Sunday, 15 July 2007

A theology of chocolate

Now here’s something worth chewing on: David offers a theology of chocolate. Chocolate, he says, “carries on its own ‘ministry of reconciliation’ (2 Cor. 5:18) by resurrecting dead taste faculties and offering nougat-filled glimpses into the grace of God.” Ain’t that the truth.

To enter a little French or Swiss chocolaterie – the sight! the smells! mon Dieu, the taste! – is one of life’s most sublime experiences. The development of existentialist philosophy in France and of neo-orthodox theology in Switzerland can, in my view, be traced directly to the quality of the chocolates of those regions. (On the other hand, the dour humourlessness of the Religious Right in America can perhaps best be explained by unwrapping a Hershey bar.)

As for all those cheap supermarket chocolates: their theological significance is very limited. They are for puritans and ascetics and fundamentalists, for those who want nothing more out of a chocolate bar than a little “mortification of the flesh.” And I will not even mention Easter eggs and chocolate bunnies – those outrageous bags of packaged leftovers, those lumps of grinning malevolence, those confections which ought to bear witness to the resurrection, but which invariably look and taste like stale pesticide. If anyone today still believes in Easter at all, it is precisely in spite of these ubiquitous parcels of unbelief.

24 Comments:

Anonymous said...

I love hershey bars. The first thing I do after crossing customs into the USA is buy one.

Jim said...

WHAT??? No, my anonymous friend, Hershey's is wax. Lindt is chocolate.

kim fabricius said...

Fantastic, David and Ben!

In Chocolat, Joanne Harris, who to my mind is hardly a great writer, is yet at her lyrical best when describing the sweets in the shop La Céleste Praline of her heroine Vianne Rocher: "Chocolate curls, white buttons with coloured vermicelli, pains d'épices with gilded edging, marzipan fruits in their nests of ruffled paper, peanut brittle, clusters, cracknels, assorted misshapes in half-kilo boxes."

Vianne herself is aware of the connection between chocolate and religion: "the mingled scents of chocolate, vanilla, heated copper and cinnamon are intoxicating, powerfully suggestive: the raw and earthy tang of the Americas, the hot and resinous perfume of the rainforest. This is how I travel now, as the Aztecs did in their sacred rituals. Mexico, Venezuala, Colombia. The court of Montezuma. Cortez and Columbus."

All quite heathen! And, of course, the villain of the story is the local priest, who yet hides a guilty secret until his cover is finally blown - he has a ravenous sweet tooth! But why not spoil the Egyptians? Indeed since the Middle Ages convents have been some of the finests of sweetshops, making all kinds of mouth-watering delicacies.

I confess to being a chocoholic. I'm a gormet enough to savour the finest, but I'll pig out on a Mars bar or three if that's all that's going (Jim is right about Lindt and Hershey). And I certainly agree chocolate should play an integral part in any robust doctrine of creation and common grace, and so divine is the dark nectar that it should severely test any doctrine of immutability. I suspect, however, that Bonhoeffer would place chocolate in the category of the "natural", the "penultimate", and exclude it from his doctrine of the "last things". Me, I'm all for a chocological eschatology. If there is no chocolate in heaven (unless there is ice cream), bring on double predestination! In which case I hope that Dante was right - that hell is ice cold rather than melting hot.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Sigh. I am allergic to chocalate. I cannot eat it at all. Once, someone "surprised" me by putting chocolate in my coffee and I had to be hospitalized. Surprise!

So, I avoid most desserts.

Anonymous said...

You mean you know what stale pesticide tastes like...?

Jim said...

Michael! This means you probably are eternally lost and cannot enter heaven- predestined to the chocolate-less pits of infernal torment. I think it says something like "and lo, those to whom thou deniest love of chocolate or the ability to enjoy thereof thou hast doubly cursed, both in this life and the next!" in 3 Hesitations 4:3.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Gee, and here I was hoping to eat manna if not nector and ambrosia in the eschaton.

