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On BBQ and other mysteries

From a distance, I overheard the other day a Facebook conversation between one of my favorite scholars, Matthew Olver, and his friends. I also overheard his side conversation with another of my favorite scholars, Derek Olsen. As far as I could tell, the Facebook group was arguing about BBQ. I can’t be sure because they were unusually congenial given such a divisive topic. But the bits and pieces of their dialogue I overheard reminded me of an ongoing disputation between my kids and me. About BBQ.

It began innocently enough at Smithfield’s BBQ in Wilmington, NC. Or perhaps it really began earlier — when we moved the family to Raleigh so I could attend Duke. You see, my wife and I did all we could to rear the children right. I am a cradle Louisianian, and my wife is a faithful convert (who makes excellent jambalaya!). Our kids were taught correctly from birth. But, as a result of our move, our two eldest both went to colleges in Carolina (the real one, not the pretender to the south), and our youngest, who grew up in Raleigh, understands herself to be a Carolina girl. So, I guess I have to concede my own culpability. The problem began when my wife and I allowed our children to eat with Carolinians who — let’s admit it — are hardly illuminati when it comes to right and proper eating.

The argument was triggered when the Smithfield’s waitress brought us a meal consisting of yellowish shredded pork with cole slaw on top. This well-meaning acolyte then ritually presented a bottle of vinegar. It pains me still to confess what happened next. One of my eldest — I can’t remember if it was my son or daughter — received her offering, elevated it, and blasphemed, “Thank God for BBQ!”

I was stunned. There wasn’t a tomato in sight. And the thing placed on the table was merely a pig, nothing but a pig, and could never be more than a pig. I checked the skies, expecting the culinary gods to reduce us to ashes at any moment. How could my precious child have gone so far astray as to attach God’s name to such an abomination, christening it with that sacred name, “BBQ?” In that moment, I withered before the disappointed and disapproving glares of my ancestors — many of whom were buried in East Texas or near enough to its sacred borders, and all of whom, as Olsen reminds us, were eschatologically present the moment we invoked God’s name eucharistically at Smithfield’s. And the verdict of the communion of saints was clear: “If mustard, cole slaw, and vinegar are involved in the rite, it is not a valid BBQ.”

I was reminded of this ancestral rebuke when I overheard Matthew Olver asking what he said is the central question: “What constitutes a valid BBQ?” The answer, it seems to me, is simple: if it ain’t red, it ain’t real. But what really got me thinking was the question posed by Olsen: “Do our cookbooks shape or reflect our knowledge of God?”

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The answer to Matthew’s question is fairly straightforward. BBQ, like the Eucharist, is what the ancient Greco-Roman culture knew as a religio. Religiones, or scruples, were the most common methods by which persons and communities bound themselves to or at least placated the gods. In exchange, the gods guided human affairs by giving signs and omens. A religio is a human method of receiving this guidance.

One of the chief Greco-Roman ways to discern these signs and omens was to examine the innards of a sacrificed animal, with the liver being the most reliable indicator. A prophet or seer interpreted the divine intestinal messaging. They similarly read the meanings given through thunder, lightning, the flight patterns of predatory birds, celestial eclipses, and dreams. There were plural religiones by which a community bound itself to and received guidance from the gods. These methods were widely known and shared across the economic, political, and philosophical spectra, and prudent communities practiced some mix of them.

This last point is key. Religiones were the established methods of aligning one’s community/family/self with the gods. They were distinct, therefore, from the philosophical schools. Whether an Academic, an Aristotelian, a Stoic, a Pythagorean, or other (and these were so intertwined that nobody was purely any of these), the local menu of religiones described a portion of one’s civic duties. And here’s the crucial thing: Christianity would not have been seen as a religio. It was much more than this.

