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Hot pockets and the hierarchy of good

Teenage boys like Hot Pockets. I do not know why. They also do crazy things like destroying microwaves with overheated Oreos. That’s a new one for me.

I’m just settling in to my new job as a boarding school chaplain, and part of my job is supervising one of the boys’ dorms from time to time. The other day, our faculty dorm team was discussing whether we ought to get some extra snacks for the boys to supplement the lighter dining hall fare.

“Get some hummus!” cried our resident vegetarian. The dorm head laughed.

I sort of see both sides here. Hummus is likely unappealing to most of the boys, but, then, isn’t it our job to teach them about good things? I’m especially conscious of my own role in forming students’ moral tastes. And, as the Fathers would no doubt say, all rational people know that hummus participates more deeply in the Good than do Hot Pockets. (Or, we might simply note that Hot Pockets are a corrupted form of a higher good, namely, pasties.) If someone does not understand this, he needs not argument but conversion.

Were we not grounded in a particular tradition here, our “Prayers of the People” at mass might take exciting new forms (make note, Prayer Book revisers):

Cantor: For the second form boys, that their snack preferences might decline from evil and incline to good, let us pray to the Lord.

All: Lord, have mercy.

Cantor: For the microwave ovens of the school dorms, that they would continue in safety, being preserved from metal packaging and unsuitable foods, let us pray to the Lord.

All: Lord, have mercy.

And so on.

There is a fine line between control over adolescent appetites and neglect. Surely it is just as improper for a parent (or advisor) to preside over every single choice as it is to stand back and let teenage tendencies develop entirely on their own. I suspect that we find this difficult, both in education and in parenting, because we dislike saying that one thing is better than another. We prefer to imagine a world of total equality in which all choices, all preferences, all opportunities, are equally valid and valuable and good. Forming teenagers then becomes a question of power and strategy: it’s not that this choice is better than the alternative, it’s that this choice can get you into college or get you better grades or make you more money.

If that kind of nihilistic power play is all there is, let’s at least be honest about the world we’re creating. Reducing all goodness to self-determined practical ends is fertile ground for all manner of evil, cruel behavior. If we can’t say that hummus is better than Hot Pockets, neither can we say that chastity is better than promiscuity, that peace is better than violence, that truth is better than lying, that knowledge is better than ignorance.

But we also have to be able to say that some distinctions in goodness are more important than others. Lying is more evil than chewing gum in chapel. Chewing gum in chapel is worse than walking in thirty seconds late to service. And walking in thirty seconds late is worse than eating an occasional Hot Pocket.

So I’ll suffer the Hot Pockets if I have to, but that won’t stop me from inviting the kids over to our house for real food, or from asserting that one thing is not like another. God is the supreme good, and he loves us best of all. God the Son did not die on a cross for the sins of rabbits or beech trees. That sacrificial love calls us out of ourselves to the divine goodness, the goodness that we did not choose or create but which chose and created us. Our task as Christians is to live in a way that only makes sense if that is true.

I’m not saying that every late night snack needs to be a theophany, but no choice, however small, escapes the tendency of all things to or from the love of God. Christianity is unintelligible in a world where Hot Pockets are as good as confit de canard. And thank God for that.

The delectable image of a BBQ chicken Hot Pocket is from Wikimedia Commons.


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