“With Bread”: The Etymology & Theology of Companionship

I’m a bit of a nerd. For instance, when I was younger, I, like many youngsters, memorized the alphabet. But that wasn’t enough for my young mind. I memorized not only the individual letters of the alphabet, but their corresponding numbers. So, A’s corresponding number is 1, B’s is 2, C’s is 3, and so on. This might sound simple enough, but wait, there’s more. I took it upon myself to memorize the sums and products of adding and multiplying letters by their corresponding numbers. With very little hesitation I could come up with the letters, numbers, and mathematical results when asked. Surprisingly, not too many people were looking for this information.

Fast forward to present day and I am still rather nerdy. (Thankfully, my wife has a soft spot for nerds.) I love words and their origins. Etymology is a hobby of mine that is – in my mind – worth its weight in gold. Mining the ins and outs of a word opens up meaning and interpretation. Like a flower in bloom, examining word origins, contexts, and histories allows for vibrant colors and nuanced designs previously hidden from view to emerge.

A few years ago, I was purchasing some bread from a grocery store for a shared meal. It was thinly sliced and aromatic. Perfectly baked crust protected the soft innards waiting for us to pluck apart. It was the kind of bread you should probably buy two loaves: one for the car ride home and one for the meal. Yet, what struck me on this particular occasion was the name of the bread. It wasn’t entitled “Italian Bread” although it was. Rather than translating the Italian, they had aptly and simply left it as, Pane.

And this triggered my etymological impulses.

Pane is a word derived from Latin meaning “bread.” It has a long and variegated history as it has been paired with a multitude of other terms. Nearly all of them center on bread of some sort.

The interesting thing is that the prefix com- means “with” stemming from the original Latin cum. When cum is used, it indicates a conjoining of two things. Pairings, groups, usage of items are all placed in relationship with the term cum.

Together cum + pane give us companion. Thus, your companions are the ones whom you are together “with bread.” Literally. Again, the etymology of companion opens our eyes to its history in that its Latin ancestor used to mean “messmate.” For the Latin speaking world and its cognates, companion wasn’t a general term. Your companions were the ones you ate with, the ones your broke bread with, the ones you shared a common table.

Companion points beyond itself to indicate the kinds of relationships eating together produces. Strangers and acquaintances become companions through eating together. Families flourish as they sit face-to-face sharing what is provided. Meals have been – and still are – the primary means of breaking down relational walls between folks. They are often the glue within communities due to their inherent hospitable nature.

The question then becomes, “With whom do we regularly share meals?” For those of us who claim to be Jesus-followers, this is a question central to our faith and discipleship. All too often, however, it has been relegated to a peripheral position in the life of faith. For many it has fallen too far down the list of Jesus-priorities, so much so, that it has become invisible for many. In my opinion, if there is one central practice we must reinvigorate and reincorporate into the life of the Church it is eating together. And, it seems, etymologically speaking, if we are to do this as companions, we must be true to the word by breaking bread together.

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Want to read the rest of this post?

You can read it at Missio Alliance where it was originally posted. There I discuss the postures and practices of presence, vulnerability, mutuality, and creation care inherent to shared meals and companionship. You can find the rest of it here: “‘With Bread’: The Etymology & Theology of Companionship”.

Creation: The Real Loser in the Nye vs Ham Debate

I don’t usually write about cultural events – at least nothing too specific or too current. (I feel like I should then say, “but when I do, I drink Dos Equis.”) But last night’s debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye has resounded in my mind all day today. Not so much the actual content of the debate, but the method and trajectory of the debate. And, in the name of full transparency, I didn’t watch the actual showing. I did pay attention through the vicarious tweets and Facebook statuses, making this truly not a critique of the specifics of what was argued, but the arguing itself.

The debate itself seemed reminiscent of the Scopes Monkey Trial and the ensuing Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy of the early 1920’s. Pitting the legal and educational systems of the day against the religious institution was an exercise including rationality and hermeneutics, theology and public policy. Prior to, throughout its proceedings, and even after the court’s dust had settled, the focus fell upon the origins of humankind. The magnitude of this event was far too large to kept within the courtroom. Regardless of the details, influences, and outcomes, culture at large was now engrossed in the search to understand Genesis 1.

