Thursday, June 26, 2014

Book Review: The Taste of New Wine

A Fair Trade Book

Author: Keith Miller

Date: 1965

Publisher: Word Books

ISBN: none

Length: 127 pages

Quote: “It wasn’t so much that people lied. We just had an unspoken agreement not to press the truth.”

This book has been quoted and cited and promoted throughout my lifetime, so obviously the problem I have in reading it is my own problem, caused by excessive familiarity. In 1965 Keith Miller could not have known that his book would be read during an Age of Therapy when, motivated perhaps by all the media noise about our President’s having been caught in a particularly tacky sort of lie, everyone was going to carry on about “being honest” as they treated every school, church, or even office meeting as a form of group therapy.

He might have anticipated that the banality of “Have a nice day” would generate the backlash of “Don’t tell me what kind of day to have,” but he could hardly have imagined Americans seriously protesting that using phrases like “Have a nice day” or “Good afternoon” was hypocritical—in the same sense that preaching race hate as a Christian or Muslim doctrine (yes, my generation actually had to deal with that) was hypocritical.

Somehow I doubt that he even foresaw adults seriously debating the morality of answering “How are you?” with “Fine, thanks,” and needing to spell out that, in the context of this little ritual, “Fne, thanks” does not mean “Everything in my entire life is perfect” so much as it means “Capable of making conversation on the subject you want to propose; willing to let you interpret my body language as mostly relevant to the topic,” even though, of course, the feelings our bodies express will not necessarily stick to the topic of a conversation. Body language never lies, but more often than not it distracts.

Keith Miller could hardly have anticipated a period of history in which people would try to “put aside the masks” and “be blazingly real” by ignoring what others had actually said and trying to “read their faces.” If anybody who’s ever been guilty of this social offense happens to be able to read this article, please understand that, even if someone’s face or body position was reacting to the perception that you were a particularly obnoxious idiot, everyone was much better off with the social lie that your tragic mental condition might not have been recognized, yet.

So for me, reading The Taste of New Wine 45 years after its publication, this book seems full of clichés, and I have to remind myself that in 1965 these phrases must have seemed fresh and memorable. The idea that a serious religious practice, for people who were not actively employed as ministers, could consist of living “in relationship with God,” was actually new, once. The idea of debunking politeness and “being honest” had not evolved into its own form of (remarkably unattractive) hypocrisy. Miller was part of a fellowship group that seriously studied the Gospels and attempted to do what they believed Jesus would have done; it wasn’t just incessant chatter and clichés, back then. And Miller’s book was part of a salutary movement away from the kind of Christianity that allowed people to say “I go to church on Sunday, but I don’t let it affect my life during the rest of the week” into the kind that allows people to say “If I go to church on Sunday, or on Saturday or on Wednesday or at any other time, it had better be in order to share what I’ve learned and be guided by what others can teach me during the rest of the week.”This is where our awareness of the need to be “doers and not hearers only” of our beliefs started, and this book has an important place in church history.

Who needs to read this book? Maybe young people who missed the Age of Therapy, who were taken to church just because their parents went. Anne Lamott’s nonfiction books narrated how, when she became a desperately poor single mother, a small, poor, majority-minority church adopted her and her son. And she went to services, out of gratitude to the people who’d slipped her small amounts of much-needed money when she needed the money, even after she achieved fame and prosperity as a writer. And she took her son along. And funnily enough, even though she’d explained exactly why to the entire English-speaking world, the kid rebelliously asked why he had to go to church. Okay, so there are probably other twenty-somethings who can relate to this young man’s story. Most of their parents have not written bestselling books that explain exactly why they go to church, and most of their stories would be different from Lamott’s. So to those people this old book might still be relevant. Go back to where some of us started—reading this book, or any of the dozens of books that elaborated on its themes, in a church-sponsored school with a lot of ministerial students. This is a first book about how a yuppie-type married man discovered the reality of spiritual life within his own religious tradition. It helped some of your parents make that discovery for themselves. Maybe it will help you.

Just be prepared, if The Taste of New Wine does help you, to see reactions on the faces of people my age that may warn you that you’re speaking in clichés.