Why I Wrote “Water To Wine”

W2W (1)

Why I Wrote “Water To Wine” Brian Zahnd

Today is the release date for my new book, Water To Wine: Some of My Story. I wrote this book because I could not not write this book. I was compelled to justify my journey and give some guidance to fellow seekers.

Over the past twelve years I’ve gone through a tremendous spiritual and theological transition. Some friends, pastors, and former church members have been critical of these changes. But many more have found hope and encouragement in my spiritual pilgrimage. Water To Wine is written for all these people. For my critics this is my humble, yet earnest, defense. For those who have found my journey helpful and have asked for some direction, this is it.

Most of all I wrote Water To Wine for the multitudes of Christians who are sold on Jesus, but have come to feel that pop-Christianity is too watery and too thin. They are right…it is. And I want to help. I hope the story of how I found my way out of cotton-candy Christianity and into a richer and more robust faith may help point these seekers in the right direction. Perhaps you are one of them.

Instead of trying to reproduce the book in this blog post, I want to share a thousand words — a thousand words selected from throughout the introductory first chapter. I hope it will whet your appetite.


*   *   *   *   *

I was halfway to ninety — midway through life — and I had reached a full-blown crisis. Call it a garden-variety mid-life crisis if you want, but it was something more. You might say it was a theological crisis, though that makes it sound too cerebral. The unease I felt came from a deeper place than a mental file labeled “theology.”

*   *   *   *   *

From a certain perspective things couldn’t have been better. I had a large church with a large staff supported by a large budget worshiping in a large complex. I was large and in charge! I had it made. But I had become increasingly dissatisfied. I was weary of the tired clichés of bumper-sticker evangelicalism. I was disenchanted by a paper-thin Christianity propped up by cheap certitude. It was safe, but it failed to enchant. I was yearning for something deeper, richer, fuller. Let me say it this way — I was in Cana and the wine had run out. I needed Jesus to perform a miracle.

*   *   *   *   *

My faith in Jesus never wavered. This was not a “crisis of faith” in that sense. I believed in Jesus! What I knew was that the Jesus I believed in warranted a better Christianity than what I was familiar with.

*   *   *   *   *

I knew there had to be something better than the shallow “success-in-life” charismatic evangelicalism that had been my world for more than twenty years. Like Bilbo Baggins, I felt “thin, sort of stretched, like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.”

*   *   *   *   *

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 needed something living that came from the oak barrels of a vintner, not something concocted from the aluminum vats of an industrialist. I was no longer satisfied with the “cutting edge” and “successful.” I had lost my appetite for the mass-produced soda-like Christianity of North America. I wanted vintage wine from old vines. I don’t know exactly how I knew this, but I knew it.

*   *   *   *   *

I wasted away to a paltry 130 pounds. People thought I was sick. I looked sick. I felt so weak. I remember thinking, “I’m dying.” And that was more true than I could have known! The whole first half of my life was dying — a half of life characterized by the quest for certitude and success. As Richard Rohr describes it, I was about to “fall upward” into the second half of life. But it wouldn’t be easy.

*   *   *   *   *

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.

*   *   *   *   *

2004 is the watershed, the continental divide of my life. It wasn’t a pleasant year — it was a painful year — but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Not for anything! The beautiful Christianity I have found in the second half of life could not have come into being apart from pain.

*   *   *   *   *

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.”

*   *   *   *   *

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.

*   *   *   *   *

The pressure came from living on the fault line between two shifting tectonic plates. One plate was moving me away from a compromised Christianity co-opted by consumerism. The other plate moved stubbornly in the direction of the pragmatic need to maintain a viable congregation. I wanted to be faithful to lead my church in a new and better direction, but I didn’t want to go about it in a reckless manner. Inevitably I would feel guilty about whatever decision I made. I would feel guilty about making changes too slowly and I would feel guilty about making changes too quickly…at the same time! It was the pressure of what felt like an impossible situation.

*   *   *   *   *

In the world of religious certitude there is no room to think, no room for nuance and complexity, no room to nurture the soul of a mystic. In my search for success in the world of Americanized Christianity, the real me was being erased. I wanted to become myself again. I didn’t want to lose my soul to an enforced conformity.

*   *   *   *   *

I was walking through the Detroit airport on one of those moving walkways thinking about these things when I crossed a threshold in my mind. I made a decision. A daring decision. A risky decision. I had reached the point of no return — there would be no going back. I wanted to be my true self. Suddenly I said out loud, “Now with the help of God I shall become myself!” The curious glances I drew from strangers in the Detroit airport bothered me not in the least. I had made a decision. I was on the road to recovery. I was recovering my soul. Water was turning to wine.

