Shoe-Shopping with Karl Barth: Brian Zahnd’s Water to Wine

Shoe-Shopping with Karl Barth: Brian Zahnd’s Water to Wine April 7, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 6.39.06 AMJason Micheli is a United Methodist pastor in DC who blogs at

I’ve often thought that if John Wesley had been a Roman Catholic priest rather than an Anglican one he would have found a less disruptive outlet for his grace-centric revolution. Rather than taking steps that led inexorably to a rupture with the Church of England and to the creation of a distinct denomination, he might’ve simply initiated his own monastic order within the mother Church like Francis and Benedict did before him.

Brian Zahnd, the sometime author and full-time pastor at Word of Life Church, has been a frequent voice in my earbuds for several years now. I’ve come to look forward to the time I can spend running along the Mt. Vernon Parkway or working out at Gold’s Gym with theology- most of which I share- proclaimed to me in the urgent patterns of a bible church preacher’s delivery. Whenever I listen to Brian Zahnd, he strikes me as a leader much like John Wesley, a fomenter who in another era might as easily have started a new holiness order where, in pursuing God above all else, he, almost by accident, changed the world. Like Wesley or Martin Luther, Zahnd exhibits a contemplative’s restless thirst for God’s presence and present guidance and, as frenetically as Wesley, he brings a reformer’s zeal and a prophet’s summons to Christ’s Church of this time and place.

I read Brian Zahnd’s latest book, Water to Wine: Some of My Story, on a plane at the beginning of Holy Week. Water to Wine narrates the theological crisis that visited him halfway through life and over 20 years into what appeared to any outsider as a successful ministry. In the 1990’s Word of Life Church, which Zahnd planted as a teenager, was one of the largest and fastest-growing churches in the United States. In 2004, says Zahnd, the shallow, ‘cotton-candy’ Christianity he’d been preaching and peddling for decades could take him no further. Zahnd takes pains to point out that his was a crisis not of faith generally but of this particular sort of faith, so pervasive in the remaining edifice of Christendom. He came to doubt not Jesus but his brand of Christianity’s ability to mediate Jesus to him and others.

The Cana metaphor of Zahnd’s book is rich and instructive of his abilities as a writer and preacher. Taking a seemingly superfluous scene in John’s Gospel, Zahnd distills Jesus’ inaugural miracle into an image for his journey- and the congregation that accompanied him- from a weak vintage of faith to something older, more robust and bursting with the bouquet that is the diversity of the fuller Christian tradition. As Zahnd writes: “I was disenchanted by a paper-thin Christianity propped up cheap certitude. I was yearning for something deeper, richer, fuller.”

Zahnd narrates how, in response to his crisis, he undertook a 21 day regimen of prayer and fasting. Like I said, he has a mystic’s intensity. At the end of the fast, still unsure where this journey should head, he prayed for God to reveal to him what he should read, and, echoing St. Augustine who was told to ‘take and read,’ Zahnd says his wife either fortuitously or miraculously suggested he read Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy. As valuable to Zahnd as Willard’s reappraisal of the meaning of discipleship in the Kingdom were the writers and theologians to whom Willard’s work introduced him, thinkers as diverse as Stanley Hauerwas, David Bentley Hart, Karl Barth, Scot McKnight, and Maximus the Confessor. While I know Brian Zahnd only from my earbuds, thanks to Dallas Willard and the happy oddness of God’s Church, I can say Brian and I share the same friends.

Searching for a way forward to implement this stirring in him into the life of his congregation, Zahnd once again prayed for illumination and, in response, received what he calls the Five Words: Cross, Mystery, Eclectic, Community, and Revolution. These Five Words have become the values that guide Zahnd’s church a dozen years later and how he summarizes them in Water to Wine demonstrate how far a journey he was leading them from their megachurch, Word-Faith movement origins. Under ‘Cross,’ Zahnd turns Girardian scapegoat theory into practical, congregational theology, preaching that the cross is not what requires in order to forgive us our sin but the cross is what God endures while forgiving us in our sin.

Under ‘Eclectic,’ Zahnd describes how his spiritual awakening served as a passport for him to travel the world, discovering and mining the riches of Christianity’s global tradition, new flavors to incorporate into the vintage of faith God was supplying him. He goes on later in Water to Wine to argue how the Body of Christ needs all of these distinct emphases and flavors to be complete. He goes so far as to suggest that church leaders, over the course of a worship year, should make effort to expose their congregation to the Eastern Church’s focus on the incarnation, Calvinism’s emphasis on God’s sovereignty, Lutheranism’s esteeming of justification, and Catholicism’s centrality of the suffering Christ. Rather than either/or denominational rivalries, Zahnd argues that all the riches of the faith are needed for Christians to journey beyond Cana. Thus Word of Life Church is today a non-denominational church where icons are valued, the eucharist is central, and NT Wright’s take on Paul is preached in the patois of a Pentecostal preacher.

In this avowal of eclecticism Zahnd especially reminds me of John Wesley. The early Methodists’ stress on the movement of God’s grace, nurturing believers into greater holiness and towards theosis, the perfection of love in God, owed in large measure to John Wesley jumping over the reformers to recover the teachings of the ancient, eastern Church Fathers. Today, in my own Methodist tribe, we’ve turned Wesley’s generous method into another distinct institution that celebrates its own particular tradition. Reading Water to Wine, I wondered if Zahnd’s deliberate eclecticism, embracing the gifts of the entire faith, places him closer to the spirit of Wesley than my own denomination.

Not only does Zahnd agonize in prayer and fasting like a mystic, he dreams like the patriarchs of scripture. In Water to Wine he describes three dreams in which God revealed a further step along his theological journey, including a dream where Zahnd goes shoe-shopping in Zurich with the late Swiss theologian, Karl Barth. Zahnd takes the dream to mean that God encourages him to try on the different shoes available in the living tradition of the Christian faith.

