Sunday, October 19, 2014

Robert Farrar Capon on Wine

The following is from Robert Farrar Capon's magnificent little 1967 book The Supper of the Lamb, pp. 89-93. Everything below the break (including the stuff in square brackets) is found in the book.


     One might have hoped that, with so gracious a creature as wine, even the most ardent religionists and secularists would have have made an exception to their universal custom of missing the point of things. But alas, between teetotalism on the one hand and the habit of classifying it as an alcoholic beverage on the other, they have both lost the thread of delight.

     Consider first the teetotalers. They began, no doubt, by observing that some men use wine to excess--to the point at which, though the wine remains true to itself, the drinker does not. That much, I give them: Drunks are a nuisance. But they went too far. Only the ungrateful or the purblind can fail to see that sugar in the grape and yeast on the skins is a divine idea, not a human one. Man's part in the process consists of honest and prudent management of the work that God has begun. Something underhanded has to be done to grape juice to keep it from running its appointed course.

     Witness the teetotaling communion service. Most Protestants, I suppose, imagine that it is part of the true Reformed religion. But have they considered that, for nineteen centuries after the institution of the Eucharist, wine was the only element available for the sacrament? Do they serious envision St. Paul or Calvin or Luther opening bottles of Welch's Grape Juice in the sacristy before the service? Luther, at least, would turn over in his grave. The WCTU version of the Lord's Supper is a bare 100 years old. Grape juice was not commercially viable until the discovery of pasteurization; and, unless I am mistaken, it was Mr. Welch himself (an ardent total abstainer) who persuaded American Protestantism to abandon what the Lord obviously thought rather kindly of.

     That much damage done, however, the itch for consistency took over with a vengeance. Even the Lord's own delight was explained away. One of the most fanciful pieces of exegesis I ever read began by maintaining that the Greek word for wine , as used in the Gospels, meant many other things than wine. The commentator cited, as I recall, grape juice for one meaning, and raisin paste for another. He inclined, ultimately, toward the latter.

     I suppose such people are blessed with reverent minds which prevent them from drawing irreverent conclusions. I myself, however, could never resist the temptation to read raisin paste for wine in the story of the Miracle of Cana. "When the ruler of the feast had tasted the water that was made raisin paste . . . he said unto the bridegroom, 'Every man at the beginning doth set forth good raisin paste, and when men have well drunk [eaten?--the text is no doubt corrupt], then that which is worse; but thou hast kept the good raisin paste until now.'" Does it not whet your appetite for the critical opera omnia of such an author, where he will freely have at the length and breadth of Scripture? Can you not see his promised land flowing with peanut butter and jelly; his apocalypse, in which the great whore Babylon is given the cup of the ginger ale of the fierceness of the wrath of God?

     The secularists, on the other hand, are no better. They classify wine as an alcoholic beverage, which makes about as much sense as classifying cheese as a salted food. Alcohol occurs all over the place; bread has its share, rotten apples do very well by it, hard cider is amply provided with it, and distilled spirits are full of it. How foolish, therefore, to encourage people to think of alcoholic content as the principal identifying note of wine. The general classification, of course, is legitimate enough as far as it goes. But it is hardly more than slightly relevant. Apart from an intellectual fascination, I have no consuming interest in alcohol; nor, I think, does any sane man. It is tasteless, odorless, indigestible, and, in sufficient doses, blinding. Far from being the only, or even the most notable, ingredient in wine, it is simply one member of a vast committee--and not the most responsible member at that.

     Nothing appalls me more than to hear people refer to the drinking of wine as if it were a forbidden and fascinating way of sneaking alcohol into one's system. My flesh creeps when I hear the legitimate love of the fruit of the vine treated as if it were a longer-winded way of doing what the world does with grain neutral spirits and cheap vermouth. With wine at hand, the good man concerns himself, not with getting drunk, but with drinking in all the natural delectabilities of wine: taste, color, bouquet; its manifold graces; the way it complements food and enhances conversation; and its sovereign power to turn evenings into occasions, to lift eating beyond nourishment to conviviality, and to bring the race, for a few hours at least, to that happy state where men are wise and women beautiful, and even one's children begin to look promising. If someone wants the bare effects of alcohol in his bloodstream, let him drink the nasty stuff neat, or have a physician inject it. But do not let him soil my delight with his torpedo-juice mentality.

     Wine is not--let me repeat--in order to anything but itself. To consider it otherwise is to turn it into an idol, a tin god to be conjured with. Moreover, it is to miss its point completely. We were made in the image of God. We were created to delight, as He does, in the resident goodness of creation. We were not made to sit around mumbling incantations and watching our insides to see what creation will do for us. Wine does indeed have subjective effects, but they are to be received gratefully and lightly. They are not solemnly important psychological adjustments, but graces, super-added gifts. It was St. Thomas, again, who gave the most reasonable and relaxed of all the definitions of temperance. Wine, he said, could lawfully be drunk usque ad hilaritatem, to the point of cheerfulness. It is a happy example of the connection between sanctity and sanity.

