As Americans celebrate the 4th, millions of us will take part in a tradition that can be traced back to the beginning of recorded history – drinking a beer.
For as long as there has been civilization, there has been beer. In fact some historians have argued that the desire to make beer (and bread) was what motivated our hunter-gatherer ancestors to settle down in the first place.
Because of its importance to daily life in the ancient world, early civilizations like Babylon and Egypt featured beer prominently in their religious practices and mythology. The drink was credited with bringing health, appeasing the gods, founding civilization, and even saving mankind from divine wrath.
What I did not realize for much of my life was that the history of beer is also deeply connected to the history of the Christian Church and its worship.
Beer for instance plays a role in the the legends of many saints. St. Patrick famously utilized the talents of his personal brewer Mescan to win him a hearing with Irish chieftains, and St. Arnold went so far as to state that “From man’s sweat and God’s love, beer came into the world.”
The monks of the middle ages often relied on their skills as brewers to support their ministry – to this day Trappist beers are some of the most sought after for their complexity and uniqueness – and the Reformers likewise celebrated beer, with both Calvin and Luther speaking well of it, indulging often (though in moderation), and even requiring part of their salaries to be paid in barrels of beer.
And it wasn’t just the theologians who celebrated the connection between faith and beer, brewers were often in the employ of the church (directly or indirectly), and they spoke of their task in the language of faith. Yeast for example, the role of which was not fully understood, could be taken from off the top of one new batch of beer and used in the next – the discovery of this miracle led brewers to term the substance “God-is-good”.
I share this little lesson in history – and there is far more to tell than the space I have will allow – because this connection was something I entirely missed growing up in the Church. In the circles in which I was raised beer was looked on with suspicion, people who were known to indulge were assumed to be backsliding or “carnal Christians,” and it was generally agreed that if you were serious about your faith you would of course not be drinking.
Part of me understands that impulse, the abuse of alcohol has ruined many lives and torn apart many families. But the fact that beer can be used wrongly does not mean it cannot be used to honor God as well. As Luther once said “Men can go wrong with wine and women. Shall we then prohibit and abolish women?”
Beer can be abused, but it can also be a cherished blessing. I cherish beer because beer connects us to the harvest and the land, to each other in all our little communities, and to our history as a people and a Church.
As the monks of old knew well, the very process of brewing can easily become a sort of liturgy, an act of worship. When I brew it is a time of celebration and prayer, it allows me to relax and think while I engage in the little repetitions of bottling, or wonder at the miracle of yeast’s interaction with boiled grain. And later, as I raise a glass of the finished product with friends or family, I realize how such a simple thing as a conversation over a pint can be one of life’s greatest blessings.
I’ll close this little reflection with a quote from Stephen Mansfield’s The Search for God and Guinness, which I think makes my point far better than I am able,
“I confess, as an outsider to drinking and beer, I used to think it was all about the buzz, that drinking anything with alcohol was about escaping the present and drifting into a sloshy other world. But I know now something I did not before. Beer is not simply a means of drunkenness nor is it merely a lubricant to grease the skids to sin. Beer, well respected and rightly consumed, can be a gift of God.
It is one of his mysteries, which it was his delight to conceal, and the glory of kings to search out. And men enjoy it to mark their days and celebrate their moments and stand with their brothers in the face of what life brings.”