In 1917, the colonial government of Trinidad passed the Shouters Prohibition Ordinance. After which, it became a criminal offense for the nation’s indigenous Spiritual Baptist Community to practice their faith. Earl Lovelace’s The Wine of Astonishment examines the challenges that the Spiritual Baptist community would have faced during the 34 years that this ordinance was in effect. The novel follows the community leaders, Bee and Eva Dorcas, as they lead their family and the remnant of Spiritual Baptist worshippers, through a time of persecution, into freedom. Using a mixture of symbolism and fallacy, Lovelace’s historical fiction expertly portrays the evolutionary effects that the social restrictions can have on a community.
On March 30th, 1951, the administration led by Governor H.E. Rance passed the Shouters Prohibition (repeal) Ordinance. From then forward, the community was allowed to practice their faith freely, both privately and publicly, without fear of imprisonment. According to Lovelace’s narrative, however, this victory was bittersweet and the return to normalcy was not as sudden as expected. The “new normal” that was enforced under the Shouters Prohibition Ordinance, had introduced a concept of worship that was foreign to the fervent bell-ringers. Over the years, though hope had remained with the dwindling sect, it soon became clear that the remnant had been looking to the past for this hope. Unbeknownst to them, during the years of lockdown, the spirit had begun to manifest in a new way. It was only after they regained their freedom, and after a failed attempt to return to the worship of the past, the community was forced to look with new eyes, for revelation about the future.
The first time I read this novel, I was a third form student in secondary school. At the time, the story served as a solid piece of historical fiction that allowed me to appreciate the progress that my country has made. However, the extra time during the Covid 19 lockdown, has afforded me an opportunity to revisit this book with fresh eyes. And I must say that this second reading has opened to me a new perspective that I would have never considered during my juvenile years.
At first, I was reluctant to re-read, but it was nothing short of a Spirit led moment that prompted me to reopen this novel. In one divine moment of clarity, I understood exactly why I had to read. My research led me to this fact: On March 30th, 1996 (the year I was born), the United National Congress which was the ruling party at the time, commemorated the repeal of the 1917 Ordinance with a national holiday. That year, March 30th was declared “Shouter Baptist Liberation Day.” It was a day specifically set aside to celebrate the victory won by followers of the indigenous religion. For me, this was a significant realization because it led to the new perspective that I mentioned earlier. On March 30th, 2020, Trinidad and Tobago entered its first full day of official lockdown because of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Along with other activities, the Public Health Ordinance 2020 listed gathering to worship as posing a risk to public health. As a result, the doors to every religious place of worship were closed by order of the government. I was intrigued by this interesting coincidence; that on a day marked to commemorate the freedom of worship, my country was once again plunged into a state of lockdown.
This got me thinking; how can the two situations be compared? Are there any similarities between the Shouters Prohibition Ordinance 1917 and the Public Health Ordinance 2020? Upon investigation, I found that the commonalities between the two ordinances may actually be in the socio-psychological effects that both restrictions had on the communities in question. In a four part series, I will examine the implications of long-term restrictions on the psychological health or ‘spirit’ of a community, using Lovelace’s book as a lens. This first piece is dedicated specifically to examining the title of the novel, for taking the time to analyse the title will help to put the entire series into perspective.
The Wine of Astonishment
The phrase ‘the wine of astonishment’ is derived from a verse in the Holy Bible which says: “You have shown your people hard things – you have made us to drink the wine of astonishment” (Psalm 60: 3). It is imperative to understand the elements of this quote before attempting to interpret the novel. To do so, one must consider the title in the context of the entire Psalm:
O God, thou hast cast us off, thou hast scattered us, thou hast been displeased; O turn thyself to us again.
Thou hast made the earth to tremble; thou hast broken it: heal the breaches thereof; for it shaketh.
Thou hast shewed thy people hard things: thou hast made us to drink the wine of astonishment.
Thou hast given a banner to them that fear thee, that it may be displayed because of the truth. Selah.
That thy beloved may be delivered; save with thy right hand, and hear me.
God hath spoken in his holiness; I will rejoice, I will divide Shechem and mete out the valley of Succoth.
Gilead is mine, and Manasseh is mine; Ephraim also is the strength of mine head. Judah is my lawgiver;
Moab is my washpot; over Edom will I cast out my shoe: Philistia, triumph thou because of me.
Who will bring me into the strong city? Who will lead me into Edom?
