing. Like our preference for nutrition over real food, we fill ourselves with a steady diet of gospel reminders rather than slowly savoring complex, irreducible testaments like the book of Isaiah or D&C 88. What’s more important than the scriptures themselves is how their modern-day appropriation. “How does this scripture apply to my life?” as become the spiritual equivalent of poring over nutritional labels.

Don’t assume I’m trying to be too cynical about this. Like nutritionism, this model of scripture reading is fueled by noble intentions of satisfying personal needs and helping us stay physically and spiritually healthy. And anyone who hasn’t asked that question about personal application perhaps has not studied the scriptures carefully enough. But I think, as Pollan does about food, that the solution to satisfying our spiritual needs is much simpler than the complex formula of refining complex scriptures into digestible units of spiritual platitudes. If we were to just read the scriptures without trying to transform them endlessly into reminders to pray, fast, and go to church, we’d find that they nourish us far more than we imagine.

Let me give an example: one recent Sunday School lesson focused on Isaiah 50-53. These are, in my opinion, some of the most beautiful, rich verses in any of the standard works. Isaiah’s weaves together Israelite history with Messianic prophecy through a series of carefully formed metaphors and symbols that are both revolting and sublime. “Behold, I have taken out of thine hand the cup of trembling, even the dregs of the cup of my fury; thou shalt no more drink it again” recalls a disgusting medicine I had to take when I was a kid, that was insufferable but—I was promised—would help my asthma. Something about that brilliant metaphor, “the dregs of the cup of my fury,” resonates with me. I’m draw to God’s assurance that Israel’s pains and trials will eventually be removed, and as I read these chapters during the week before class, I was getting excited to discuss them further.

But did we? I think we read one verse from these chapters, talked about missionary work, reviewed the four principles and ordinances of the gospel, and closed with a prayer. This is by no means all the teacher’s fault either: he actually followed the lesson plan from the manual pretty close. But it captures what in my mind is the difference between reading the scriptures for spiritual nutrition and feasting on the word. Yes, we can turn “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings” into a discussion of missionary work, which is an important gospel topic, but we parsing some of the most rich chapters you’ll find for a small nugget of spiritual nutrient. And we may not realize all the nourishment and satisfaction we’ve left behind.

The key is to simply trust that feasting on the scriptures will fill us spiritually just like we trust eating fruits, vegetables, and the right grains will take care of our bodies. If we were to set aside the pre-established principles we are supposed to learn from each chapter, we can be surprised at how rich and nourishing even just a few verses can be. Granted, it might be slow-going through the Old Testament, and we might not touch on every topic in the Gospel Principles manual, but we’ll “feast upon the words of Christ” and find that the scriptures themselves—not their distillation—are more than enough.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Cody
    January 15, 2011 at 11:18 am

    Excellent points–I like the parallel you’ve drawn here and I agree. Have you written a letter to the curriculum committee yet? They explicitly ask for feedback in each manual. I am only now, at age 30, really learning about the scriptures. I’ve been a member of the church my whole life and I graduated from seminary, served a mission, and graduated from BYU. A big part of that blame rests at my feet, but I do feel somewhat let down by the nutritionist-correlation approach.

  2. Meredith
    January 15, 2011 at 3:09 pm

    Nice insights Bro! With regards to chruch classes, It seems like a lot of the responsiblity falls upon us as “learners” in the class to full achieve this spiritual nourishment. What a difference Gospel doctrine and other church classes would be if we fully prepared each sunday.

  3. January 16, 2011 at 12:55 am

    Cody: I’ve meant to write a letter. I am a bit frustrated, as an AP teacher, that they’ve updated the Duty to God program more times in the last five years than they have updated my teaching manuals in the last 20 years. I think the youth deserve more attention in that area.

    Meredith: I’d agree that we’re ultimately responsible for our own scripture study and learning. But I think the example I shared is actually fairly common: even if you do try and prepare rigorously for class, does it make much of a difference? Let’s say by chance the teacher is good at fielding responses and questions (not necessarily a given): a lot of the comments go back to the constant reminders of praying, reading scriptures, going to church, etc. Which are all important, but it’s nutritionism, not feasting. Of course, if you do prepare carefully each Sunday, you’ll be nourished anyways. But wouldn’t it be nice if the classes were structured less according to one overarching moral (i.e., “pay tithing”) and more focused on just diving into the scriptures?

    If I could wave a magic wand and change anything about Sunday School classes, I’d do at least two things: 1) make the lesson manuals more spiritually challenging (if the discussion questions in the manual can and do come with one sentence answers already written down, that’s not a good question) and 2) Divide us into smaller classes. Having taken and taught discussion-based classes for the last 5 years, I can confidently say that any discussion-based class with over 20 students will have a hard time and anyone over 30 students will not be very good unless the teacher is one of a kind. Why not have 5 Gospel Doctrine classes running at once?

  4. Meredith
    January 16, 2011 at 8:53 pm

    Very good points. I realize I may be missing “the point” in your above blog post, but thought I would continue some thoughts of my own on your reply.
    I agree with your thoughts though 100 percent. The manuals are way outdated and provide little spiritual enriching questions. From a different standpoint though, how does the church make unifying manuals for everyone in every country where the gospel is being taught where the material is not too deep for those areas that the gosepl is not as established.
    It would be overwhelming to be a brand new convert to a newly established branch in Chile and expected to follow a manual that may be anything but basic doctrine.
    That’s where I think your magic wand comes in to play:)

    I really do think you write something like Cody said. You have very valid points!

    • January 17, 2011 at 1:42 am

      That’s a good question, Meredith, one I’ve thought a lot about. I think for one that we don’t have to assume that the gospel has to be more established to ask more challenging, thought-provoking questions. Most of the questions I have in mind are questions just about everyone deals with–how do I treat others charitably in very difficult situations, how to deal with spiritual doubts, etc. I think members everywhere could handle these types of lessons OK.

      That being said, every ward and culture is different and it really is impossible for manuals to reach everyone. So why not offer a variety of lesson plans or emphases? Couldn’t there be a lesson plan geared more towards family wards or student wards or maybe even particular cultures? And then it could be up to the teacher or bishop to decide which will be used? And if you put everything online, you wouldn’t even need to publish tons of books. They would be purely optional: think of “expansion sets” for games like Settlers or Ticket to Ride.

      I guess I don’t want the whole post to be about manuals or Sunday School: it’s really about the way we study the scriptures and what we are searching for when we read them. Proof-texts that reinforce the standard answers? Or something more challenging, less reductive, but more fulfilling?

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