The Spirituality of Wine
A Denver Journal Book Review by Denver Seminary Instructor Elodie Ballantine Emig
Gisela H. Kreglinger. The Spirituality of Wine. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016. $24.00. Softcover, xvii + 282 pp. ISBN: 9780802867896.
However one feels about Christians drinking wine, reading Kreglinger’s book may prompt a reconsideration (or a consideration for the first time) of how one thinks about wine as both a thoroughly Christian symbol and a tangible gift from God. It is a deeply engaging book, as one might anticipate from the title. Indeed, it is a book well worth reading, regardless of whether one ever touches a glass of wine, because it takes seriously the vines, branches, grapes and wines of the Bible. It unpacks metaphors that those of us who cannot properly be called “people of the land” (any land, not Israel per se) would benefit from contemplating. It celebrates the goodness of our God and casts a vision for thoughtful and far-reaching care of the creation which he has entrusted to us.
In the preface, Kreglinger explains that she grew up a practicing Lutheran on a family winery in Franconia, Germany. When she took communion for the first time upon confirmation, she recognized in the cup her family’s wine and began, it seems, her life as a theologian. From there, the book is divided into two parts of five chapters each. The first part is devoted to wine as “sustenance” and the second to its “sustainability” in an increasingly complicated and fragmented world.
Her first chapter, “Wine in the Bible,” which will be outlined in some detail, establishes the fact that vineyards and wine play a significant part in biblical literature. She begins with an affirmation: “Wine is a great mystery and a profound gift.” She mentions archaeological evidence that wine has been made by at least some people for at least 8,000 years (possibly 10,000, p. 13). Humanity has a very long history with the cultivation and fermentation of grapes, a history of both joy and sadness, proper use and abuse. The Old Testament, she reminds the reader, consistently views wine as a blessing. Jacob’s blessing of Judah in Genesis 49 includes a prediction of a sufficient overabundance of wine that it could be used as a washing liquid. When Joshua, Caleb, and the other spies scout out Canaan, they bring back grapes, pomegranates, and figs. It takes two men to carry “a branch bearing a single cluster of grapes,” such is the bounty of the promised land (Num. 13:23). Psalm 104 extols wine as that which “gladdens human hearts” (v. 15). Wine is drink, wine is medicine, and wine is used in Israelite worship, both as an offering to God and a means of celebration. Wine is so important to Israelite life, that it is eschewed in Nazirite vows. It is a blessing that must be respected and stewarded. Aaron and his sons are prohibited from drinking wine when they serve in the tabernacle. “Proverbs discourages kings from strong drink, including wine, lest they forget the laws of God and their responsibility to care for the poor and needy” (p.26). Before turning to the New Testament, Kreglinger looks briefly at Israel as God’s vineyard and other related metaphors. She intimates that we would better understand more of OT prophecy and eschatology, if we knew more about viticulture. Jesus, whose first miracle replenishes wine supplies at a wedding (John 2: 1-12), speaks about wine and drinks it, apparently regularly (Mat. 11:19; Luke 7:34; p. 31). She notes that, unlike Jesus, Paul lists drunkenness among the vices on three occasions. Jesus is sent to the Jews, whose culture includes the regular drinking of wine, but discourages excess (p. 31). Paul is the Apostle to the Gentiles, some of whose cultural backgrounds revel in excess. Wine remains a blessing to be respected; it continues to be a medicine and reappears in NT metaphors. Jesus as the vine is a “potent metaphor,” which Kreglinger highlights as “often lost to the modern reader not familiar with viticulture…it hints at the organic unity between faith, human flourishing, and the call to love sacrificially” (p. 34). Though chapter 3 centers on the Lord’s Supper, chapter 1 does point out that that Passover meal has “the most theologically important occurrence of wine in the New Testament” (p. 35).
Chapter 2 looks at wine in Church history: from Irenaeus (ca. 115-202) and Cyprian (AD 200-259), the latter of whom wrote that wine alone was appropriate for the cup of the Lord’s Supper, to Thomas Welch (1825-1903), who developed pasteurized, and thus unfermented, grape juice for communion. Concerning the early fathers, Kreglinger concludes that “some had to defend wine as part of God’s good creation…; others needed to speak out against the abuse of God’s gifts…Some of them did advocate a life of abstinence, but they never based it on the heretical teaching that wine itself is bad” (p. 43). Of particular note in her second chapter are the discussions of Benedictine and Cistercian vineyards and quotations from important monks, reformers, and an abbess. Many American Protestants may not be aware that some of the best Italian, French, and German wines might not exist, and certainly would not be as fine, without monasticism. “Tending the vines and crafting wine became a deeply spiritual practice that was often accompanied with recitations of the Psalms” (p. 50). Some American Protestants may also be unaware that Martin Luther wrote “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” in a tavern while drinking wine, or that Calvin said in his comments on Psalm 104, “‘Nature would certainly be satisfied with water to drink; and therefore the addition of wine is owing to God’s superabundant liberality’” (pp. 54, 56). So too, Calvin opined that the best way to avoid drunkenness was not to abstain, but to drink with an attitude of thanksgiving to God (p. 56). Chapter 2 also reports the disastrous early history of European vines on the east coast of what is now the United States and the effects of Prohibition, almost exclusively a reaction against distilled spirits, on American wines.
