Tim Chester’s new book A Meal with Jesus recently showed up at my door and I’ve been quite taken by it. It’s a book about what seems a strange topic–sharing a meal. Yet there are many profound truths to be found here. Let me share a quote that I found particularly compelling.
In his book Bowling Alone, Robert Putman reveals that there’s been a 33 percent decrease in families eating together over the last three decades. And more than half of those families are watching television as they eat together. Over the same period there’s been a 45 percent decline in entertaining friends. Growing up I would ask each Sunday, “Who’s coming for dinner today?” Not whether but who, because I knew my parents always would have invited someone. “In the typical American household, the average number of dinners eaten together is three per week, with the average length of dinner being 20 minutes.” Many homes no longer even have a dining room. We protect ourselves from outsiders, but our security systems and garden gates are our prisons, cutting us off from community. Instead we get our community vicariously through soap operas. Friends is a television program or a Facebook number, not people with whom we eat and laugh and cry.
Instead we’ve commercialized hospitality. In his history of Starbucks, Taylor Clark argues that the secret of Starbuck’s success is not in its coffee, but “the pull of the coffeehouse as a place.” When sociologist Roy Oldenburg coined the term “third place” to describe a neutral gathering spot that’s neither home or work, “the company,” Clark writes, “now had its philanthropic rallying cry: it wasn’t a coffee company, but a third place bringing people together through the social glue of coffee.” Starbuck’s research showed that people wanted “a cozy social atmosphere above all else. … For those seeking a refuge from the world, the cup of coffee they bought was really just the price of admission to partake of the coffeehouse scene. Starbucks is selling us hospitality.
Hotels were the first to commercialize hospitality. In the past ordinary households opened their homes to strangers. In the Medieval period monasteries provided a resting place for travelers and cared for the ill. We get the word “hospital” from their “hospitality” to the sick. “In pre-industrial cities, public eateries were classless, and rich and poor often shared the same table, just as they lived together in the same street.” But a breed of eating-house, the restaurant, originating in Paris, broke from this. “Restaurants presented an entirely new way of eating out. Anyone, including women, could go off a menu, and pay for it separately.” Public dining could now be done in isolation. Now television shows and cookbooks sell the idea of hospitality back to us as they encourage us to remake hospitality in the image of restaurant cuisine. Sharing a family meal has been replaced by the fancy dinner party.
There’s nothing wrong with eating out or hosting a special meal–indeed there’s a lot right with it. But somewhere along the line the commercialization of meals has cost us something precious. Hospitality has become performance art, and we’ve lost the creation of intimacy around a meal.
There are a few quick takeaways for me:
- One of the wisest things Aileen and I did when we first got married was ensure that we had no television in the house. One of the most foolish things we did was introduce one as soon as she got pregnant. More foolish still was eating far too many meals in front of it.
- We can use Starbucks and other coffeehouses for all kinds of good reasons, but we can also use them as a means of avoiding true hospitality by inviting people in our homes.
- Hospitality is noble, but can become prideful when it is more about the performance than the simple joy of relating to one another around the table.
- At at time when true hospitality is becoming a lost art, Christians have the opportunity to be biblically counter-cultural by inviting people into our homes and inviting them to share meals with us.