Growing up, I virtually never saw my parents drink alcohol. My father didn’t care for the taste or potential effect, and my mother wanted me to have an example who proved that drinking wasn’t some innate part of adulthood. She wanted to show me that alcohol wasn’t a rite of passage and that it wasn’t an essential part of all social gatherings. I have a lot of respect for my parents’ choices in those respects; although, I confess, I’ve taken a largely different path. I enjoy a beer or a glass of scotch on a varying basis, somewhere between once and several times a week. I say this is a confession because, as a college professor at a Christian college, and, particularly in the very “Christian” county where I live, I feel like this is something akin to coming out of a closet. It lightly scandalizes some people that we have a liquor cabinet visibly displayed in our kitchen, and I’ve never taken a poll to figure it out, but I would imagine I’m in the minority of faculty at my institution in that I have had a beer (not on campus) with students in the past. In fact, I even checked through the Faculty Handbook before adding that last detail because I wasn’t totally sure if that was allowed or not. To my perception, while I have not run into many people who are personally prohibitionists, the legacy of that movement still casts a long shadow over our social norms, if not our moral code, and I wonder if that should remain the case.
To be clear, I’m not really trying to argue the moral case for whether it’s permissible to drink or not. There are certainly Christian brothers and sisters who believe the practice is sinful, but many influential voices in those circles don’t even hold to total abstinence as a moral requirement.1 Instead, many of these more modern voices would compare drinking to playing with fire, saying that inebriation is unquestionably sinful and arguing that “ll things are lawful, but not all things are helpful.”2) If I had to guess, I believe this would be the ethic that motivates the social norms that I find odd. The approach seems to be that we wouldn’t want to see role models like pastors, teachers, or parents drink, because that might normalize the practice and lead some people into sin. To me, this approach both rests on a shaky assumption and leaves a critical question unasked.
A Shaky Assumption: Drinking is Playing with Fire
There are two problems with this assumption: first, it focuses on the negative aspects of drinking to the exclusion of any benefits; second, it takes a bright line approach to things like inebriation that I’m not sure are warranted. As to the first point, it’s not just that we’re permitted to drink as an accommodation to our sinful desires, then told to keep it in check; there are positive health and social benefits specifically tied to the moderate consumption of alcohol. There is relatively strong evidence that moderate consumption of alcohol reduces risk of heart disease by 25-40%,3 and there is other evidence linking moderate consumption to reduced risks for everything from Alzheimer’s to Type II Diabetes. While we are all familiar with the risks of self-medication in alcohol abuse, research supports the idea that moderate drinking provides a range of mental health benefits as well, such as stress reduction, social integration, and long-term cognitive function. Finally, mild inebriation has been found to improve creative problem solving along with other creative tasks.4 While drinking can certainly be a vice, alcohol also possesses properties that it’s fair to say are an affirmative blessing for God’s people.
There is a second assumption at play in social norms favoring seeming abstinence, and this one is a bit more pernicious. This assumption takes verses like Ephesians 5:18 (“And do not get drunk with wine, which leads to debauchery”) and makes them proof texts for the idea that any degree of inebriation is clearly sinful. Since that threshold varies both from person to person and for individuals based on when they last ate or how hydrated they are, the best wisdom is just to avoid drink altogether. However, this makes something that happens by degrees into an on/off switch.5 It makes sense that drinking until you black out would be excess, but the Biblical indications of a clear line aren’t so obvious. Christ’s first recorded miracle in John’s Gospel is to provide wine for wedding guests who had imbibed enough that their palates had become less discerning.6 The Psalmist praises God in Psalm 104:15 for giving “wine to gladden the heart of man.” Neither of these descriptions jive with being stone sober. While I do enjoy a good red wine, “gladdening the heart” isn’t just about the taste of the drink.7 None of this is to endorse regular drunkenness, but I believe the “playing with fire” approach draws its lines entirely too neatly.8
An Unasked Question: What Role Should We Model?