     Once wine is defined as an alcoholic beverage, however, sanity is hard to come by. As a nation, we drink the way we exercise: too little and too hard. Our typical gala dinner party is a disaster: three or four rounds of martinis followed by a dinner with two tiny glasses of middling Burgundy. The food is wolfed without discernment, the wine is ignored, and the convivialities come on so early that no one is up to the profundities when they arrive.

     How much better if we would forget, at least in our dinnering, the alcoholic idiocy--if we would provide our guests with long evenings of nothing but sound wine, good food, and fit company. Try it sometime. Sherry or Cinzano or Dubonnet--or, best of all, a good rainwater Madeira before dinner. No gin, no whiskey--and, in the name of all that's holy, no vodka. More importantly still, no dips, no crackers, no de-appetizers at all. Only a mercifully brief aperitif, followed by a long and leisurely meal, with one wine or many, but with whatever wine there is dispensed with a lavish wrist: a minimum of half a bottle per person, if you are dealing with novices, or a whole bottle if you have real guests on your hands. Your party will reach an O Altitudo, an Ecce, quam bonum!, to which wine is the only road. Hard liquor is for strong souls after great dinners; it is the grape that brings ordinary mortals usque ad hilaritatem.

     And ordinariness is the right note on which to sum up the case for wine. It is precisely the foolishness of classifying wine as an alcoholic beverage that keeps so many of us from taking it with our lunches, suppers--and even breakfasts, if you like. Whiskey, gin,and rum are sometime things. A man who takes them too often courts disaster. But wine is simply water that has matured according to nature's will. It is the ordinary accompaniment of a grown man's food. How sad, then, that the secular conscience sweeps Sherry into the same category as vodka and looks on Zinfandel as liquor. God gave us wine to make us gracious and keep us sane. The light aperitif en famille, and the half bottle or bottle split by husband and wife over cold meatloaf and brawling children, are not solemn alcoholic dosages. They are cheerful minor lubrications of the frequently sandy gears of life. Properly underrated--that is, taken for what they are, and not as great problem-solving idols--they are on the side of the angles; they can hardly be overrated at all. A ta Sante!

Tuesday, July 01, 2014


[Everything below is ranked, roughly, from what I take to be least important to what I take to be most important. So if this is too dang long for you, skip to the end. But really, the whole thing is brilliant, eloquent, and probably life-changing.]

I was so not going to do this. And I was mainly not going to do it for reasons of intellectual integrity: I haven't read the decision in the Hobby Lobby case carefully, and I haven't read the dissenting opinion at all. I'm willing to say publicly that--to the degree I understand it--I think SCOTUS got this right. It's at least possible, however, that I might change my mind, and even if I don't, I think it must be acknowledged that some of the salient questions are genuinely difficult ones; I don't find it at all obvious, for instance, that the law should treat corporations (even closely held corporations) as persons, nor do I find it obvious (because insurance payments are fungible) that AHCA imposes a substantial burden on employers who are required to pay for services they find objectionable.

So why weigh in at all? Well, while I don't take myself to be competent to weigh in on the subtleties of the decision, I am genuinely alarmed by the state of the discourse surrounding it. At first, I thought it was just the card-carrying Team Democrat folks in my Facebook feed who were generating an amount of noise out of proportion with their actual numbers. But then I made the mistake of listening to NPR's "On Point" [Aside: I like NPR a lot and generally find it to be as unbiased and trustworthy a news source as we have in America] as I was running errands this morning, and got the sense that some of the things which I was taking to be "fringe" views may be quite a bit more mainstream than I had hoped. And if I may be so bold, I think that my professional training and experience put me in a reasonably good position to assess that discourse. That is, even if I have no business weighing in on what people are talking about, I might have some business weighing in on how people are talking about what people are talking about. In that vein, I offer the following:

There's an ever-increasing tendency to understand religious freedom--a First Amendment right, you'll recall, which has typically been taken to be fundamental to our existence as a pluralistic society--as mere freedom of worship. That might sound like a merely terminological difference, but it's important to notice that the free exercise of religion is far more expansive than merely being permitted to gather in private with like-minded folks and sing the songs you happen to like. Now, like any other negative claim right, the right to free exercise of religion has to be balanced against the rights of other people. It does not, should not, and must not be understood as the freedom to do whatever you want to other people and then to be excused on the grounds that "it's my religion."

