The Bread of Life

Kendall Vanderslice, a professional baker and practical theologian, reflects on how bread can mirror the journey of faith.

In 2020, a century after the introduction of industrialized bread altered the landscape of American baked goods, another pandemic changed the way we live and eat and worship. As the waves of COVID-19 ebbed and flowed, fears and fissures within churches, families and neighborhoods were illuminated. Questions continue to proliferate about how to care for our own bodies and the bodies of our neighbors. What is our moral responsibility to limit the spread of disease? What impact does worshiping online have on our spiritual well-being? And how do we reckon with the necessities and harms of extended isolation?

It was in this context, when the world’s collective stress was at its peak, that men and women across the United States turned to bread for peace. The spring of 2020 saw grocery store shelves emptied of flour and yeast, while Google searches for bread recipes rose to all-time highs. In seven months, King Arthur Baking Company sold twice as many five-pound bags of flour as they’d sold the entire previous year—not to mention the consumers who purchased fifty-pound bags when they couldn’t find the smaller size. The feel of dough brought grounding amid the loss of community and the loss of control.

God meets us in the baking and breaking of bread. In the same way, God communes with us through the broken but beautiful rhythms of the church — despite the church’s bickering and division, despite the pain it inflicts. God is present with us in tangible ways in our hunger and our loneliness, our hurts and our longings — especially in the form of bread, broken and shared among God’s people. In this sharing, we are taught to hunger all the more for the fullness of healing yet to come.

Our relationship to theology and the church can be much like Wonder Bread: cheap, industrialized, lacking nourishment and flavor.

We continue to live in the tension of bread as blessing and bread as curse. While most of us don’t experience the labor of growing and harvesting wheat, wheat allergies and the fear of carbohydrates abound. But bread still offers us a way forward, a way to heal our relationship to the body of Christ and to our own bodies — and to find delight in each. A robust understanding of bread makes plain to us the reasons that poor teaching on community and the Body, born of Wonder Bread theology, failed to nourish a generation of Christians well.

As both a professional baker and a student of theology, I am grieved that decades of eaters (myself included) have feared bread and its ill effects on their bodies due to the reputation of industrialized loaves. Similarly, it grieves me that a generation of people who grew up in a Christian culture formed by the pursuit of sanitation and control dismiss their faith without knowledge of the tradition’s rich capacity to meet them in their pain and fear.

Our relationship to theology and the church can be much like Wonder Bread: cheap, industrialized, lacking nourishment and flavor. We gravitate toward Wonder Bread not because we think it’s the best, but because it’s convenient and affordable. Sometimes we choose it because it tastes like home, and sometimes because we have no idea there’s something better. But the life of Jesus and the story of Scripture, as well as the substance of bread itself, show us there is more.

“One does not live by bread alone,” Jesus said to the tempter in the desert, “but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4, nab).

Jesus himself is both the Bread of life and the Word who was with God in the beginning. He is the Word that proceeds from the mouth of God, as well as the Bread we place in our own mouths. We can know God on our tongues and in our bellies when hunger and loneliness and disappointment are too deep for words.

The beauty of this communion with God can’t be adequately captured in theological terms. It resists being pinned down by words at all, though story, poetry, and recipe get us closer. The very point of God meeting us in this way is to remind us that the materiality of our lives and of God’s world matters.

Bread, like God, is not a mystery to be mastered or solved. It is at once simple — a mix of flour, water, yeast, and salt — and infinitely complex.

As soon as water hits flour, a series of transformations begins: amino acids uncoil, forming bonds to create a strong, sticky dough. The journey from flour to dough to bread depends on a succession of conversions — small deaths that make way for new life. The baker’s task is not to follow a proper formula to ensure an exact end result but to read the environment, pull the ingredients together, and gently nudge the dough in the proper direction, all while trusting water and time to do most of the transforming.

In this way, bread mirrors the journey of faith.

Bread, like God, is not a mystery to be mastered or solved. It is at once simple — a mix of flour, water, yeast, and salt — and infinitely complex. Thousands of years after our ancestors made their first loaf, bakers are still learning new ways to pull flavor and texture from grain. We can commit our entire lives to the rhythms of baking, of drawing out the nuances of wheat, and still have more to learn. The goal should not be mastery in and of itself, but curiosity and joy. Breadmaking, like faith, is a craft to hone over the course of a lifetime, a truth that is at once exciting and liberating.

Adapted from By Bread Alone: A Baker’s Reflections on Hunger, Longing, and the Goodness of God by Kendall Vanderslice. Copyright © 2023. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries.  All rights reserved.

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