Ultimately, this is the question I find most personally concerning. If moderate consumption is not just okay, but good, yet we are scandalized if we see our role models engaging in it, what model is left for our young people coming of age? There’s no question that binge drinking is a huge problem at the college level. It’s not just a college problem, either: almost one in five adult Americans struggles with binge or heavy drinking. At the same time, parental modeling has a huge impact on children’s future practices. Since young adults in college are often living away from their parents, isn’t it equally important that at least some of their role models in that environment help them form healthy drinking habits? Again, I’m not saying everyone should drink, but the social norm that discourages particularly those who we look up to from doing so seems to be abandoning a key avenue for positive influence.
At the end, perhaps you’re not convinced. Perhaps you raise the very legitimate question of whether all of the vaunted benefits I mentioned are more correlative than causal. Perhaps people experience these positive outcomes because moderate drinkers are likely to practice more self-control in other areas of their lives, but isn’t that all the more reason why we should be helping to model self-control? That is, while abstinence is a way to protect a moral boundary, moderation is about active self-regulation. While the former may be necessary or wise for some, we should enthusiastically embrace the latter. Christian discernment isn’t ultimately about making rules for ourselves that make holiness easier,9 it’s about the hard and humbling work of daily denying ourselves to follow Him.
For instance, while he does not drink personally, John Piper does not consider drinking immoral. Even while affirming the Southern Baptist Convention’s policy of total abstinence, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler also agrees that his denomination’s position is not biblically mandated. ↩
It’s important to note that this is mild inebriation (just below the legal limit), not being blackout drunk. ↩
In fact, a clickbait article making the rounds recently features a photographer who takes pictures before and after his subjects drink successive glasses of wine, and you can visibly see people’s personalities come out and often perk up as the photos progress. ↩
After all, that didn’t work out particularly well for either the Pharisees or Adam and Eve in the Garden. ↩
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Thanks, Donald. I appreciate the both the content and tone of your thoughts. The final sentence is one worthy of the “bulletin boards” and fridges of Christians committed to a reformational view of life and faith. If you stop in my office, you’ll find it on mine! It may even be office door-worthy!
Decades ago I had a conversation with a christian medium level official in the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). Neither he or I were prohibitionists or total abstainers. But he asked this startling question: Can you name any other drug legally available without a prescription that:
-wreaks such societal havoc
-causes so many deaths to those who use it
-causes so many deaths to those who don’t even use it (automobile accidents, murder, etc.)
-is as addictive as alcohol ( your stunning figure is one in five: almost any other drug with that level of addictiveness likely wouldn’t even be available WITH prescription)
-ruins so may marriages, relationships, businesses, careers, etc. ?
He could have added to the list.
His point was that by any scientific comparison to other drugs alcohol should be available only by prescription.
He would quickly have agreed with you that there are no easy answers in a society and world awash in alcohol. I don’t have any either.
It just saddens me that millions (perhaps billions) of people feel that happiness is escaping reality, as God made it, through drugs–and that with such devastating effects.
We are now facing a similar situation with recreational marijuana as it teeters on the edge of legality. Although it is arguably less harmful than alcohol, and the medicinal benefits may be greater, the arguments for its recreational use are similar to those for alcohol, and part of the same desire to dangerously alter our reality. Advocates for other presently illegal drugs use arguments that are similar, though with somewhat less legitimacy.
I don’t know exactly what the Psalmist, Jesus, or Paul would say about the recreational use of mind-altering drugs in 2016. As you infer, they would not be legalists. But if they experienced the proliferation of drug choices, of drug users, and of serious drug abusers and addicts, with all the consequences we experience, I don’t think they would approvingly quote themselves from two or three millennia ago to make a case for recreational drugs (of which alcohol is by far the biggest problem) in 2016.
Thank you for the comment, Syl.
