My Water, His Wine
A Small Life-Comedy in Four Acts
by Ralph C. Wood
The following is drawn from an address I gave at Providence College in Rhode Island, where I occupied the Randall Chair of Christian Culture for 2010–2011. I was surprised when the provost of this Dominican school asked this Baptist from the Deep South to speak at the opening academic convocation. Yet it gave me grateful opportunity to reflect on where I’ve been, where I’ve come, and where I hope to be going. It also enabled me to confess that I have been decisively shaped, as I believe we are all meant to be shaped, by particular places and people, by specific schools and churches. I am their product, and this is a brief report on my pilgrimage.
Act I: Growing Up a Rural Baptist
I count it a blessing beyond all adequate thanksgiving to have been reared amid modest circumstances in the rural South—namely, in the town of Linden in eastern Texas, population 1,714. Though I myself never knew poverty, I knew people who didn’t have enough to eat or decent clothes to wear. My maternal grandparents were sharecroppers, and one of my uncles never learned to read or write. He was taken out of school at age six to work in the cotton fields.
Both my father and my mother were the first members of their families to receive education beyond the tenth grade—the maximum level offered in their rural schools. After two years of sub-college, they became full-time teachers in rural one- and two-room schools when they were only 18. They married in 1930, hardly an inauspicious year. Not until a dozen years later was I born in 1942, an only child. That small datum reveals a great deal.
Ironically, small-town life may have afforded greater actual diversity than the large impersonal cities, or even the highly sophisticated but terribly provincial academic places. There was no anonymity in Linden, Texas. You couldn’t dwell in your own self-invented, self-contained world. Instead, you were accountable to everyone else, because they knew you and you knew them.
There were drawbacks, of course. Small-town life can be suffocatingly small-minded. Scandals are sometimes manufactured out of peccadilloes. Against the charge that nothing ever happens there, we answer: “Yes, but what you hear makes up for it.” Nor did we have much exposure to high culture. I can still recall first seeing a copy of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice, when I was a freshman in college, and thinking it was a book about race relations.
My little town was filled with worthy men and women, and I wanted to become a person worthy of their regard. My parents were public school teachers, and they enjoyed altogether as much public respect as the local lawyers and doctors and ministers. I also wanted to be like my pastor, Joe Gilmore. He wasn’t better than the other folks who shaped me. Yet he was drastically different in one special regard: he handled holy things. He wrestled with a Book that was no antique tribal anthology, no literary masterpiece penned by a consummate artist. Nor was it one book among other books. It was the rough-hewn and often scandalous book called the Bible.
Because of Gilmore’s preaching and ministry, my Baptist church gradually became the magnetic north of my life. This was no heroic act on my part. Not to have been shaped by Baptist life in the Bible Belt South would have been akin to denying the air I breathed. My small town numbered five or six Baptist churches. As we say in Texas, there seem to be more Baptists than people.
Our numbers can be at least partially explained. Like cats, we multiply by fighting. One Baptist, a believer; two Baptists, a church; three Baptists, a church split. The founder of this city and state was himself a Baptist. Roger Williams was finally unable to remain the sole member even of his own “church.” He rejected all forms of organized Christianity, ending as a self-described “seeker.”
Story & Song
To describe my Baptist formation as fundamentalist would be ludicrous. We never spoke of the Bible as inerrant in its science and history, nor as infallible in its verbal inspiration and original autographs. These strange categories were unknown to us. They were northern and urban categories hatched in places such as Chicago and Minneapolis. We believed the Bible simply because it is true, because its narrative shapes us into the people we are meant to be, though we often miserably fail to be.
We Baptists thus read and heard the Bible preached as the world’s true Story, indeed, as the ultimate five-act Drama—from the original and continuing Creation of the cosmos, through the aboriginal Calamity that brought sin and death into the world, further still to the Corrective that God established in Israel as his unique people, on to the true and everlasting Cure found in Christ and the Church, until finally God works his Consummation in the world to come, where we shall no longer see through a glass darkly, but face to face with our Maker and Redeemer. Baptists like alliteration.
This overarching Christian drama, with its frightful stories and drastic doctrines, shaped me perhaps more powerfully in its music than in its biblical texts. I still find myself singing in times of great distress and even greater delight. These are some of the blood-soaked, Atonement-driven, heaven-bent gospel songs that shaped me: “We’re Marching to Zion,” “Bringing in the Sheaves,” “When We All Get to Heaven,” “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood (drawn from Immanuel’s veins),” “Just As I Am (without one plea but that thy blood was shed for me, and that thou bidst me come to thee, O Lamb of God, I come, I come).”
