Saturday, June 6, 2015

Whitebread Protestants : A Book Review

"Protestants like to think religion is not materialistic. Its theology, spirituality, and liturgy are rooted in concepts and words and any religious practice that involves material objects or invokes the senses is suspect -- dismissed as papist or shunned idolatrous. But the place of food within American Protestant church life calls this anti-materialism into question. There is nothing more material than food ..." (Back Cover) 

Daniel Sack's "Whitebread Protestants: Food and Religion in American Culture" has been sitting on my bookshelf, waiting for me to dust it off and give it a proper review. I bought the book several several years ago for an undergraduate Religion course. The first time I sat to read it I had a difficult time reading the text as the more I learned about American Protestantism the more I realized just how off base it is with true Christianity. I've since reread it many times and I now find it to be a wonderful resource for any Catholic (especially those in regular communication with Protestants). 

The book itself is not that long, hovering somewhere around 220 pages or so, but it tackles the hows and whys of American Protestantism better than most books on the subject. "Whitebread Protestants" is broken into five chapters entitled: (1) Liturgical Food:Communion Elements and Conflict, (2) Social Food: Potlucks and Coffee Hours, (3) Emergency Food: The Development of Soup Kitchens, (4) Global Food: Hunger Politics, and (5) Moral Food: Eating as a Christian Should.  

The whole thing begins with an excellent examination of the history of Protestant involvement with the Temperance Movement and their subsequent changes and reinterpretations of the Bible in order to fit their new concerns over alcohol.Sacks explains the origins of contemporary Protestant "Communion" trends that had previously baffled me (such as using grape juice) and some that I was unaware of (like the use of individual paper cups and prepackaged "Communion" products). Sacks continues on to paint us a vivid picture of mainline American Protestantism and culture all through their relationship to food.   
Throughout the book it is apparent that American Protestantism has been (and continues to be) committed to ignoring tradition and changing theological interpretations in order to justify preconceived notions and social anxieties. And, again and again, we see case after case of American Protestants not only changing their own minds, but expecting the rest of the world to fall in line with their new personal revelations.

We see the story of a people banishing doctrine in favor of "community" (perhaps to validate their "personal interpretations") that ironically uses church practices like Communion to separate the community and emphasize personal worship. It probably shouldn't be surprising then that they feel the need to augment their desire for "community" and "fellowship" with shallow attempts to forge ties through Potlucks and "community" events. While these things are always nice to have in a community, it's best to keep in mind that religion is delicate. It is not unlike a house of cards. If you start removing a piece here and a piece there it will either collapse or need to be rebuilt to accommodate the changes. Sacks does a wonderful job putting this into perspective as he traces the struggles and changes of "Whitebread Protestant" religion and culture. For as much as we hear their religions are supposedly based on a "deep personal relationships with Jesus Christ" it was intriguing to learn that the focus is more accurately about "relationships" with one another than the Big Guy Upstairs. 

After reading this book you'll have gained deeper insight into the hows and whys of "Whitebread Protestants" and, if you're like me, with every page you'll see just how much they miss the mark. While frustrating at times (through no fault of the author), this book has helped me to grow deeper in love with Catholicism and to more clearly see the necessity of stability and tradition in Christianity.