I appreciate your concern here, and I do agree that if we focus solely on the negative aspects of alcohol, it’s hard to see why it is treated so differently from other drugs. Although, that said, the per user hospitalization rate for both alcohol and cannabis are dramatically lower than other “hard” drugs. (http://www.vox.com/2014/8/2/5960307/marijuana-legalization-heroin-USA-Today)
I would push back on you a little bit about your conclusion regarding the Biblical citations here. Drunkenness was hardly unknown in the ancient world; in fact, one of the first things man (Noah) did after the flood was grow some grapes and get blasted. Those in the ancient world were fully aware of the dangers of alcohol, and all three men that I cited also caution elsewhere against drunkenness. My point was that, given the way mankind abused it even then, alcohol was still considered a good gift from God. Because of abuse, I agree that some should abstain from drinking, but I think the good nature of the gift means that others of us should work to enjoy the blessing for what it is.
Our affect and thus our reality is constantly altering. Even if you are not a sugar or caffeine addict (other drugs we don’t stigmatize but probably should) the brain is its own chemical factory. Normal activities in our day can produce otherwise illegal substances that give us a high or depress us.
Pain and grief are especially mind-altering as well, and the antidote of compassion is in short supply in this world. We focus on the symptoms of suffering souls as the real problems, because they frighten and threaten us.
Alcohol itself does not cause any particular negative social or health outcome in people, it is a failure of responsible consumption that causes problems. It is indeed telling that we do not regulate it much, especially compared to more benign substances that are criminalized and used to disproportionately incarcerate minorities. There are historical and material, economic reasons for this.
We are not nearly as awash in alcohol as we used to be, and we are more aware of its abuse as abuse. Modern society makes the consequences and stigmas of alcohol/drug addiction and abuse more acute, but we are still bad at addressing it productively. A more holistic approach might see overwork, stress, lack of sleep, and poor diets as the killers they are too. Lack of productive work, poverty, abuse, depression, relationship problems, and mental illness are driving our deep dive into self- and medially prescribed medication of psychoactive substances.
Maybe we should stop focusing so much on legalization/criminalization and the selective use of stigmatizing labels like “drugs” and “addicts” to focus on the full spectrum of public health concerns, mental health needs, and people in need.
Perhaps it’s just because I have seen close up so much of the devastation caused by alcohol that I just vented unresearched frustration and exasperation. Sure, I could have commented with more nuance and considered in advance the inevitable more careful and staid responses. Others can do that better than I. And lest I sound legalistic or self-righteous, I am not a rigorous teetotaller or prohibitionist.
But let me just throw out a few of the costs of alcohol, quickly googled and mostly from the CDC.
-88,000 alcohol-related deaths per year just in the US.
-2.5 million years of potential life lost
-alcohol shortened the lives of those 88,000 by 30 years
-$249 billion(yes, that’s a “b”) is the annual economic cost of alcohol consumption. That’s $2.05 per drink.
-30 alcohol related deaths per day just from motor vehicle “accidents.”
-17% or men and 8% of women will be dependent on alcohol in their lifetime.
-alcohol is the third highest cause of death in the US.
-teen alcohol abuse takes 4700 lives per year–more than all illegal drugs combined
-5.3 million adults–36% of those under correctional supervision at the time- were drinking at the time of their conviction offence.
-and these are just a few rather quantifiable costs. We haven’t even started yet on family breakdown, marriage breakdown, poverty, rape, the negative effects of lowered inhibitions and…well, where do I stop?
But all of that is only a modest cost for the “good gift” of alcohol. We’d be willing to pay more.
Let’s imagine that these costs increased by 10%, 50%, or 100%.
Let’s imagine that, instead of one in five of the students with whom you share a beer having, or about to have, an abuse problem, the stats proved to be, or came to be, one in four or one in three.
Would that change our attitudes?
I doubt it.
We would still say things like:
-it’s been even worse
-other substances are a problem too
-let’s just focus on little corners of the problem like drunk driving
-nerver mind that it’s powerfully addictive. Just advise moderation! Surely addicts should find that easy
-not much point in addressing this problem unless we holistically address every other social problem
OK. OK. I’ve been intemperate (pun intended) again. But we should at least forthrightly face the implications of our temperate nuance about alcohol use. That is: we deeply believe it’s worth 88,000 lives per year, and all the other costs, for us to gladden our hearts with this good mind altering gift. As long as the benefits exceed the costs, let’s temperately march on.
