Resurrecting a Theology of Alcohol

(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.

I have been thinking about alcohol lately.

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.

Divisive drinking

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?”

I responded, “I wonder if the American West didn’t specialize in the wine and beer industries, if we would have become so cavalier about our alcohol usage.”

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. 23:20Is. 5:11Gal. 5:19-21).

Unique impact

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 photo-14experiential 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. 5:23Luke 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 photo-26read 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.

24 Responses to “Resurrecting a Theology of Alcohol”

  1. Once you have experienced a close friend or family member as an alcoholic, you do the uncool thing and STOP entirely. It is just not worth it. Be an example. God wants us to remember how valuable people are.

  2. Tony, I think it would be excellent to turn this into a book! When I was at my very conservative college they made us read a book called “Bible Wines” which argues for temperance and tries to make the case that wines in the Bible were not fermented. So, I had a little bit of a culture shock when I encountered a church in a different denomination I started attending in Napa Valley. Needless to say, there was quite a different view of alcohol there. I think there needs to be more balance in this area and would love to see a book addressing it. I also loved this sermon series on the topic. http://www.newhopechurch.ca/page.php?pgid=search&id=searchbrowse&movieid=637
    http://www.newhopechurch.ca/page.php?pgid=search&id=searchbrowse&movieid=638

    • Jennifer, thank you for your comments. I have had similar experiences. Thank you for the sermon resources. You are so generous to share these things on this site. -tony

      Tony Kriz
  3. Interesting timing for me. I heard in my spirit as 2015 came to a close — It’s time to stop ignoring the bodily signals and cut out alchohol. I am to use 2016 as an experiment and decide if and when I will imbibe going forward.
    For over a year I have felt physically ill or just not like myself after even half a drink. I used to binge drink from 18-42. Thought-provoking and point well taken!!

  4. I would read a book on this. It’s interesting, and effects so many lives in so many (good and bad) ways.

    I do think that it would be a shorter book, and probably only marketable to drinking Christians. I just don’t think a teetotaler would even pick it up.

  5. I love Portland. I went to Seminary at George Fox in Tigard a few years ago. Living in a culture were wine was at most meals, and home brewing where I currently live, this is a great article. It is to remember. We may not have it at every meal, but some of the deepest, raw and honest conversations about life, Jesus and walking this journey that I’ve had with people have been over a flight or pint (and really nice beer tour in Spokane). Thanks for writing this!

    • JB, Thank you for the comment. I am with you. There is a deepening that happens and I believe God created Alcohol as a component of the relational deepening. -tony

      Tony Kriz
  6. Sounds like a great subject to explore, Tony. After all, alcohol–like sex, wealth, authority, and other subtle mind-alterers–is so frequently twisted to serve the accuser that we believers have often treated it as more a problem than the blessing it was created to be. I would welcome hearing your ruminations on the subject. :)

    Of course, i’m also still hoping you’ll write someday about a “theology of failure”. You had some great things to say about that back in the day, that have stuck with me. I still agree the church really struggles to handle failure in a biblical way.

  7. Great stuff. What an important conversation. Your simple theology is an excellent summation of my own. Like any of God’s gifts, alcohol can be used to bring out our best selves or our less than our best selves, or maybe our true selves v. false selves. You write this, I’ll buy it. Also, I think there’s a way to market it to the drinkers and not, so long as there was an undergirding good news that the various audiences could share.

  8. Read John Piper’s excellent take on alcohol and church membership found in his book BROTHERS, WE ARE NOT PROFESSIONALS. Thanks for your thoughts.

  9. I went to a very conservative bible college, one that stressed that the wine in the bible was either grape juice or medicine (Paul telling timothy to drink wine for his stomach). Throughout my conversations on alcohol and other things a pattern emerged. Whether it was calvanism or amenianism, praise and worship styles, or alcahol, people have a hard time with ambiguity. Something is wither right always or wrong always. Moderation and balance is a hard thing to preach/teach. It is far easier philisophically to teach extremes than it is to teach the middle.

  10. Great article. Having moved to the bible belt from Minnesota some 20 years ago, your article brought to mind the joke about the three great religious truths: Jews don’t acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, Protestants don’t acknowledge the Pope as the head of the Church, and Baptists don’t acknowledge each other in the liquor store. I drop that here to say I believe there are regional differences in attitude that exist, which may have to do more with denomination rather than region – but I haven’t studied that.

    It is true, however, that the Minnesota church-going community, by and large, do not conceal their drinking. They treat it as celebratory, and may even search reasons to get together more often than some to celebrate birthdays, graduations, or Groundhog day. in short, drinking is very social and there is no shame associated with drinking (unless excessive). And even then, the ‘once in a while’ excessive drinking might simply be embarrassing rather than shameful.

    In the South, I see far less of that. While the message from the pulpit has migrated somewhat in the last 20 years from ‘alcohol is bad’ to ‘drunkenness is bad,’ the dogma remains. Social get togethers tend to have no or very limited alcohol present. But when you peel back the onion, thee is evidence of drinking in private. The cup is shiny and polished on the outside, but the inside … not so much.

    My guess is that any book on this topic would likely be read by the church-going community or those with theological philosophy interests. So while it may not be widely read, I think it would be a good read. That said, being compelled to give free advice especially when asked, I don’t think the book would be complete without addressing regional attitude differences as well as denominational differences.

    • Mike. Great thoughts. I appreciate the advice. In addition to these other thoughts, I am hoping to expand this idea into a whole chapter:

      “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?”

      I responded, “I wonder if the American West didn’t specialize in the wine and beer industries, if we would have become so cavalier about our alcohol usage.”

      -tony

      Tony Kriz
  11. If you like to drink beer when you are fishing, why don’t you take southern baptists with you?

    If you take one, he’ll drink all your beer, if you take 2, no one can drink.

    If you write your book, I think it would be valuable to explore the dynamic commonly referred to as “the weaker and the stronger brother”. I have observed that often, if not always, we get the two identities reversed>

  12. Here’s a scripture I have never heard anyone preach on: Proverbs 31. But not the Proverbs 31 about the Noble Wife, the Proverbs 31 about encouraging poor people to drink so they can forget their troubles:

    It is not for kings, Lemuel—
    it is not for kings to drink wine,
    not for rulers to crave beer,
    5 lest they drink and forget what has been decreed,
    and deprive all the oppressed of their rights.
    6 Let beer be for those who are perishing,
    wine for those who are in anguish!
    7 Let them drink and forget their poverty
    and remember their misery no more.

    Put that one in your book on drinking and church, I dare you. :) It would seem that you’d have to amend your thesis, if it is to be truly Biblical.

    That’s the Bible for you.

  13. charlesburchfield April 18, 2016 at 1:38 pm Reply

    it mite be a good thing to do an inventory of one’s drinking alcohol bf recommending or abstaining. also i highly recommend getting an education abt addiction. in AA we regard alcohol (and by association alcoholics!) as cunning, baffling, powerful. IMHO religious addictions have some of the same devastating characteristics as drug/alcohol addiction. alkies are a different critter! I was an alcoholic bf I ever took a drop.

Leave a Reply