9 min read

What wine teaches us about the big things in life

Mark is a lecturer and priest. He’s the author of several books and his latest, Wine, Soil and Salvation, explores the use of wine throughout the Old and New Testament. 

Wine connects us to the soil and each other, writes Mark Scarlata, as he unpacks what oenology – the study of wine, can teach us about ontology – the study of being.
Evening sun sets glowing light across vines in a vinyard.
Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

I remember one of the first wine tastings that I went to. I happened to be placed at a table of people who really knew what they were talking about when it came to wine. I watched as they expertly swirled their glasses yet when I swirled mine the wine almost flew out all over the table. Then we all sniffed and were asked to say what smells came to mind. Dark red currants, blackberry, plum, leather, tobacco and all sorts of other things were mentioned. I kept my mouth shut because the only thing I could think of was, ‘This smells like wine to me.’ But that didn’t sound very sophisticated. 

Years later, I’ve come to appreciate wine in a completely different way. Not because my palate has been refined or because I’ve taken wine courses on how to pick out scents such as truffles or crushed gravel, but because I study the Bible. Surprisingly enough, the Bible has a lot to say about wine and how it relates to our lives together, our relationship to the earth and our relationship to God. 

In the ancient world, from the very earliest civilizations, wine was an important part of everyday life and religion. Whether in Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece or Rome, wine was a critical fixture in worship and making offerings to the gods. Stories of wine gods such as Dionysus or Bacchus reveal a drink that was created to please both the gods and humanity. Tales are told of wild bacchanals or orgiastic feasts that likely ended with bad hangovers and much worse. In many of these ancient cultures wine was seen as a gift from the gods so that human beings could enjoy themselves and it was offered back to the gods in all types of religious rituals that often involved drunken exploits. In the Bible, however, we find a very different story. It’s a story that goes back to the very beginnings of creation in the garden of Eden. 

Here, in the garden, the moral world is bound up with a material world. 

The first book of the Bible, Genesis, begins with a God who creates the heavens and the earth. This is not some distant, aloof god who is separated from his creation. God is depicted as a gardener who is not afraid to get his hands dirty in the soil. God forms the first human from the dust of the earth and then breathes into him the breath of life. We usually call this person ‘Adam’, as if it’s a personal name, but it’s not. ‘Adam’ is a wordplay on the Hebrew word for soil adamah. You can see and hear the similarity between the two. The reason for the wordplay is to emphasize humanity’s connection to the soil. We, as human beings, are inextricably bound to the life of the land. Our nourishment, our sustenance and our very existence is reliant on the earth beneath our feet. 

Beyond our physical connection to the land, the story of Genesis (and the rest of the Bible) also assumes our spiritual connection to the land. When the first garden dwellers disobey God’s command and eat the forbidden fruit, the land becomes cursed. We witness a breakdown in what was originally meant to be a harmonious relationship between Adam and adamah. Adam will now experience toil when he works the land and it will produce thorns and thistles. Here, in the garden, the moral world is bound up with a material world. Human disobedience to God’s command results in a broken relationship with God, with one another and with the land. So what does this have to do with wine? We’ll discover, as the story continues, that wine is a gift that comes from the renewed earth through the character of Noah to provide relief for humanity. 

Most people are familiar with the story of Noah’s Ark, whether from children’s books about the ark or memories of stuffed animals packed in a boat with Noah and his wife, Mrs. Noah (we’re never told her name which seems slightly unfair considering all the work she presumably had to do taking care of the animals). What we don’t often recall, however, is the prediction made by his father, Lamech, when Noah was born. Lamech says, ‘Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands’. If the curse upon the earth and toil came through Adam, then relief from that toil would come through Noah. The key phrase here is ‘out of the ground’ because something will spring up from the soil in the renewed creation after the flood that will bring relief which is the advent of the vine. 

Back to the story of the Ark. After the flood retreats, Noah leaves the ship and worships God. In very short order we’re told: 

‘Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank some of the wine and became drunk, and he lay uncovered in his tent’.  

Now if you’ve ever planted grapevines (Vitis vinifera), you’ll know that it takes at least three years to get your first harvest of grapes. The biblical story, however, jumps quickly ahead to Noah finally having produced his first vintage.  