These gospel songs, this reading and preaching of the Bible, these parents and teachers and churches—they all permanently marked me. They gave me the most important thing in the world: the gospel of Jesus Christ and his kingdom. I owe them an unpayable debt. Thus was H. L. Mencken pathetically naïve and woefully wrongheaded when, in 1918, he devised the most derisive term he could imagine to besmirch my region. Seeking to insult the South, Mencken paid it the highest of compliments by calling it the Bible Belt.
More Than Equal
Yet Mencken wasn’t altogether wrong. My blessed upbringing in the small-town South was deeply flawed. The elephant in the room that nobody seemed to notice was, of course, race. There was no vicious racism in my hometown. I never knew any African-Americans to be abused or beaten or lynched. But neither did I know any blacks who were angry enough to protest the system that left them the broth after we white folks had first eaten the black-eyed peas and ham hock.
It never occurred to me to ask why there were notices placed over every public waiting room, every public restroom, every public drinking fountain: Colored Only and Whites Only. To have disputed the color-line of apartheid that would not allow blacks to eat in public restaurants, to stay in public hostelries, and (God forbid) to attend our churches—this would have been like asking birds to dispute the air in which they fly.
My sinful racism was cured not through noble self-enlightenment or secular hectoring, but through the Baptist Student Union at the small state college I attended. Our leaders insisted that we hold joint rather than separate meetings with our fellow Baptists from the Negro colleges of Texas. These African-Americans were not just as smart, not just as properly dressed, not just as well-mannered as we were. They were in fact much more than our equals. They were our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Once we came to embrace them in mutual bondage to our Lord, we no longer wanted to ban them from our churches or schools. What matters most in the South: we refused to bar them from our homes and thus from marriages to our children. Little did I know that God was preparing me, forty years later, to have an African-American son-in-law.
Yet there is something exceedingly dangerous about cutting one’s teeth on what David Solomon calls “the most obvious moral issue of the twentieth century.” Racial injustice is so patently evil that it seems to have a patently obvious solution. As Walker Percy peremptorily declared back in the 1960s: “Stop abusing Negroes”—that old and still dignifying word. Yet the morally easy is the morally dangerous because it denies subtlety and complexity. In my simplistic racial righteousness, I was veering into an even greater peril than racism. I was becoming a preening moralist, ever so pleased that I was not racist, as other men were. I was becoming a self-righteous jerk and a certified ass.
I was saved from such invincible arrogance through another event that occurred in the Baptist Student Union on my college campus. There I met and eventually married a demure girl who could never be accused of pomposity. Suzanne Coppedge was and remains a woman of Christian modesty and humility. She embodies both the steadiness and the patience that I lack. She has been a beautiful mother to our grown children—not least of all because she is as cool-tempered as I am choleric. I regard her as my good-will ambassador, going before me to ward off advance attacks. She is my sine qua non, the one “without whom, nothing.”
Act II: College Brings New Influences
The second most crucial religious event beyond my baptism also occurred during my undergraduate years. Prospective Baptist preachers who were serious about their vocation wanted to be educated at Baylor University. I was one of them, and I yearned for “Jerusalem on the Brazos,” there in the heart of Texas, at the school that was the veritable buckle on the Bible Belt.
But in 1959, the total cost for a year’s education at Baylor was $2,000. My schoolteacher parents were earning $300 per month. And while this was not a negligible income in the late 1950s, it was clear that my matriculation at Baylor would work a financial hardship on them. While they didn’t forbid me to enroll there, I elected not to do so. Instead, I attended the former East Texas State College in the town of Commerce, located sixty miles east of Dallas on the blackland prairie. Little did I know the difference that this decision would make.
At that time, Baylor (like most other Baptist schools) had no Catholics on its faculty. They would not have been hired even if they had been foolish enough to apply. I certainly had no reason to find fault with this policy. I, too, assumed that Catholics were not Christians. Nor is there any doubt that I would have received a superior academic formation at Baylor, except for this one glaring omission: I would never have been taught by a Catholic. In 1959 I had never even met a Catholic. There was no Catholic church in my hometown, none in my home county. Eastern Texas was as Baptist as Rhode Island is Catholic.
