The arrival of John J. Thompson’s new book, Jesus, Bread, and Chocolate: Crafting a Handmade Faith in a Mass-Market World, coincided with my new found hobby of baking bread from scratch—inspired by The Great British Bakeoff (my current favorite television program). I even take the advice of Paul Hollywood, one of the show’s judges, and mix and knead entirely by hand. No bread hooks or machines here! And he’s right—I do appreciate the feel of the dough, and I’m learning to determine what I need to do (or what I’ve done wrong), by the feel of the dough. I like the rhythm of working the dough as well; it’s a soothing sensation that always reminds me to get out the Play Doh for my kids. Sometimes they join me and we recite lines from Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen. The process makes me mindful of the time and energy required for real, good food, and waiting while the bread bakes, filling our house with its delicious aroma, is a worthy lesson in patience.Thompson’s own metaphor is a casualty of the same mass production he critiques, where his writing simply moves us from products to experiences, all ripe for consumption, and his book fills a niche whether it nourishes or not.
And so, when Thompson asserts early in his text “[i]n these pages I’m going to do my best to ruin you for the cheap stuff” (18), I see where he’s coming from. I moved away from cheap breads and foods a long time ago, and I’ve written about the connection between culinary aesthetics and spiritual discernment before in “Teaching Good Taste.” Too often, as Thompson and I agree, “the cheap stuff,” whether we’re referring to food or faith, isn’t cheap at all, but its costs are disguised or delayed so that we get our instant gratification with no real nourishment. That’s a problem for the health of our bodies as well as our spirits, but I’m not entirely persuaded that Thompson’s text is the answer.
My major concern with the Jesus, Bread, and Chocolate is that its metaphor seems undeveloped and its structure seems jumbled. I think there’s a great idea in here, but this book doesn’t convince me that Thompson has fully worked it out yet. Thompson’s arguments are not poor but nascent, so when he titles Chapter Two “This Means Something!”, I believe that he’s right but I feel like he’s forcing it.
As much as I wanted to like this book, I felt like Thompson wasn’t really saying anything that C.S. Lewis hasn’t already said, and better. That hunch came up even before he cites Lewis on page 41, and I realize that this is a problem for many of us Christian writers: we stand on the shoulders of giants. Were the application more nuanced and more sophisticated, that probably wouldn’t have mattered so much to me.
Take, for instance, the chapter on bread. Like all of the chapters in the book, this one is part memoir, part metaphor, and part food-history lesson — though the kind of information in this last piece of the pie is largely common knowledge. Thompson writes:
Scale makes food—and faith—cheaper than ever before. It is convenient and can be custom-designed based on our wants, desires, and lusts. Mass-market bread costs almost nothing. Get up close, though, and watch bread being made, and its value increases exponentially. Get your own hands covered in dough and invest precious time watching it rise and bake, and bread will be worth even more to you. The same is true when it comes to the community of faith. Millions of people attend some kind of church every Sunday, but it costs them nothing. Christianity might scale in the form of books, sermons, or gospel music, but discipleship requires close personal contact.
In some ways, Thompson’s angle of cost and cheapness resonates roughly with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer distinguishes between cheap grace that takes the gifts of the church without the sacrifices (“grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ”) and costly grace that requires absolute submission to Christ. Where Bonhoeffer examines sacrifice, Thompson emphasizes consumption practices; a question of consumption is almost always self-focused, and while Thompson turns to community, he seems to only get partway there. It still reads more like a book about being a hipster than being a disciple, though I wouldn’t say the two are necessarily incongruous. One could say that Thompson’s own metaphor is a casualty of the same mass production he critiques, where his writing simply moves us from products to experiences, all ripe for consumption, and his book fills a niche whether it nourishes or not.
Later in his text, Thompson offers some helpful questions about reflecting on our own consumption practices: “What does it cost you in dollars? In time? In attention? What does it cost the environment? Your community? Your neighbor? Then consider the value. What does the thing accomplish? How does it make life better for you? How does it make life better for your neighbor? How does it affect your connection to other, to creation, to God?” Part of my concern over these questions comes from Thompson’s own admission that “[a]s spiritually minded as I want you to believe I am, I also desperately want you to think I’m cool.” That desire permeates the book, and it feels like a kind of posturing where the reader, whom Thompson likely does not even know, is supposed to buy in to the “coolness” of the writer before the truth of Christ.
Those questions can provide a framework for thinking about cost and value, but those are still inherently capitalistic and are, ultimately, self-centered instead of Christ-centered. We do need to think about what we consume as well as the wide-ranging consequences of our consumption, just as Thompson recommends. But his subsequent desires to force the metaphor to mean something and be well-regarded by the reader make me cautious of embracing his message.
In all our consumption practices and all our metaphors, we need to consider our own postures—what we want to think of ourselves, and what we want to have others think of us, too. Such desires are real and compelling, but they’re only superficial. When Thompson talked about his own walk with Christ, I found him to be a passionate and admirable man of faith; when he tried to integrate history and theory but only on the surface, I found myself frustrated by the lack of depth in the text. And when he admits to wanting the reader to find him cool, I felt awkward because it’s so painfully evident throughout the text and it takes away from a message with real potential.
Near the end of the book, Thompson writes, “[b]read, chocolate, coffee, beer, music—it’s all just stuff. As much as I believe God made all things good, and as thrilling as it is to pick up a whiff of the eternal in an unlikely place, heaven help me if I confuse these gifts with the giver.” I only wish Thompson had started the book from that place and moved forward with his metaphors. Too much of Jesus, Bread, and Chocolate made me uneasy with the emphasis on stuff, and to foreground his own awareness of the limits of the hand-crafted comparison would help to separate the self and its needs from the way his creativity can reflect the Creator.
I think Thompson is right that my bread-making can draw me closer to God, but I also think it’s right to be wary of the limits of any consumption metaphor. I share Thompson’s value for aesthetics in some areas, but consumption always occurs in a complex context. There are cultures where hand-crafting is still the norm, and a comparison to those societies reveals what a privilege focusing on aesthetics can be. That’s not to say that aesthetics don’t matter; I think they do. Yet there are also times when we must sacrifice our aesthetics and tastes and experiences because the gospel is not about making us feel cool.
Jesus, Bread, and Chocolate asks us to think about the relationship between our faith and our times. Does the hand-crafted movement shape faith to culture or shape culture to faith? Does it speak to an audience moving from one niche to another while only swapping labels and packages? I can see the kernels of truth in Thompson’s book, but just as he longs for more meaning in his cultures, I finished the book and found myself wanting more substance. At least, like Lewis and Thompson, I too know the only way to meet those eternal hunger pangs.
Disclosure: Zondervan provided a free copy of the book, though I was under no obligation to write a positive review.