So here is my modest proposal: starting this September, all of us who are students, staff, and supporters of Dordt College will redirect the money we now spend on alcohol to the college. Dordt would then be able to provide a totally free christian education to all its students and still be awash in money. This would, no doubt, catch on. Shortly we could eliminate the national debt!
What you are suggesting is already largely the case. College educated people in the US especially but also Europe are far less likely to drink, and they drink much less than those with lower educational attainment and the lower socioeconomic status that it tends to correlate with.
Yet contrary to your working assumption, all alcohol consumption without regard to social context is not necessarily an enabling force in negative outcomes, or the nature of the enabling is not uniform in all contexts. We should not assume that negative outcomes distribute somewhat evenly in society simply due to consumption and no other factors, because there is such evidence to the contrary. (E.g., “Associations Between Socioeconomic Factors and Alcohol Outcomes,” by Susan E. Collins in Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, 2016: “People with higher socioeconomic status may consume similar or greater amounts of alcohol compared with people with lower status, although the latter group seems to bear a disproportionate burden of negative alcohol-related consequences. These associations are further complicated by a variety of moderating factors, such as race, ethnicity, and gender. Thus, among individuals with lower SES, members of further marginalized communities, such as racial and ethnic minorities and homeless individuals, experience greater alcohol-related consequences.”)
They are terrible statistics you present, to be sure, but alcohol consumption alone did not cause them, and I doubt they are apparent in the life experience of most moderate drinkers’ social circles. If that were the case, we would probably have a popular movement for prohibition again.
Prohibition was driven in the past by a concern for white working class and poor people by others within that class or concerned with its welfare and upward mobility. The poor and working classes remain or are again engaging in the most negative behaviors relative to alcohol, now across racial and ethnic categories that can be painfully obvious in many cities around the world. Whether we abstain from alcohol or not, as a privileged class we are not helping those most in need, perhaps because we are abstaining from other behaviors where we should be more indulgent.
I understand the concern you’re expressing, Syl, but there are two issues here that I would push back on.
The first is the “couldn’t we spend our money on something better” argument. That’s undoubtedly true of almost any expense we talk about. Couldn’t we all live in one bedroom apartments, weave our own simple clothes out of scrap cloth, and give every available cent to the church/poor/school/etc.? Undoubtedly, we could, and, undoubtedly, that would be an admirable thing, but that does not make other courses of action inherently sinful or wrong. We are commanded not to just hoard our wealth, but we are similarly not commanded to turn God’s blessings or provision for us away. There is some measure of wisdom and discernment involved in the balance, and, while I do appreciate calls to be radically aware of how much we could (and usually don’t) do, I don’t think I’m grieving the Lord through fellowship with my students.
The second issue with this would be the assumption that we’re happy to allow all sorts of evil to happen just so we can have our booze. This seems to be implying that the gift is not good at all, since we’re essentially letting people die to enjoy it. Perhaps an analogy would be helpful here: what about the gift of feasting? There is no doubt that the Bible recommends this to us, in fact, Heaven is referred to in these terms; however, an excess of feasting is one of the leading health crises in America today, and I’m one of millions of Americans who are grossly overweight. In fact, I’m likely to head to an early grave at least in part as a result of my excesses. Clearly, I can’t control myself at a feast, so does this mean that we should ban all feasting? Should I avoid every public celebration for the rest of my life? (Believe me, I’m painfully aware of how much food I put on my plate in public) If others feast, are they doing this while gleefully signing off on the deaths of thousands?
Perhaps you reject my analogy, but it seems apt to me. Many of God’s good gifts are misused today (almost all of Creation, in fact), but none of this affects the actual good character of those gifts, and it also doesn’t preclude our ability to still enjoy or put those gifts to good use. That doesn’t mean that discernment is written off, precisely the opposite.