I don’t mind saying that Brian Zahnd has been an important voice in my journey over the past few years. I listened to pretty much every one of his sermons over a period of around two years, as well as reading his previous books A Farewell To Mars (review here) and Beauty Will Save The World, both of which are highly recommended.
As well as the fact that he is simply a great communicator, able to present eternal truths in a most accessible manner, what makes Brian such an important voice – and a voice with which so many resonate – is his journey. A pastor and church founder since his early twenties and at one time the leader of one of America’s twenty fastest growing churches, in the early 2000s he experienced a crisis when it became clear to him that so much of the culturally conditioned Word of Faith stream of Christianity in which he had previously swum was, in his words, “a paper-thin Christianity propped up by cheap certitude”. He embarked on an audacious journey of rediscovering the deep and ancient roots of his faith – a journey that would bring him much heartache as many longstanding members abandoned the church, but one that would ultimately lead him into deep and satisfying waters and utterly reinvigorate his faith. Water to Wine is the story of that journey.
At just over a hundred pages, Water to Wine is not a difficult read, and Brian’s easy and engaging style ensures that no one should find it hard going. The structure is simple: starting from the spiritual crisis he experienced in 2003, Brian walks us through the key steps that led him to a broader, deeper and richer faith. Being a personal story, this is a book in which the author makes himself vulnerable, exposing the various doubts and fears encountered along the way. But the great strength of Water to Wine is that Brian uses various points along his journey as teaching opportunities. These are presented not as dry and dogmatic pieces of dogma, but rather as oases where we can stop, breathe, reflect and drink deeply as Brian shares the unfolding understanding into which his journey led him.
Along the way, we hear about five words that became particularly important to Brian – cross, mystery, eclectic, community and revolution – touchstones to hold onto and explore as the journey progressed. We also hear about three dreams that helped him make sense of the new and, in many ways, unsettling faith journey on which he had embarked. In the central and probably weightiest section of the book, Brian shares how his journey led him to discover a completely new understanding of prayer. Anyone who has listened to Brian’s sermons will know that he places great importance on contemplative prayer; those who have wondered quite what that looks like in practice will find valuable insights here, including a detailed overview of the pattern of liturgical prayer than Brian himself uses, and a whole chapter on what he calls “sitting with Jesus”. He goes on to talk in depth about the influence of Saint Francis of Assisi on his understanding of practical, lived faith and then spends a chapter on the centrality and significance of the sacrament of the Eucharist.
Of course, I have only briefly touched here on the highlights; there are many more gems of truth and wisdom along the way. I should add that this is probably the only faith-based book you’ll ever read that includes its own recommended playlist. Those familiar with Brian through his speaking and writing will not be at all surprised to find that it includes tracks from the likes of U2, The Beatles and Bruce Cockburn… together with not a few Bob Dylan songs.
If Water to Wine were nothing but a personal account of one man’s journey, it would make for an interesting read. And if it were merely a collection of teachings derived from one man’s journey, there would be much to ponder and learn from. What makes Water to Wine so uniquely resonant is that it is both of these. Many readers will recognise something of themselves and their own questions, struggles and crises – and in doing so, will be opened up to receive and benefit from the richness of Brian’s experience.
Many are those today who are uncomfortable with various aspects of the contemporary practice of faith, and in particular with the “cheap certitudes”, angry dogmatism and faux piety with which Christianity is so often associated. Sadly, unable to find a way to a renewed, living and authentic faith, some will drift away from the church and from any kind of meaningful faith practice. But for those who are reluctant to abandon their faith altogether, I believe Water to Wine will be a precious resource. I have no doubt that for some, it will even be a lifeline.
In summary, I highly recommend Water to Wine both to the disillusioned believer struggling to hold onto his or her faith and to any evangelical eager to press into a broader and deeper place. If you long to know what it is to have a relevant, contemporary faith that is fed and sustained by ancient roots, Water to Wine might just be the bread you need for the journey.
Water to Wine is available now exclusively from Amazon.
(I was provided with an advance copy of Water to Wine by the author. I was not required to write a positive review.)