To this day, we haven’t been able to escape the grip of this search. The creation/evolution debate has long stood the test of time – at least modern time – in holding our attention to the minutiae of detailed case studies and fossil records on the one hand and the Ancient Near East context and Hebraic cosmology on the other. We have been unable to loose ourselves from this cultural battlefield ever since, despite its absence from everyday conversations. However, it has loomed heavily in the minds and imagination of people on both sides of the fence. Bring up creation by using the term itself and see what happens. In my experience, once anything relating to creation (or evolution) is brought up, definitions are often sought in order to rout out the potential heretic among us. Just try it.

This search has been primarily intellectual and last night once again affirmed this. Historically speaking, the Scopes Trial took place at what was perhaps the height of American rationality. World War 2 had not yet occurred, progress was the impetus behind the American milieu, and science and religion were in the throes of competing for dominance. Intellectual rigor and strength were highly valued in that day; values still sought after today regardless of its arena. Power comes along with this rigor making it an even sweeter fruit to obtain.

Last night seemed to be another futile exercise in obtaining this dominance. If only we can prove so and so. If only axiom A will be shown to be true(r) than axiom B, then our side will win. Yet in the end, I wonder if it only fanned the flame of a bygone era, namely one where intellectualism reigns. I wonder if it was a bringing the remnants of yesteryear out of the dark for a moment of shining. Even the postmodern world we inhabit, modernity can still rear its enlightened head. As my friend said yesterday, “There are incredibly strong modernist currents that still prevail upon these postmodern seas.”

Furthermore, debates in our day and age have taken on a different embodiment than their predecessors. Rather than being events of persuasion that affect life change, they have become vaudeville circus acts engendering sentiment bereft of action. The social imagination of yesteryear understood and valued the import of such events due to this. Now, debates fill the parts of our imagination where political figures feign allegiance to their constituents. Coupled with the amusement factor inherent to television – and screens in general – modern debates only reinforce the notion of consuming the material being presented. There is no intention of actually acting upon the received information. Television and its steroid-induced cousin, the internet, produce consumers, not participants. Combine this with a predominantly intellectual exercise and this is even more so. (This is what I was alluding to by the method and trajectory mentioned above.)

This is where we have allowed ourselves to get stuck. Our insistence on “getting the origins question correct” at an intellectual level has kept us from turning our attention elsewhere. The memory of basing our existence off of this rational understanding has paralyzed us from moving forward. Coalescing forces of winning the culture battle and being theologically correct as God would want have left us bereft of actual practices pertaining to creation. Ironically, this same tradition of reading Scripture and the spirituality it rendered have sought to prove the method of creation yet with the end goal being individual souls reaching heaven’s shores. With one side of its mouth it wants a creation made in six days while simultaneously praying for its destruction by fire some future day.

All of this has allowed us to keep creation itself at bay.

So I wonder:

What if instead of arguing over the creation texts, we moved our preoccupation a few verses further along in the story? What if instead of arguing over the meaning of “In the beginning” and “day” we pondered anew what it meant (and means) to “cultivate” and “keep” creation? What if we moved beyond compartmentalizing ideas from practices and figured out how they are two sides of the same coin? What if the Church shifted away from its often myopic dependency on things of faith being taught and towards lives of interdependency where they can be caught? What if instead of debating over creation we questioned how to live with creation?

What if local churches began sharing their land? What if they started to hold trainings to understand the geography and ecology of their shared regions? What if instead of paving parking lots, they planted gardens? What if they held neighborhood-wide meals from the food they grew? What if instead of using stale bread and cheap grape juice they used organically made breads and vibrant wines?

In short what if the Church became known for its new creation-centered methods in the midst of an intellectually origins-obsessed world? What sort of trajectory would that put us on?

Until then, creation will continue to be the loser.