In Paul and the Faithfulness of God, N.T. Wright argues that the Greco-Roman culture of AD 50 would have recognized Christianity not as a new religio, but as a new philosophical school. The philosophical schools focused on three questions: (1) what is the nature of the world, (2) how do we know? And, based on the foregoing, (3) how should we act? Paul does not argue for a new set of religiones anywhere in his corpus, Wright emphasizes. Instead, Paul’s focus is entirely on proclaiming an alternative account of the world, explaining how we know that world, and calling the nations to live in a particular way as a consequence of that revelation. While we have to be cautious about making too sharp of a demarcation between the two terms, it’s important to remember that, in ancient terms, Christianity is more appropriately seen as a philosophical school, not a religio.

The Eucharist, on the other hand, is a religio, a scruple particular to Christians. It is a method by which we Christians bind ourselves to the God we name as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and also a means by which we are schooled by this God. But it is more than merely this. It is a particular kind of scruple. It is a mυστήριον (a “mystery”).

Wright notes that Greco-Roman religiones recognized at least four types of ecstatic frenzy through which the gods guided humankind: the prophetic madness of Apollo (such as at Delphi), the drunken madness of Dionysus, “the poetic madness inspired by the Muses,” and the love madness inspired by Aphrodite (Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 686-7). Just as one voluntarily undertook a risky journey to draw near Pythia, the Delphic prophetess, mystery cults were voluntary associations. They were mysteries in that these voluntary associations were secretive and entailed rites of loyalty to putatively prophetic or divine figures. For instance, across the Mediterranean world, from Egypt and Asia Minor and well-established in Rome by AD 50, were a variety of mystery cults which centered on a god who ultimately became known as the Magna Mater (Great Mother), though different names were used locally. Initiates could experience rebirth through participation in the fertility cult, which involved a menu of rituals, pageants, and sacred objects symbolizing the fertility one sought. The most famous of the Magna Mater rites was the taurobolium, in which the initiate was placed in a pit below a chamber in which a bull was sacrificed, bathing the initiate in the bull’s blood.

As many scholars have noted, we can’t isolate first century Jewish practice as though Judaism was not itself a Greco-Roman phenomenon. Mystery rites were well known to first-century Jews. As I noted in my last post, the symbol and praxis of Torah — for those in the Diaspora — “could be thought of in terms of gaining, at a distance, the blessings you would gain if you were actually at the Temple — the blessing, in other words, of the sacred presence itself, the Shekinah, the glory which in some sense dwelt in the Temple but would also dwell ‘where two or three study Torah’” (Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 279-280). This Jewish hope and expectation of the Shekinah profoundly influenced Paul’s conception of the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Christian religiones inherited the attribute of mystery from both their Jewish origins and the surrounding Greco-Roman culture.

From this brief review, we can see that the Eucharist is not merely a religio in the sense of a scruple by which we unite ourselves to and receive divine guidance from the gods. It is also a μυστήριον in that it is a “ritual of a voluntary, personal, and secret character … aimed at a change of mind through experience of the sacred” (Walter Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults, 11).

T.J. Lang offers a compelling study of μυστήριον (and the Latin sacramentum) in his Duke University PhD dissertation, “Mystery and the Making of a Christian Historical Consciousness: From Paul to the Second Century.” Lang’s title suggests a direction that may be useful in considering both Olver’s and Olsen’s questions. The Eucharist is a μυστήριον which generates an historical consciousness grounded in Jesus the Messiah. But exactly what does μυστήριον tell us about the Eucharist?

Lang examines Christian usage of μυστήριον in the Pauline and Deutero-Pauline letters, and then in the works of Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Melito, and Tertullian. By the time Ephesians, Colossians, the pastoral epistles, and the Romans 16:25-27 doxology were circulated, Lang argues, μυστήριον had developed a consistent usage, denoting what Richard Hooker would later describe as our supernatural path in Christ:

In the undisputed letters, μυστήριον is used in a heterogeneous fashion (and in both the singular and the plural), being applied to matters as varied as the historical and eschatological destinies of Israel and the Gentiles (Rom 11:25-26a), the future somatic transformation of the living and the dead (1 Cor 15:51-52), the content of Paul’s missionary proclamation (1 Cor 2:1, 7; 4:1), and the inscrutable utterances of those who speak in tongues (1 Cor 14:2). In the disputed letters (among which I include the Rom 16:25-27 doxology), however, the term begins to be used in a more consistent manner, and always in the singular, to express a specific understanding of divine revelation in history. According to this deuteropauline schema [sic], the plan for Gentile salvation, which has been eternally known but hidden by God, is now revealed through Christ’s advent and in apostolic proclamation. This schema thus asserts a division of history into a previous era of hiddenness and a current era of revelation (“Mystery and the Making of a Christian Historical Consciousness,” 11).

