August 16, 2010
Church Health Reader recently talked with C.K. Robertson about his book Religion and Alcohol: Sobering Thoughts. Robertson is the author of many articles and books, including Transforming Stewardship, and Religion and Sexuality: Passionate Debates. Robertson serves as Canon to the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.
John Shorb: The title of the Introduction is “The Mixed Messages.” What do you think these mixed religious messages about alcohol are?
C.K. Robertson: In the Bible we see that on the one hand wine in particular is used as a symbol of feasting, of prosperity, and ultimately we see it used as a symbol of the Paradise of God. We think about Jesus himself promising his friends the apostles that “I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” Or Isaiah, in that wonderful passage from the prophet at the end of the Babylonian exile promising, “Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” There’s something celebratory about the notion of wine in many instances of Scripture — both Old and New Testaments — something that says that wine is a symbol of both celebration and joy.
At the same time, we see again and again, stories in Scripture of the excessive use, the misuse, the abuse of wine, of alcohol. Starting with Noah’s famous state of drunkenness when he’s found by his sons, in a stupor. But again, if there is a mixed message in scripture, it is that alcohol is something wonderful and symbolic of joy and celebration, but at the same time, this is a dangerous gift. It is a gift of God that is a dangerous gift and one that we have to always be aware of.
Like sexuality, wine is seen as a gift of God that at times has been misused and become a vehicle for our own destruction. But that it is misused does not negate the fact that it is first and foremost a gift.
What do you think is the correct attitude for Christians toward alcohol use?
(Laughs) I would not be presumptuous enough to say that there is a correct theological position on how to deal with alcohol. I think that, as in all things, we are on the right track when we are being intentional and asking the right questions. It’s too easy to have easy answers on this — some have done that. In American Christianity, in the 20th century we saw many groups who at one time or another had a complete all-or-nothing approach to alcohol. As we have often seen that’s not always realistic, and more than that can lead to certain levels of hypocrisy as some people will speak about alcohol boldly, refuse to ever have a drink it public, and yet in the privacy of their own homes have no problem with having a glass of wine or a beer. There’s a disconnect there.
I think the all-or-nothing approach can be right for some people. But first we need to be committed to intentionally wrestling with these questions. What is it that we’re about with this? What does it mean to speak of public versus private use of alcohol? Does all-or-nothing reflect what the scriptures say — because it doesn’t seem to. So, really, it’s not so much finding the correct theology of alcohol use. I think it’s much more about asking helpful questions to help us to become more intentional as individuals and as groups.
All I would say in addition is that for any of us are in leadership, either lay or ordained in the church, I cannot stress enough how important it is for us to have intentional conversations about these issues. We should assume nothing and be able to help people engage in some creative and honest conversation about issues of alcohol. We will all be healthier from the results that come out of that. And as long as we instead provide answers as opposed to really helping people engage with good questions then we will remain stuck in a lot of hypocrisy and unhealthiness.
What do you think could help people to begin asking these questions?
I think some scripture studies could stimulate some good conversations. The Bible and alcohol is a wonderful thing to explore. We come to the Bible with our own assumptions about what it says, and yet we might be surprised when we are confronted with the wonderful prophesies, the flowing wine — not just milk and honey, but wine — in Paradise, or with Jesus and his clear social use of it.
As a minister, have you ever had an experience that you feel demonstrates this question of religion and alcohol?
Absolutely. There’s one in particular, a story of when I was interviewing at a particular church when I was looking to be a rector there. And at this particular church they asked me at one point about my views on drinking, and about my own personal approach to alcohol. And I calmly said that I actually am a rare creature: I’m an Episcopal priest who doesn’t really drink. I don’t. I will occasionally have a very small amount of wine — and it’s not for any philosophical reasons, but because I have literally never developed a taste for it. I would much prefer to have a cup of tea, or, sadly, (laughing) a Diet Coke. But I said to them, “I don’t drink.” To which they said, “do you have a problem with us having wine and other drinks at events?” And I quickly responded and said, “of course not. I most certainly don’t have a problem with that as long as these are events for adults, so that we’re not sending confusing messages to children — then I have no problems with that.” Well, later in the interview I was asked the exact same question again: do I have a problem with alcohol being used by and at the Parish? I figured I hadn’t given a clear answer the first time, so I repeated myself once again — tried to be even clearer. They asked the same question a third time — a little later. And it was on the third time the question was asked that I responded and said, “is there something I need to know about this Parish?” What I found as I asked that was that there were some concerns on different ends of the spectrum. The Parish, I found, did have a history of difficulties with alcohol, both with its clergy in the past and with its lay leaders.
I share that because I found that there was a lot of secrecy going on in the very questioning in my interview and it was only when I was able to push back that we were finally able to have some honest conversation about the struggles that place had had with alcohol in the past. I think that very situation could be replicated in many other places. Many of our churches are probably not quite willing to share some of the shadow side of their struggles with alcohol — whether it be stories of their past clergy, or their lay leaders, or whatever. There are a lot of shadows that we don’t want to shine the light on sometimes, and so we ask round-about questions to try to get a feel for things instead of being able to say, let’s really wrestle with how we deal with alcohol. I think that’s an issue for churches today.
John Shorb is the Editor of Church Health Reader.