(1a) There's a surprising blind spot on the part of many left-of-center folks (including many self-described religious believers) who seem to think that religious belief and practice must be utterly private. The assumption seems to be that it's okay to have religious beliefs, but those beliefs must never, ever, in any way, shape, or form, impact the way you live in society, including the way you conduct business or how you think about social policy (unless those beliefs are already in conformity with what the law says, or with what the law is changed to say).
What this assumption fails to appreciate is that, for most of us who are serious religious believers--and there are still a few here and there!--obedience to God is understood as a holistic, life-shaping commitment. It is *impossible* for many devout believers to simply cut off their "religious life" from everything else they do.

[Aside: This is the part where people start complaining about what terrible things religious people have done, and about how Hobby Lobby is hypocritical because they invested in firms that profit from some of the very products they're unwilling to provide to their employees. On the first of these: the fact that some religious people are insincere or wicked is just totally irrelevant to this issue. There are a lot of very decent, very sincere religious people in the world, Christian and non-Christian alike, and the question of how their interests should be protected is what's relevant here. On the second point (Hobby Lobby invests in the products they don't like): I haven't read up on this. Assuming that it's true, I absolutely agree that it's hypocritical (if the Green family knew it), and that the Green family cannot be taken seriously if they don't immediately sell the stock in question. They should be ashamed. But... in defense of the Green family, they do run a retail business and yet choose not to open their stores on Sundays. This fact gives us all pretty good reason to hesitate before condemning them as money-grubbing hypocrites. More importantly, however, that fact too is irrelevant to the question of what the law should say. Now back to the main thing I was saying.]

And they shouldn't be asked to do so! This is for two reasons:

(1b) Because of the way in which religious belief often, and rightly, shapes a person's sense of self, we should support public policies that maximize individuals' freedom to live in accordance with their beliefs.

(1c) Sincere religious faith often pays dividends for society as a whole, including to the benefit of those who don't share it. Are "religious" people universally and unequivocally good citizens? No, of course not. Should every religious belief and practice be endorsed? No. Don't be silly. Life is complicated and the devil is in the details and blah blah blah. But look. If you take some of the secularists' words seriously; if you think that religion has no legitimate role to play in shaping how people conduct their lives in public; if you insist on a perfectly "naked" public square; if you go in any of these directions... then you are going to have a very difficult time endorsing either the abolitionist movement or the ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. You are going to be forced to conclude that much of what Dr. King said in his speeches and much of what he wrote involved unconstitutional violations of the separation of church and state. And. That. Would. Be. Crazy.

Oh, speaking of crazy, here's the real reason I felt like I had to write this post.

No, seriously, you guys have got to stop this. And you intellectual types need to lead the way. I'm trying to do some of the work over on the cultural right: I'm exhorting folks in my tribe to think carefully, to pay attention to what's being claimed and what isn't, to interpret others' positions charitably, to look for common ground, etc., etc., etc. Can you help a fella out? We can work together, you know. It won't be easy. On every side of every issue, there are people who are going to demonize the people who disagree with them. And there are many, many people who are convinced that there is no such thing as a "common good;" they see American political life as a competition between groups whose interests are often incompatible, and the goal of politics not as the health of our society but as crushing defeats over those with whom they disagree and on whose throats they want to step. If that's you, then you can stop reading now. But if it's not, then please...

Stop pretending like words mean things they don't. Seriously: STOP IT. Are you worried about the *precedent* set by yesterday's ruling? That's fine. I get that. I think there are lots of interesting things to be said about it. Do you think it's crazy to think of paying for abortifacient drugs as a form of complicity in abortion? I get that, too. There's definitely room for debate there. Does it seem unjust that men have greater "reproductive freedom" than women? Again, I hear where you're coming from. I think we as a society need to keep wrestling with this, because equality between the sexes is a matter of genuine importance. And so on and so forth.

But look.

If employer X refuses to buy A for employee Y, X is not, not, NOT thereby "preventing" Y from having A.

If X has religious beliefs on the basis of which X refuses to buy A for Y, X is not--contrary to the very words used by the host of the NPR show I was listening to--"forcing employees to live in accordance with their employers' religious beliefs."

You should pause for a second and read that again. Think about it. Let it soak in. We live in a society where the host of a national radio show, on a network that is widely respected as a source for thoughtful, intelligent commentary, can speak of the refusal to pay for some kinds of birth control (4 out of 20!) as equivalent to forcing another person to live in accordance with one's religious beliefs. Friends, this is lunacy.

The basic point I'm making here should be obvious.

No, it *is* obvious.

It is painfully obvious.

It's a matter of basic English and rudimentary logic. This kind of thing has got to stop. Please. Anyone who says that Hobby Lobby is denying women access to birth control (and people really do say this! like, people who went to college! people who are serious presidential candidates!) is guilty of either extraordinary ignorance or willful dishonesty. Either way, such statements are harmful to our political discourse. Please stop saying such things, and please don't let others get away with saying them either.