“Jesus gave wine to drunk people.”
I stared at my good friend when he said that. “No he didn’t.”
He said, “John two.”
Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have had too much to drink, then the poor wine, but [Jesus has] kept the good wine until now!
“What’s that prove?” I asked.
“Jesus gave more wine to people who were already drunk. Pharisees called him a glutton and a drunkard.”
My heart was racing, and not from excitement. “Are you telling me Jesus made it okay to be drunk?”
“I’m telling you he gave wine to drunk people at a wedding, consistent with the Proverbs that tell us to give wine to people in extreme situations.”
“Have you checked the Greek?” I asked.
“No, but the NIV, NRSV, and ESV all point that way.”
Though I left his house on good terms, I was publicly silent about that conversation for a year. And then, after my honeymoon in February of 2010, I looked it up again. There it was: had too much to drink.
How could I deny that the text seemed to read “Jesus gave wine to drunk people” ? Sure, there were enough feasts to call him “glutton, ” but where was the cause for “drunkard” ? I looked up the word:
methusko – to get drunk; intoxicated.
Plato used it the same way as John. Herodotus, Josephus, Dio Chrysostom, Testament of Judah, Cornutus all used the word like this: “get wasted.” The definition was evident, but what about usage? There seemed to be a distinction between “drunk” – singular event – and “drunkenness” or “drunkard.” In the lists of New Testament vices, habitual gluttony of wine is always condemned. Even Plato[i] showed drunkenness dwarfed men into weak children, but made a distinction where wine ignites the true emotions. When a man drinks just enough to liberate his mind, Plato thinks he’s on the way to wisdom.[ii] It’s, in the least, an interesting distinction between drunk and drinking.
Which brings us to John’s syntax. The word “have-drunk-freely” specifies the verb “bring out the poor wine.” When do you do bring out the watered-down stuff? When everyone’s already drunk… or drunked, as the Greeks put it.
“A glutton and a drunkard.” John has demon (because he refuses) and Jesus is the drunk (because he indulges). When among gluttons: John fasts, Jesus feasts. When among drunkards: John abstains, Jesus drinks.
I can’t argue with my friend. Biblically, it seems that drunkenness is a sin, but getting drunk (a singular event) is permitted – even encouraged among a certain tier of pitch-perfect festivities. I would personally place that “singular event” at a wedding or a funeral, sandwiching the Cana passage and proverb together: give wine to really happy and really sad people.
Unfortunately, that ethical conviction won’t quite work in my current context. I’ve yet to get drunk in my life and, Lord willing, I won’t get drunk until I die and join the wedding feast on the Mountain of the Lord, the one that will include Isaiah’s “well-aged wines strained clear.” You see, I currently live in the beer gut of the Midwest. If you drink in Joplin, you belong to the Elks club, not the church. “Heaven forbid those, ” (and my local Evangelical friends mean this literally), “damned Catholics from drinkin’ wine at communion. They’re all drunks!” One side of my extended family calls it high treason to touch alcohol – they take pride in having never tasted. On the other side, an extended family member was sent to prison for his third DUI… only to sober up while there, writing me letters about Jesus. More fascinating still is the weird position I occupy in the American church between abstainers and partakers. Missouri church culture considers you a sinner for touching alcohol or openly having it in your home. Christians who drink in Missouri or Kentucky often drink in private. On the other hand, at this church plant I’m joining in Brooklyn, the pastor drinks a lot of beer right across the table from first-time-visitors. When students from a Missouri Christian college took his class in New York, one young girl from a conservative home asked the guy, “How do you build relationships?”
“I dunno, drink a lot of beer?”
A forty-five minute debate ensued in which the students attempted to parse out just how many drinks were kosher. I guess they each had in mind some ideal body mass index as well as some sacred statistic for alcohol-content-by-volume?
The church planter said to me, “I’m as naïve as they are. They think there are no pastors who drink. I never would have guessed that this, of all things, would have been such an issue.”
He was raised in Brooklyn.
They were raised in Pleasantville, Midwest.
Temperance keeps echoing in ballrooms of my mind like some clarion call to come and dance. Even Alcoholics Anonymous, like arrogant hypocrites who think they by their own power have freed millions from addiction, judge the stronger brother for partaking. And the stronger brothers, like arrogant hypocrites who think they by their own power have created their freedom in Christ, judge the weaker brother for abstaining.
On the one hand, you have the Christian college student development offices who judge people by writing up contracts that say “no drinking, ” judging any who question the “sacred” code. One the other hand, you have many who have signed contracts saying they won’t drink and then go break their vow. Neither contract writer nor contract breaker know anything of temperance, even if their justifications use the word “temperance.” The one who cannot temper his legal agreement of “I won’t” and the one who cannot temper his spiritual freedom in “we can” both miss out on virtue. Vow-breakers are, by definition, in-temperantia “without restraint, ” and the Christian Women’s Temperance Movement would have been better named the Christian Women’s Teetotaler Movement. Both sides lose.
