(Note: As you read this, would you consider helping me with some advice in the comments. I am thinking about writing a book about a theology of alcohol, based in this article. What advice would you give? Thank you for reading.)
God gave us alcohol to help us remember, not to help us forget.
Some time ago, I was writing an article for a national magazine. Their readership is located primarily in the American South. It was a great project, and I thoroughly enjoyed the process and the editorial staff. I think we were all delighted by how the assignment was turning out. Delighted that is, right up until the end.
After a couple of months of work and revision on the article, a higher-up in the organization got involved with the project. He or she seemed to like the article. But the higher-up got a hold of my book, Neighbors and Wise Men. After one look, the article was cancelled.
The reason? The book’s cover has a picture of a bar. This picture is appropriate since much of the book is about redemptive conversations I’ve had in a local Portland pub. The editorial staff assured their boss that the book makes no defense of alcohol consumption as a practice, but that didn’t matter. My article, which had nothing to do with alcohol, was killed. They could not be associated with someone with a book that featured a picture of a drinking establishment.
I have no ill will toward this organization. The editors that I worked with were kind, generous, creative, and professional. If they called again, I would happily work with them. And, for the record, they allowed me to retain my work and even paid me for my time.
But my story illustrates how divisive the issue of alcohol still is in many corners of the church. Parts of the divide are along denominational or generational lines. There is also a regional element to the debate. My friend Mark said, “I wonder what would change if the American South’s main crops included grapes and hops, instead of tobacco. Would there be a change in the pulpit rhetoric about alcohol?”
Economics and morality are often linked—but that is a topic for another day.
I grew up in a religiously conservative church/community. There was a high demand placed on us for moral purity that included avoiding PG13 movies and secular rock-n-roll. We were also taught that alcohol was bad.
And so often that is the extent of our theology of wine: “Alcohol is bad!” We reduce it to a good or bad, moral or immoral issue. As a result our faith-family is often left with only one reason to consider alcohol: rebellion. If it is only bad, then under what circumstances would they choose to imbibe? The answer: moments of anger, rebellion, defiance, pain, sorrow, or depression.
So, here is my attempt to start a conversation about alcohol. This is not an argument for abstinence or an encouragement to drink. It is an attempt to simply raise the debate from dogma to discussion. It’s far from exhaustive. There will be no behavioral emphasis here, aside from the brief observation that wanton and meaningless drunkenness is clearly destructive (Prov. 23:20, Is. 5:11, Gal. 5:19-21).
Wine has a unique impact on humans. (Talk about stating the obvious.)
Virtually every culture of the world stumbles over fermentation. It is as ubiquitous as musical instruments, feast days, and ceremonial clothing. These cultures soon build an industry around their fermented beverage and integrate it into their societal mores. Humans have made alcohol out of almost anything. Grapes, hops, barley, potatoes, rice, honey, corn, you name it. (It is only a matter of time until someone figures out how to make alcohol out of bacon … and society will never be the same.)
Throughout the Bible people drink. And that drinking has an impact. Alcohol affects us. The first sip is a tingling sensation and a soothingly warm belly. Large quantities lead to various forms of intoxication. Noah drank until he passed out (Genesis 9). Lot’s daughters intended to get their father drunk (Gen. 19). David knew what he was doing when he got Uriah drunk (2 Sam. 11). And it is the other-worldly impact of drinking wine that inspires Paul to use intoxication as a comparison for the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives (Eph. 5:18).
My guess is that when the guests at the Wedding of Cana said, “Wow! They saved the best wine for last,” that they were not referring to a children’s beverage.
I will never forget sitting in David Needham’s Old Testament class, at my conservative seminary. When we began to discuss Isaiah, Professor Needham paused at an unusual passage.
The Lord of hosts will prepare a lavish banquet for all peoples on this mountain; A banquet of aged wine, choice pieces with marrow, And refined, aged wine.
And on this mountain He will swallow up the covering which is over all peoples, Even the veil which is stretched over all nations. He will swallow up death for all time, And the Lord God will wipe tears away from all faces, And He will remove the reproach of His people from all the earth; For the Lord has spoken.
And it will be said in that day, “Behold, this is our God for whom we have waited that He might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; Let us rejoice and be glad in His salvation.” Isaiah 25:6-9 (NASB)
And this is what happened next (at least as close as I remember it.)
After reading the words, Professor Needham put down his Bible and stared out over our heads. His eyes continued to drift up and up until they were seemingly transfixed on heaven. His face glowed in euphoric light. As he spoke, it was almost as if we were not even present in the room. His words went something like this:
“I will never forget the first time I tasted wine. Even now I can feel the sensation as the glorious drink danced with my tongue and flowed down my throat. I had never felt anything like it before: the warmth, the tingling. It was the most unique and enchanting experience. When I read Isaiah, I understand what he is doing. He offers us a picture of heaven, the euphoria and beauty, the uniqueness, and unforgetableness—it is an experiential vision of heaven. When Isaiah searches for something on earth, from which to describe the unseen, he chose wine and I understand why.”
Drink to remember
We drink wine to remember, not to forget.
I live in a drinking city. Portland is known for our beer. Portland often ranks as the number one beer city in the world, awarded names like “Beervana” and “Beertopia.” For many, beer is not a beverage, it is a lifestyle. Alcohol, in its varying forms, seems to accompany almost any event and out here that often includes church gatherings.
So here is my question for you, “Did God intend alcohol to be an any time, any event companion?” Whether you’re a teetotaler or someone who regularly imbibes, what did you think God intended?
There are many uses of wine in the Bible: medicinal (1Tim. 5:23, Luke 10:34), ceremonial (The Drink Offering), and for preservation (wine does not spoil like grape juice so simple kinds of wine were common). In spite of these other uses, I am concerned here with occasions that are paralleled in our culture today.
Looking through my New Testament, wine is specifically stated as being drunk in only a handful of scenes. There is the Wedding of Cana (John 2) and I think it’s safe to assume it is also present at all wedding feasts (Matt. 22 and Rev. 19). And wine is present at the Lord’s Supper. Those appearances are remarkably few. I read that to indicate a direct relationship between the significance of the event and the presence of wine. There is a logical congruence in this. Decent wine takes a ton of time and effort to prepare, ferment and store. It seems to me that there is a godly congruence between the labor and resources necessary and something’s intended occasional use. Think “killing the fatted calf.”
People drink alcohol for many reasons. Too many drink to forget.
Alcohol can be used to medicate and to numb the soul. Too many hope for a pause, to forget their many pains: heart pains, soul pains, relational pains, hopelessness, and loss. Yet the New Testament doesn’t focus on these uses.
In the divisive church climate around alcohol, I don’t know if you choose to drink or not. But either way, the best theology of wine is that it is a metaphor of joy and heaven. It was not created to be a tool of personal and interpersonal destruction (teetotalers and imbibers can certainly agree on that.)
Alcohol was created to help commemorate the significant moments of life. My theology is simple: God gave us wine to remember, not to forget.