Hardly a holy trinity, yet I think these come close to summing up the three biggest topics in American evangelicalism these days. Well, actually, abortion and gay marriage are the big political, societal flash points. The drinking thing we pretty much wage in-house. Between people we're supposed to consider part of our faith family.
The Aquila Report is a website with daily collections of news and commentary from the reformed evangelical spectrum of our Christian culture, and its content ranges from heady theological discussions that I think only tortured seminarians read - or can even understand - to broad opinions on current events. I've been honored by having a couple of my blog essays included on their site, and yes, those have been in the current events category, not any heady theology! From what I can tell, they've garnered some respectable readership numbers and feedback levels, but nothing like other articles by well-known personalities in our evangelical industrial complex. And I can understand that. Name recognition counts for a lot on the Internet.
Which makes it all the more ironic to see that an article by somebody you've probably never heard of before seems to be, far and away, the biggest attention-getter on the Aquila Report today. It's written by Aimee Byrd, a homemaker in West Virginia, but it's entitled "Well Drunk," and it's a review of sorts for Drinking With Calvin and Luther: A History of Alcohol In the Church, a new book authored by Jim West.
Now you know why it's garnering so much attention, don't you?
Down the Hatch
Drinking amongst Christians is one of those issues that tends to elicit strong emotions, no matter what your opinion is. So much legalism, hypocrisy, self-righteous indignation, and self-righteous piety has been committed over this one issue that the Devil himself must be ecstatic that Christ's people can be so mean-spirited against each other over something that God Himself created.
And yes, I'm talking both about people who do drink, and people who don't. I've seen believers on both sides of the aisle be hateful towards those on the other, and all over a bunch of spoiled food. After all, alcohol is not the freshest representation of grapes, or hops, or potatoes, or whatever else can be fermented. It amazes me to see the fervency with which Christians who drink advocate for their right to do so, as if their very faith is at stake. And it discourages me when I see the dismissive attitude with which non-drinking Christians treat fellow believers who do imbibe.
Not that I don't understand where Christian teetotalers are coming from. I was raised in a no-drinking Christian household; my mother was raised Baptist, and my father's own father was a drunken sot whose addiction ruined his family. To this day, I've never consumed a drop of alcohol in my life; first, because I had been trained that doing so was sinful, but now, because I'm not convinced alcoholism isn't hereditary. Why risk it? I already have an oral fixation with food, and I fight gluttony on a daily basis. It doesn't make much sense to compound my problem with something that can exacerbate my addictive tendencies.
When I was growing up, it seemed that most Christians either drank privately, or didn't drink at all. These days, however, it seems that most Christians drink, and proudly, and publicly. I can count on my two hands the number of evangelicals who I know have never consumed an alcoholic beverage. My parents still insist drinking is a sin, but the rest of us in this small group either don't feel the social need to drink, or don't want to spend the money for it, or have seen how it can damage other people.
In her review, Byrd points out that great theologians like Calvin and Luther proclaimed alcoholic beverages to be an excellent lubricant for religious merriment. Many Presbyterians and other New Reformists like to rely heavily on the opinions of Calvin and Luther on this and other topics, which apparently is what West's new book does, too. Personally, since we're talking opinions here, I think the examples and patterns of alcohol and its consumption that we have in the Bible are adequate enough to see that, in its intended moderateness, drinking isn't itself the problem.
It's the two A's. No, no "Alcoholics Anonymous," but amount, and attitude.
When Ale Ails Us
I believe the wine Christ created at the wedding of Cana was the best wine anybody on this planet has ever tasted. It was not, as I've heard some non-drinking Christians claim, an inferior vintage of weak potency. If the Bible says it was good wine, then it was good wine, and too much of it would have made the drinker drunk. In fact, I've heard sermons in which the superior wine at Cana is a metaphor for Christ's salvific power, and its purity, effectiveness, and lavishness. I don't have any problems with that.
Furthermore, I have no reason to believe that Christ and His disciples didn't drink alcoholic beverages, or that they didn't enjoy doing so. I have no reason to believe that the beer mentioned in the Old Testament wasn't any good, since it appears to have been a component of some sacrifices; although frankly, I've smelled beer, and I think its odor is nasty. I'm also well aware that the Apostle Paul prescribes some wine for his apprentice Timothy's upset stomach.
About the only sin involving alcohol that's mentioned in Scripture, aside from the self-denial of the Nazarites, is being drunk with it. Of course, it takes varying amounts of alcohol for different people to get drunk, and for anybody who drinks - whether they profess faith in Christ or not - it is a matter of basic responsibility to know when that point is near.
The thing that bothers me about Christians and their alcohol consumption is when that consumption seems to consume believers. Do you talk about alcohol - even amongst your Christian friends - more than you talk about your family, or Christ? Do you "need" a drink, or simply want one? How many craft beers have you liked on Facebook, and how many faith-based relief organizations? How would you react if somebody - not me, but a drinking friend of yours - were to ever suggest that you might be addicted to alcohol?
Which would be a more grievous challenge to your Christian liberty: having somebody advise you that an extra doughnut or pizza slice would be unwise, or that another drink would be unwise?
What kind of Christian driver, if you're a passenger in their car, and become demonstrably nervous at the speed with which they're driving (even if they're not breaking the speed limit), won't slow down so you're more comfortable?
Some Christians scoff at the "weaker brother" argument, calling it "tyranny." Rights are rights, they say, and their right to drink is equal to somebody else's right not to be tempted. Besides, my showing love by not drinking deprives the other person of the opportunity to show love and let me drink.
I suppose you can argue these out with God if you really want to, but which of these attitudes genuinely demonstrate the Christ-likeness God expects from us? Isn't it more likely that the more defensive you are about your alcohol consumption, the more you might be the one with the problem?
Hey - I'm asking these questions because somebody asked me this past spring, as I reached for my third doughnut at a church choir breakfast, whether that really was wise. At first, I got indignant. And then I thought about it.
One of the reasons I don't want to flirt with the alcoholism question is because I've seen how slowly and insidiously gluttony and obesity can manifest themselves. Alcohol can cause even more damage than unhealthy food fixations. It can start innocently enough, but as you think your body is dealing with it, you may really only be creating a dependency on it. At least what I eat likely won't contribute to me causing a car crash on the way home that could injure somebody. Indeed, I think drunk driving remains as tragic a problem as it is in our country today because, at least in part, so many churched people don't like confronting what could be a major weakness of theirs. A similar parallel to heart disease and diabetes can be made for poor eating habits, of course, but this isn't about me!
Perhaps the best way for people of faith to respond to the issue of drinking is in our attitude. Do you judge Christians negatively if you see them holding a glass of wine at a wedding reception? Do you judge me negatively now that you know I don't drink? Does it anger you that I even bring up this subject? Or are you wishing I was working harder to shame Christian drinkers? Either way, you may not be approaching this subject properly.
The way some Christian drinkers talk, you'd think drinking was Christ's "new commandment." The way some Christians teetotalers talk, you'd think drinking was the unpardonable sin.
Moderating our views of it, not to mention our consumption, strikes me as the truest Biblical solution.
So, l'chaim u-l'shalom, which is a traditional Jewish toast meaning "to life and to peace." I'll be toasting with some chilled cranberry juice!*
* And, in the interest of full disclosure, that will be the 100% juice variety, not the juice "cocktail;" and not because "cocktail" is a mixed drink, either, but because juice cocktail contains extra sugar!