You are what you eat: the horse meat in our mental diet

A few years ago the question "Where's the beef?" was the slogan of a candidate hoping to become president of the United States.

Walter Mondale used the phrase in 1984 to attack his rival for the Democrat nomination, Gary Hart – implying that while Hart had all the appearances of a political leader, he was actually lacking in any real "beefy" policy substance underneath the veneer.

Mondale himself had stolen the slogan from an American hamburger chain, which had originally used the words in an advertising campaign to ridicule the allegedly light-weight and undersize portions of meat being offered by one of its rivals.

Well, in the light of the scandal of horse meat being passed off as beef – in a conspiracy of possibly international proportions – the phrase "Where's the beef?" has once again come into its own.

It is, of course, vital that the food we eat is correctly labelled, that any criminal substitution of one product for another is identified, and that appropriate action is taken to remedy the situation. After all, if there is any truth in the saying, "You are what you eat", then we must at least have the correct information on which to base our mealtime choices.

But if phrases such as "Where's the beef?" and "You are what you eat" are relevant when we come to considering our physical food, then we might also be well-advised to consider how they apply to our mental diet as well.

It is Jesus, of course, who remind us of the central truth that, "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God," (Matthew 4v4) – or as Eugene Peterson's paraphrase The Message puts it: "It takes more than bread to stay alive. It takes a steady stream of words from God's mouth."

Yet the truth is that many of us live on mental and spiritual junk food without even being aware of it – a horse meat of the mind, if you will. The things we hear, read and see can seem satisfying at the time – and yet on reflection might turn out to be rather different in their content from what we had anticipated.

Let us take one obvious example: an i-pod is a great device, and we can do all sorts of useful things with it. Yet if people are so permanently wired up to them that they are cut off from more meaningful human interaction – let alone hearing the voice of God – then they are living on a diet which is less than healthy. To change the metaphor somewhat, their i-pod becomes their i-god.

A perhaps more subtle example is to consider the values we are fed without even thinking about it by an institution which is in many ways wonderful – the BBC. Its news reporting is without peer, of course. But have you noticed how its use of language has changed in recent years? Personal titles – such as Mr, Mrs or Miss – are used much less often than they used to be, making references to marital status feel less familiar and more anachronistic to our ears. We take in the change in our mental diet of language without thinking how it is shaping our own values and worldview in relation to marriage.

The famous Christian leader D L Moody once said: "If you are too busy to read the Bible every day you are busier than Almighty God ever intended any human being should be." Let's be sure our spiritual diet is as healthy as our physical one should be.