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The History of the World in 6 Glasses

I was turned on to this book via the sales Audible will sometimes have. It seemed interesting and cheap (a mix which I have indulged in one too many times). The premise of telling the history of the world by what man was drinking is intriguing, certainly outside of the box (wine).

Tom Standage starts with the most popular of all drinks since man found out water wasn’t the big deal, beer. Long ago in history people began to notice that leaving grains in liquid too long caused them to ferment. Early on Standage starts to make correlation between alcohol and religious practices. They seemed to quickly be related. Beer, apparently, was stored in and around the ancient temples of Babylon and Egypt, and was part of a regular tribute either to the gods or the priest. He goes on in humanistic terms to explain any religious devotion away, which is where the book sorely falls. Because he’s hit on a very important point, religion and drinking.These two are very much connected within worship.

He moved from beer to wine, a drink still integral to many core beliefs of many religions. In ancient pagan religions they poured out libations, small offerings to the gods in thanks for the harvest that produced the wine. Wine was part of the sanctuary in the Jewish temple. Wine is also rejected in the standard practices of Islam. Wine is also an integral part of our worship as Catholics (I’ll get back to that soon).

As the globe became more united so the drinks that effected its history rapidly advanced. In quick succession of a few hundred years, spirits arrived on the scene starting with brandy. Soon after that the quintessential Muslim drink, coffee entered Western society and spread to the whole of civilization. Then soon after that the tea trade from China allowed for Britain to be the first world superpower. All of these, spirits especially, became disconnected from prudish men who saw it as liquid sin and the source of much evil. The generalization is not without basis, but it became a central tenant that effected our own government in the earlier Twentieth Century.

Coffee and tea are certainly less connected to religious ritual, but they had a great effect on our religious world. Around coffee, the French Revolution was devised, causing the destruction one of the greatest Christian nations and causing irreparable damage to Christian culture. As England began to move farther away from its great religious fervor, it replaced religious ritual, which until the Oxford Movement, was downplayed, with the social ritual of tea time, with its requisite foods and accoutrements. Again these are mere generalizations and I may be stretching a bit with the tea, but I’m seeing how far my premise will go.

Then in the Twentieth Century arose the force of the bubble, carbonated flavored water. The rise of Coca Cola came concomitantly with the rise of the United States as a superpower, and throughout the world Coca Cola, the soda, is an image of global capitalism. It is the most notable brand in all of civilization. As a symbol it shows, at least in the United States, mans new worship of profit. It comes to be the image of what Bl. John Paul II and Benedict XVI has called unbridled capitalism.

So we return to our Catholic understanding of drinking. We are working from the Standage’s premise that what man drank directed the course of his history. What we drink becomes the image by which our culture operates, as is shown by the tea driven caffeinated Industrial Revolution wherein tea replaced beer increasing human productivity both manually and intellectually. Our understanding as Catholics is imbued by the Incarnation. God became man. He entered into human existence taking on a human nature to redeem what by man’s sin had been corrupted, to bring new life to that which is dead. For all six drinks, beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and soda (although the final one to a lesser degree now), brought new life to plants that had been stripped from their source, grain, grape, sugar (among others), tea leaves, coffee beans, and extracts from the coca and cola plants. These drinks, in a sense, have brought new life to man in a natural way either enlivening his spirits or bringing calm. Christ, then, who came to redeem all of man used this natural rejuvenation for our redemption. “And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly, I say to you, I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God'” (Mark 14:23-25). “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed” ( John 6:53-54). If what we drink changes of the course of history, there is no greater drink than to drink of the cup of salvation. Jesus transforms natural rejuvenation into supernatural new life. He, by His blood, redirects history towards the new heaven and the new earth.

As I read this book, this final thought was what constantly flooded my mind. How much the world can be changed if we receive Christ’s body and blood worthily! How much history can be effected by man abiding in God and not in himself! So great a mystery do we experience as the confecting of the Eucharist. Do not be blind because on the altar is what will change the world.

About Fr. Kyle

I am a priest of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. I was born and raised right outside New Orleans. I attended Catholic school my entire educational career. By the time I graduated high school, I had two paths to choose: rockstar or priesthood. I pursued both for awhile but eventually came to the understanding God's will was priesthood and my will was rockstardom. After making that decision, to allow God's will to be mine, I needed a new way to channel my creativity. I began writing as I finished up my formation for priesthood. I still play music, but priestly ministry comes first. My bride: St. Rita of Cascia Parish in Harahan, LA.

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