*   *   *   *   *

(Water To Wine: Some of My Story is available exclusively from Amazon.)

BZcapernaum (1)

  • Hi Brian – I respect your journey and your decisions. I do disagree with your theology as you know. I believe you are totally sincere in what you believe. I was never as deep into the faith movement as perhaps you were, and I never felt trapped in an Americanized Christianity, although I certainly know of what you speak, and its issues, and do not subscribe to it. Yet, maybe this is funny, where I respond strong to you at times is when you seem to have just as much certitude, and can I say it? bravado with your new theology as you did with your old! 🙂 Part of that is fine as we leaders will speak boldly what we believe. But I hope we can agree there is other (good!) wine beyond your personal choice! 🙂 Blessings my friend!

  • Having had the privilege of reading this book ahead of publication, I believe it will be a precious resource for many who are uncomfortable with various aspects of the contemporary practice of faith but who are reluctant to abandon their faith altogether. For some, it will no doubt even be a lifeline. Thanks for writing it.

  • Consider reading the book…and don’t assume you know what’s in it. 🙂

    Blessings to you, Randy.

  • Mhall
  • I will!

  • I’ll be very interested to hear what you think.

  • I’ll follow up with you.

  • Daniel Thomson

    Will the book be available on iBook for iOS?

  • Thanks for writing this. I look forward to reading it.

  • Probably not.

  • Wonderful. Wonderful. Wonderful. I so much resonate with all of this it is scary. lol

  • Let me know if you’re in the DFW area. We’ll try to set up an interview. You can reach me through lifetoday.org or FB.

  • Yes, I will, Randy. Thank you.

  • Jc Cone

    Hi Pastor Brian. I just want to say that you for your passion for Jesus and the courage to follow Him. I have found your teaching to be very helpful, and inspiring. When I first started to really listen to some of your teaching back in August I had a mix of excitement, but also fear. Excitement because of your intense focus on Jesus, but fear due to a potential loss of comfort. I stopped listening to your sermons. I was afraid of being alienated by friends and those who I work/serve with in my church. However, I had recently resolved to seek God in His fullness and to not be afraid to be labeled a heretic. After coming to dead end theologies with no life I found myself searching for something deeper, just as you have mentioned, and I felt that the comfort of certitude was not comparable to what I felt that I was lacking. God has led me full circle, straight back to Jesus, and not to endless theologies. I’m still figuring out what that is supposed to be like. Along the way I remembered you- out of the blue really- and decided that I should look into your teaching again. I was excited to see how your teaching resonated with me all the more after that season. I laughed out loud many times listening to you Water to Wine sermon via the podcast. Your experiences feel so relatable to me.

    I could say it many more times, but thank you so much. I look forward to reading the rest of your book!

  • Grace and Peace to you.

  • Jason Tripp

    Hi Brian–Just finished Chapter 1. Very few books (aside from Scripture) have felt so much like a window peering into the depths of my own soul. It resonates in so many ways with my own journey on the road towards wholeness in Jesus. Looking forward to the rest of the book (perhaps with a 2004 bottle of wine) and sharing it with the congregation I have the privilege of serving and leading on a similar journey. Grace and Peace to you.

  • This makes me happy, Jason. Thank you.

  • Allen Pearson

    Hi Brian. I was just introduced to you and this recent book a couple of days ago by a Monk friend of mine in NY. I am 4 chapters into the book and your path is one I am now though maybe from a slightly different starting point. I grew up in an Anglican household in a predominantly Roman Catholic community. My struggles came later in adulthood when I was living in a more evangelical community and the consumeriusm and politicalism of the faith has been truly ripping the love, joy, and compassion that I always considered the core of the message of Christ out of my heart. I had put seminary studies on hold because what I believed in my heart was so contrary to what was being played out in churches all around me and I have been very conflicted. I joked with my wife that at 55 years old I was too liberal for the south and too conservative for the north. Her answer was that I had simply refused to give up what I believed was the truth of the Gospel. When you talked about “Dare to Decide” and quoted Kierkegaard I realized that the “power” he mentions was trying to suck the good out of my faith. Thank you for sharing a bit of this journey. It could not have come to me at a better time. An old saying has recently come to mind, good theology leads to a peaceful nights sleep. God’s Peace to you Brian.

  • Allen, thank you for sharing this with me. Blessings to you.