This dream of shoe-shopping with Karl Barth piqued my interest, for, as it happened, this Holy Week I had returned to Karl Barth’s Dogmatics whilst reading Water to Wine. Hearing of Zahnd’s dream I wondered, for the first time, how Barth, on whom I cut my theological teeth, might respond to Zahnd, the preacher most often in my head while I exercise.

No doubt Barth would approve heartily of Zahnd’s emphatic insistence that ours is a God who speaks. In the present. For Barth and Zahnd, the God of Israel is not the moribund god of modernity but a Living God, a Risen One, who reveals himself. On the loquaciousness of this God, I expect Barth would fist bump Zahnd against the settled nature of so much Christianity in the West. Indeed I suspect both share more in common than either do with my own Methodist, mainline tribe where God is most often either a character in an ancient text, from whom we can by our own light and volition derive practicable, helpful principles for daily living or is the object of our own subjective, emotional feelings. In neither case is God a living, active subject of verbs that work on, move on, and sometimes include you and me.

On the talkativeness of God, I think Karl Barth would commend Brian Zahnd for retrieving wine where so many Christians are sated by the water of mission trip cry nights and 3-point sermonic slides.

Still, reading some of Zahnd’s story I couldn’t help wonder how Karl Barth would respond to the quote most often attributed to Brian Zahnd, and truly it’s a frame of reference, a precis, for all of Zahnd’s theology. I’m not judging. I’ve cribbed from it myself in plenty of posts and preachments:

“God is like Jesus.
God has always been like Jesus.
There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus.
We have not always known what God is like—
But now we do.”

On the one hand, I’d wager that Karl Barth would find much to affirm in this slight but bold assertion. Barth, I’m sure, would raise his pipe or brandy in approval at the conviction that God is revealed most decisively in Jesus Christ, that in Jesus we discover all of God there is find. Jesus Christ, as Barth says, is the one Word God speaks. Even on Zahnd’s suggestion that God has always been like Jesus Barth would concur, for Barth went further than Zahnd, positing that the very ontological nature of God was/is determined by the incarnation such that Barth could speak of the ‘humanity of God’ and argue, accordingly, that Jesus Christ was the only sacrament of God, the absolutely singular visible, material sign of God.

On the other hand, I suspect Barth pushback that Zahnd’s thesis statement is not sufficiently dialectical. Barth would caution Zahnd against any easy or obvious correspondence between God the Father and Jesus, God made flesh. Perhaps, the word ‘obvious’ is most important in reflecting upon the correlation between the Father and the Son.

For Karl Barth, our ability as (sinful) creatures to apprehend or know God is not available by any innate aptitude in human nature nor is derived from anything in the created world. Quite the opposite, our ability to know God is always- always and everywhere, as we say at the Table- a gift of God. This isn’t only a past gift given, as in the incarnation happened 2,000 years ago, but it’s always a present and future gift. We literally cannot know God apart from God revealing himself. Any God discovered apart from present revelation is a god not God and belongs to what Barth derides with a prophet’s anger as ‘religion.’

Because knowledge of God depends upon present, ongoing revelation by God, belief in the incarnation for Barth is not as simple as supposing that “God is like Jesus.” For Barth, incarnation names not the obvious 1-1 correspondence between the Father and the Son but the mystery that God is both unveiled and veiled in Jesus Christ. Even in the act of revealing himself most decisively in Jesus Christ, Barth says, God simultaneously conceals himself.

While affirming the identification of Jesus with God all the way down- the humanity of God, as Barth puts it, we can’t say that there is no God to be known behind the Jesus of the Gospels because, as Christ, God was never self-evidently God. As Jesus, God was never in any obvious way, to any one anticipating his advent, the Messiah. And God still is today this God-for-us; therefore, God comes to us yet in the selfsame counterintuitive, revealed-but-concealed ways. God was always veiled in Jesus and, as Will Willimon admonishes, we ought not tear away this veil in our preaching or theologizing lest we imply there’s any way to approach this God other than by God’s gracious gesture towards us. Even in the Gospel scripture itself, says Barth, we can only know this God who comes to us as Jesus not by the text itself by the present day proclamation of it, and then only if such preaching is ‘conceived by the Holy Spirit.’

I suspect Barth would rebut Zahnd’s summary statement that “God is like Jesus.” Such a clear equation obscures how, for Barth, the unveiling but veiling of God in Christ is the revelation we call incarnation. God is absolutely vulnerable before us in the incarnation; God’s absolute otherness, as in the burning bush, remains. For Barth, the pattern of revelation revealed in the passion abides today. God’s unveiled yes to us in the incarnation is at the same time God’s no. As Barth says: ‘The Yes itself means a No, that in the very closeness to God our distance from him is disclosed.’ Barth’s dialectic of veiled/unveiled secures a continuity to the Old Testament’s depiction of God that I think Zahnd’s thesis statement at best elides and at worst supersedes but also I believe it allows a place, where Zahnd doesn’t, for those moments in the Gospels when Jesus comes across more like the angry God of Hosea than we like to countenance.

The very point at which I think Barth and Zahnd would agree provides their point of departure: God speaks still. For Barth, this means that revelation is always a gift. It’s always God’s act. As in the incarnation, God’s revelation remains opaque to us, unveiled but veiled still, far off from our expectations. Only by grace do we apprehend. What held true at Calvary holds true today, even in revelation: God comes to us but, as the spiritual sings, ‘we didn’t- we don’t- know who you was.’

Knowing God is like Jesus, we still don’t know who God is.

It has to be that way, Barth might say to Brian.

Otherwise, we no longer require God to know God.

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