I've not seen a picture of David Congdon, but I do think it's interesting that Jim, Ben, and Kim--all naturally slim, high-metabolism people--should be singing the praises of chocolate to those of us who have to work and slave just to keep from looking like both the elephant (Bultmann) and the whale (Barth) put together! Isn't that setting stumbling blocks out--as if I knew that a certain family had a history of alcoholism (and, thus, probably a genetic predisposition to same) and prepared to sing out the praises of beer?

I'm just wondering. :-) But don't worry. My reaction to chocolate is so strong that it is literally no temptation to resist it--any more than my wife, Kate, who is deathly allergic to fish, has to work to resist shrimp salad. These "handicaps" can be chances for Christian charity--I sometimes make chocolate covered strawberries for Kate, while she fixes me a salmon loaf or shrimp gumbo. Each has our own entrance into creation's joys.

John P. said...

As I mentioned to DW, I find this topic particularly timely...since I am both a theology student and a part-time chocolatier for Teuscher Chocolates of Switzerland in Atlanta...

We have a Swiss flag hanging in our window and a woman came in one day and asked if we were a "Christian Chocolate Company."

Now there is an interesting idea if I ever heard one.

Ben Myers said...

Anon: "You mean you know what stale pesticide tastes like...?" Yep, it tastes like fresh pesticide, except worse.

John P: Wow, theology and Teuscher! I can hardly imagine a better dual vocation....

And Michael, you have my profound sympathies. But I wouldn't worry too much about the eschaton: at the "restoration of all things" (apokatastasis panton), your allergy to chocolate will certainly be cast back into the abyss from which it came. And great will be your rejoicing.

Marvia said...

And here was I thinking the theology of chocolate had something to do with the cocoa farms in Cote-d'Ivoire. Now that sparks more guilt than the wicked delight of indulging in several snickers bars.

Bob said...

So - all this being clearly true, and all that, why isn't there a stronger tradition of Belgian theology? I mean, there's Schillebeeckx and a handful of others, but Belgian chocolate (and I speak as someone who is part 'Belge') is among the finest in the world, at least as good as the Swiss, and far superior to the French.

And why are all the English chocolate barons Quakers? (Cadbury, J.S.Fry, Rowntree) It was, after all, the English who first invented blocks of 'eating chocolate!'

Ben Myers said...

Hi Bob -- yes, you've raised a very important question here about Belgian theology. And I think I know the answer: while English chocolates (with their crudeness and lack of subtlety) have to be eaten by the block, a fine Belgian chocolate can be treasured and enjoyed in all its uniqueness and specificity. The theological analogy is obvious: one does not need an entire "block" of tasteless and boring Belgian theologians; Schillebeeckx alone is enough.

Daniel said...

Just a question which has been rumbling around in my head -- how do you PRONOUNCE Schillebeeckx?Thanks :)

kim fabricius said...

Hi Bob,

To answer your two questions: (1)the Belgians are probably too high on their fantastic beers, traditionally brewed in monasteries, to write theology without slurring their words; and (2) the British Quakers are the creators of fine chocolate because it's such a great peace offering - as anyone who is married will know!

Cheers!

Seeker said...

As a former resident of Hershey, PA (otherwise known as Chocolate Town, USA), I must sadly agree with your evaluation of the average Hershey bar. They have introduced some new lines of dark chocolate that started out far better, but alas, seem to be falling off in taste. Americans, it seems can't handle the real thing.

Same with theology, sad to say. Most can only handle the waxy over-sugared, milky version. Sad

svend said...

Here here! I couldn't agree more.

There's a famous prophetic saying in Islam: "God is beautiful and God loves beauty." Many traditional scholars interpreted that to mean that we are to enjoy God's blessings (among which quality chocolates surely rank high) and employ them as a means of worship and glorification.