Chapter 3 focuses on the Lord’s Supper and its ties to Passover. Kreglinger states, “All Christian denominations understand the Lord’s Supper as a sacrament” (p. 65). This is not quite true; if we define sacrament as a means of grace, many Protestants would demur and opt for the term “ordinance.” So it is perhaps helpful to the Protestant reader who is suspicious of sacramentalism to be reminded that Jesus told his disciples to eat bread and drink wine in remembrance of him. Whatever we conclude regarding transubstantiation, “real presence,” or memorial in the Eucharist; wine, or grape juice; weekly, monthly, or beyond; communal partaking of bread and cup is essential to obedient Christianity. Until Welch’s grape juice became widely available after 1869, the cup usually held wine. “As we sip from the eucharistic cup, we remember that Christ took upon himself God’s judgment on the world. He stepped into the divine winepress and bore the sins and injustices of the world in order that all people might be reconciled with God” (p.75). Kreglinger argues for the goodness and necessity of ritual to maintain “mystery at the center of our Christian life” (p. 79).
In Chapter 4, Kreglinger turns from ritual to communal feasts. She bemoans the flight of most post-modern families from the dinner table, from time together with good food and wine. Two films, Avalon and Babette’s Feast, serve as her illustrations of the importance of feasting with others. In the first, a full family table devolves over three generations into TV trays, joylessness and disconnection. In the second, the movement is positive: a small, austere community, over the courses of a rich and costly feast, experiences forgiveness, joy, and connection. Kreglinger spends eight pages on Babette’s Feast, which is a truly remarkable film, in a book of short sections. Her point is that just as we need rituals to remember what God has done, we need feasts to slow us down, to cheer us up, to celebrate what he is still doing. Another look at the miracle of Cana is sandwiched between the sections on the two movies. As his first “sign,” Jesus turns six large jars of water into excellent wine after the wedding guests have had plenty; why? “The prophets foretold that an abundance of wine would be a sign of God’s future redemption…Jesus…begins to fulfill these promises and expectations” (p. 86). Christian feasting is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet that awaits all believers. “As we pay attention to what we eat and drink, we can turn it into a form of prayer” (p. 95). And if we are going to pray, it should be with good wine, carefully crafted and slowly drunk. “Gulping down wine is a waste of God’s gift” (p. 97). If we approach wine as worshippers—of God, not the wine—rather than consumers, we will take more time to savor and to give thanks.
Chapter 5 is aptly titled “Wine and Attentiveness: Tasting God, Tasting Wine.” Our tongues have thousands of taste buds; this is proof of our lavish God, the same God who created grapes able to become the most complex of liquids. “There is no other food in the world that has this capacity to reveal, with such intensity, a wide range of flavors in one single bottle” (p. 103). Neuroscience has demonstrated that taste and smell are related to memory (pp. 108-109). And yet, these senses have been disparaged for much of human history. For example, following Aristotle, “Aquinas believed that both taste and smell lack cognitive complexity” (p. 106). Chapter 5 calls readers to reclaim our senses to the glory of God. It also calls for attention to place, terroir. It matters to Kreglinger where grapes are grown and wine is made. “A continued emphasis on place remains crucial if we want to save the wine world from collapsing into the ever-growing machine of industrially manipulated and manufactured wines” (p. 113). Do we want inexpensive, standardized wines that will not disappoint, but also cannot dazzle (p. 113)? Aquinas said that “‘we do not speak of beautiful tastes and beautiful odours’” (p. 106), but Dom Pérignon, apocryphally or not, likened enjoying champagne to “‘drinking stars’” (p. 50).
Part II shifts attention from wine to vintner and then to soul care. In Chapter 6, Kreglinger recounts some of her reflections upon interviewing both European and American vintners. The chapter title is instructive, “The Vintner as (Practicing) Theologian: Finder or Maker?” She chose to interview vintners, only some of whom are believers, who share her commitment to carefully produced, rather than mass-produced, wines; that is, those who find, not make. Their insights are worth pondering. One “understands his role in making wine to be as a guide and shepherd” (p. 138); another, who is not impressed by traditional religion, experiences “mystery” producing wine (p. 136). As “generic” wines, like generic everything else, proliferate, we do well to pause and count the cost of quality vs. consistency. “A well-crafted wine has the unique capacity to allow us to get a glimpse into the splendors of particular places like no other food can. It can have such a surplus of meaning that can delight and bring joy to humanity” (p. 141).