Wilt not thou, O God, which hadst cast us off? And thou, O God, which didst not go out with our armies?
Give us help from trouble: for vain is the help of man.
Through God we shall do valiantly: for he it is that shall tread down our enemies.
Psalm 60 (KJV)
Psalm 60 is believed to be authored by King David. In this Psalm David talks of feeling forsaken by God and by man. He describes it as feeling as if he has been “cast off”. Consider also that it is not only a personal struggle. The Psalm is a prayer. It is an act of intercession on behalf of his community who he feels has suffered greatly at the hands of God. He, like Eva, adopts a communal voice. Not only is it a complaint, but he quickly reminds God that He is the only one who can help him to be victorious over his enemies. Now consider and compare the elements of Chapter one: “Bee Goes to See Ivan Morton”, to some of the thematic elements of Psalm 60.
“Bee Goes to See Ivan Morton”
|“God don’t give you more than you could bear” (1)||O God, thou hast cast us off…||Identifies the source of suffering as God.|
|“Cause for hundreds of years we bearing what He send like the earth bear the hot sun and the rains and the dew and the cold, and the earth is still the earth…” (1)||Thou hast made the earth to tremble; thou hast broken it: heal the breaches thereof; for it shaketh.||Similar reference to the Earth and God’s sovereignty over natural creation. Acknowledgement that He is quick to restore the earth after it has been broken. A comparison to the human experience at the hands of God.|
|“But what sin we commit? What deed our fathers or we do that so vex God…?” (1)||thou hast scattered us, thou hast been displeased; O turn thyself to us again.||Eva’s response to her children’s questions reveals the first instance of dissonance. She says they’ve done nothing to provoke God yet cannot give reasons for the affliction with the certainty of Psalm 60.|
|“From the magistrate and the police we could bear it. But from our own people?…To put a man in the council and have to bear it from him too?” (2)||Give us help from trouble: for vain is the help of man.||Introduces the theme of betrayal by one’s own kind. David speaks of betrayal by mankind and Bee is frustrated with Ivan Morton.|
|“ We could bear it and rise.” (2)||Through God we shall do valiantly: for he it is that shall tread down our enemies.||Persistent and devout faith in divine capabilities to overcome.|
Simple cross referencing reveals that the novel isn’t meant to be an ode to just the one verse it’s named after. The first chapter introduces the major themes and conflicts which would be addressed in the rest of the novel. Interestingly, it presents the same perspective, tone and themes as David’s 60th Psalm. Therefore, it may be safe to expect that the entire plot would be a development of the basic thematic elements mentioned in Psalm 60. With this in mind, it’s also necessary to examine the key elements mentioned in the title: “wine” and “astonishment.”
Considering the biblical origins of the title and the religious subject matter of the novel, it is only natural to search for primary interpretation of these intertextual clues in the Bible. We all know what wine is, or at least we should all know what wine is. Just in case there’s someone reading who doesn’t know what it is, a quick google search would reveal that wine is an alcoholic beverage made primarily from fermented grapes. However, it’s not so important to know what wine is, as it is to know what wine is used for. Or more precisely, we should be interested in knowing how wine was regarded in the bible. Here are a few verses that would give a broad scope of how the bible speaks about wine.
Proverbs 31:6 says,
In this verse, a Queen mother is giving her son, King Lemuel, advice about how wine should be used by a King. She acknowledges that wine has anesthetic functions and may be used to ease a depressive state. However, when considering the entire context of the scripture, it is actually a warning to her son:
“It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, nor Princes intoxicating drink; lest they drink and forget the law, and pervert the justice of all the afflicted. Give strong drink to him who is perishing, and wine to those who are bitter of heart. Let him drink and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more.”
This interpretation is critical when discussing the motifs of drinking, drunkenness and the significance of rum-shops in the novel. It is especially important when analysing Bolo’s coping mechanisms before his ultimate demise. But, I digress, in essence, the wise Queen Mother is warning her son that being a drunk could cause him to fail at his responsibilities toward the Kingdom. It’s a valid concern, however, this is not the only time that the negative effects of excessive drinking is mentioned, and it is also not a warning that was only given to Kings.
Ephesians 5:18 warns, “And do not be drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the spirit.” This translation may be an unintentional play on words, since the word “spirit” is another english word for “alcohol”. In the bible, wine drinking is not considered a sin, the shame or warning is against drunkenness. This perspective is debatable, even within the Spiritual Baptist community and in practice, is usually a matter of personal conviction. Notwithstanding, Genesis 9:21 describes the shame that Noah experienced after “He drank of the wine and became drunk, and uncovered himself in his tent.” The story goes on to explain how his son, Ham, exposed his father’s nakedness to his brother. This led to Noah pronouncing a curse over Ham’s descendants.
