Alcohol in the Life of Faith

There’s an old joke that goes like this:

What happens when you take a Mennonite fishing?
He drinks all of your beer.

What happens when you take two Mennonites fishing?
They don’t drink any of your beer.

I’ve heard variations on this, too, substituting in Baptists, Methodists, etc. This joke, when you think about it, is very problematic.

Caveat #1. Today we’re talking about alcohol. Alcohol is a drug. Just like aspirin (on the one end) and morphine (on the other), alcohol can be used to create a positive scenario. Just like aspirin and morphine, it can be incredibly destructive. Let’s be clear, right now, that what I am referring to is moderate, responsible drinking among those not predisposed to alcoholism.

Back to the joke. Here’s an addendum.

Why are there no Mennonites under 25 in the church?
They’re all fishing.

The underlying problem with the joke is this: it tells us there are some things we should not share with our faith community. If we drink, we might reveal some imperfection or vulnerability. We might do or say a thing that’s not 100% deliberately calculated to showcase how holy we are. And God knows we Christians can’t admit to sin.

This is where we get to do a little interfaith/interdenominational dialogue. I used to attend an Episcopal church that had an Easter Vigil on the Saturday before Easter. They had a service of meditation, mourning, honoring Holy Saturday with Communion… and after Communion, they just kept the bottles coming. As Easter drew near, they began to celebrate: Hallelujah! Jesus is alive! Hallelujah! That unconventional party of the Kingdom continues! Alcohol, in that context, has a symbolic function: it is both an act of mourning (raising the parting glass) and an act of joy (a toast in honor of someone). This is an incredibly beautiful, theologically nuanced, appropriate use of alcohol in the life of faith.

But the act is not just symbolic: it’s also a gesture of vulnerability in community. Alcohol reduces our inhibitions. It leaves us vulnerable and honest. To welcome alcohol into a faith community is to say: we trust each other’s vulnerability. We are not afraid of honesty. Remember all those 25-year-olds out fishing? They’re fishing because as children, they were told that the church was a place for vulnerability and honesty. Then they were told not to bring their gay friends. Not to swear in church. Not to do this or that thing that might reveal your vulnerability or might express how you really feel.

Alcohol in Jewish life is widely and carefully integrated with faith ritual.

Alcohol in Jewish life is widely and carefully integrated with faith ritual.

I spent Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, with one of my Jewish friends this year. We were cooking an extravagant feast. She opened a bottle of wine while we chopped vegetables and sauteed fish and said, “One of my friends just told me: ‘What I know about Judaism is all your holidays involve eating a lot and getting drunk.’ ‘That’s pretty much true,’ I said.” (At Purim, Jews are encouraged to drink “until you cannot tell your right hand from your left.”) I don’t know that there’s a place for that in the Christian life, but the point is this: the Jewish orientation toward God has a place for alcohol in the life of faith. In my evaluation, that’s for two reasons. (1) Because God is sovereign over both good and evil, God does not flinch from creating good from human evil (see Genesis 38). Not that all drinking is evil, but there is less concern with maintaining perfection (unless you are a Pharisee). (2) Because life/Fate/what have you, in the Jewish world, is capricious, we deal with it honestly. When we have a complaint to register with God, we complain openly. When we have a celebration of God, we drink openly, for our God is a big enough God who can handle the honesty of the whole human experience.

If you have a church where no one can drink together, but everyone drinks–that might be an indication a failing church. If you have a church where people drink together–there are ways that space can become sacred.

Caveat #2. Drinking is not required for a healthy faith community. There are plenty of other ways to be vulnerable with each other. But the Protestant impulse for prohibition is, I believe, a symptom of our fear of imperfection before God. (Spoiler alert: you’re always imperfect before God.)

Caveat #3: If you are a teenager. I work with the teens at my church. Let me be clear. If you are a teenager and you are drinking–why do you do it? My guess is, it’s because you’re stressed and need a release, something fun to do that lets you forget about the homework and college applications and all that. Look. What you’re doing now is building stress responses. You’re learning how to cope with issues that are going to come up when you’re an adult. And if your response is to drink, you’re not developing other, more important coping strategies: meditation, exercise, therapy, art, genuine friends who you can be honest and sober with. (Hint: if what you have in common with your friends is drinking, they’re not real friends.) Learn how to be yourself, sober. There will be plenty of time to learn how to drink–in ways that are fun and responsible and minimize risk of addiction–later.

Caveat #4: If you are a college student. Your brain is still sensitive and developing and you are forming life habits. See caveat #3.  Be intentional and responsible. Don’t drink during your first year; don’t let alcohol define your social community–that’s narrow-minded and limiting. Don’t be that guy who was an angry drunk and smashed his hand through a window and came to my house at 2am to find someone to take him to the hospital and dripped blood all over the floor and it’s still stained in the carpet. Don’t be that guy. Also, don’t get a DUI. That’s one way to be vulnerable and honest with your faith community–but not a great one.

Is that nuance enough for now? The bottom line is: alcohol is a really complicated personal and communal decision. If you need help, seek it. If you’re not able to be a responsible person when you drink: stop. There are plenty of people like you who have made that decision. You’ll get through it. Cool? Okay, next week we’ll talk about Smoking Marijuana in the Kingdom of Heaven. (Just kidding. Be safe, people.) Remember, faith is a dialogue; if there’s something I didn’t address that you’re wondering about, just leave a comment. We’ll keep talking.

2 thoughts on “Alcohol in the Life of Faith

  1. Pingback: The Drunken Mennonite Answers your Questions

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