This religious vacuum was filled by Paul Wells Barrus. He was the only Roman Catholic on the entire faculty. Yet I could dismiss him no more than I could deny my Baptist upbringing. He was not only the most learned member of the faculty, the best teacher by far, and the scholar gifted with the largest mastery of languages and cultures: he was also the deepest Christian, a man who (without wearing his convert Catholicism on his sleeve) exhibited sanctity. He was palpably, undeniably holy.
The Mark of O’Connor
He was also chair of the English Department and, because of his stellar example in the classroom and beyond it, I majored in English. Though himself a convert from Iowa Methodism, he never sought to advertise, much less to impose, his Catholicism. On the contrary, he exhibited the utmost fairness toward his Protestant students, as well as towards the great writers of the American literary tradition—none of whom are Catholic and most of whom are only dubiously, if at all Christian: Melville and Hawthorne, Emerson and Twain.
In the autumn of 1962, when I was a senior, Barrus brought a little-known writer to our campus. It would be her only Texas visit, for in two years she would die of lupus erythematosus at age 39. Her name was Flannery O’Connor. I was immediately struck by her fiction. She had transformed the world of my own backwoods Bible Belt Christianity into transcendent art. She was also gut-wrenchingly funny. And her comedy was deeply Christian even when, like Dante’s, it wasn’t humorous. A lot of people get killed in her fiction, as she sardonically noted, but nobody gets hurt.
Almost all of the grisly killings open out to newness of life, if only in the moment of death, by way of a blinding revelation whose qualitative insight offsets a huge quantity of sins and trespasses. Above all else, O’Connor was a Roman Catholic who focused her life and art on the Church—its prophetic witness, its moral and doctrinal teaching, its indelible sacraments. With her coming, my life turned a corner irreversibly. She marked me as surely as did my Bible Belt past. Almost fifty years later, I’m still reading and teaching her, with no lessening of enthusiasm whatsoever.
The Liberal Protestant Well
Thanks to excellent instruction from my Catholic teacher, I was able to go on to earn my doctorate in theology and literature at the University of Chicago. It was a high-powered place and I relished its challenge, especially from such superb professors as Brian Gerrish on the Reformation and Edward Wasiolek on Dostoevsky. They taught me that the gospel, even in the most hospitable of worlds, remains strange and scandalous.
I also drank deeply at the wells of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, the very best of liberal Protestant theologians. From them I learned that Christian categories can be cast into secular terms, such as Tillich’s “ultimate concern,” so as to make them relevant to clamant personal and cultural issues: the problems of suffering, tragedy, and injustice, the uses and abuses of freedom, the apparent meaninglessness of human existence, even the death of God. Christian answers, so I learned from Tillich, must be calibrated to fit secular questions.
Seeing that all of my Divinity School professors were products of the mainline denominations, my wife and I joined them. We experienced liturgical worship for the very first time, chiefly in the Lutheran and Episcopal churches of Hyde Park. We felt ourselves instantly at home in them, both then and now. It seemed, in sum, that my graduate education was ideally suited to these clamorous times.
Yet I was pulled up short one day in the coffee shop of Swift Hall when my Roman Catholic friend, Jean Kellogg, offered me a witty warning. Jean was old enough to be my mother, and she had the right to treat me as a son. “I’m worried,” she said, “about a Baptist youth from the South like you studying here in Swift Hall.” “Why?” I asked in puzzlement. “Because you are likely to forget that the aim of education at the University of Chicago,” she said, “is to turn the wine back into water.” She might have added that Tillich’s watchword—“Religion is the substance of culture, and culture is the shape of religion”—is a watery creed unlikely to produce blood-surrendering faith.
Act III: Teaching at Wake Forest
Though wildly and willfully outrageous, Jean Kellogg’s caveat had more merit than I recognized. My unrecognized danger became evident to me only when I began my teaching career at Wake Forest University in North Carolina in 1971. I thought my mission was to wipe the grins off fundamentalist faces, to rub pious Baptist noses in the cold snows of modern secularity, so that my students would turn out to be good Tillichians like me. And so, during my very first semester, I taught the modern literary masters of suspicion—Hemingway and Faulkner, Kafka and Lawrence, Sartre and Camus.
Yet I faced a terrible problem. There was not single fundamentalist in my classes, and there were only a few pietists. Instead, my classrooms were filled either with badly catechized Catholics coming down from the North, or else with regional Protestants who knew little if anything about their own tradition. I was desperate. What to do? I had been educated to do a job for which I was grossly unprepared: to deepen and re-vitalize the shallow and inert faith of my students—and also of myself.
