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Our learning community has for the last three weeks been reading the recent exchange in The Other Journal between theologians Stephen Webb and William T. Cavanaugh about how Christians ought to think about and eat food. (The initial article and Cavanaugh’s response are available here and here. Webb’s rebuttal is only available in the print version of The Other Journal.) We have spent considerable time working through their arguments, and analyzing the rhetoric they employ. I will not speak for the students, but my own sense of the exchange is that Webb failed to treat the topic very seriously, as is most clearly evidenced in his rebuttal to Cavanaugh, which is, on a gracious reading, unfair, tendentious, and mostly non-sequitur. In our learning community we have been practicing gracious reading and gracious dialogue with one another, and so I was happy that students were able to immediately recognize how different Webb’s way of speaking was from Cavanaugh’s, and how undesirable.

As Cavanaugh points out many times, Webb raises some legitimate concerns about how we ought to think about and relate to food and eating as Christians. But Cavanaugh’s primary critique has to do with Webb’s failure to make a distinction “between the gourmand and the ordinary people who are trying to return some measure of justice and sanity to a corporatized food system which has become exploitative of farmers and workers and toxic to the environment” (15, print version). Cavanaugh’s response to Webb is mostly concerned with unpacking this conflation, and he does a very good job. Indeed, this distinction seems to us to be so obvious that parts of Webb’s argument in “Against the Gourmands” doesn’t make sense at a basic logical level, as Cavanaugh points out in several places.

I think that the positions that Webb is articulating can provide a useful critique of some of the tendencies of “foodie” culture; but Webb articulates them in such a way that they are not useful. He does not defend them well, and he certainly does not do so in the spirit of dialogue. Especially in Webb’s rebuttal, it seems mostly to be in the spirit of aloof, unserious invective. Indeed, Webb fails to respond to any of Cavanaugh’s primary critiques, where Cavanaugh had taken the time to carefully and systematically engage with Webb’s text.

The exchange is worth reading, if for no other reason that it demonstrates how difficult it is to sustain thoughtful, gracious dialogue with others with whom we very fundamentally disagree. But we have to find ways to do this, and we have to take one another and the objects of our dialogue seriously.

Visit The Other Journal to read the first two parts of the exchange, along with a worthwhile analysis and critique of the exchange by Matthew Barton.