Perspectives on an Onion

“The road to heaven does not run from the world but through it.”

G.K. Chesterton famously defined heresy as “a half-truth turned into a whole false­hood.” The heretic, like the madman, “has lost everything except his reason.”

There is one such heresy, an idea pulled all out of proportion, that lurks in the corners of Christian thought. You can see it in a recent piece by Doug Wilson, an influential Reformed evangelical pastor, “On Why Christian Women are Prettier.” I hesitate to paraphrase his thesis so crassly, but I can’t find any more accurate way to boil it down than this: A woman’s purpose is found in living out her biblical role as the glory and ornament of a man; thus, only Christian submission really enables a woman to beautify her appearance, as well as her heart.

There are many bones to be picked with Wilson’s piece. But most troubling to me is its core message. Outside of Christ’s Kingdom, the world (at least the world of women) is meaningless, ugly, insufficient. Shut yourself inside the ark, baby, because the rest is going down.

Think of a roadside Baptist church, or a little hyper-Calvinist congregation like the one where I grew up, where they emphasize the ways that Total Depravity twists our relationships with others and the world. Human selfishness, I learned, makes community practically impossible–without a lot of sanctification. And the empty promises of worldly pursuits (alcohol, fashion trends, dating, worldly status; pick your favorite taboo) draw us away from heaven. We and our desires are filthy rags, and all our substance exists in grace and worship.

But this line of thought isn’t unique to Wilson and certain brands of Calvinists. Leave that little roadside church and take a trip to the University, where the tale isn’t so different. My English professors loved to talk of the insufficiency of art and all human attempts to communicate. Words never mean exactly what you want them to, but are always dancing around your intent. Their meaning, like the beauty of the rainbow, is a trick of your eye.

I recently read a 500-page disappointment of a novel, The French Lieutenant’s Woman. The novel is a feat of postmodern cleverness from the 1960s, periodically turning in on itself and on the reader to comment on the impossibility of telling its own story (which is only a clichéd Victorian love triangle); and the reader is left to make what she will of an open-ended half-story. Near the end, the protagonist ruminates on a Tennyson poem, which describes people as islands in the tossing sea, separated by uncrossable channels.

In spite of the gloomy narration, you can tell the author enjoys yanking you around. He reminds you regularly that he is the god of his novel, as you are the gods of your own meaning-making.

Here is the difference between the gloomy Calvinist and the postmodern professor. Within the church, I learned of the selfish nature of human relations, and of the idols that, foolishly, we invest with meaning. Within the classroom, I learned that we make meaning, but that we do it as gods—the arbiters of our fate. If you’re a young person who has to choose between those two narratives (child in the ark or god of a world), why would you stay any longer in the Church?

Robert Farrar Capon, also a 1960s author, conjures another vision in his pseudo-cookbook, The Supper of the Lamb. You are both wrong, he says. And it is only because, with all your dusty reasoning, you have forgotten how to enjoy a good meal.

It’s all there in front of your nose, says Capon. Food, like wine and music and procreation, shouts of the lavish glory of the world. Creation is extravagantly lovely, and in spite of evil and turmoil in our souls, we are made to be its lovers.

Capon’s cookbook is really a collection of odes to the beauty of solid things, and to the possibilities for human communion in a humble stew. In one chapter, he expounds on the goodness of an onion.

[God] likes onions, therefore they are. The fit, the colors, the smell, the tensions, the tastes, the textures, the lines, the shapes are a response, not to some forgotten decree that there may as well be onions as turnips, but to His present delight—His intimate and immediate joy in all you have seen, and in the thousand other wonders you do not even suspect. With Peter, the onion says, Lord, it is good for us to be here.

In spite of its exuberant flights of poetry, Capon’s book is a fine introduction to the beginner in how to boil stock, bake pastries, and prepare a dinner party. According to Capon, there is nothing more wholesome or human than a good dinner. Serve a well-planned meal with plenty of wine and the right number of guests, and what results must be an enlivening experience of conversation, laughter, and communion. 

Those in the academe may consume a steak dinner and still call the world a cheat. But Capon, an Episcopal priest, understood that no one in the Church has any business doing so after eating the Bread and Wine, if he has eyes in his head and a heart in his body. The Church has its own table with its own answer. The Eucharist protests those who would scowl at earthly delights.

In this ritual as old as the Christian faith, we are gifted with two of the world’s most ordinary things in a gesture that says, here is the center of all things. From this table and its story, meaning radiates into all creation.

How can you any longer call food, drink, and laughter vanity, when the bread and wine is sufficient to show the Body and Blood? To call relationships and communication hopeless, when this dull meal is enough to gather brothers and sisters and bring near the Divine from the heart of light? The Communion table not only sanctifies food; it guarantees the meaning of all beautiful things. It makes the world and all its baubles safe for us to love, as Christ loved it–“out of all proportion and sense.”

Capon envisions us as priestly lovers, who lift the world by our love. We love with an eye for the final feast, the New Jerusalem that is a rebuilding of the old. “The road to Heaven does not run from the world but through it,” says Capon. “If even exile be so full, what must not our fullness be?”

We will never find refuge from distorted loves–from addiction, heartbreak, and heartburn–merely by despising the world. We find it in rightly ordering our loves–in gaining the faith and courage to love it as God loves it, extravagantly. You might start by opening a bottle of wine and inviting a few friends.

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