I was saved from total disaster when I was confronted by the minister of the campus Baptist church, Warren Carr. He was smarter, tougher, funnier, and more theologically astute than almost all of the professors at Wake Forest. He had put his life on the line during the civil rights crisis of the 1960s. His house was bombed and his church desecrated in Durham, North Carolina. Yet Carr always made clear that his courageous stance on racial justice was for the sake of the gospel. There is nothing higher or greater than the kingdom of God, I learned from Carr. It is the criterion for judging and transforming even the noblest of moral causes, not an instrument for their realization. Carr had learned this lesson from Karl Barth, the great Swiss Protestant theologian whom he inspired me to study.
At first I balked. There was still a residual Tillichianism at work in my conviction that the great monuments of Western art and culture were sufficient to sustain Christian faith. But a year spent in Italy (1976–1977) cured me of this delusion. The European churches were on their way to becoming mausoleums, and even their civil impact was rapidly dwindling. And so I plunged into the work of Søren Kierkegaard, seeking a radical alternative to the collapse of Christendom. Eventually I discovered what Kierkegaard himself confessed—that he is a corrective rather than a cure, a way station and not a stopping-point. And so I immersed myself in Barth by way of massive self-tutelage.
I also began setting Barthian theology in relation to a clutch of writers who helped me to re-baptize my own imagination, as well to reinvigorate the dormant Christianity of my students: T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, Graham Greene and Walker Percy—all of them either Roman Catholics or Anglo-Catholics. Best of all, I returned to Flannery O’Connor. She grabbed the attention of my Wake Forest students like no one else.
Church at the Center
What Karl Barth and this clutch of literary folk all had in common was the thing most glaringly absent from both my Bible Belt past and my recent conversion to liberal Protestantism—the absolute centrality of the Church. I had grown up believing that salvation is essentially an interior and private relation to Christ based on a once-in-a-lifetime decision to “accept Jesus as my personal savior” so that, when I died, I would “go to heaven.” The church was often reduced to a voluntary society of likeminded believers gathered to foster this individualist and otherworldly faith.
I learned, during my Wake Forest years, that such a sub-ecclesial notion of the gospel is the virtual obverse of Protestant liberalism. Among Evangelical pietists, the church exists largely to convert others to the love of Jesus through prayer and Bible study. Among social gospellers, the church frequently seeks to realize the American goal of individual freedom and civil rights. In both cases, the church gains its alleged liberty from state interference by surrendering its unique mission as the prophetic and sacramental people of God.
My Swiss Calvinist theologian and my expanding cadre of Catholic writers offered a fine ecclesial remedy to right and left alike. From them I learned that the gospel is inherently and irreducibly other. Christianity is by definition an ec-centric faith. It demands our full allegiance to another Center and an alternate City. The Church is God’s earthly polis in the making. It constitutes us into a peculiar people who do exceedingly odd things—being reconciled to the worst enemies, refusing to take vengeance on those who deserve it, and even (as Walker Percy said) “shriving the sins of Buick dealers.”
To be Christian, as St. Paul repeatedly insists with the phrase “en Christo,” is to belong to the Body of Christ. You cannot say “Jesus Christ,” I began to discover, without also saying “and his Church.” Here is the one Community capable of true diversity whenever it is ordered to the all-embracing love of God. It is in fact the only multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-cultural, class-transcending culture: the Body of Christ. For 26 years, therefore, I devoted my life to teaching these Protestant and Catholic figures to my Protestant and Catholic students at Wake Forest.
Act IV: “Back” to Baylor
Yet there was still a further turn awaiting me. It occurred through an act of downward mobility when, in 1997, I left Wake Forest to teach at a much lesser-known Baptist school, Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. It was wrenching to abandon the companions of a quarter-century’s making, especially the large following of bright and faithful students who eagerly received my teaching at Wake Forest. I was relieved when a friend named Ed Friedenberg pulled me aside one day for avuncular wisdom: “You may have ruined your career but saved your soul.”
Suzanne and I were immensely happy in Birmingham, harboring no desire to leave Samford or the Vestavia Hills Baptist Church. But to my surprise, I was given the opportunity, just a year later, in 1998, to move to Baylor. The president, Robert Sloan, and the provost, Donald Schmeltekopf, with the strong support of the Baylor regents, were leading a revolutionary effort to do the unthinkable: to create a first-tier Christian research university. The Baylor Project was met with immense skepticism. Most of its critics said that, in a secular age such as ours, we were swimming hopelessly against the stream, and that our life-saving future lay in distancing ourselves from our ecclesial identity, as nearly all other “advancing” Baptist colleges and universities were doing.