The Deutero-Pauline epistles set the pattern found from Ignatius to Tertullian. The Christian μυστήριον generates a “historical consciousness in which Christians are a people both new and old, with a God both known of old in Israel and yet also revealed anew in Christ” (“Mystery and the Making of a Christian Historical Consciousness,” 344). Lang concludes that the mystery schema of revelation is “straightforward:”

God pretemporally established a plan for humanity, but this plan was concealed from humanity. Yet now, through the advent of Christ and Christian proclamation, this eternal arrangement—this mystery—has been disclosed to the world. The cosmic schema thus divides human history into halves: an era of concealment and an era of disclosure (“Mystery and the Making of a Christian Historical Consciousness,” 346).

What is the Eucharist? The Eucharist is a religio by which the voluntary society of Christians binds itself to God, and it is a μυστήριον through which God reveals his pretemporal plan for reconciling the world and generates a historical consciousness, an identity as the elect who receive the gift of God’s presence in order to herald it to all the nations. In the Eucharist, revelation and religio meet, but it is God’s free and sovereign revelatory action that transforms a merely human scruple into the means of grace we name “Eucharist.” Our recipes for such fellowship merely mark the coordinates where the saints who’ve gone before us drank deeply from the Living Water. The essential ingredient is Christ’s gift of himself. God communicates God’s favor and thereby generates our identity as Christ’s body. 

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This helps us to consider Derek’s question. Does the prayer book of a particular generation shape or (only) reflect our knowledge of God? Should it be merely descriptive? Or prescriptive? It seems to me that the answer turns on whether we think creation is a static or open thing. My proposal is that the doctrine of election ought to lead us to see creation as open and therefore our knowledge of God as dynamic (that topic is, as Olver says, “fodder for a different post”). A consequence is that, no matter our intentions, our prayer books both shape and reflect our theology.

Here’s how I see it. Precisely because, as David Congden says, election is ‘new every morning,’” there is new creation, and because there is new creation, creation is indeed open (see Congden, “Creatio Continue Ex Electione: A Post-Barthian Revision of the Doctrine of Creatio Ex Nihilo,” Koinonia XXII (2010): 33–53, at 49). Our descriptions of reality must be dialectically-discerned because our knowledge of God is determined by God’s continuing act of election which itself constitutes the universe. Put another way, our epistemological problem is not merely — with Aristotle — that our knowledge is probabilistic at best because of human finitude, but that our object of study, the universe, is itself dynamic and complex (rather than static) due to God’s continuing creative acts of justification. In theology, we have to deal with both the soteriological problem of our blindness and the ontological problem of the dynamism of creation.

Our prayer books rightly reflect the dialectical pattern of our descriptions of reality which arises from God’s continuing creativity. Through our sacramental practices, Christ himself simultaneously reveals and shapes our knowing, as we ourselves are justified and judged in each and every encounter with Jesus the Messiah. Reality is neither fixed materially nor static, but dynamic, and therefore there are no universal recipes upon which to ground a prayer book for all people and all times, precisely because of Christ’s justifying acts of re-creation. Liturgical foundationalists inevitably will be disappointed. They must be, if we are faithful. For Christ shapes our ethics eschatologically, continually judging the limits which we imagine secure our relationship with him. Our prayer books rightly reflect our awe as we faithfully respond to the dynamism of the divine creativity.