I agree there is a touch of the numinous to a proper European chocolate shop that makes American candies seem profane if not blasphemous. Grabbing one of these monstrosities in a check out aisle is akin to dumpster diving after you've had the real mccoy.

Of course, the drab aesthetic of contemporary American civilization manifests itself in so many arenas that candies are just the tip of the iceberg. Our love affair with efficiency and profit-maximization above all else strips taste and quality out of our food, and packs it with artificial ingredients.

To the extent--as revealed in the book FASTFOOD NATION--of many Americans regularly eating meat that is contaminated with feces (it's economically inefficient for line workers in meat factories to slow down enough to be sure they've removed the intestines every time).

Sorry for that gory detail, but you don't get a better anti-thesis of the beauty and craftsmanship you describe than this fact, an inevitable consequence of our the short-sighted cultural and economic priorities today.

svend said...

A quick, pendantic correction: Make that "Hear! Hear!"

Owen Weddle said...

Does this mean I am going to suffer eternal condemnation, since I despise chocolate and can not accept it as theologically true?

Seeker said...

C-c-chocolate as n-n-not theologically true? Oh Owen! And you seemed like such a nice guy, too!

Owen Weddle said...

Does this mean I am going to suffer eternal condemnation, since I despise chocolate and can not accept it as theologically true?

svend said...

Here here! I couldn't agree more.

There's a famous prophetic saying in Islam: "God is beautiful and God loves beauty." Many traditional scholars interpreted that to mean that we are to enjoy God's blessings (among which quality chocolates surely rank high) and employ them as a means of worship and glorification.

I agree there is a touch of the numinous to a proper European chocolate shop that makes American candies seem profane if not blasphemous. Grabbing one of these monstrosities in a check out aisle is akin to dumpster diving after you've had the real mccoy.

Of course, the drab aesthetic of contemporary American civilization manifests itself in so many arenas that candies are just the tip of the iceberg. Our love affair with efficiency and profit-maximization above all else strips taste and quality out of our food, and packs it with artificial ingredients.

To the extent--as revealed in the book FASTFOOD NATION--of many Americans regularly eating meat that is contaminated with feces (it's economically inefficient for line workers in meat factories to slow down enough to be sure they've removed the intestines every time).

Sorry for that gory detail, but you don't get a better anti-thesis of the beauty and craftsmanship you describe than this fact, an inevitable consequence of our the short-sighted cultural and economic priorities today.

Seeker said...

As a former resident of Hershey, PA (otherwise known as Chocolate Town, USA), I must sadly agree with your evaluation of the average Hershey bar. They have introduced some new lines of dark chocolate that started out far better, but alas, seem to be falling off in taste. Americans, it seems can't handle the real thing.

Same with theology, sad to say. Most can only handle the waxy over-sugared, milky version. Sad

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Gee, and here I was hoping to eat manna if not nector and ambrosia in the eschaton.

I've not seen a picture of David Congdon, but I do think it's interesting that Jim, Ben, and Kim--all naturally slim, high-metabolism people--should be singing the praises of chocolate to those of us who have to work and slave just to keep from looking like both the elephant (Bultmann) and the whale (Barth) put together! Isn't that setting stumbling blocks out--as if I knew that a certain family had a history of alcoholism (and, thus, probably a genetic predisposition to same) and prepared to sing out the praises of beer?

I'm just wondering. :-) But don't worry. My reaction to chocolate is so strong that it is literally no temptation to resist it--any more than my wife, Kate, who is deathly allergic to fish, has to work to resist shrimp salad. These "handicaps" can be chances for Christian charity--I sometimes make chocolate covered strawberries for Kate, while she fixes me a salmon loaf or shrimp gumbo. Each has our own entrance into creation's joys.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Sigh. I am allergic to chocalate. I cannot eat it at all. Once, someone "surprised" me by putting chocolate in my coffee and I had to be hospitalized. Surprise!

So, I avoid most desserts.

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