A Good Head

Michael Metzger

This Saturday we go green – as in green beer.

St. Patrick’s Day is known for all things green, including beer. But beer enthusiasts insist on a good beer head as well. It’s an important part of the drinking experience. It’s also an important part of the faith experience.

This Saturday’s holiday is based on the work of Patrick who was born in England in 385. Kidnapped by pirates at age 16, he was sold as a slave to a Druid chieftain in Ireland. While herding pigs, Patrick recalled the Bible verses his father had taught him. He came to faith in Christ. In his Confessions, Patrick wrote, “in a strange land the Lord opened my unbelieving eyes and I was converted.” Patrick eventually escaped from his captors and returned to Britain. Then he decided to return to Ireland, this time as a missionary.

This was during a dark period in Western history. “The intellectual disciplines… that had once been the glory of men like Augustine were unobtainable by readers in the Dark Ages,” writes Thomas Cahill in his delightful book, How the Irish Saved Civilization.1 In the sunset years of the Roman Empire, throughout Europe and the Mediterranean, invading barbarians had destroyed Roman civilization including the great libraries containing ancient learning. Patrick understood this in returning to Ireland. He knew for example that the Irish had no written alphabet.

Patrick began to introduce the gospel by introducing the Irish to written language. They loved the newfound words and invented playful limericks. Many Irish also came to love God. Over the course of some 29 years Patrick baptized over 120,000 Irishmen and established at least 300 churches (other historians say 600 churches). Irish monks began to preserve Christian literature as well as all writing that came their way, including Augustine and Aristotle. Cahill says they “took up the just labor of copying all of western literature – everything they could get their hands on.”

Over the next 100 years, the great texts of Plato, Thucydides and the Bible survived by clinging to places like Skellig Michael, a pinnacle of rock 18 miles from the Irish coast. Then, in the mid-500s, Irish missionaries scooped up these sacred texts and set sail to turn the lights back on in Britain and Europe. This is why Cahill writes that the Irish, starting with the work of St. Patrick, literally saved civilization.

There is however an additional aspect of Patrick’s story that few modern Christians know. He was part of an ancient Christian tradition that viewed the heart of the gospel as “the redemption of the body” (Rom. 8:32). Salvation was bodily and included things like good beer. Patrick for example kept his personal brewmaster, Mescan, at his side while introducing the gospel to the pagan land of Ireland. St. Brigid, the famous Irish saint who labored in a leper colony, asked God to turn bathwater into beer so that her lepers could also enjoy the taste of beer. This was an era when Christians held to a fully embodied faith. We hear echoes of it in writers such as Flannery O’Connor: “The things we taste and touch and feel affect us long before we believe anything at all.”

A full-body faith assumes our bodies are integral to salvation. It is why God wants us to enjoy good food, good wine, and good beer. “For he gives wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart” (Ps. 104:15). This is why the Bible urges us to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8). A full-body faith assumes bodily redemption requires just the right amount of head. We see how this works by noticing what Guinness – an Irish brewer – puts in every can of its beer.

When beer is poured into a glass, a head forms that holds the multifaceted aromatics within the body of the drink, helping a drinker relish the complexities of the brew. That’s why a can of Guinness contains a widget, a small plastic capsule that allows a can of Guinness to be properly nitrogenated and form the best head. A good head is the only way to fully enjoy a good body of beer. No wonder Guinness’ widget won the Queens award for technological achievement in 1991. In 2005, the British people voted it the greatest invention of the past 40 years. Cheers!

It is only recently that a full-bodied faith gave way to a Big Brain faith. In Desiring the Kingdom, Calvin College professor James K. A. Smith says much of modern Christianity assumes people are “brains on a stick.” It’s a no-body faith. Church services are centered on sermons. Congregants mostly sit and listen. A few take notes. Small groups are mostly about cultivating the mind, discussing Bible verses. Evangelism and apologetics are about winning the war of competing worldviews.

“Brains on a stick” is a faith that mostly produces froth. It’s a beer head without a robust beer body. It’s why we hear frothy statements about “passion” and what God is supposedly doing in our churches – all the while ignoring an overwhelming body of evidence indicating the faith of many Christians is not very robust. This bodiless faith has the same appeal as the best selling beer in America – Bud Light. Americans apparently prefer a beer with little body. You can acquire a taste for it, but why drink simply because it’s less filling? The same question goes for Christians. Any believer can acquire a taste for a faith with no body, but what’s the point if it’s only less filling?

In his book Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Heaven, Peter Kreeft observes that beings with brains but no bodies are called ghosts. “The human soul needs the body to express itself. That is why the resurrection of the body is… not a dispensable extra.”2 This Saturday, visit a pub and ask for a pint of Guinness. Observe the bartender carefully fill the glass by tilting it and then drawing off some of the head. A good head is not too much head. Then tilt the glass, relish the aromas, and enjoy the taste. Afterward, ask whether your faith community urges you to drink this deeply of a bodily faith. If not, consider switching to a better brand.

1 Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe (Doubleday: New York, 1995), p. 204.
2 Peter Kreeft, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Heaven (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), p. 93.


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  1. When you read the Old Testament, you see many of the promises God made to the Israelites concerned their temporal life on earth…”you will live well in the land”. It flows with milk and honey.

    The New Testament focuses on the “Kingdom of Heaven”. Paul speaks of avoiding marriage if possible. Wine (and beer) are merely stumbling blocks that he specifically says leads to “dissipation”. Rich men will never enter the gates of heaven…it’s easier for a camel to go through the Eye of the Needle.

    Don’t even get me started on Prohibition! It’s no wonder Christianity faith is a brain without a body.

  2. Dear Chris:

    I hope you are being facetious. Please read the New Testament again. Jesus begins his public work by making (according to historians) at least 75 gallons of wine…. for one wedding! Paul urges Timothy to drink a little wine to settle his stomach. And Paul never urges anyone to avoid marriage. We are in fact all married to Christ – we are the bride. For those with a particular gift, they save consummation for the Really Big Show. The Rich Man is a story about the heart, not the actually material possessions. Please read John Schneider’s excellent “The Good of Affluence” and how anti-material, anti-drinking, anti-affluence attitudes arose in fundamentalist churches in the 1800s.

  3. Mike, thank you for this great article! It reminds me why the gospel is called “good news” and not just “good information”.

    Our brains-on-a-stick approach to life has left people with no place within Christianity to live out huge parts of their lives–the parts that include things like hunger, desire, passion, thirst, romance, sex, etc. And without space within Christianity, people have no choice but to live these outside.

    It’s not hard to understand why issues like obesity, substance abuse, work-aholism, pornography and the like are problems within the church as much as they are anywhere else.

    Christ came to redeem the body, not to dismiss it. His bodily life, death, and resurrection were not just proofs, they were essential to the rescue of our bodies. Likewise, Pentecost was not just to empower the early church with miracles so people would intellectually believe them, but to actually join God’s Spirit with our humanity, to animate all we are (including our bodies) with His life.

    I’ll raise a glass to that!

  4. As long as we are quoting Scripture, let’s add Deuteronomy 14:26, which explains to the Israelites how to tithe, “Be sure to set aside a tenth of all that your fields produce each year.” And then goes on to say, “Use the silver to buy whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or other fermented drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God and rejoice.” Our walk with Christ should be a celebration of life and its richness. Celtic Christianity with its bawdy spirituality is a case study in such attitudes. We worship a life affirming, joy affirming God.

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