Day Four – Paleo, Orthodoxy, and Grains

40DAYSBLOGOne of the reasons I love the paleo movement is that it challenges a status quo that is so obviously broken and dangerous.  Like anarchism when it comes to modern government and economics, paleo steps outside the dominant paradigm and blasts away at its problems.  We need to hear that.  I also love that they are looking for more reliable sources of authority for guidance on how to recreate a healthy and sustainable system.  As with many brands of anarchism, I think they are a bit too fundamentalist and dogmatic in their application of their replacement ideology (largely evolutionary anthropology, which is not as reliable as folks often pretend; and modern science on nutrition, which is getting better).  So just as I am a libertarian rather than an anarchist but still benefit from the work of writers like Kropotkin and Tolstoi, I am a ancestral diet paleophile rather than a card carrying paleo.

Christians have a hard time with paleo’s focus on evolution.  I think that’s an easy thing to dodge.  For one, it isn’t required for paleo to work.  For another, evolution doesn’t keep me up at night.  There is a challenge within the dogmatic paleo movement that is MUCH more problematic for Orthodox Christians than its reliance on evolution (which is often pseudo-scientific anyways).  

This has to do with bread.  As one podcast listener (who is Orthodox and a fellow paleo-phile) put it:

Within Christianity, bread is a symbol of plenty, goodness, and salvation.  For paleos, bread is the mechanism of death and destruction.

There is so much positive agricultural symbolism within the Jewish and Christian scriptures specifically dealing with grain and bread, that it can’t be ignored.  So how can someone be both Orthodox and a paleophile without hemorrhaging from the contradictions?   I believe that this can be done without too much stress (remember that some cognative dissonance is fine – it can be transformative, like a sort of spiritual dialectic; the transformation of bread into body may be along these lines, as long as we don’t get to wrapped up in it):

  • One way is to accept that Christ was working within the dietary/food production paradigm of that time, explaining things using metaphors that were available.  This is not entirely satisfying: He cannot call Himself the “Bread of Life” if bread is deadly (at least not without the transformation, and even that would be troublesome; we are transformed from sinners into saints, Christ God was not)!  
  • But augment the above with the Wheatbelly argument that wheat was different back then, not as dangerous when eaten in moderation and a sure way to protect against starvation, etc
  • Then add in Taleb’s point (briefly made in Antifragile) that the “anti-nutrient” effect in grains provide benefits in the same way a good vaccine does (i.e. through hormesis; at least in moderation).  This provides a potentially interesting/useful implication of the grain metaphor: Christ both feeds and perfects (the latter in this metaphor through challenging/scrubbing/trial-ing the Christian).  But I really am just making things up here – I have not seen any patristics on this (although we can follow/imitate their exegesis).
  • Throw in a dash of the fact that bread was not always seen as being good; e.g. bread leavened with hypocracy is a poisonous ruin. 
  • Lastly,  I think that scripture challenges us to admit that agriculture isn’t the complete disaster that some paleophiles would claim.  Virtues of hard work, community, planning, etc. are developed through farming (and animal husbandry).  But it is also clear that it provides the foundation for many vices: gluttony, city life (I don’t see cities getting very high marks in scripture), oppression, etc.

 Anyways, I am starting to ramble.  One more point: Masterjohn and others have made the point that it is more useful to think of paleo as a subset of healthy ancestral diets.  I think that is useful.  They eat grains on Mt. Athos and do very well.  But our diet and reliance on (franken)grains is completely wrong-headed and destructive!

There is one spiritual danger/red-line: if our devotion to anti-wheat paleo is so strong that it causes us do hesitate going to Communion, then we have completely lost perspective (this is true for worrying about the “carbs” in Communion for Adkins dieters, as well).  

What are your thoughts?



  1. Nelson R. Pardee says

    I suspect others have written similarly (I have read little in the Paleo world)- I recently viewed a TED talk on paleo diets by Christina Warriner, an anthropologist. She points out there is no single paleo diet, which makes sense when one thinks for a moment. The available food in the Arctic vs American plains vs the tropics is just not the same, and it even varies by time of year! Perhaps there are unifying factors, or some “paleo” diets are better than others, but there are definitely different versions. As you point out, the goal is to find what seems to move us forward, and leave behind what doesn’t. And I do like the reminder about the central role of bread in the Judeo-Christian tradition.