26 Mar (042) The Theology of Chocolate – How our twisted ideas turned God into a Killjoy
Magnums are one of my all-time favourite ice-creams. I love the smooth Belgian chocolate and the rich ice-cream inside. But some years ago, Magnum launched a new marketing campaign, labelling each of their ice-creams with one of the seven deadly sins. There were names like “sloth” (caramel swirl ice cream and chocolate),“revenge” (raspberry ripple ice cream and dark chocolate) and “greed” (tiramisu, amaretti and chocolate). My favourite (champagne ice-cream and white chocolate) was ‘vanity’. It never felt as good after that.
Why is it that something as good as a Magnum ice-cream is associated with sin? Why is it that pleasure is often associated with evil? This is the topic of this week’s podcast: The Theology of Chocolate – how our twisted ideas turned God into a killjoy. (NB. Some of you are thinking this is an overzealous rant designed to justify a chocolate binge at Easter, and you may be right).
Magnum’s marketing campaign reinforces the idea that eating something enjoyable is sinful and therefore eating something tasteless is not. Or in other words, if you follow God’s ways and do the ‘right’ thing, you’re not going to enjoy life as much.
Where does this idea come from?
Is Pleasure Sinful?
The idea can be traced back to a system of thinking called Gnosticism that flourished in the early centuries after Christ. The Gnostics believed that earthly pleasure was the antithesis of heavenly good. The spirit was good and the flesh was bad. So, if you wanted to be spiritual, you should deny the physical. Spirituality was associated with pain and abstinence. If it was pleasurable, it was evil.
Later the monastic movement came up with similar ideals in reaction to the self-indulgence they saw in the world around them. Poverty, celibacy and isolation became the ideal. Vows were taken to deny sex in marriage. Simple food like bread and water were on the monastic menu, with some monks reported to feed on grass. Laughter was inappropriate and solemnity was the order of the day. Aesthetics such as bright-coloured clothing were rejected in favour of hessian garb. Isolation was lauded with some monks living in tombs or on the tops of pillars far away from the influence of relationships.
Of course, this is not meant to say that denial of life’s pleasures isn’t sometimes appropriate. God sometimes calls us to deny them so that they don’t become idols in our hearts. The ability to exercise mastery over the self and to prioritise God above all else is the essence of spiritual maturity.
Everything for Our Enjoyment
But at the same time, we need to understand God’s heart for us here on earth. The truth is that God made the natural world, including our physical bodies. They are his creation and a reflection of his bountiful and beautiful design. In the opening chapters of Genesis, there is one resounding theme – the creation is good – a refrain that’s repeated six times. Everything God made is good.
After creating this garden paradise where he himself is seen to dwell, God places humanity in the centre – and says; “Enjoy it! Eat of it! Care for it! I’ve given you the best – all for you to enjoy.” A healthy biblical theology says that the physical world is as much a work of God as the spiritual one. That means, when I’m enjoying the physical pleasures of this life within the boundaries of wisdom, I’m expressing my God-given humanity and through it I’m glorifying God, honouring the Creator and above all; being spiritual.
What does this mean? For those who want to live the God-life, there is a way to live it to the full – and it comes without guilt and shame.
It looks like taking a proper day off each week. It means we allow time to celebrate the pleasures God has given us. It means that we don’t compartmentalise our lives into the activities ‘which are spiritual’ and activities which are ‘natural’. It means that the experience of worship when I hike up a tall mountain is just as profound as a song sung on Sunday morning. It means that good sex with your marriage partner can be as holy as a time of prayer and fasting. It means that ‘ministry’ is not confined to a church building or a well-prepared sermon, but could look like deep-throated laughter with a friend who needs encouragement. It means that we enjoy the vibrant colours and the rich scents of this earthly existence and discover God in and through it all.
So this Easter, why not take some time to enjoy the God-given beauty around you, revel in the gifts God has given and most of all, go eat a piece of chocolate…
Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. (1 Timothy 6:17)
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of heavenly lights… (James 1:17)
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