The Harmful Effects of Processed Spirituality

– Andy Wade –

Modern society seems obsessed with perfect food. We want it to look good. Like airbrushed models which create unrealistic and unhealthy body expectations, our food has become processed, refined, bleached, waxed, and injected with chemicals to give the appearance of perfect food. Yet, like the skinny model struggling with anorexia, our food is sick… and making us sick.

In last week’s article, Spiritual Monocropping, I explored the connections between industrial agriculture and the “industrial church”. This week I want to dig a bit deeper and look more specifically at how our attitudes have led to the rise in pretty food and pretty faith.

Our family, like many families, struggles with allergies and ailments. It sometimes feels like our family deals with more “issues” than most; then I talk to others and realize that this seems to be the new normal. Food allergies are on the rise. Incidence of anxiety, depression, attention issues, and other body-chemical related problems seem to be on the rise.

Many suspect, with good reason, our changing dietary habits. Through industrial agriculture, the diversity of food available to us in the store has become more and more limited. Along with this, what food we do find is often highly processed.

One of the foods I’ve been exploring is wheat, and more specifically, flour. Our family gave up Wonder Bread years ago – even before our boys were born. But it turns out that even “healthy” whole wheat flour has gone through major changes over the years, changes that deplete its nutritional value.

dreamstime_xs_23607242In a nutshell, almost all wheat flour, whether white or whole wheat, is missing essential elements. Historically, every town had its own flour mill which produced just enough flour each day for the population. Because the germ was included in this wheat, it easily spoiled over time – often around six months. In response to the industrialization of our food system, flour needed to be processed to make it last longer so it could be stored, then shipped, as needed.

In the early 1900s it was discovered that if you removed the bran from the wheat kernel, it would last longer. Even so-called “whole wheat flour” typically has separated the endosperm from the germ and from the bran, then added the germ back in – but not the rich and nutritious bran.

In addition to this separation process, modern flour in the USA is highly processed to speed up production and make it clean, pretty, and white. Industrial grinding/separating machines incorporate high speed and high heat for mass production. This process alone results in a dramatic decrease in vitamins, minerals, and the destruction of essential enzymes.

Chemical treatments are used to further prolong shelf-life, and white flour adds insult to injury by dousing this highly processed flour with chlorine gas to make it bright-white and last even longer.

If you want to know more about all of this, here are a few good primers on the topic:

So what does all this have to do with faith and spirituality?

To begin with, it relates to expectations. We have created a society that expects perfection. I’ve heard concepts tossed around in churches, and have tossed a few myself, like “excellence in worship”, “professionalism”, “polished”, and such. Like refined wheat, on the surface these things look good. But I’ve begun to question the underlying assumptions of these ideas and attitudes and how they might, like processed and treated flour, be robbing us of “nutritional value”.

We’re likely all familiar with the issues of “mask-wearing” in church. The truth is, we all wear masks, even the most transparent of us. But at some point our image becomes so “processed” that the person underneath is no longer even recognizable. We all know how unhealthy this is, and many churches have worked to move the faithful beyond appearance and into a more authentic faith. And here is where I encounter those dirty little underlying assumptions… what does “authentic faith” actually look like?

Bread is bread, right? Sure, there are different flavors and varieties, but it’s all still bread, right? Well, not so fast! In our industrial revolution, we have created something that we can still call bread, but it lacks many of the nutritional elements to actually sustain the body. Even the vitamins and minerals found in enriched bread are not there in their naturally occurring state or blend and so, though better than nothing, they neglect the God-created balance our God-created bodies can best utilize.

And here’s where I’m wrestling with what’s done in many modern churches (and I’m not just referring to “contemporary” churches, but also many “traditional” churches as well). It seems we have separated the elements that make up “church”, the body of Christ, have refined and processed these separate elements, and have fashioned them back together to make a nice, polished and professional presentation.

We’ve separated “clergy” from “laity” and created special programs and expectations of each. We’ve separated “worship”, and “mission”, and “discipleship”, and “word”, fashioning unique programs, processes, and professionals for each. Then we form them all back together as a new “loaf”, but somehow, in the process, we’ve stripped out some of the most important “nutrients” which are only made available to the body through their unique, naturally occurring blend. Could this, like the wheat equivalent, lead to a rise in “spiritual allergies, diseases, and ailments in ‘the body’”?

