I once heard an Italian winemaker say that to produce good wine the grapes must struggle, they must suffer.
The taste of good wine is the taste of struggle and suffering mellowed into beauty. There’s a deep truth there that applies to far more than winemaking—it also applies to the formation of the soul. All the great biographies of the Bible involve suffering. The great souls grown in the Lord’s vineyard all know what it is to suffer.
American Christianity, on the other hand, is conditioned to avoid suffering at all cost. But what a cost it is! Grape juice Christianity is what is produced by the purveyors of the motivational-seminar, you-can-have-it-all, success-in-life, pop-psychology Christianity. It’s a children’s drink. It comes with a straw and is served in a little cardboard box.
I don’t want to drink that anymore.
I don’t want to serve that anymore.
I want the vintage wine.
The kind of faith marked by mystery, grace, and authenticity. The kind of Christianity that has the capacity to endlessly fascinate is not produced apart from struggle and suffering. It’s the pain of struggle and suffering that confers character and complexity to our faith.
After the first twenty-two days of 2004 I knew I had to move beyond a watered-down, grape-juice faith—the popular schlock I had begun to refer to in the pulpit as “cotton candy Christianity.” By August of that pivotal year I had told my church I was packing my bags from the Charismatic Movement and moving on.
The congregation applauded. Except neither they nor I really knew what would come next. The problem was I was embarrassingly ignorant of “the good stuff.” I had been reading the early Church Fathers, philosophy, and classic literature. Saint Augustine, Søren Kierkegaard, and Fyodor Dostoevsky were all a significant help, but I needed something that spoke more directly to the time in which I was living. I needed a deep well dug in my own time and place. What did Jesus say about seeking and finding? My seeking heart was about to be rewarded.
On a summer afternoon I was at home browsing my bookshelves. I was deliberately looking for a book that would “give me a breakthrough.” I couldn’t settle on anything. So I prayed, “God, show me what to read.” And I sensed…nothing. I went downstairs feeling a bit agitated and slumped into a chair. Within a minute or two my wife, Peri, walked into the room, handed me a book and said, “I think you should read this.” She knew nothing of my moments ago prayer, but she had just handed me a book, and told me to read it. This was my Augustine-like “take and read” moment. It sent chills down my spine. Somehow I knew it was the answer to my prayer. The book was Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy. The strange thing was Peri had not read this book and had no more idea who Dallas Willard was than I did. (As I said, I was embarrassingly ignorant of the good stuff.) Neither of us were sure how the book had even made its way into our house. But, oh my, was it ever an answer to prayer!
Dallas Willard was my gateway to the good stuff. Directly or indirectly reading Willard led me to others: N.T. Wright, Walter Brueggemann, Eugene Peterson, Frederick Buechner, Stanley Hauerwas, John Howard Yoder, René Girard, Miroslav Volf, Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar, David Bentley Hart, Wendell Berry, Scot McKnight, Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, and so many more. I couldn’t read fast enough. Night after night I was up past midnight reading, reading, reading. I was making up for lost time. I kept thinking, “Where have you been all my life?!” I had struck gold and I couldn’t pull it out of the ground fast enough. I was now a gold miner. I became a self-imposed prisoner in my own late night seminary. Over the next couple of years I read myself into a completely new and much richer place. How did it begin? With a crazy twenty-two day fast and a whispered prayer—“God, show me what to read.”
When I reflect upon the seminal year of 2004, I think of it as a strange mixture of pain and discovery. I was thrilled with what I was finding, but not everyone in my church shared my enthusiasm. The gold I was discovering was changing my preaching—significantly. But not everyone liked the change. People I had known, loved, and led for many years were beginning to dig their heels in or bail out. Some didn’t like my “new direction.” They couldn’t see what I saw with what I called my “new eyes.” In their frustration they lashed out.
Some said I was becoming “emergent.” (I honestly didn’t even know what that was—and I don’t think they did either.) Others said I was becoming “liberal” or “too intellectual.” Some of my less articulate critics simply opted for “backslidden.” One Sunday morning a longtime church member cornered me with a harangue about what had happened to “the real Pastor Brian.” According to his assessment I had ceased to be myself and had become an imposter. These comments hurt. People leaving hurt. It hurt more than I let on. But there was no going back. I couldn’t un-know what I knew and be true to myself. The pain of being misunderstood and misrepresented was part of the price for obtaining the vintage wine of substantive Christianity. No matter what others thought, I knew what was happening. I was saving my soul. I was discovering Jesus afresh. I was encountering an unvarnished Jesus, a Jesus free from the lacquer of cheap religious certitude, tawdry motivational jargon, and partisan political agenda. I was being born again…again. I was gaining new eyes.
I was seeing the kingdom of God, really for the first time. I was transitioning from water to wine, from grape soda to Brunello di Montalcino.
Brian Zahnd is the founder and lead pastor of Word of Life Church, a non-denominational church in St. Joseph, Missouri. He is also the author of several books, including A Farewell To Mars and Beauty Will Save the World, and the brand new memoir Water To Wine.