Melanie Springer Mock
Review of Erin Jean Warde, Sober Spirituality: The Joy of a Mindful Relationship with Alcohol (Brazos Press, 2023)
In some ways, the ubiquity of mom-and-wine kitsch reflects the pervasive nature of alcohol in many people’s day-to-day lives. Most craft stores sell a version of It’s Wine O’Clock Somewhere wall hangings, and Etsy abounds with Mommy’s Juice tumblers, wink-and-nod opaque sippy cups for adults. A recent article from the Columbia University Public School of Health confirmed that rates of binge drinking and Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) is increasing most rapidly in reproductive-aged women, aided by a culture that normalizes alcohol use and downplays its abuse by suggesting that a glass of wine (or three) is needed to survive the daily stressors of motherhood.
A new wave of books published in the last few years provides one powerful antidote to the changing (and troubling) drinking habits of some women. Dubbed “Quit Lit” by The Washington Post in early 2023, these often-confessional books provide a warning to readers by showing how swiftly alcohol dependence can consume a person’s life, complicating relationships, altering physical and emotional health, and increasing stress and anxiety. Penned primarily by women, Quit Lit reflects the disturbing trends about women who drink, and an increasing awareness that the bottle is not the hoped-for antidote it often promises to be.
Erin Jean Warde’s Sober Spirituality: The Joy of a Mindful Relationship with Alcohol provides an important addition to the Quit Lit genre, though her target audience is not only women, and not only those who drink to excess. Part memoir, part meditation, Warde situates alcohol use within the context of Christian faith, as she reflects on her own transformative decision to become sober following years of alcohol dependency. For Warde, sobriety “allows me to love deeply, to receive a joy that will never leave or forsake me. Sobriety allows me to gather myself up and place my soul on the altar.” Sober Spirituality is an invitation to readers to find the love and joy Warde discovered by changing her relationship to alcohol and, in a way, becoming born again.
The author writes with an authority of knowing sobriety and spirituality well. An Episcopal priest and spiritual director, Warde spent a number of years in thrall of alcohol. She also did not quit cold turkey—Warde writes that few people do—but instead through stops and starts, sobriety finally “stuck.” She likens her new-found sobriety to a kind of awakening that her hungover self, with its halting morning-after self-loathing, could not have imagined. Warde sees sobriety as resurrection into “a joyful life,” requiring a kind of death first: of old habits, comfortable patterns, even relationships that have been founded and fueled through drinking.
Sober Spirituality wisely explores the biblical basis for sober living, challenging the oft-times facile argument that the Bible condones alcohol use, given the preponderance of references to wine throughout scripture. It’s important to affirm that Jesus drank wine, Warde writes, but also that the wine in the ancient Near East was different than what is available now, and that Jesus’ relationship to the alcohol was not toxic or debilitating. Warde reminds readers that other biblical passages (like Proverbs 23) show the dangers of drunkenness, alcohol’s promises of a good time giving way to bad decisions, darkness, and shame.
Despite the glib nature of mom-and-wine culture, and indeed of drinking culture more broadly, shame remains a pervasive part of alcohol use and abuse. Substance dependence can often be a silent struggle, Warde says, as it is for many who are seeking sobriety. Throwaway comments on social media that either glorify drinking or vilify those who drink too much present a “double whammy” for those striving for sobriety, who are reminded that alcohol makes any event more fun, and also that those who over-indulge are drunkards and addicts who cause harm to others.
A resounding strength in Sober Spirituality is Warde’s unwillingness to contribute to the shame that is often part of conversations around alcohol misuse. Given her own experience, she recognizes that the journey toward sobriety is not linear: it might not have a specific start date; it might not have a particular pathway; more than anything else, it requires a mindful relationship with alcohol and with others. Warde uses the idea of “long obedience in the same direction,” noting that “Sobriety is, for many of us, a progression, an unfolding, an intuitive process of embodiment, and the inkling that a more joyful life is possible.”
In writing about her sobriety, Warde uses the language of liberation, of “returning us to what we were made for—joy, yes, but also a more compassionate heart.” Understanding this liberation means that Warde had to recognize her own white privilege, and the ways alcohol numbed her from wholly witnessing the racial injustice around her, or from seeing the full humanity of others in their grief and their joy. Sobriety also helped Warde acknowledge how white privilege shows up in drinking culture: the substance abuse of white women can be seen as a lark, worthy of wine sippy cups; Black people who struggle with substance addictions are more readily portrayed in the media as “lazy, devious, and violent sociopath(s),” and their abuse of substances more likely to be criminalized.
It is Warde’s thoughtful consideration of addiction’s high costs that makes Sober Spirituality an important read even for those not personally challenged by alcohol’s allure. She carefully plots the ways a $250 billion/year alcohol industry repeatedly deceives us into believing its products provide health benefits, despite all contravening evidence. More pervasively, the alcohol industry lies to us, telling us that drinking is a necessary addition to the good life, a message children also receive in terms of marketing, movies and TV shows, and the model of the adults in their lives. Liberation from alcohol includes being freed from the industry’s deceptions, though Warde manifests considerable compassion for those who work in the industry. “Systems deserve criticism, and people deserve compassion,” she writes, a point that deserves broad application for justice-minded Christians.
This kind of empathy appears everywhere in Warde’s book: empathy for those who work as bartenders and alcohol sales, empathy for those struggling with substance abuse, and empathy for those who have vowed to quit, but for whom a sustained sobriety is still a struggle. Warde’s own challenges with AUD shape the ways she guides others, and it’s also clear that Warde’s liberation from alcohol addiction has allowed her to more fully see the Imago Dei in others and in herself. Sober Spirituality is an invitation for others to join Warde in her journey, a new kind of Quit Lit that recognizes how long obedience in the same direction offers so much more than the empty promises of wine o’clock and mommy juice.