He waited for the grapes to ferment after being crushed. He stored them in a cool place and when the time was right, he was able to drink his first cup of wine. It seems, however, that he probably had more than one cup since he was soon lying passed out in his tent. There’s no specific judgement of Noah here. After all that he had been through we might imagine a cup of wine was just what he needed. Drunkenness, however, is later explicitly condemned by the biblical authors. One rabbinic commentator, however, in defence of Noah, argued that because he hadn’t drunk wine previously, he only had a sip which made him pass out. 

Despite Noah’s first encounters with wine, a more significant story is being told. The flood acts as a type of cleansing and renewal of creation in Genesis as part of God’s judgment so that humanity could once again live in relationship with God and the land. After the flood, the earth is in need of renewal and only Noah can achieve this. We are told that Noah found favour in the eyes of God, that he was righteous and blameless and that he walked with God. Unlike almost any other character in the Bible, Noah is distinctly set apart because of his moral purity. And it’s through his purity that humanity’s relationship to the land is restored and the gift of the vine springs forth to bring relief from our toil. 

Drinking wine has often been likened to a spiritual experience. To taste a well-crafted wine is to drink in the sun, the rain, the wind, the soil and all the blessings of the earth. 

When we look at other ancient myths concerning wine, we discover something far different in the biblical vision. The Bible offers a picture of a world where the material and the spiritual are bound together within the intricate web of creation. The earthly and the heavenly are united. Though we are made from the soil and tethered to the land, we are also spiritual creatures who share in the breath of God. We have the capacity to experience God’s spiritual blessings, but we also experience his gifts through our senses, through our physical engagements in the world and through the gift of wine. 

This is why drinking wine has often been likened to a spiritual experience. To taste a well-crafted wine is to drink in the sun, the rain, the wind, the soil and all the blessings of the earth. When we are attentive to the wine we’re able to savour its complex flavours and aromas. We come to appreciate its multifaceted character and the reflections it offers on the land where it was grown and harvested. Wine, unlike any other food or drink, brings out the qualities and identity of a particular place.  

There is a French word, terroir, that is often used to describe this connection to place that gives a wine its character and flavour. Wine experts understand that even the slightest change in weather, soil content, drainage or the lay of the land can have dramatic effects on the final product. I don’t doubt that the biblical authors understood the same. Yet they also understood that the gift of wine, the blessing of relief that came through Noah, was also connected to our moral lives, to how we love God and neighbour and to how we care for his creation. 

Wine is a gift that eases our toil and makes our hearts glad. Wine reminds us of our deep connections to the soil and how we play our part within the community of creation. 

The story of wine in the Bible is one that reminds us that we do not live in this world as autonomous creatures completely disconnected from the land around us. In the beginning, human beings were instructed by God to care and keep the land as an act of service and partnership with the hope of encouraging fertility, abundance and life. American conservationist, Aldo Leopold, sums this up when he writes about a having a ‘land ethic’ that should govern how we live in the world. He argues that our ethical behaviour should take into account things like soils, water, plants and animals. He goes on to say that this, ‘changes the role of Homo sapiens from conquerer of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.’ 

We live in an age where humanity is driven by the pursuit of power and control over the environment rather than creatively working with, and caring for, the natural world. Advances in technology and the idea of limitless freedom have led to what Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann calls an ‘economy of extraction’. This is a system that strips the land without concern as if our resources are unlimited and are ours to do with as we please. Such practices not only destroy the ecology and biodiversity of the land, but they can also deprive local economies and create greater gaps between rich and poor. Pope Francis addresses this in his 2015 encyclical, Laudato si’, where he calls for an integrated ecology that takes into consideration our use of natural resources to improve the common good and to alleviate the suffering of those who have been hurt the most by this economy of extraction. 

The beginnings of wine in the Bible tell a story that involves the whole of creation. It’s a story that emphasises our relationship to the land, to God and to one another. How we care for and keep the soil is a reflection of how we care for one another. Other stories in in the Bible imagine a world full of justice and mercy where there is peace and concern for the common good. In such a world the biblical authors also see the earth respond with its own fertility—fields that produce bumper crops, trees that bear abundant fruit and a hills bursting with grapes and wine. Fertility, life and wine are all interconnected in the biblical world, but they have sadly been disconnected in the modern world.  

