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Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.

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Meal Replacement

The latest news from Silicon Valley is the trend toward nutritional reliance on protein powder mixes that allow busy software engineers and coders to avoid the time consuming inconvenience of preparing and eating traditional meals. Mixed with water, the “meals’ are drunk over the course of the day and have become so popular that some computer engineers report six month waits to receive their first orders. One start-up entrepreneur put it this way: “I think engineers are ready to throw in the towel on the illusion that we’re having this family dinner. Let’s do away with all the marketing façade and get the calories as quickly as we can.” (The New York Times, May 24, 2015).

How sad that the notion of a communal meal can be brushed aside as simply a “marketing façade,” that rapid ingestion of calories is more important than communion, broadly understood. Perhaps it’s no real surprise. Calories can be counted. Time can be monetized. Community? Not so much. In a data driven environment this may be where we’re headed. As Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla put it, “If there was a way that I couldn’t eat so I could work more, I would not eat. I wish there was a way to get nutrients without sitting down for a meal.”

Well apparently one can get nutrients without sitting down for a meal. Whether we can be nourished that way is another story. Devotees of meal replacements venture numerous rationales. Busy people often don’t eat well; meal replacements ensure that key nutrients are not ignored. Meal replacements cost less than going out for lunch in pricey Silicon Valley. True. But probably not less than a salad or sandwich made at home from ingredients purchased at a local grocery. Some coders are even serving the liquid meals at parties with special flavorings. Wow, that’s certainly a party I’d want to attend! Particularly since The Times reports that these meals typically taste like “bland, gritty pancake batter.”

Eucharist, Agape Meals, Seders, Iftars – Christians, Jews and Muslims all share rituals built around tables and meals and each marks, in one way or another, the sanctification of time. They encourage a sense of gratitude grounded in our dependence on the gifts of creation and the labor of many hands. They provide an occasion for story telling and remembering, for solidarity and fellowship, for intimacy. They teach us that life is gift, not grasp, that we are fulfilled by receiving rather than by earning.

In other words, meal replacement is far more than alternative nutrition. It represents a fundamental reordering of life from one of offering to one of enslavement. Time is saved for work rather than set aside for grace. Meal replacement, and what it signifies in our culture, is the ultimate form of secularism which, according to the famous Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann, is a negation of “the sacramentality of man and the world. A secularist,” Schmemann argues, “views the world as containing within itself its meaning and the principles of knowledge and action.” “Is that all there is” Peggy Lee plaintively crooned?

A solitary meal before a computer screen is not necessarily an evil in and of itself. The pressures of modern life and work may sometimes demand it or at least occasion it. But it is something to be resisted, not embraced. I’ll admit to eating left over pasta salad at my desk today. But I ate it recalling that Lydia and I shopped for ingredients together, that we talked while she prepared it, and that we ate it sitting down together. And in that remembrance it became something far more than mere calories. It approached blessing.

To sit at table, to serve and be served, to bless and be blessed, to taste and smell and be fed is to be connected to one another, to the earth, to God. It is to recognize that the meaning of the world lies beyond the solitary self and that ultimately we cannot save ourselves.  When meals lose their sacramental dimension, which is to say when they no longer point beyond themselves to something holy upon which we are dependent, they become little more than calories to be counted and time to be saved. And that is not the clever innovation of the entrepreneur, but the sad sign of what our tradition calls aimlessness and sin.

Solyent, one of the meal replacement powders, has been selling at the “kiloton scale,” according to the developer. Over six million “meals” have been shipped and nearly $25 million in financing raised. Hopes are high for big profits, as high tech workers are allegedly “early adopters” meaning they are ahead of a consumer wave that is coming. “Blessed are you, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth. . . . who creates the fruit of the vine.” It’s hard to imagine saying that over a large jar of Schmilk! Meals – and all they represent – really are irreplaceable.

John H. Thomas
May 28, 2015

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