In our first four chapters, we have shown by means of a broad historical survey that dietary issues have been vitally important to Christian identity and discipline, and that Christian reflection on dietary practice has often promoted general themes and aims, such as simplicity. Yet dietary practices always involve decisions about specific foods, and in the case of meat, about specific species of living being that are slaughtered and prepared for consumption as meat. What counts, or can be made to count, as meat has been a perennial question in the formation of dietary practices. Some animals are rarely classed as meat because they are rarely eaten. Alternatively, as will be seen, if there are rules against eating meat, various animals or parts of animals have even been excluded from the category of meat and therefore deemed edible. This chapter and those which follow will focus on cross-historical themes that

have shaped Christian dietary consciousness. In this chapter, we shall examine the relationship between dietary practices, categorizations of living beings and ethical and theological claims. In particular, we shall consider Christian uses of the Hebrew Bible, which is the source of food rules that is most deeply embedded in Christian thought. Some general comments on the relationship between food practices and beliefs are first appropriate. One of the principles that emerges from our study so far is that food rules are not the direct product of beliefs. Indeed, the frameworks of belief within which dietary practices are located develop partly in order to make sense of particular practices. Principles of classification and general rules emerge from reflection on historically contingent particularities. Yet conversely, specific practices are produced when general principles are applied to new situations. In some cases, these two movements are likely to conflict and generate contradictory results. Such clashes usually develop over time, as one set of cosmologies and practical justifications shifts and becomes overlaid by another. Single explanations for particular dietary practices, whether theological, biblical, economic or some other, usually fail. Furthermore, as practices persist and are transmitted through history, they seem to call for explanation and generate new explanations.

A substantial and well-known body of scholarly literature has developed to address the themes of order and separation in the Hebrew Bible’s priestly

literature and how this determines the classification of living beings and food rules.1 Some explanations emphasise cosmological and cultural-historical explanations. Consider the best-known prohibition, that against eating pork. Mary Douglas’ famous early account of why the pig was regarded as ‘abominable’ was founded on the idea that it failed to fit into a clear set of categories. Although it possessed a cloven hoof, it did not chew the cud.2 Other explanations for pork avoidance have related the practice to Israel’s national and religious selfdefinition: pork was the cheapest of the sacrificial animals and therefore offered widely to pagan gods; or it was regarded as demonical, and offered to infernal or secret deities. A once-popular biological explanation was that the pig carried trichinosis.3 This explanation is particularly hard to justify: the symptoms of the disease are not mentioned in the Hebrew Bible or other Hebrew texts, and other animals apart from pigs are also carriers and transmitters.4 Each of these explanations points to something important about how food works. Certain foods and certain food practices indeed pose greater health risks than others, food practices are key to forming and strengthening group identity, and ambiguous animals which elude categorization are troubling, especially when presented as food. Yet any single explanation would, if taken as a complete explanation, explain away the food rule in question, making its continued observance meaningless. This would render insignificant the wider theological context in which the particular rule is situated. When Douglas revised her interpretation of the Levitical food rules, she

described how her original analysis had been motivated by a concern to argue, in defiance of fashionable 1960s anti-structuralism, that order and patterning were fundamental to human life and not merely the accretions of bureaucratic late modernity from which enlightened people should or could liberate themselves.5 In her reassessment, Douglas presents abomination as part of a wider theological cosmology of creation, covenant and fertility. She sees the regulation of Israel’s use of animals as a mark of respect for them, which in turn results from the divine patterning of the universe according to the precepts of justice and mercy.6 When discussing the meaning of abomination, Douglas then states that ‘though contact with these [unclean] creatures is not against purity, harming them is against holiness’, concluding that the ‘animals classified as unclean turn out to be not abominable at all’.7 Our discussion in this chapter will follow Douglas in seeking to understand the interrelationships between food rules, systems of classification and wider theology and ethics. Christian rereadings of the Hebrew Bible’s food rules have sometimes been quick to explain them away and render them theologically irrelevant, but the history of Christian dietary restriction suggests that such interrelationships have continued to exert strong influence in Christian societies. In Douglas’ own case, her longstanding interests in the ritual aspects of food dated from childhood, when as her biographer comments she ‘learnt to read off the days of the week from the lunchtime menu’ when staying at her grandparents’ house while her parents were working in Burma with the Indian Civil Service, before later experiencing the strict mealtime regime of convent school.8