Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Word of Wisdom

A Sunday school lesson on the Word of Wisdom is a very funny thing. Sunday school lessons are funny things for a lot of reasons, but I noticed it particularly this time because my mind has recently been on the topic of food as the result of reading The Omnivore's Dilemma.

Discussing the Word of Wisdom in Sunday school is largely an exercise of patting ourselves on the back for not drinking alcohol, smoking, or dropping acid. First, we dive into D&C 89:4:
Behold, verily, thus saith the Lord unto you: In consequence of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days, I have warned you, and forewarn you, by giving unto you this word of wisdom by revelation—
After reading that, the inevitable Sunday school question ensues: "What are some examples of these evils and designs that we have seen in these latter-days?" Now the faithful members of the Sunday school class will reveal our main enemies, the dangerous, conspiring evils that constantly threaten to undermine our health: the tobacco industry, the alcohol industry, and the illegal drug underworld.

Can you see anything missing from this picture? Like maybe the industry whose products end up on our plates every day? Let me state a few observations about the demographics of the Sunday school members in this ward as well as many other wards I've been to in the U.S. The overwhelming majority of them do not smoke, drink, or use illegal drugs. I would bet that a majority of them have never in their lives sipped coffee, smoked a cigarette, sipped alcohol, or would even recognize an illegal drug. I'm practically 30 and the only time I've ever come close to ingesting these things is in the occasional annoyance of a nearby smoker or that one time that I confusedly gave in to the incoherent demands of a teppanyaki chef (long story).

Constant vigilance, brethren and sistren! Let's be extremely conservative and say that 10% of the Sunday school members actually struggle with one of the Big Word of Wisdom No-Nos. What do the other 90% get out of the lesson? They get to feel good about themselves while telling anecdotes about other people they've known (or sometimes younger versions of themselves). For most people there, the Word of Wisdom has nothing to do with sacrifice or resisting temptation. Many of us believe that the Word of Wisdom is as easy as the law of tithing, or easier.

I'd like to submit that "obeying the Word of Wisdom", by which I mean taking the typical legalistic approach and adhering to the simple list of official proscriptions, can be culturally compared to graduating from high school. Congratulations, folks. What an incredible accomplishment. The difficulty of doing this actually depends a lot on what background you have, like what kind of family you were raised in. Most of us middle-class Sunday schoolers have been blessed with a lot, and therefore graduating from high school is about as easy as falling over a log. Similarly, abstaining from Word of Wisdom No-Nos requires minimal effort, because to break it would mean acting against all the ingrained cultural and familial forces that have shaped your life since before your skin was exposed to the atmosphere.

No, my dear Mormon readers, this is not at all impressive or effective. Keeping out a short list of certain types of filth does not make your body pure or healthy. It only keeps it free from a short list of ailments and addictions. The "evils and designs" that threaten your health you may only be vaguely aware of. The industrial machinations in place to provide you with the cheapest possible selection of food would likely surprise you. This industry, from which you and I freely gorge ourselves, is motivated by something that may rhyme with "health" but it starts with a 'w' and has a significantly different meaning.

"That sounds like one of those crazy conspiracy theories," you say. Like the kind in D&C 89:4? Of course not, right? Everybody knows that those conspiracies are the tobacco, alcohol, and illegal drug industries. The evil Marlboro guy. Those devilishly funny beer commercials. The "secret combinations" of teenage gangster wannabe crack-smokers. That's where the evil lies, not the friendly McDonald's ads or the "variety" of processed corn-derived products lining the shelves at the supermarket. The tobacco/alcohol/drug fiends are motivated by something completely different than the food corporations, right? These guys want you to get sick and die! The food guys just want to earn a living!

Another funny thing is the way we like to gloss over the meaty parts (D&C 89:12-13):
Yea, flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air, I, the Lord, have ordained for the use of man with thanksgiving; nevertheless they are to be used sparingly; And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.
Luckily we have a more modern interpretation of this scripture: "sparingly" and "only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine" actually means "every day".

We sit back and complacently distance ourselves from the soul-destroying monsters of alcohol/drug/smoking addiction, and yet we have no idea where our own food comes from and why. It might be wise to consider these kinds of things, since they directly impact our health. What better time to talk about these things than during a lesson on the Word of Wisdom? Can we get past high school?