Some of these divisions have been further disassembled for analysis and specialization. In one of the more recognizable and destructive moves, for example, “mission” was split into “evangelism” and “justice/relief”. This division, for many denominations, eventually deteriorated into “conservative evangelical churches” focused on getting conversions, and “liberal social justice churches” primarily concerned with righting wrongs here and now.

While this is almost a stereotypical example, I think it’s worth exploring how else our modern process of dissect, examine, analyze, and intellectually conquer within the church has resulted in unhealthy balance. There have been recent attempts to address these issues but, like enriching white flour, most of these actions have seemed more like artificially adding in the lost elements without addressing the underlying assumptions and issues that lead to the unhealthy diet in the first place. It looks good, even better than before, but it’s not the real deal.

The issue, at its root, has to do with pulling apart the elements of our faith as if they were capable of standing on their own. They can’t. As I read about Jesus’ life of ministry in the world (the pioneer and perfector of our faith – Heb. ) I’m enthralled with how integrated his life is. His daily life is filled with ordinary things: eating, walking, and talking. And, along the way, we discover Jesus living faithfulness through naturally occurring encounters which address issues of injustice, reconciliation with both God and our neighbor, celebration, song, and prayer.

“Analysis destroys wholes. Some things, magic things, are meant to stay whole. If you look at their pieces, they go away.”
                                           – Robert James Waller, The Bridges Of Madison County

We often talk about this as wholistic faith, a word we often confuse with holistic. I admit that it’s a challenge to find an official definition of wholistic as distinct from holistic, but I’d like to make the case that wholistic faith is faith in which all aspects of life are one, inseparable one from another – think “mind, body, spirit” in the context of our earthly life. Holistic, by contrast, is the interaction of distinct parts which are interdependent, yet distinct. So “holistic faith” would argue that we can separate the various elements that make up faithful discipleship, then portion them back together in ratios that seem to make sense to us.

This is a very important distinction that gets at the heart of our underlying assumptions about faith and faithfulness. Do we in reality assume that each element of our faith is a separate compartment? (The faith-works debate is a great example of this). Or do we assume that faith is more of a mystery to be lived into with deep, often unexplainable connections between all areas of life and relationships.

If we are called to a wholistic faith, we cannot separate the various parts of what it means to be a follower of Christ. By attempting to separate the “parts” from the whole, we destroy hidden connecting tissues that actually join all the parts together, connecting tissues which are critical to the functioning of each part. We’re left with disconnected parts, which we have to figure out how to fashion back together. What we fail to realize is that this connecting tissue is a vital element to the functioning of each part, that there is actual life and purpose in that tissue; it’s not just some functioning mechanical element in the process.

Alternatively, if we are called to a holistic faith, we will want to separate the parts from the whole, examine and refine each as a separate component, and recombine as we see best. This approach leads to specialized training and specialized professions within the life of faith. We know that what we’re really after is a loaf of bread, but often end up arguing about what ingredients are most important and what proportions of each part should be mixed in to form the dough. Sometimes we even believe the original recipe needs to be changed and we leave out one of ingredients to suit our taste.


So What Shall We Do?

Now here’s the part where I give you the secret to spiritual success in the Christian life. Well, I would if I knew what it was. The reality is that we’ve all been so conditioned by our educational and cultural context that we have difficulty grasping what “the Christian life” really means. Digging down and getting at our underlying assumptions can help us get to the core of what Christ is calling us to be and do in the world. First of all, I believe we need to recapture the mystery of being (becoming) the Body of Christ. We need to move beyond privatizing our faith, which results in a body filled with individual parts but no deep, connecting tissue.

If I believe I can somehow extract myself from the body, privatizing my spiritual life, and making faith primarily about my personal relationship with Jesus, then my underlying assumption will be that I need a holistic faith – one which allows me to add in the elements (and people) that seem best suited for me. This is a natural conclusion to a holistic theology lived and taught in the church.

  • How do you think the distinction between wholistic and holistic might change the way we live as the Body of Christ in the world?
  • How would it affect our assumptions about church?
  • About discipleship?
  • About various social issues we face today?
  • Would it help us better understand Jesus’ own prayer for us?

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” John 17:20-23

What are your thoughts? (At the very least, we should probably reconsider the use of white bread for communion.)