Wine is not just a drink in the Bible. It’s a sign and symbol of salvation, of life, joy, abundance and fertility. Wine is a gift that eases our toil and makes our hearts glad. Wine reminds us of our deep connections to the soil and how we play our part within the community of creation. Wine awakens our senses and leads us to praise the God who is the giver of all good gifts. So, as we lift our glasses to celebrate in our homes, at meals, at weddings, or wherever we are, we might offer a prayer of thanks. Thanksgiving for the gift God gives that eases the toil and gladdens the heart. We might even recite the Jewish prayer which is prayed on the eve of the Sabbath and on other occasions. 

‘Blessed are you, Lord our God, creator of the universe who creates the fruit of the vine.’ 


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7 min read

Red radical: the tales behind the Santa we see today

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

A determined, fiery, culture warrior lies behind the iconic image of Santa. Graham Tomlin unwraps a tale or two and find some serious theology.
A Lego Stanta figure strolls across a table holding a wrench
Artem Maltsev on Unsplash.

There is one figure in our cultural memory who pops up at this time of year without fail. It is the unmistakable figure of Santa. 

Santa Claus, AKA Father Christmas, Sinterklaas in Holland or Kris Kringle in the USA conjures up a definite image in the mind’s eye. The Santa of popular imagination with elves, red suit, bushy white beard flying in a sleigh towed by reindeer was shaped more by the famous Coca Cola adverts of the 1930s than anything else, and may seem to have very little connection with the birth of Christ. There are, however, strong connections between Santa and the Christian celebration of Christmas.  

Santa Claus is a linguistic development of St Nicholas, who was a real, fiery, determined Christian bishop of the early 4th century. Many of the stories about him date from later centuries, and some, no doubt, are legends developed to enhance his reputation. Yet he clearly made a deep impact on those who encountered him. On the principle that there's no smoke without fire, while some of it may be fiction, these stories may also contain a grain of truth.  

A group of enterprising Italian sailors from Bari in southern Italy made a daring raid on the city, scooped up most of St Nicholas’ skeleton and carried it off home. 

Nicholas was born around 260 AD. His parents, or so the story goes, died of the plague while he was young, leaving him a reasonable fortune. The other thing we know about his youth was his profound and strong Christian faith. This shaped his mind from early years, and led him, like many young Christians at the time, to enter the demanding spiritual boot camp of the monastic life, and then in time to becoming the Bishop of Myra, a city in southern Turkey known today as Demre.  

Christianity at the time was deemed a dangerous religion, subversive of the unity of the Roman Empire and in 303 AD he was one of many Christian leaders imprisoned under the wave of persecution initiated by the emperor Diocletian. Not only did he survive the rigours of a brutal Roman jail, but he encouraged other Christian prisoners to stand firm, who, like him, emerged more determined than ever. He died around 335 AD and within a few hundred years had become one of the most celebrated saints of the mediaeval era, with numerous accounts of his life spreading around Europe.   

In the 10th century the Russian emperor Vladimir visited Turkey and was so impressed with the stories of St. Nicholas that he pronounced him the patron saint of Russia and he remains a hugely venerated figure in Russian Orthodoxy to this day. In 1087, when Myra had come under Islamic rule, a group of enterprising Italian sailors from Bari in southern Italy made a daring raid on the city, scooped up most of St Nicholas’ skeleton and carried it off home, where with great fanfare, a large basilica was erected around the resting place of the bones of St Nicholas – an attraction which enhanced the status of the city no end. It became a pilgrimage destination for numerous medieval Christians (which was what the sailors had in mind) and the edifice still stands on the very spot to this day.

He was promptly sent home for stepping out of line, but it did his reputation as a hero of orthodoxy no harm at all. 

There are two stories of St Nicholas that get us closer to understanding why he became such a key figure in our Christmas celebrations.  