No, we need a better foundation to get at temperance because contract-writing and contract-breaking, being offended and trying to offend, are all methods that aren’t working. Both strategies use terrible logic based on something other than true submission to the authority of scripture exercised in the confessing church.
Between the judgmental teetotalers and the contract-breaking indulgers, I hear Paul mention stumbling blocks in Romans fourteen. Who does “stumbling block” apply to: the “righteous” family member who prides herself in manicured pretenses, or the drunk?
What about the heart: who am I causing to sin when I drink in public? Who would be called to repentance by seeing me indulge?
And with whom am I, like the Proverbial fool, becoming easily offended? Am I wanting “cause them to stumble” to force everyone around me to bow down to my hypocritical judgments? Or am I helping any ragamuffin stumbling with an alcoholic past? In terms of temperance, who might be dragged closer to Hell on Earth or even to Earth in Hell?
Even while asking these better questions, I still didn’t know how to kill off the judgmental teetotaler or the judgmental indulger inside me. Either John’s a liar about Jesus giving wine to drunk people (neutering my view of inerrancy), Jesus is a sinner for giving wine to drunk people (neutering my view of salvation), or it’s okay to get drunk once in awhile (neutering my materialistic ethics). We can all be “liars” like John, “sinners” like Jesus, or we could repent of the way we Americans do ethics. I have little interest in talking about alcohol, but we must talk about this to get to the heart of the matter: our materialistic mindset.
Because getting to the heart of things is exactly what Jesus did and does.
When did our righteousness start taking root in the physical world? According to G.K. Chesterton, we have been making this mistake since at least the turn of the last century (the 1900’s):
“The standard of abstract right and wrong apparently is this: that a girl by smoking a cigarette makes herself one of the company of the fiends of hell. That such an action is much the same as that of a sexual vampire. That a young man who continues to drink fermented liquor must necessarily be ‘evil’ and must deny the very existence of any difference between right and wrong. That is the ‘standard of abstract right and wrong’ that is apparently taught in the American home. And it is perfectly obvious, on the face of it, that it is not a standard of abstract right or wrong at all. That is exactly what it is not. That is the very last thing any clear-headed person would call it. It is not a standard; it is not abstract; it has not the vaguest notion of what is meant by right and wrong. It is a chaos of social and sentimental accidents and associations, some of them snobbish, all of them provincial, but, above all, nearly all of them concrete and connected with a materialistic prejudice against particular materials.”
In twenty-first century English, Chesterton’s saying that a morality based upon substances such as alcohol or tobacco is not morality at all. You can’t judge a car as “evil” and a truck as “good, ” a tree as “demonic” or a shrubbery as “angelic.” This nonsense has bothered me enough that I created a photonovel called “Cold Brewed” that revised the history of the American prohibition: drinking coffee rather than alcohol was criminalized. Basing your right and wrong on a physical substance is, strictly speaking, materialism, which meant “atheism” in Chesterton’s time – faith in the material world rather than the Life or Form behind every thing. To plow forth morality in soil that won’t “drink, smoke, chew, or run with girls who do” is to plow forth morality into the bedrock of atheism. That’s one way to break a Gospel plow.
Malcom Gladwell, the author of Tipping Point and Outliers, wrote an article entitled “Drinking Games” for the February 15th & 20th (2010) issue of the New Yorker. In it, he traces Dwight Heath’s anthropological work on the Camba people who live between the Amazon Basin and the Chaco. The Camba are a peripatetic people working farmland without much time for socializing, so their ritualistic drinking party is essential. Traditionally, the words “drinking party” invoke images of Animal House and Varsity Blues from deep in our culture, but in Camba something alternative and beautiful emerged.
Whoever hosted the party bought the initial bottle and invited everyone to come. Around twelve on Saturday, people showed up and often the party went clear till Monday. It was structured – everyone sitting in a circle, maybe with an instrument going in back. Then a bottle of sugar-refinery rum made landed on the table. The host stood, walked to someone in the circle, raised his glass, drank half, and then gave the rest to the other. Later, the other guy would stand, fill a glass and go to a third – all governed by strict rules of “do” and “do not.” For instance, a man could drink for his wife if she couldn’t take much more, just like the gentlemen of Downton Abbey.
After lab testing in The States, they found this particular rum to be one-hundred-eighty proof – or ninety percent – alcohol. Remember that stuff you used in sophomore chemistry? This Camba rum is the same distillation of disinfectant. However, something was unusual: the Camba never faced a problem with “social pathology, ” Heath said, “none. No sexual aggression, no verbal aggression. There was pleasant conversation or silence… drinking didn’t interfere with work. It didn’t bring in the police. And there was no alcoholism.” Remember, we’re talking about drunk people here – drunk people – as in those to whom Jesus gave more wine. When Gladwell published this, anthropologists continued to realize how unreliable the effects of alcohol are (see the New Yorker article for the full story). In the end, the scientists concluded that alcohol cannot possibly be a disinhibitor. Gladwell says it better:
“Alcohol makes the thing in the foreground even more salient and the thing in the background disappear. That’s why drinking makes you think you are attractive when the world thinks otherwise: the alcohol removes the little constraining voice from the outside world that normally keeps our self-assessments in check. Drinking relaxes the man watching football because the game is front and center, and alcohol makes every secondary consideration fade away. But in a quiet bar his problems are front and center-and every potentially comforting or mitigating thought recedes. Drunkenness is not disinhibition. Drunkenness is myopia.”