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Which brings me back to BBQ. As I overheard the dispute of my colleagues, I learned that a Wisconsin brotherhood had discerned their calling to certify the one true formula and to expose innovators who depart from the ancient ways. But not even they could agree on the formula. One said valid BBQ requires that one chop a whole hog and cook it over hardwood coals. Another denied this, insisting that what he repeatedly dubbed “classical BBQ” is only wood-smoked chopped pork shoulder, mixed with minced cabbage. Some found this acceptable, but then mutton was named as an acceptable alternative, and another duo named beef brisket as the only authorized meat source. While the group considered this, an appeal was made for the innovation of gas grills, and the substitution of tomato-and-molasses sauces, which generated a loud assertion that no BBQ is valid unless it is cooked over oak coals in an open pit, low and slow. Most agreed that ribs were an admissible innovation, but white mayo-and-vinegar sauce is heretical. There ensued a noisy debate over whether the chefs could wear blue coats in the fall rather than purple, whether the chefs had to sing while cooking, and, if so, which lyrics and tunes were permitted, and whether centuries-old forms of culinary choreography actually contributed to quality. Didn’t hear anything after that — had to go BBQ some shrimp on my Big Green Egg.

It is surely a good thing that our society raises up chefs committed to learning the secrets of BBQ’s past, and who work hard to carry on the old ways. But as I closed my eyes after feasting on pig, beef, chicken, and even some shrimp properly done the East Texas way, it occurred to me that it’s all good. And the most important ingredient in a BBQ is neither the meat, nor the sauce, nor the heat source, nor the rubrics that order its production. The essential ingredient is the generative fellowship that mystically binds together those who gather to eat. Our recipes contribute neither favor nor flavor. They merely preserve the coordinates of blessings past. Given the freedom and sovereignty and awesome creativity of Almighty God, much of the argumentation about what constitutes a valid BBQ is vanity.

The featured image is “Baby Blues BBQ, Venice” (2010) by Flickr user tastingsf. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 


  1. “Reality is neither fixed materially nor static, but dynamic, and therefore there are no universal recipes upon which to ground a prayer book for all people and all times, precisely because of Christ’s justifying acts of re-creation.”

    Does the Cross at least provide a *historically* fixed point that all liturgies, prayer books, and “all people and all times” must triangulate by?

  2. Yes, Charlie. Which is a subset of the set of claims symbolized by the phrase, “the essential ingredient is the generative fellowship that mystically binds together those who gather to eat.” But we don’t really encounter discretely the Cross in the liturgy or any of our life on this side of that temporal moment; we actually encounter the eternal Person we know as Son, who is risen (logos ensarkos). Our remembrance of any and all of the glorious works of God, including the Cross, evokes the one and same whole Person, and our entire relation to him which was real before, on, and after the Cross. It is our personal fellowship with the one who is simultaneously humiliated on the Cross and exalted in his Resurrection – a sociality which includes all of our shared history with him (including those temporal moments since we ourselves first recognized him), – which is the essential ingredient.

  3. This is really good, Craig, and interesting on several levels.

    I hope you won’t be too surprised to hear that I agree with your final remarks about “validity,” though I’d qualify that agreement with the assertion that conversations about validity still have a place. That place is largely in the realm of canon law and speculative theology, and it is still important — much more important than questions of BBQ validity, insofar as Christ is “more important” (I use scare quotes because I do not know how in normal usage to convey no lowering of BBQ from its exalted status among creatures) than BBQ.

    I don’t have a problem using Thomistic or scholastic terminology while also insisting on its inherent limits. To say that a Eucharist is “invalid” does not meet it is void of all meaning (or grace).

  4. This is quite remarkable, Craig! I love this piece. And since TJ Lang and I were at Duke together for our earlier degrees, I am all the more excited to see your reference to his scholarship (the question of his dissertation is one that has intrigued me for quite a while and I hope it’s going to be published soon).

