It is a profound PR success story that has transformed the word "natural" into something so desirable. The history of the word has not always been so glamorous. In the Bible, the word usually has negative connotations that would never make us want to buy something like that. As in: "The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned" (1Cor 2:14). The natural person in Paul's thought is the person without Christ; so 'natural' doesn't sound so good!
The attempts to rehabilitate the word 'natural' probably began with thinking about people. The positive spin started with the idea of the "noble savage" - the notion that people in their natural state, in remote jungles untouched by the civilizing power of the gospel, represent humanity in its purest state. As we saw earlier, Charles Darwin was not too keen on bumping into folks like this. But the idea took hold: natural equals pure. People are naturally good; it's only when society at large and western culture in particular starts to mess with them that they are spoiled. Just like food is naturally good until western civilization starts to mess with it.
It was John Dryden who first coined the phrase "noble savage" in a play he wrote in 1672 (The Conquest of Granada). The term appeared in a context that proclaimed the glories of nature, extolling the natural as virtuous:
I am as free as nature first made man,
Ere the base laws of servitude began,
When wild in woods the noble savage ran.
Man in his natural state, said Dryden, was noble. The nature in which he wildly ran was free - free of the the contamination that humanity would bring to that natural state. And from such a philosophical position it was natural that natural foods would be considered as virtuous as the now idealized natural man. Surely if we can find some grain in a remote area where no pesticides and fertilizers have ever been let loose, where no plastic bags and discarded cell phone batteries have spoiled the soil - then such grain must be healthy because it is natural?
Except that this is not the way the Bible speaks of nature. Since man is inextricably bound up with creation, when man sinned, all of creation, not just human beings, was fatally marred. Creation was not primarily spoiled by man's environmental insensitivity (though that certainly exacerbated the problem); it was spoiled by sin. And since that fateful day when Eve bit a natural product that she was not supposed to eat, everything is damaged goods.
Paul's assessment of "nature" is the same as his assessment of people: that which is natural is groaning under its "bondage to decay" (Rom 8:20-22). That includes pristine jungle grains as well as genetically modified grains; and organic vegetables that have been grown only with the aid of horse manure as well as those that have been sprayed with pesticides. The whole creation has been "subjected to futility": it is not capable of fulfilling its original purpose. No wonder Jesus said that we don't live by bread alone: even whole grain bread is unable to sustain life. Life is only in Christ - and by his grace he breaths that life into all kinds of foods. He can even bless a burger and a bun!
That which is natural is that which is without Christ - and its only hope, whether man or even, as Paul suggests in Romans 8, nature, is Christ. The problem is sin, not civilization; the solution is Christ, not getting back to nature. Food, even natural food, cannot save us. The lie that it can is as old as the hills, as Eve discovered with one bite. The writer to the Hebrews warned Christians of buying into the lie: "Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods which have not benefited those devoted to them" (Heb 13:9).
Could it be that one such strange teaching in our day that has led many Christian health food devotees away is the idea that if it's natural it must be good? Sometimes, 'devotion' to natural foods may reflect a pursuit of well-being in something other than Christ. If so, it's living up to the true definition of 'natural': life apart from Christ.
In an important blog, Lindsey Carslon boldly speaks of the "Health-Food Heresy". She writes,
Have you ever thought that as you're eating pesticide-free, chemical-free, dye-free, calorie-free, fat-free, gluten-free, dairy-free, or carb-free, you may also be eating Jesus-free? Read more...
She's right. The biblical definition of 'natural' is Jesus-free. And that's bad, not good, whatever the marketers try to tell us