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Eat, Drink and Be Merry: A Bittersweet Tribute to Anthony Bourdain

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Found Something Good in This Beautiful World

I was sitting in a coffee shop on June 8, 2018, when a friend texted to alert me of the suicide of Anthony Bourdain, the famous chef-turned-author-and-TV-host. A few minutes later, my wife texted to tell me the same. A few minutes after that, another text from another friend.

Now, just a few days after the news of his death, the Internet is filled with eulogies, praises and farewells. Some write because they were friends. Some write because they were fans. And some seem to have written because the death of a celebrity is a jarring event that forces us to face the fact that all the things we sometimes wish we had in greater abundance—money, fame, success, food, travel—cannot cure misery or stave off death.

For those unfamiliar with Bourdain, he’s been aptly described as having “the perpetual look of the cool uncle who shows up once a year at the family cookout, Corona dangling effortlessly from his fingers as he regales the kids with vaguely edgy stories of his travels while Mom and Dad listen in with equal parts amusement and alarm.”[1] Bourdain’s arms were tatted like an old sailor—fitting, since he famously compared restaurants to modern-day pirate ships.[2] He could cuss like a sailor too. He was raw, realistic and disdainful of hypocrites. He could be incensed, depressed and elated before finishing one plate of food. He was also an alcoholic, a guy who smoked two packs a day into his 50s, and a former cocaine and heroin addict.

You could say I liked Anthony Bourdain in spite of the messiness of his life, something like how Jesus loves me in spite of the messiness of my own. I liked him because he brought the world into my living room, showing me the beauty and tragedy of ‘life under the sun.’ I liked him because he understood that food is more than fuel—it is art, it is history, it is edible culture and, thank God, it can be sublimely delicious. I liked him because he introduced me to the glory of Waffle House. Most of all, though, I liked him because he enlarged and enriched my longing for what it will be like to sit down at the Wedding Supper of the Lamb, when ransomed people from every tribe and tongue and nation bring dishes to delight every taste and type and palate (Revelation 19:6-9; 21:26).

It is deeply bittersweet that a man who despised religion and doubted the existence of God was the one to so greatly enhance my gratitude for God’s world.

Food is more than fuel—it is art, it is history, it is edible culture and, thank God, it can be sublimely delicious.

The True Perils of Pleasure

I suppose some will accuse Bourdain’s opulent wealth for his self-destruction. Others will fault his fame. Still others will place the blame at the feet of mental illness. Whatever we may think of those speculations, however, we must all be on guard against the ever-present temptation to blame the pursuit of pleasure.

To begin with, you don’t have a choice. As Blaise Pascal observed, “All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they use, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both—to be happy. This is the motive of every action of every man even of those who hang themselves.”[3]

The question, therefore, is not whether you will seek pleasure but where and how will you seek it. Secular hedonists devour the goods of the world without regard for the Giver who gave them all. This, in effect, expects too much of the good things we pursue and places on them a burden that they can never bear. (“I can’t get no satisfaction” isn’t just a classic rock lyric.)

Yet too many Christians fall into a ditch on the other side, supposing God to be a cosmic killjoy who gave us physical appetites only for the purpose of renouncing them. They feel guilty about enjoying God’s gifts, and they could never imagine God watching one of Anthony Bourdain’s food-and-travel shows with anything other than a look of grumpy disapproval: “What is the meaning of all this gluttony, this waste, this self-indulgence?”

But that quote isn’t from God. It’s from the White Witch of Narnia. We do well to remember that it’s the devil who hates your pleasure, while God offers you an eternal fountain of it (Psalm 16:11). Indeed, Screwtape could not hide his revulsion at the “Enemy’s” (God’s) commitment to our joy:

He’s a hedonist at heart. All those fasts and vigils and crosses are only a façade. Or only like foam on the seashore. Out at sea, out in His sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure. He makes no secret of it; at His right hand are ‘pleasures forevermore.’ Ugh! …. He’s vulgar, Wormwood. He has bourgeois mind. He has filled his world full of pleasures.[4]

We do well to remember that it’s the devil who hates your pleasure, while God offers you an eternal fountain of it.

“Eat, Drink and Be Merry.” – God

There is a ‘third way’ that diverges from both the cosmic killjoy of religion and the empty despair of secular hedonism: it is the way of grace, which receives every good thing as a gift from God—nothing more and nothing less. This means we do not expect God’s gifts to fulfill us or sustain us or give our lives meaning and purpose, for only a transcendent God can do that. But neither do we spurn God’s gifts like cheap toys in the bottom of a Happy Meal. We receive them as the first of many fruits, the beginning of grace upon grace.

Hence the Scriptures say:

There is nothing better for a person than to eat, drink, and enjoy his work. I have seen that this also is from God’s hand, for who can eat and enjoy life apart from him? (Ecclesiastes 2:24-25)

And again they say,

Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. (Ecclesiastes 9:7)

Once more:

There is nothing better for a person than to eat, drink, and enjoy… (Ecclesiastes 8:15)

The Bible says that (!), and Anthony Bourdain practically lived it. He spent his life helping us discover the people of the world and their culinary delights—but without realizing that “this also is from God, for [no one] can eat and enjoy life apart from him.” In the final reckoning, it saddens me to think that Bourdain was like so many of the chefs I have known and worked with: so skilled in feeding the customers, but they never get around to feeding themselves.

God has a different intention for his children: “Eat, drink and be merry,” he says. Enjoy his world! But remember that it’s his world, remember it’s a gift and remember there’s even more grace where that came from.

[1] Matt Purple, “Anthony Bourdain, American Tour Guide,” The American Conservative, June 8, 2018. http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/anthony-bourdain-american-tour-guide. Accessed June 10, 2018.

[2] My six years in the restaurant world found his comparison to be hilariously and tragically true.

[3] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. W. F. Trotter (Boston: E. P. Dutton, 1958), 113.

[4] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (London: Fount, 1982), 95–96.

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Doug Ponder

Doug Ponder (M.Div., Th.M. Southeastern Seminary) is the Teaching Pastor at Remnant Church in Richmond, VA. He also serves as Dean of Faculty and Professor of Biblical Studies at Grimke Seminary. He and his wife, Jessica, have four sons.

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