On the other hand, wine also had positive purposes. The account of Jesus’ first miracle was Him turning water into wine at a wedding banquet. It was also used to bring ease during painful death. Matthew 27:34 says, “They gave Him vinegar to drink mingled with gall: and when He had tasted thereof, He would not drink.” This scripture references when Jesus was hanging on the cross. The crucifixion is another symbolic reference made in the first few paragraphs of the novel, as you will see as this analysis progresses. As the story goes, the soldiers offered Jesus a mixture of vinegar and gall to drink, which he refused. Some theologians argue that Jesus only refused so that He would be able to fulfill His purpose with a clear mind. This would confirm the warning that was given to King Lemuel about a King needing to be sober-minded when fulfilling his duties toward his subjects. After all, Jesus was considered “the King of the Jews” and was fulfilling a divine duty by enduring death on the cross. It was Roman custom to offer the vinegar and gall mixture to men who were being crucified. It was believed to dull the senses so that they could endure during the excruciating process.
Other references to wine include: Hannah, a barren woman, who went to the temple to pray that God would give her a child. She was so sorrowful that as she prayed and cried, only her lips moved and no sound came out. Because of this, the priest initially accused her of being drunk. When she explained her bitterness, he blessed her so that her prayers for a child would be answered. This is perhaps the closest example to the exact meaning of “the wine of astonishment.” To be overcome with such intense sadness that it leaves others wondering if all your senses are intact. Although, it is also helpful to know that on the day of Pentecost when the disciples were baptised with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in other tongues (a very strong belief and practice in the Spiritual Baptist religion), they were also accused by onlookers of being drunk. Moreover, the term “New wine” is a metaphorical biblical reference to the Holy Spirit being given after Jesus’ ascension into heaven. With all of these references, we can tell that wine has diverse literal and figurative meanings in the Bible. So what does “wine of astonishment” mean?
The Cambridge Dictionary (Online) defines ‘astonishment’ as “very great surprise.” It also provides synonyms such as “shock” or “bewilderment”, or my personal favourite, “stupefaction.” So, to which of the aforementioned effects of wine does this metaphor relate? When you consider the warnings given in the bible about drunkenness, it becomes clear that the “wine of astonishment” is a metaphorical reference to a negative experience that leaves its experiencers unsteady or bewildered. In other words, this “wine” has left its drinkers in a drunken stupor. It is not the wine that eases pain, perhaps it is more similar to the kind of experience mentioned in Proverbs 23:29-35:
Now, carefully consider the question that the children ask Eva in the first chapter; “But what sin did we commit?”(1) It is a question that Eva herself struggles to answer. She unconvincingly gives their strength or resilience as a reason for their tribulation. “Is because we could bear it. Is because out of all the shoulders in the world our shoulders could bear more weight, and out of all the flesh in the world, our flesh could hold more pain…”(1). The fact that they (the family, the community) have bruises (psychological and otherwise) that they cannot rightly justify, may be evidence of the effects of this metaphorical “wine” that they’ve been drinking “for hundreds of years”(1). This is the “wine of astonishment.” According to Proverbs 23:29-35, the same wine that helps you to cope with painful situations can leave you in such a bewildered state that you can hurt yourself while in a stupor, and not be able to explain the wounds when you regain sobriety. Note also, the emphasis placed on self-inflicted pain. This would be vital to understanding the theme of betrayal in the novel, especially by one’s own people.
The novel therefore, compares the psychological effects that wine has on a drunkard to the psychological effects that the “hard things” endured, had on the Spiritual Baptist Community. As evidenced by biblical references, “Wine” could also refer to the movement of the Spirit whether it be in the authentic Spiritual Baptist service, or the belief that the hard things in the novel are brought about by the hand of God himself. This interpretation would be much closer to the original intent of Psalm 60.
Sometimes it’s necessary to examine the title of a work before delving into the text itself. It could provide some key contextual insight. In my next blog post, I’ll be discussing some of the “hard things” that were “shown” to the Spiritual Baptist Community. At the end of this series we’ll be discussing some of the lessons that we can glean from this novel. Some of these may really help with developing realistic expectations for life after lockdown. Keep following if you’re interested!