Convinced as I have been--and, it must be admitted, remain--that the Methodist church's adoption of sacramental grape juice in place of wine was a grievous error, thanks to Jennifer Woodruff Tait's fine new book, The Poisoned Chalice, I promise never again to consider it a nonsensical or untheological one.
This is a good history of the movement that resulted in the substitution of grape juice for wine in the churches that were to become The United Methodist Church, giving due credit to people whom it is easier to caricaturize, especially for those of us that disagree with them. Woodruff Tait debunks the myth (common among us sacramental oenophiles) that the movement was driven largely by relatively shallow social and cultural concerns rather than substantive moral, theological, or symbological ones.
That is not to say that the moral and mystagogical theology expressed by the grape juice devotees is persuasive or impressive in any way. But Woodruff Tait manages the historian's delicate job of portraying the occasionally ridiculous comprehensibly, at times sympathetically, and without overt mockery. (One sometimes catches a playful smile barely hidden behind the hand, but it is never a smirk.)
More importantly, Woodruff Tait isolates and draws out the many interwoven threads that manifested themselves in the movement towards sacramental grape juice--the interaction between theology and science, rationality and sobriety, hygiene and social utility. The confluence of concerns is rich and sometimes surprising, and Woodruff Tait's deft handling of the material makes it somewhat less incomprehensible than it might otherwise be.
She relates this cultural constructs accessibly and engagingly, and the book would be easily and profitably read by anyone interested in any one of the many concerns it engages.
If one had to name a complaint (and one has to, in order to have one's reviews taken seriously), it might be that there seem a relatively few primary texts being worked with here. Each chapter covers a different facet of the same few texts, intelligibly and persuasively, but one occasionally wonders whether a broader selection of writings from the period would tell the same story. (Surely if one broadened the sample a bit, one would find those nonsensical and untheological voices arguing from sheer stupidity--Fred Phelps is but the most modern incarnation of an old phenomenon.) Still, a scholar does have to work within limits in order to learn or to say anything meaningful, and this hardly seems a complaint worth making.
As I read, I could not help but think of companion readings (not to supply the book's deficits, but because good reading always invites company). Those who are primarily interested in the history of the period should read this alongside Christine Rosen's Preaching Eugenics (especially if the author's references to the eugenic concerns of theologians and pastors seem too fantastical). Intellectual historians might profitably follow this with Amy Laura Hall's Conceiving Parenthood, for the sequel to American Protestantism's love affair with scientific hygiene and purity.
Theologians and ethicists might read this with Thomas, with whom a comparison is never unprofitable (indeed--those familiar with the Summa might have recognized the concern for the effects of alcohol on reason as one of Thomas’s concerns and, perhaps, chuckled at the picture of rabidly Protestant ministers unknowingly propagating Thomistic moral theology) or, for contemporary issues with perhaps a similar constellation of concerns (scientific orthodoxy, social justice and the common good, purity, the effects of technological innovation), Rayna Rapp’s Testing Women, Testing the Fetus or Maura Ryan’s Ethics and Economics of Assisted Reproduction.