  • Stephen Williams

    Hi Brian – I haven’t read your book yet but plan to asap. I was alerted to it by a tweet from Brian McLaren.
    I live in Australia and as you would no doubt be aware the disquiet you speak of is certainly not limited to North American Christianity. I am one of the multitude for whom you write and am yet to resolve many of the inherent tensions.
    I wanted mainly to say that just reading your snapshots on this blog has triggered further insight into aspects of my struggle for an authentic faith, thanks.

  • Kyle Ray

    I can say that theologically me and brian wouldn’t agree on some things. However, I believe that no matter who you talk to give it time you can find things you wouldn’t agree on. I am a Protestant (Four Point Calvinist) although I don’t label myself that. However I am a follower of Jesus first. With that being said I’ve followed Brian’s ministry for the past couple of years. I even went to a conference he held at his church last year. What I do love and agree with when it comes to Brian’s ministry is his love for ancient faith practices, his knack for story telling, and his need to recover the beauty of Jesus in modern day Christianity. Thanks to Brian I have learned to observe the Church calendar, the Common Book of Prayer, and Contemplative Prayer (Sitting With Jesus). These things have enriched my life tremendously. Also I can say this even though I may disagree with some of Brian’s Theology I can respect the journey he’s been on. Brian definitely knows the costly price of following Jesus. I think that is something we all can respect.

  • Kyle Ray

    Brian I read Water to Wine the first day it came out. It was extreme privilege to meet you last year in April. I may have some different theological beliefs than you. However, I respect your journey and all you went through. Thanks to you I have learned to observe the Church calendar, Contemplative Prayer (Sitting With Jesus), and The Revised CBP. These practices have deeply enriched my life. I know you don’t know me, and will probably never know me. But, I am extremely grateful for you and your ministry. Thanks for those precious few minutes you spent talking to me last April. I hope that through Prayer and whatever random encouragement I can offer, that I can give back a tenth of what you gave me. Thanks be to God for you Brain. I also want to thank you for letting Jesus use you in the way he has.
    P.S. In the picture I noticed you have a copy of Paul Sabatier’s Road to Assisi. That is one of my favorite volumes on St Francis.

  • Thank you, Kyle. Blessings to you.

  • Matthew

    I´m not certain if I should simply contact the publisher, and for me personally it´s really no big deal, but I noticed in my copy that chapter 3 contains the heading for chapter 4.

    That said, I´m halfway through the book and like it very much.


  • Yes, this has been noted. On the earliest copies had this error.

  • I certainly respect Brian’s sincerity and integrity. Since we are both Jesus followers (and have been friends for 30+ years!) I can vouch for that! I of course don’t disagree with him on *everything*! 🙂 But there are significant aspects of his theology I do disagree with. I push back on him (as he knows! :-)) when he makes it too certain. After all, we know that Proverbs declares that “as iron sharpens iron, so a man the countenance of his friend”. A few sparks can fly 🙂 But then if we are all properly controlled by the Holy Spirit, and submitted to the Lordship of Jesus, we can all grow!

  • Jo MB

    Hi Brian,

    I came across your book through Brad Jersak’s website and was intrigued to read it as I have been on a somewhat similar journey myself. I was brought up Catholic and encountered the Charismatic movement in my late teens and was part of an ecumenical community for about 15 years before moving around a bit because of my husband’s work. Ten years ago we moved to a town where there is a large charismatic/evangelical church which I thought ticked all the boxes. And for a good while it did – Great worship, great kids work, outreach, cell groups etc, the whole family got stuck in and loved it. But as you describe – my soul became restless. I thought it was just me. Then I did some theological study and did a course on Spirituality in the Christian Tradition. Through that and wider reading I bumped into Richard Rohr’s teaching among others, and it’s been a slippery slope since then. It was the first time I’d heard of stages of faith and it made so much sense from my experience. I also realised that my version of Christianity was not emotionally healthy and was way too ego-driven. I too fell in love with St Francis and the Eucharist and its humbling mystery. Maybe my ecumenical background helps me resonate with what you say about what different traditions bring – that no one has the whole picture by themselves. I get what you are saying about liturgy but I’m not there yet. I feel that I’m in a much more inclusive, loving place than I was but it’s still kinda hard to know that it’s a place that some people don’t understand and think I’ve lost the plot. Five years ago I would have thought exactly that. So thank you for your book – I read it in two days and it’s so encouraging to read of similar discoveries from someone further down the road than I am. The poem ‘Belong’ really resonated with me. I think I’ve been learning the truth behind the Sabbath being made for man and not man for the Sabbath and that’s what this poem reminds me of – that there is no sacred/secular divide and that we are invited to celebrate and participate in the outrageously generous love of our beautiful God and when we can do that it’s irresistible.

  • Thank you for sharing this with me, Jo.