    Schmemann, in an article where he critiques the school of mystagogical reading of the ceremonies of the Divine Liturgy that begins with Theodore of Moposuestia and which reads particular meaning into specific actions (the priest washing his hands is a symbol [not in the sense of Chauvet!] of Pilate’s handwashing; the epiclesis is Jesus’ resurrection, etc), argues that a) the whole of the liturgy, and b) much of the ceremonial actions therein “mean” one thing: the mystery of Christ. The sign of the cross at the end of the Creed doesn’t “mean” something specific, some doctrinal formula or sentence. It is a showing forth of the mystery hidden for ages and revealed in Jesus Christ. And as the Creed is one of many symbols of that, it is fitting to sign oneself at the conclusion (as at the conclusion of the great hymn of praise, the Gloria in excelsis)–the sign of the cross was not connected there to the resurrection. That was a 20th century interpretation (from what I can gather) that came from people beginning to sign themselves a little too early!

    I would only want to press slightly further and say that the church’s celebration of the Eucharistic Liturgy is also a full participation in the historical event of the paschal mystery such that we are caught up in the mystery of Christ that is revealed most fully in the paschal mystery.

    I don’t know why question of validity necessary get wisked out the door, however. I didn’t mean to suggest that the ’79 BCP eucharistic rites are somehow invalid at all. They are not. My hope is that they can be further revised to reflect more fully the great gifts of the Cranmarian contribution that I mentioned in the earlier post, more reflect the nature of liturgical language that Catherine Pickstock has tried to highlight (more expansive and circular–more Pauline in the long extended sentences, rather that brief Anglo-Saxon declamations). I also think that the emphasis on Dix’s four-fold shape has somewhat obscured other actions that are more essential that taking (a practical necessity) and breaking (also practically necessary, but which can be given a wonderful theological reading). That more essential action is the giving and receiving that takes place between the Father and the ecclesial body of Christ (and in it, each individual Christian and the Father simultaneously) within the Eucharistic prayer. And this I hope to do more fully in my dissertation (God-willing).

    Thanks again, Craig.

  5. Perhaps it’s worth time thinking about what we mean by the concept, ‘validity,’ as Sam seems to suggest above. Surely our language game requires distinctions between BBQ and pot roast. The question of validity may be akin to distinguishing between a Cabernet and a Pinot Noir. “Whatever you intend, you are not doing the religio we recognize as BBQ. Perhaps you are doing the religio some call Boeuf de Provenance?” Obviously, mine is the Barthian concern that we not confuse divine revelation and human religion.

  6. “It is our personal fellowship with the one who is simultaneously humiliated on the Cross and exalted in his Resurrection – a sociality which includes all of our shared history with him (including those temporal moments since we ourselves first recognized him), – which is the essential ingredient.”

    So I like the notion that Jesus, in his reality, is not separable into component parts. This is the one we worship – the Crucified *and* Risen One!

    But from the perspective of we humans, we don’t ever interact with a “general Jesus,” but with a “particular Jesus.” The only Jesus we can encounter is a “discrete” one. We don’t relate to the whole story of Jesus, but we meet him at the Well, or on a hill, or outside an empty tomb. Liturgy is then like the whole story, but we don’t “do” liturgy; we walk along with liturgy, meeting Jesus step by step.

    Seems like the basic problem is that Jesus’ reality is too big for our finitude. And so each discrete encounter contains the whole, but we are incapable of taking it all in (I have the mental picture of fractals, where no matter what scale you arrive at, the “whole” is present). So we build systems to help us keep the whole, over time, before us.

    “Obviously, mine is the Barthian concern that we not confuse divine revelation and human religion.”

    But those systems we build are never quite good enough, for we can never get it all in. Every time and place has trouble with some part and leaves it out, or is so enamored with another part that that is all they talk about (and then you have action-reaction – as in my case – where one part has been left out or sidelined and somebody makes it their business to get that part back in). As you point out, God’s continuing creativity makes this even more fun by busting up our well ordered systems!

    Craig, I think we are especially on the same page here (for different reasons?) – I love liturgy – but I don’t see why 16th century liturgy gets privileged place. To use your controlling BBQ metaphor: I’m not a picky eater.


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