The naysayers were wrong, at least about the hopelessness, if not about the difficulty. Every important academic and religious indicator at Baylor has gone steadily upward in the last fifteen years. The scholarly quality of both our students and faculty has markedly increased. So has our diversity. Among 15,000 students, 35 percent are Baptist, 16 percent Catholic (almost 2,500), and 36 percent minority. Rather than having to be lured to Baylor, the ablest young faculty and students are seeking us out because we are seeking to take our Christian identity seriously. Across all sorts of religious and ethnic boundaries, they are coming to Baylor so that they might engage the liberal arts and sciences with confessional Christianity.
This fourth turning also became theologically decisive. My fine colleagues in Theology and Great Texts introduced me to theologians whose work I knew only by name, among them Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, and Joseph Ratzinger. At Baylor I have also discovered the riches of Eastern Christianity, especially the icon tradition and the theology of Vladimir Lossky. In all of these sources, I have found a theology that goes well beyond Barth while preserving his best insights. They enable me to maintain the scandalous angularity of my Baptist tradition together with a Catholic vision of the Church. It is the singular Community into which God is determined to incorporate the whole of humanity within his own triune life. In sum: a radical Christian particularity integrated with a radical Christian universality.
I have even invented a name for myself: I am a Bapto-Catholic. The idea of bringing the riches of Catholic tradition to bear on the lives of my largely Protestant students at Baylor has extended to the DaySpring Baptist Church, where my wife and I both worship and serve. There we celebrate the Christian year unapologetically. We also follow the ecumenical Lectionary, recite the Apostle’s Creed at all baptisms and the Nicene Creed on Trinity Sunday. We impose ashes at the beginning of Lent and observe the eight biblical Stations of the Cross on Good Friday.
I also traipse the lecture circuit on an average of twice monthly, to speak mainly, though not entirely, in Protestant colleges and churches. To my delight, they receive my Catholic-formed teaching eagerly. I seek, in turn, to convey the evangelistic quality of my Baptistic and Bible Belt formation to my Catholic audiences, emphasizing the primacy of the gathered local congregation in making communal witness in behalf of the Kingdom through ongoing personal conversion.
Awaiting the Eucatastrophe
Now at last the whole pattern has begun to fall into place, though ever so ironically. As St. Augustine teaches, our lives seem like a maze of chicken tracks during the living of them. Only in retrospect can we begin to place our own little narratives within the divine Story. And so I have come full circle, back home to the Baptist university that I wanted to attend as an undergraduate fifty years ago. Thus far, the drama of my life has had four acts, the last of them continuing through the academic year of 2010–2011 at Providence College in Rhode Island.
My pilgrim path has traced neither a perfect circle nor a straight line so much as jagged dramatic action. In Greek and Shakespearean tragedies, the five-act play comes to its climax toward the end of the third act. In the peripeteia, there is a sudden reversal, a huge turnabout. In this event of radical recognition, everything begins to become clear, whether for good or ill. The drama’s falling action follows, leading finally to the denouement.
Death is certainly the denouement that awaits us all. Yet the Christian life is not meant to be a tragedy but a comedy. It ends not with defeat and destruction but with what Tolkien called eucatastrophe—a good calamity of violent consummation issuing in supreme joyfulness. We are thus summoned to reach the peak of our lives not in the middle but at their close. We honor the saints not on their birthdays but on the anniversary of their death-days. There we are meant to make a good ending, to sum up our lives so as to return them faithfully to God. Unlike the foolish man in the parable who buried his treasure and came back empty-handed, we are called to enlarge God’s immeasurable gift of our salvation and finally to place it in his good keeping.
Thanks to the unstinting generosity of Providence College, as well as the splendid welcome given to my wife and me at the First Baptist Church in America (organized by Roger Williams in 1638), I have been immensely privileged to continue this fourth act in my life’s modest little drama. I arrived to learn all that I could, and to give all that I was able, in the hope that there might yet be a fifth act. Coming only at the end, it is performed on another stage altogether. And at the Marriage Feast of the Lamb, the muddy water of our witness will be turned into Christ’s rich red wine. •
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“My Water, His Wine” first appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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