Culture War

  • Nathan Schneider
Sourdough starter in a jar

Lots of things have changed since COVID. That seems pretty obvious right now a whole three months after the start of this pandemic. The lockdowns across our country have forced people to adjust the way they live life. It’s required us to take stock of what we have, use the resources at our disposal. It’s made us aware of what we so often take for granted.

One of the interesting phenomenons this time period has produced is a fascination with sourdough. Of course, as Alaskans we’re familiar with the stuff. We’ve even used the term to describe the Alaskan old-timers who’ve been around long enough to remember when sourdough was the only way you could leaven bread. And after all, who doesn’t love a good piece of tangy sourdough bread?

But ever since COVID disrupted the whole of civilization…including the availability of commercial bakers yeast…more and more folks have taken a keen interest in sourdough–including me.

To be honest, I don’t know why it took me so long to discover it. The entire process is one grand science experiment, and the process of creating a new starter is fascinating, methodical, and at times a little bit maddening. In short, it’s perfect for me!

Now, let me clarify something before I get any farther into this and you all start assuming things. I’m just at the threshold of the sourdough universe. I’m still building my starter, and I have yet to ever bake a loaf of bread with it. In fact, the entire process has taken longer than I expected, and it’s only after thirteen days that I’m beginning to see some signs of good rising coming from my little family of microbes. So all that to say, I’m not writing as an expert in the field. In fact, as you can imagine, this really isn’t a blog post about sourdough…you’ll see.

Now, back to sourdough. It shouldn’t come as a big surprise that sourdough has been around a long time. A very long time. In fact, the earliest known leavened bread dates back to 3700 BC in Lausanne, Switzerland. Long before commercial bakers yeast became widely available, natural fermentation was the only way one could leaven bread. Mix a bit of flour and water together, let it sit at room temperature, and eventually the yeasts and bacteria in the air, in the flour, on your hands, in the jar, will begin to metabolize the starches in the flour, producing byproducts like carbon dioxide (which causes the leavening) as well as alcohol and acid (which gives it the characteristic sourness we all love). You don’t need to live in the 21st century for that process to happen.

As I began this process, however, and as I experienced the various stages of beginning my sourdough starter, it’s hit me why leaven is talked about in the Bible. The second day into my starter, it was already producing a strong, pungent odor. You’d think it was rotten. And even after a week or so, when the strong ripeness had dissipated and given way to fruity and tangy notes, it’s still a little nerve wracking, considering we’re not used to eating things with such distinct aromas.

I’ve also been impressed with how quickly my starter can consume the food I give it. After just 24 hours, 30 grams of starter can consume nearly triple it’s weight of flour. It’s a living culture, after all, and as I feed it, it grows and multiples. (I fear that eventually, it will become too ravenous and turn on it’s master.)

When you’re actually ready to make a loaf of sourdough bread, the starter is equally powerful. Recipes vary, but by and large a typical sourdough bread will call for around 15% sourdough starter to 100% flour, meaning, that if your recipe uses 100 grams of flour, you’d use 15 grams of starter. But it won’t take long before those microbes do their magic, and pretty soon, the dough is rising, the beasties are eating, and you’re on your way to Flavor Town.

What’s the point of all this? Simply this. There’s a reason the Bible uses leaven (aka, sourdough!) as a metaphor. It’s a great, smelly, real-world illustration for spiritual things. Jesus used it as a description of the rapid spread of the gospel (Matt 13:33; Luke 13:21). He also used it to warn his disciples about the pervasive effects of the teachings of the Pharisees (Matt 16:6, 12).

But the passage that comes to mind more than any other is that of Paul’s use of the term as a metaphor for sin and it’s corrupting influence in the believer’s life and the church.

“Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” (1 Corinthians 5:6-8)

Lots of things were going on in the Corinthian church. In this particular instance, there was sin committed by one of its members, and the church as a whole was failing to respond appropriately…to see it for what it was. Rather than dealing with it decisively, they were laughing at it, boasting about it. They didn’t realize how fast an evil influence could grow until suddenly it wasn’t just one person who was acting like the world but the entire church had been turned, had been inculcated with it.

That’s how sin works. Even the tiniest of sins, the most seemingly inconsequential of actions or attitudes or thoughts, can eventually pervade the entire life. As one writer put it, “A small sickness can eventually kill a body” (David Lowery, BKC, 2:514).

The lesson for us as believers is simple. Take sin seriously. Don’t overlook it. Don’t underestimate it’s corrupting nature. Like leaven, it will permeate your entire life. How sad, considering we as believers have been cleansed of sin and made into new creations (2 Cor 5:17). We are, according to Paul, “unleavened” (1 Cor 5:7). And like the unleavened bread of the Passover depicted the removal of sin from God’s people, so we have been washed and sanctified and justified by the blood of Christ (1 Cor 6:11). Since we’re unleavened, we must keep the leavening of evil and sin from once again taking over.

In other words, leave the leavening for your sourdough starter and keep it out of your spiritual life.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to bake some bread.