In other words, when a woman drinks, she becomes so focused on her environment that she cannot think of anything else, which often means her image. Drunk men are more one-task-minded than regular men – which is truly saying something. If every drinking trope in a given culture – films, songs, stories – shows its youth out of control in bars and if the bar you drink in blasts music out the windows and if the men inside your bar are shouting and even fighting – if the social atmosphere surrounding alcohol is chaos, then why would a young twenty-year old act in any way other than chaotic, having taking a myopic substance? It’s not that the drinker’s numb to his surroundings, it’s that he’s hyper-sensitive to reckless surroundings and so becomes reckless. We teach our children what drunk looks like, even what drinking looks like, and for us, one sip looks like chaos. So for us, one sip ends in chaos.
Not so with the Camba. They grow more sensitive to this ritual undergirding relationships in their culture. They focus on the person in front of them. For Catholics, communion is also about what the brothers have in common. Wine is the climax of worship because it is from our confession, apology, repentance offered to those right in front of us that sends us out, that dismisses, that missio, that “Mass”-es us out into the world. The Camba had no other means for communal sanctification, no route for deeper friendship. Alcohol made them sensitive to the atmosphere: reverence, health, and conversation. Gladwell concludes, emphasis mine:
“Today our approach to the social burden of alcohol is a mixture of all [three policies]: we moralize, medicalize, and legalize…When confronted with the rowdy youth in the bar…we are reluctant to provide him with a positive and constructive example of how to drink. The consequences of that failure are considerable, because, in the end, culture is a more powerful tool in dealing with drinking than medicine, economics, or the law.”
Youth ministers? How common it is for any youth ministry to label any substance as “evil.” But how novel it would be for some youth ministry to be led by some godly man who’s different than the drunks in the lives of modern kids, a man of legal age who can drink without getting drunk, a man who demonstrates the virtue of temperance along with those of hope and peace and prudence and justice. Oh man, do we love our justice…
I say all of this to reveal the only powerful way to transform culture. You cannot just restrict, tax, medicate, ignore, or label a substance. My old professor, Doug Marks, said we seek to sculpt a “Christo-centric super-culture.” That wasn’t an elitist statement, but one of grass-roots renaissance – of unimaginable art flowing out of holy cores. Currently, our morality isn’t based on abstract right and wrong, but on atheism, materialism. Maybe that’s why pre-Christians laugh at Christians who police “morals” rather than create a new culture based on New Creation. We Christians give lists of acceptable substances and environments, but refuse justice, mercy, and humility.
Whatever the case may be about Jesus giving wine to drunk people, the pondering of that moment exposes a deeper vein: we have no bearing for right and wrong. We talk of virtue and vice as if we knew how one or the other might look were we to stumble across them on a New York sidewalk. In reality, we have no clue.
I beg of you to wrestle as I have wrestled with the true source of right and wrong, and if you find yourself basing your morality more on the physical than the personal – more on objects rather than relationships or choices – then maybe you and I are wrong about being right. Chesterton ends his article like this, emphasis mine:
“May I be allowed to hope that [Americans] will succeed in drawing a rather more logical line between bad men and good men? Something of the difference and the difficulty may be seen by comparing the old Klu Klux Klan with the new Klu Klux Klan. The old secret society may have been justified or not; but it had a definite object: it was directed against somebody. The new secret society seems to have been directed against anybody; often against anybody who drank; in time, for all I know, against anybody who smoked. It is this sort of formless fanaticism that is the great danger of the American Temperament; and it is well to insist that if men must persecute, they will be more clear-headed if they persecute for a creed.”[iii]
If we are to love, let us love as human souls rather than as sentient masses of carbon refusing to inhale hot gaseous carbon or swallow liquid hydroxyl strands (C2H5OH). And if we are to hate, let us hate not flesh and blood (for human beings are never our enemies according to Ephesians 6:12) but rather the dark principalities in this world. Let’s get rid of stupid, ignorant thoughts that certain foods or drinks or substances can make a man The Devil. I hope we give up, like John the Revelator, talks of hyper-literal surface matters like H2O, hemoglobin and types of grains and hydroxyls – substances that would make Jesus himself in need of baptism, a sinner and a glutton and a drunkard. Which He was not, though the title of this article does refer to this accusation they hurled at him when he hung out with drunks, when he gave drunks more wine in the middle of a miracle about a New Creation and New Kingdom.
Instead, may we speak of and seek out truer forms behind and beyond His physical substances: water, blood and bread and wine.
[i] Plat. Resp., IX, 537b c; Leg., I, 645e, 646a
[ii] Leg., II 666b c
[iii] Both quotes taken from G.K. Chesterton’s, On American Morals. Every American Christian should read it in its entirety.