While he was still a young man, so we are told, he heard of a local family who were falling into poverty. A father who was badly in debt desperately needed money to pay off loan sharks, otherwise his only option (as happened in many families at the time) was sell his three daughters into slavery, or in some versions of the story, into prostitution. St Nicholas, aware of the teaching of Jesus that good deeds should be done in secret, resolved to do what he could to help. He wrapped up a bag of gold coins and secretly dropped them into the window of the house to the relief and delight of the poverty-stricken family. Nicholas performed this act of generosity three times for each of the three daughters, and on the third occasion threw the bag of gold coins so far into the room that it fell into a sock hanging over the fire to dry - hence stockings on Christmas Eve. On that occasion the father caught Nicholas as he tried to slip away, and thanked him profusely. Nicholas insisted he tell no one, which the man assured him he would not. Obviously, he didn't keep his promise. 

It is this kind of story that gives rise to the idea that Nicholas was a picture of radical generosity. Ever since then, depictions of St Nicholas are recognisable by his carrying three gold balls, representing the three bags of gold coins – and the same symbol found its way to hang outside many a pawnbrokers’ shop, after St Nicholas was adopted as their patron saint.  

The other story relates to the famous Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Although historians debate the question, there is some evidence Nicholas might have been present at this Council at which the Nicene Creed was written, the Creed that describes the heart of Christian faith for most Christian churches to this day. The Council centred around the controversial teaching of Arius, a priest from Alexandria who had taught that Jesus, although the best person who ever lived, the pinnacle of creation, was not in any significant sense divine, as the Council eventually discerned he was. The story goes that Nicholas was so incensed by the teaching of Arius that at one point he strode across the room in which the Council was taking place and struck him on the face. He was promptly sent home for stepping out of line, but it did his reputation as a hero of orthodoxy no harm at all. A heretic being punched by Santa Claus is an image to conjure with.  

The stories of St Nicholas give us the impression of someone who does not just do generous acts, but who has become generous. 

So why did St Nicholas become a person of such radical generosity? Were these two stories, however apocryphal some of the details may be, strangely linked? 

At stake in the debates at Nicaea was the question of whether Jesus Christ was just an illustration, a good example of what human life can achieve, or whether his radical love and self-sacrifice was in fact an expression of the heart of God, the very heart of reality itself. That is the core insight at the heart of the Nicene Creed – that when we see Jesus, we see God. The compassion, courage, grace, generosity, the anger at evil of the world, the deep compassion for those who struggle with life that flows out of him at every moment – all this is not a brief moment of light in an essentially dark world, but is the very nature of reality itself. In other words, Jesus Christ represents God giving to the world, not just a gift, but giving Himself.  

That kind of belief seems to have animated the soul and the mind of Nicholas, and if you believe that generosity is what lies at the very heart of things, its not surprising if it starts to seep out into a life full of generosity. Alongside the gifts to the struggling family, Nicholas is said to have argued the emperor into a tax cut for the people of Myra, and secured extra shipping of grain for his people during famine. The stories of St Nicholas give us the impression of someone who does not just do generous acts, but who has become generous – it’s the difference between the lucky tennis player who plays a good shot every now and again, and the pro who plays that shot nine times out of ten. That is virtue – where a person is generous almost without thinking about it, because it has become second nature.  

There are, of course, differences between the Santa of popular memory and St Nicholas. It’s hard to imagine Santa punching anyone, whereas St Nicholas had the fierce, determined faith of the early church, a faith so compelling that it took over the entire Roman empire. Then again, Santa gives gifts to children who are good but not to those who have been bad. He is a moral arbiter who rewards those whose good deeds outweigh their bad ones. That is about as far removed from a Christian understanding of grace, as depicted in the stories of St Nicholas as possible. In Christianity, divine generosity is not a reward for goodness, but is the wellspring of it. The God that Nicholas learnt about from his earliest days gives first and asks questions later. Generosity inspires gratitude and generosity as a response. 

St Nicholas became associated with Christmas partly because his feast day, December 6th, was near to the annual feast, but also because of this theme of radical generosity. Christmas is the time when Christians recall God’s greatest gift – the gift of Christ given to people of dubious moral standing like us. Not because we deserved it but despite the fact that we didn’t. It’s why we give gifts at Christmas, not to win favours from others, but for the sheer joy of it. We give as an act of gratitude for we have been given, before we even asked for it – just like three helpless young women, and their desperate father, in need of help.  

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