[Footnote: My comments regarding high school and the like are not intended to diminish the accomplishments of those people who come from poor or otherwise difficult backgrounds or circumstances and have had to overcome incredible odds.]


Alanna said...

I feel like this is only half a post or something. I agree that following the basic "no's" of the WoW isn't too hard for a lot of us (and LOVED the High School analogy-- so true!). And it does make for a pretty self-congratulatory lesson. But what do you recommend in addition to all that?

A lot of Mormons (although not me, I guiltily confess) try to raise gardens, can fruit from their orchards, and basically are doing a lot to "produce" their own food. In my own family we hardly ever eat out (even at McDonald's!), although that's mostly an economic decision, not a health one. And already prepared dinners are hardly any cheaper, so I make most of our food from scratch. Now, I guess that still involves a lot of canned stuff, so that still makes it less healthy, but I feel like I'm at least trying.

I know that eating less meat would be healthier, but I don't feel I'm excessive with the amount meat our family consumes. (A big part of that is that, while I really like eating meat, cooking it kind of grosses me out-- talk about being too far removed from the real world!!!!)

But I feel like you had more to what you were thinking than just this stuff. What do you think we (as Mormons) should be doing more? (And I'm asking that earnestly! I'd like to hear your opinion!)

Ryan said...

I think that there is a broad range of topics that we could be covering in a lesson about the Word of Wisdom that deals directly with what we allow into our bodies on a daily basis. Consider the following list of potential topics:

* The journey that food takes from the origin to your plate

* Ethical questions about the treatment of animals

* Why diet fads are stupid

* Why fast food is bad for you

* Economics of corn

* Simple and accessible explanations of the biology of food taken from widely accepted sources

* What some of the weird ingredient names mean and how they were derived

* Portion control

* Moderation and restraint with prescription meds

Idea: is a lesson on the Word of Wisdom a good place to put in a word for exercising? It does say "cease to be idle" in the previous section, and back then the fact that you were working likely meant you were exercising. Today? Yeah not so much. I sit in front of a glowing screen all day, I don't know about you.

Here's some possible suggestions that I might make if I were teaching:

* Support your local farmer's market

* Be aware of when foods are in season or not

* Participate in any general political activity that may apply

* Be aware of where your food comes from

* Read The Omnivore's Dilemma

* Educate your kids ("Kids, farms don't have animals, mmkay?")

* Eat less meat and more vegetables

* Caffeine is a red herring. Don't drink soda.

* Don't eat fast food.

* Grow a garden if you don't live in Albuquerque

* Learn how to can

* Learn how to cook

* Exercise (a lot of material for this)

These suggestions go for me too, of course. Erin and I are looking for some good vegetable recipes. I always like the meat recipes better than the vegetable recipes, unfortunately.

Some may think that this stuff is more appropriate for an Enrichment meeting or something, but I say bah! We men need to know it too, and it ties into section 89 perfectly. Our ward has been nailing the topic of self-reliance for quite a while now (which basically consists of the teacher standing in the front telling all of the PhD students that they need to get an education), and there's no reason why we shouldn't have a food month too.

Myrna said...

Our Sunday School lesson on this topic yesterday was fabulous, and the class did bring up a lot of the topics you mention. They talked too about much of the WoW is really about the Spirit being the master of the body, and not the other way around. You should have been there, Ryan. You would have loved it! Our teacher is a chemistry prof. at BYU; I don't know if that helped, but all the comments were fabulous. I guess we were having a post-high school WoW lesson! :o)Probably the best WoW lesson I have ever had.

Amy Rose said...

I teach the 16 year old Sunday School class, and I taught this lesson yesterday. I was really pleased with my lesson. We focused on emphasizing how eating right (fruits, vegetables) makes our bodies feel good, and that allows us to feel the Spirit more readily than if we are bloated out on french fries and rice krispy treats. I urged the class to really develop their own testimony of the word of wisdom, their own testimony that eating good healthy food does make them stronger, physically and spiritually, and to develop an attitude that "I follow the Word of Wisdom because I love my body, I love my Heavenly Father, and NOT because my mom tells me I have to and I'll get in trouble with my bishop if I don't." I was really pleased with their response...
But I agree with what you've said from adult sunday school lessons I've been in on the topic...
(not that I'm really trying to toot my own horn, just that some teachers do try to focus on the healthy/spiritual side, not so much the negative side.)