Cotton Candy or Wine? A Review of Water to Wine

By on Jan 28, 2016

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Every year the same book comes out. It tells us to be radical, to get serious about Christianity, to be followers and not fans. It is usually written by a famous evangelical pastor. It usually sells well.


There was a time when I devoured these books. I couldn’t get enough of them. I still think there is some kernel of truth in these books, but I’ve come to realize that I could not get enough of them because they were cotton-candy. They hit the tongue and make grand promises but evaporate before you even have time to chew. So you take bite after bite, book after book, hoping the next bite will finally satisfy, will finally change things. But it won’t. Long term, it produces indigestion.


So if you’re tired of cotton-candy indigestion, tired of sporadic spasms of passion that perpetually and predictably flame out, heed the invitation:


“Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;

And you who have no money come, buy and eat.

Come, buy wine and milk

Without money and without cost.

Why do you spend money for what is not bread,

And your wages for what does not satisfy?

Listen carefully to me and eat what is good,

And delight yourself in abundance.” (Isaiah 55:1-2)


Water to Wine is a splendid book about this—Brian Zahnd’s journey from cotton-candy and watered down grape juice to wine. He took his church with him and it was painful (I’m sure it still is at times), but once you’ve tasted the good stuff, there’s really no going back.


What is the good stuff? Religion. Yep—I know the word has fallen out of favor and there is a whole industry that uses religion as a negative foil to spirituality, and some claim Jesus came to end religion. The point is sometimes taken, but quite often it is little more than a rhetorical smokescreen that leads people down dead-end streets, wanting to follow Jesus but having no clue how to actually do it. In fact, I’d say that pretty well describes many Christians I know—a sincere desire to follow Jesus, but besides reading their Bibles (and the yearly book telling them to get radical), they don’t know what to do about it. Their spirit is willing, but their flesh is weak.


Properly understood, religion is a way of life that orients the soul to God. Spiritual disciplines, sacraments, simple constancy, patience, an ear to the past, an eye to the future—this is religion at its finest and it doesn’t just create mystics; it gathers up orphans and widows (James 1:26-27). I’ve seen so myself.


Evangelical pastors, leaders, and elders should really read this book. It says what you have wondered. For example, “We’re in a situation where it is often very difficult, if not impossible, for a pastor to make spiritual progress while being a pastor.”[1] We don’t have time for spiritual progress because spiritual progress is usually slow, meandering, inefficient—in other words, it is hell to those steeped in the ideology of consumer Christianity. Slow, meandering and inefficient are tough sells. So we pastors get to choose: gain the world or lose your soul. Or better yet, lose your soul while you’re pastoring but work long enough to have a good pension and then venture out in search of your soul when you retire. You’ll have time for a soul then.


There is another way, but it isn’t for wimps. Fine wine isn’t for wimps. It takes patience and discipline. But I think Brian is right:


Water turned to wine

The mystery is the time

It takes for my own transformation

A slow and painful fermentation

With a soul like crushed grapes

I’m a dusty bottle in God’s cellar

But the winemaker knows his craft

He makes all things beautiful in their time



The book is a wonderful read, so pick it up and let it ferment.

[1] Water to Wine, 181.

[2] Ibid., 191.


  1. Steven

    January 28, 2016

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    I love Greg Boyd–and he clearly agrees on many things with you and Brian Zahnd–but something that has annoyed me a bit in the past is that he takes advantage of that false dichotomy between “religion” and “spirituality.” I know he’s just using words differently, but it seems like a strange choice given the verse you mention (James 1:27) and the way that many people utilize the word in regular language. He’s just an example from a much larger group of people who use the word “religion” as something dirty or false or insincere. I wonder if it can be reclaimed…

    • Austin Fischer Austin Fischer

      February 1, 2016

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      I love Greg too! He graciously endorsed my book. I’ve learned much from him over the years. But yes, I agree that he has fallen prey to the religion vs. spirituality polarity that is, in my opinion, a misguided rhetorical advice that does more harm than good. But I suppose Greg and I can’t agree on everything!

      • Tobie

        February 26, 2016

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        Hey guys – just a question. I am completing a study guide that that has a somewhat humorous chapter in it called “The 6 Habits of Highly Religious People.” In it I draw a distinction between James 1:27’s true religion and my use of the word, which I explain as “religiosity” (an outward appearance of religious commitment without any change of heart), so that there won’t be any confusion. Why would this be a problem, given the fact that there are multitudes of “religious” people out there who do not really know God, and what term would you suggest a person uses instead? (I know this isn’t what your post is about, but I’m just jumping in here seeing that the issue has been raised.)

        • Austin Fischer Austin Fischer

          March 10, 2016

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          Hey Tobie,

          I understand where you’re coming from and some it it is semantics. I intentionally use the word “religion” positively because I think it makes an important point. Certainly there is a distinction between good religion and bad religion, and we should find helpful ways to articulate that distinction. Calling bad religion “religiosity” is one good way to do it, so I think we agree.

        • Steven

          April 17, 2016

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          “Legalism” might be similar to what you’re describing as “religiosity,” but as long as you define the terms clearly I doubt people will get that confused with the true religion described in James.

  2. Don B

    April 28, 2016

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    Hey, Austin! It was exactly a year ago today that I visited you at your church :-> I don’t know what happened to the UA Wildcats this year , but I was glad to see Steve Kerr be named NBA coach of the year. I watched him when he played basketball for U of A. He’s always seemed like a great guy!
    You’ve taught me quite a bit : ) But one thing that stands out to me is a comment you made. You said my relationship is not with the Word of God but with the God of the Word. For most of my life my relationship has been with the Word of God, but that has been changing the last year. And you’ve played a part in that . Thanks, bro!

  3. Joyce Atela

    May 1, 2018

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    Hi Austin, I love your book. Please write more. I’m reading it for the 3rd time. I read Brian’s book & it’s a little confusing to me. I have to read it again. I got the feeling he was going back to the early Catholic church & their customs a bit. I was raised a Catholic, baptised in a Vineyard church & then followed John MacArthur for the last 10 years. I never thought I’d disagree with John & reformed theology. Your book & Leighton Flowers book have changed my mind. Now for finding the right church to go to is what I have to do next. I’m 72 years old & the Bible & theology have been my passion. I even studied with Jehovah’s witnesses for 10 years in my 20’s. Is your church a traditional church? What do you think of this new church called The Experience? What is your view of tongues for today? When I went to the Vineyard church I did have an experience of being on fire, but the tongues speaking seemed forced & didn’t seem natural. It scared me, so I left. All my family are Catholic & I’m expected to go to Baptisms, communions, funeral masses etc. I’m not comfortable, but my grandchildren would be upset if I didn’t go. Is this wrong? Thank you for your book & please write more.

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