Part 3 of Rory Shiner’s Advent series offering a biblical theology of food and eating

A few years ago, as I was reading the Narnia series to my children, we came to a scene in Prince Caspian which I did not remember from my own childhood. Perhaps my parents skipped it?[1]

Aslan, who has been absent for much of the story, appears. And in celebration, creature after creature begin pouring into the forest. Birch-girls and willow-women, rowans and oak men—all these creatures of mythology start to gather for a spontaneous party.

Things get semi-chaotic. Lewis describes it as like a game of chasey where no one knows who is “It”; like a game of Hide and Seek in which it’s not clear whose hiding and whose seeking. There was more food  “than anyone could possibly want, and no table-manners at all.” There are sticky fingers and full mouths and laugher everywhere.

As I was reading this to my children, the whole thing began to feel distinctly, well, unsafe.

And then into the party Lewis sends Bacchus, the Greek god of wine. He looks young and wild and he brings dancing girls with him and the whole thing looks like it’s about to break the bounds of wholesome fun and take on a more troubling (and less age-appropriate) hue.

The Risk of Wine

Wine is like that. It’s potent. It’s dangerous. The first mention of wine in the Bible is with Noah. After the flood, and after God’s promise to maintain springtime and harvest, Noah takes advantage of the situation and plants a vineyard, only to get drunk on the first batch (Gen 9:20-21).

Wine is risky. It’s not for those who lack judgement. It’s not for children. You see that in the very reality of wine itself. Wine isn’t immediately appealing. It’s something you have to develop a taste for.

Wine is potent. It’s dangerous … risky. It’s not for those who lack judgement. It’s not for children.

The process of producing wine is complex, and in its own way, violent. The grapes are crushed. The Old Testament regularly refers to the “blood of the grape” (see Genesis 49:11). It looks like blood. In a way, it is.

Wine is the opposite of fruit. Fruit is simple, wine is complex. Fruit is for children, wine is for adults.  Fruit is immediately appealing, wine is something for which you acquire a taste. Fruit helps children grow into adults; wine can cause adults to behave like children.

Wine reminds us that our parents launched too early from the Garden. They took the fruit ahead of time, and in doing so they took on powers they were not yet mature enough to wield.

The Bible is full of warnings against the potency of wine (Prov 20:1). Wine can destroy our productivity (Prov 23:20). Priests, kings, and those under a Nazirite vow were all forbidden to drink on the job. Their work required a fineness of judgement to which wine was a threat.

Wine, in short, is risky.

Wine as Rest

Entire religious traditions, such as Islam, have judged that the risk-to-reward ratio with wine is so slender that it is better to reject it altogether. Some Christians have followed a similar path.

This is not the Bible’s strategy. In ways that can raise the eyebrows of contemporary readers, the Bible celebrates wine with a kind of unrestrained joy. It even celebrates its alcoholic content. It is part of its intrinsic goodness. For example, the anaesthetic qualities of wine are commended (Prov 31:6). Paul tells Timothy to drink wine because of his frequent illness (1 Tim 5:23). Wine can make merry the hearts of men (Psalm 104:15).

Wine is celebrated for what it does to a party. In Deuteronomy 14, for the festival of the tithes, Israel is commanded to have a party before the Lord—a party for which they are commanded to buy “cattle, sheep, wine, or other fermented drinks … and then eat in the presence of the Lord and rejoice.” (Deut 14:26).

In short, wine means rest. It means celebration. Wine means completion, end-of-work, duty done, enemies subdued. Wine means sabbath.

Wine means rest. It means celebration. Wine means completion, end-of-work, duty done, enemies subdued. Wine means sabbath.

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus declares that he will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until he drinks in the kingdom of God. Wine is for rest. Jesus, our priest and king, is about to go to work on the cross. He will drink again when the work is done, the enemies defeated.

Wine as Reward

After Israel’s national catastrophe, they are cast out of their vineyard and into exile. One of the signs of God’s judgment is their lack of wine. You can’t make wine in a refugee camp. The prophets look forward to the day when judgement will be removed and wine will flow in abundance (Amos 9:13).

Which brings us to the wedding in Cana.

The story is well-known. A young couple make an acutely embarrassing catering error. They run out of wine. Panic ensues. Jesus is called in.

Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons (John 2:6).

The quantity is huge (capacity for over 450 litres of wine). But notice what kind of water it was: the kind used for ceremonial washing.

“Fill them to the brim”, says Jesus. You know the rest.

Now, imagine waking up the next day, after that party. Back to normal life. Last night you ate meat; today it’s back to bread. Last night you drank wine, today it’s water. Last night you were full of joy, today you return to the daily ritual which reminds you of your sin.

And then you go to the stone water jars to wash, but they’re all full of plum-red wine.

When that water becomes one, you know the days of messianic blessing and forgiveness have come. Jesus replaces the water of our guilt with the abundant wine of his blessing.

Us and Wine

How should we think of wine in our lives?

We must exclude is the thought that wine, in and of itself, is a bad thing. Or even that it is a good thing, except for its pesky alcohol content. No, “everything God created is good”, including wine.

Should we drink wine? Not necessarily. I can think of three excellent, biblically valid reasons not to.

  • First, you just don’t like it. That’s fine. That’s a perfectly valid reason not to drink. The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drink, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17). It will not bring you closer to God. You are no better off if you drink (1 Corinthians 8:8).
  • Second, you might have gospel reasons not to drink wine. You may be part of a Christian community in which drinking wine would be a stumbling block to your brother or sister. Or, you may be sharing the gospel in a context where wine is either so avoided, or so abused, that to abstain would be for the salvation of others. Good call.
  • Third, you may bring things to wine that make it a bad option for you. Your genetics, family history, past performance, or medical situation might mean it is not good for you. Just as Christian celibacy honours sex by abstaining, a person may honour the potency of wine by abstaining, waiting until we drink of the fruit of the vine with Christ in his kingdom.

Christians who drink wine should drink it cautiously (honouring its potency), thankfully (honouring its status as a gift of creation), and for the glory of God (honouring its non-ultimacy). The thoughtless, habitual, joyless consumption of wine whilst doing the evening chores or clearly the last of the emails seems to me, on average, to fall short of this.

My rule for what it’s worth: if you’re too busy to give thanks, you’re too busy to drink. If you are too busy to pause, and pray, and be present to the risk, the rest, and the reward of wine, then save it for when you can.

My rule for what it’s worth: if you’re too busy to give thanks, you’re too busy to drink. If you are too busy to pause, and pray, and be present to the risk, the rest, and the reward of wine, then save it for when you can.

Drinking of the Spirit

No Christian is obliged to drink wine. However, every Christian is commanded to drink of the Spirit. The connection between the two is not arbitrary.

On the day of Pentecost, when the Spirit is poured out (notice the verb), the disciples are praising God (Acts 2:1-13). Evidently, their enthusiasm was such that the watching crowd were left with only two alternatives: either they were drunk, or they were spirit-filled. A third alternative—that they were dutifully going through the motions with a couple of hymns before hearing some solid teaching, just wasn’t on the table.

Paul makes a similar connection in Ephesians:

Don’t get drunk on wine, but be filled with the Spirit. (Ephesians 5:18)

The Christian alternative to drunkenness is Spirit-filledness. Being under the influence of the Spirit is the better and truer version of being under the influence of alcohol.

How do you obey the command to be Spirit-filled? By speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs and making music from your heart to the Lord (Ephesians 5:19).

None of this is to suggest that our churches have to move in a Pentecostal direction. Except maybe in one sense. I think biblically we should aim to be so present, so captivated by the truths we are singing, so keen for the Spirit’s filling that a visitor might reasonably conclude, “something is going on here.” It’s hard to see that listless, distracted, half-hearted praise is what Paul had in mind.

Back to Narnia

Back to Prince Caspian. Bacchus shows up and it’s a romp and a rave in the forest. It’s joyful and Dionysian and enticing and on the edge of chaos and the edge of acceptable material for a children’s book.

Lewis saw me coming. After the party’s over, Susan says to Lucy “I shouldn’t have felt with safe with Bacchus and all his wild girls if we’d met them without Aslan.”

“I should think not”, said Lucy.

[1] Joshua McNall has a similar experience. See https://joshuamcnall.com/2016/08/30/saving-bacchus-how-c-s-lewis-redeemed-the-pagan-god-of-wine-and-wild-parties/