Book review: Brian Zahnd's Water to Wine

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Brian Zahnd’s new book Water to Wine tells the story of his own personal journey out of the “grape juice Christianity” he had known, characterized by American values of consumerism and military might, towards a deeper and richer understanding of faith.

Zahnd personal exodus was grounded, he says, in five words: cross, mystery, eclectic, community, revolution. Each of these plays a definitive role in shaping the character of the deeper faith he discovered, the rich “wine” that the book’s title refers to, but at the center of all of it stands the cross.

What does it mean to have our faith centered on the cross? Zahnd writes that meditation on the cross “became a form of shock therapy—a radical reorientation that revealed how disturbingly distorted much of Americanized Christianity had become.”

So what characterizes a Christianity that has been “Americanized”? Zahnd focuses on the two core American values of consumerism and militarism, which had shaped his own faith. A Christianity which is driven by the value of consumerism translates into a self-focused pursuit of wealth and happiness. For Zahnd that meant adopting the word-of-faith of the gospel.

Similarly, a Christianity driven by the value of militarism translates into life “organized around an axis of power enforced by violence”. Again, this is not simply theoretical for Zahnd. He has shared the stage with the likes of Pat Robertson, John Ashcroft, and Dick Cheney, but slowly came to realize “I was nothing more than a puppet in a high stakes game of power politics.” In a personal confession, Zahnd tells of a time in prayer and meditation when Jesus took him back to an evening in 1991,

I saw myself watching the bombing of Baghdad live on television, eating pizza, and enjoying it. I wasn’t conflicted. I wasn’t grieved. I was entertained... Then, as I sat with Jesus and was confronted with this long forgotten episode, Jesus spoke to me, “That was your worst sin.” I wept bitterly.

Looking back on how his faith was shaped by consumerism and militarism, Zahnd refers to this as an “aberration” and amusingly as “cotton candy Christianity.” The format of the book, as a personal narrative... perhaps one could even call it a confession... is instructive here. We forget that Paul’s letters take this form as well. Paul similarly refers to his religious past as “dung” (the original word Paul used is perhaps less polite, but it basically means he sees it as garbage compared to Christ). Also, like Zahnd, Paul grew to see his greatest sin as participation in religiously justified acts of violence motivated by religious zeal. Paul describes himself as “the worst of all sinners” and “a violent man” (1 Timothy 1:13, 15), and confesses painfully, “I do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Corinthians 15:9).

Those kinds of personal revelations are hard won. They don’t come from study, but from the painful experience of life. In a very real way, Zahnd’s story is one of a conversion. Not his initial conversion to Christ, but nevertheless a very real conversion—the conversion of a successful mega-church pastor, repenting of a Christianity watered down by American values of success and power, who came to find the rich wine of deeper faith centered in the cross.

Centering one’s faith in the cross is not an easy road to take. It means centering faith in weakness rather than in power. It means learning to “lose your life to find it.” While it is true that this indeed leads to life and love which is indeed truly good news, it does entail, as Zahnd says, “a radical reorientation” of our lives. It is a re-orientation that moves us away from the self-protective reactionary fear that so deeply characterizes our country right now on so many levels, and towards a focus on caring for those we value “the least” in our society, those we regard as undeserving and even as our enemies—the poor, the criminal, the foreigner, the other. That is indeed a costly faith, but as Zahnd can tell us firsthand, it is well worth the cost.

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