Chapter 7 juxtaposes technology and spirituality. How much technology is too much: what of cloning, what of grafting, what of irrigation, what of pesticide, what of spinning cones, what of added yeast cultures etc.? Again, Kreglinger shares from interviews with vintners. The chapter raises necessary questions; alas, also questions as complex to answer as the wines Kreglinger hopes to preserve. On one hand, “technological tools provide humans with an autonomy from nature that has significant implications…[and] with a vision of reality that seeks to supersede and sidestep the limits and boundaries of creation” (p. 158); on the other, “technology in its most fundamental sense is profoundly linked to human creativity” (p. 144). Are we willing to model our creativity after God’s and forego ease and mere profit to care for one another and our lands? “The line between technology being helpful in protecting and enhancing the craftsmanship of wine and becoming too invasive and manipulative is often blurry” (p. 157). Obviously, the questions raised by this chapter exceed viticulture, corporate agriculture, and even the global economy. But they are questions that more of us as stewards of God’s earth must address, because the blurry line is exceedingly long.
Chapters 8 and 9 relate to health. Chapter 8 considers wine’s benefits, and Chapter 9, alcoholism and addiction. Kreglinger revisits wine as medicine, this time from Homer to the nineteenth century, when it was deleted from the U.S. Pharmacopoeia in 1883 (p. 175). Until the temperance movement, culminating in Prohibition, the efficacy of wine as a nearly all-purpose “wonder drug” was accepted. And though doctors continued to prescribe the drinking of alcohol through Prohibition, “wine never made it back into the official American and British pharmacopoeias, and thousands of years of the knowledge of and experience with the medicinal benefits of wine were forgotten” (p. 175). In recent years, however, there has been renewed interest in wine as a “health drink,” owing in large part to a late twentieth-century study on wine consumption and heart disease in France (p. 176). A glass of wine per day, interestingly the Benedictine rule allowed about 9 ounces daily, “drunk in a leisurely way can significantly reduce the risk of stroke…Heavy drinking and binge drinking, on the other hand, increase the risk of heart disease and stroke” (p. 177). The subtitle of Chapter 9, “Rescuing Wine from the Gluttons for the Contemplatives,” is devoutly to be wished (with no apologies to Hamlet). Without doubt, alcohol must be associated with a significant portion of human anguish. Equally without doubt, Prohibition did not, in fact could not, produce the cure its proponents sought. Kreglinger again argues for moderation rather than abstinence, and again quotes Martin Luther, who names ourselves, not wine as “‘our closest enemy…We have no more harmful enemy than our own heart’” (p. 181). She also makes a compelling case for lack of community, specifically Christian community, as a key contributor to post-modern substance abuse. We live lives of “dislocation” and often unacknowledged sin, personal and corporate (p. 192). “Sin transcends the acts of individuals and can become a complex force or dynamic at work in institutions, communities, and whole structures and systems of societies” (p. 195). She indicts our consumerism and the marketing which actually encourages addiction. She exposes our inability to handle the pain and suffering the Bible tells us to expect. She call us back together, to a posture “of receiving comfort and healing that comes from being in relationship with God and one another” (p. 198).
The final chapter, “Wine, Viticulture, and Soul Care,” continues to address the societal structures that contribute our culture of addiction and isolation. Then Kreglinger takes the reader back to Scripture, to God as the vintner who “can still act and restore even when the vineyard is laid waste (Ps. 80:7-9)” (p. 201). She asks us to recall our kinship with Adam, who was fashioned from the earth, and our vocation to care for the earth and its creatures. She exposes the spiritual poverty of much of our material wealth and expounds Jesus’ vine metaphor. “Christ’s words teach us that we are profoundly spiritual beings who draw life and nourishment from spiritual realities” (p. 202). Branches must be connected to the vine, even if by grafting, to grow; grapes grow in clusters; we were also intended to be profoundly communal beings. And we were tasked with changing the world. “In Christ, the church is called to transcend economic, cultural, and ethnic differences and barriers and grow into a oneness that is based on God’s abundant love and forgiveness (John 17:20-25; Gal. 3:27-29)” (p. 207). We will not grow into fruitful oneness without pruning. Grapevines, without pruning, will produce more leaves than grapes. Vintners, therefore, must know their vines, soil, weather, and so on to determine what to cut and what to leave. “As we open ourselves up to God’s love in Christ, as we allow God the Father/vintner to prune our lives toward fruitfulness, we become free to love one another” (p. 210). God will prune our lives, if we let him. We can cooperate by some self-pruning. What might we cut out of our lives to promote growth? What might we add to our lives, like fertilizer? How about reemphasizing the Lord’s Supper and our need to gather around a family table (pp. 214-215)? How about prayerfully revisiting the vine metaphors of the Bible with a mind and heart to learn from our Gracious Vintner?
The book’s conclusion returns to Cana. Kreglinger may not make a wine lover, or even tolerater, out of all her readers, and some will surely take exception to her economics, but she and Cana deserve serious consideration. We are beset by broken and sinful structures that cannot be redeemed without divine wisdom and human repentance. We must be pruned. Our world is riddled with and fragmented by sin, so Jesus came to be crushed on our behalf. But first, he made wine. “Jesus came into the world to share and intensify the joy of ordinary people” (p. 218). This fact, “this superabundant generosity” can give us “a renewed vision and hope for God’s desire to redeem this world” (p. 219). And to it he will return for his own wedding feast.
Elodie Ballantine Emig, MA
Instructor of NT Greek