Sunday, June 19, 2011

Book Review: #PoisonedChalice

Upfront and wholeheartedly: Jennifer Woodruff-Tait's book The Poisoned Chalice: Eucharistic Grape Juice and Common-Sense Realism in Victorian Methodism
 is a very clear, well-written, friendly book that has made excellent use of a range of sources.  Though this is an "academic" book, I can easily see non-academics reading it and finding it understandable.  I have already recommended it to several friends who study US religious history, who have promised to order it for their libraries.  But I think anyone who has wanted to think about "why grape juice" will find this a great read.

Indeed, I would have benefited from this book had it been around in my seminary days. As a junior MDiv student at Princeton Theological Seminary in the late 90s, an argument arose about alcohol use on campus because some found it unfitting that students studying for the ministry should be drinking alcohol in any context, including communion.(For the record, there were always two cups available - one for wine and one for grape juice...) "Gee," I remember saying rather snidely, "I'd hate for Jesus to work a miracle on YOUR water." 

Jenn Woodruff-Tait discusses how grape juice advocates read the Wedding at Cana (through something called the two-wine theory) and also shows how science, reason, immigration (and anti-Catholicism), and a desire for good hygiene all colluded in making grape juice necessarily the drink of choice at the altar table.

In reading this book, I am reminded very much of Amy Laura Hall's book Conceiving Parenthood: American Protestantism and the Spirit of Reproduction Religion & Spirituality Books)
, which similarly uncovers Protestant sensibilities (this time in the early twentieth century) to show how Protestant sensibilities colluded with particular middle class ideals. 

Woodruff-Tait is "technically" a historian; Hall is "technically" a Christian ethicist.  But perhaps this should suggest to us two things: 1) the separation of "fields" really makes very little sense in our days of being interdisciplinary; 2) Woodruff-Tait's book should rightly cause all Christians to reflect on the ways in which our cultural standpoints merge with our theological understandings in helpful and unhelpful ways.  Our moral imaginations are captivated by things that seem "common sense" even when these do not (necessarily) reflect the gospel.

As a one-time Methodist (indeed, as one who was on the General Board of Discipleship and present at some of the discussions of the Eucharist that Woodruff-Tait mentions in chapter 7) and one who has now come into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church, partly because of the Eucharist - this book causes me to reflect on the ways in which my understanding of the Eucharist (both then and now) might be colluding with non-gospel sensibilities.

Thank you to Jennifer Woodruff-Tait for a fine book!  I look forward to reading more from her!

Note: I was provided a copy of this book by the University of Alabama Press.. This review was not influenced by a free book - just in case you (or the FTC) were worried about this detail.

About The Book:
This work examines the introduction of grape juice into the celebration of Holy Communion in the late 19th century Methodist Episcopal Church and reveals how a 1,800-year-old practice of using fermented communion wine became theologically incomprehensible in a mere forty years.

About The Author:
Jennifer L. Woodruff Tait is Adjunct or Affiliate Professor of Church History at Huntington University, Asbury Theological Seminary, and United Theological Seminary.
You can find more about her at:

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