There are five paths to drunkenness. At least that was the estimation of what happened to people while drinking that my friend Keith and I contrived at age eighteen. In all fairness, this estimation was constructed before we ever dared to drink ethyl alcohol- or EtOH, as the cool kids call it. Nonetheless, I believe it is a fair gauge of anyone crossing the bridge from sobriety into drunkenness. To lay it out bluntly, the five paths one takes when careening into drunken debauchery are as follows:
1. Jim Carrey
Meaning: you become one of these people. And you know you do. Unless of course, you, as a matter of principle- have abstained from the consumption of the poisonous excrement of various fungi. I have to admit that I did too, until the age of 26. And yes, it is excrement. All fungi have, what the cool kids call- a haploid and a diploid state of their existence. The haploid state is the period where humans have found certain strains to be very good at effecting anaerobic respiration. We do this for the express purpose of being able to drink the poisonous waste of these tiny one-celled members of that same Kingdom of organisms that gave us slime molds, and whatever Jimi Hendrix was on when he lit his guitar on fire at Woodstock. Somehow we hope to just poison our bodies enough that we trick our brains into having the same inhibitions as a four year old.
Alcohol may have been the world’s first drug. It is undeniably its most popular. Pottery believed to have been used to ferment some sort of honey, grape, hawthorn fruit, crap/glop- has been dated back to the late stone age. Beer made from rice appeared soon thereafter, then actual wine, actual beer, and by the Middle Ages- the means for distilling various liquors. It is a reasonable argument to say that as long as humans have been drinking anything fermented, there have been the social and moral problems that go along with its consumption.
When I first became a Christian, it was in a borderline Pentecostal church that spent just as much effort disavowing alcoholic beverages as they did spreading fake trees across the stage for their worship service each Sunday. Which is to say- it was a tie as to which was the most important thing. So, fake trees and not drinking was number one, number two was that women must get their hair as enormous as humanly possible, and third was something about Jesus. As a teenager, I just took this stance on drinking to be truth, and accepted it blindly as something that had to be the Gospel. I espoused it openly. The kids at school were making open bets as to who could get me drunk first, thinking that because I was already the class clown, a drunker version of me might summon some new era of worldwide hilarity.
Although I was curious as to exactly how much fun I was missing out on, I persevered. It wasn’t the legality of underage drinking that held me back then, rather, it was the very real fear of burning in the fires of Hell, that every kid growing up in Evangelical America knows to be their guiding light in most decisions. It wasn’t until around age 23 for me, that I even began to question this line of thought. If you would like to know who to blame for this, it would be where my wife likes to find blame for most of my off-kilter theology: those damned Presbyterians.
First of all, the Presbyterians can drink. This may not come as quite the shocker to you as it did to me- because you grew up Catholic, or your parents were hippies- but I can assure you, I was aghast. I remember being dumfounded when I learned of Inklings, the literary group of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein and many others that met at a pub near Oxford throughout the 30’s and 40’s. A pub. Two of the greatest authors of the Twentieth Century just sat around drinking, while they talked about how Frodo could get in and out of Mordor, or what a complete butt munch Edmund was. Also... Mere Christianity- plus beer.
I’m not at all insinuating that the members of Inklings were Presbyterians (or “The Frozen Chosen” as the cool kids like to call them), but it was through the Presbyterians that I first was entrusted with this knowledge. Because, that’s how they roll: heavy on the doctrine, easy on the dictum. They, as opposed to the more evangelical slants of Protestantism, always seem to be throwing out this “all things in moderation” vibe. Not literally all things, like slapping nuns, or making cowboy hats out of the people you have murdered and then hidden in your basement- but what seemed to me to be an inordinate amount of freedom compared to my upbringing. It was a complete shift for me, from a world composed of nothing but rules, to one of liberty. Suddenly, I could listen to secular music without that lingering sense of guilt that I was somehow corrupting my soul by exposing my naive ears to such worldly things. A new copy of a Run DMC album that my youth pastor’s wife had so callously unstrung and tossed out of the window of her moving car, had slowly found its way back into my possession. I could finally appreciate Metallica without having to listen to some Christian Record Company’s hackneyed version of what Metallica would be if they weren’t evil. Because, all at once, they weren’t evil. They were just human beings like me, but with a lesser understanding of mercy and possibly their need for it. Weezer’s Blue Album had just come out, and unthinkably, I found it to be worshipful. As “Only In Dreams” played out, I wept- knowing that I felt the same things- that same awkward inability to find true love as they felt. But also knowing that I was, in the end, unconditionally loved by a just and compassionate God.
I was able to take new liberties in how I perceived the world, and it was fantastic. The old joke of Evangelicals forbidding pre-marital sex, because it might lead to dancing- was undone. I could dance without fear of repercussion. I could skateboard. I started wearing jeans to church. I got a tattoo! But one of the last things to give in, for me, turned out to be my stance on the consumption of alcohol.
I had always had a problem with the incongruities in the picture of alcohol that the Evangelicals had painted for me. The entire thrust of their doctrine had been to disavow all forms of it, that it only could lead one to drunkenness and ruin. And yet, every time Communion would be presented- there it was. Jesus Christ taking a cup of wine and sharing it with His friends before we crucified Him. They had always side-stepped this issue with some fumbling explanation of the wine not actually being wine, but rather, some form of lightly fermented (or not fermented) grape juice. It never seemed legit. I had accepted it up to that point because most of my understanding of God was that I should be afraid of Him. But the question still lingered: why then, I thought, did Jesus make something from water at a wedding that the attendees described as being of higher quality than what they were already drinking, unless it was actual wine? Why would anyone care if someone were to roll out better grape juice after they drank some mediocre grape juice, unless it wasn’t grape juice? It had suddenly dawned on me that this Jesus Christ that I had grown to fear was seriously different than I had pictured Him. He made actual wine, and gave it to people that had already been drinking. He doled out not just salvation, but fun.
After much thought, I made the decision that I would stop thinking of alcohol as this great forbidden evil. It actually had no effect on me for another three years. From that point, I felt peace about my friends and family consuming it, but I just didn’t feel the need to. Maybe some latent evangelical threat still hid in the back of my brain for what might happen if I crossed that line. Quite possibly, it was just the fact that my fear had created a very real barrier in my psyche. I felt like it was something that I could never undo if I did drink. It gave me a sense of pride to know that I still had this one item of self control that most of the population did not. Plus, there are some undeniably horrific social problems that go along with drinking, and I wanted no part in them.
But that all changed for me at age 26. During a trip to Chicago with a very young Five Iron Frenzy, our not-being-paid-for-anything-but-gas-band had camped out in my Uncle Todd’s back yard. My uncle was not a believer, and I remember carrying this specific burden of wishing to make him think that we were cool, instead of what I’m sure he perceived most of Christianity to be: boring. It was during our first night there, with that thought rattling around inside my head, that he offered us all a cooler full of Budweisers. He thrust one into my hand, and suddenly this fight I had been waging since high school was at an end. I knew that if I were to tell him “no”, or even to waver- just to pridefully keep some personal record of never drinking alive- I would lose. It hit me all at once. Yes, this is it, I thought. This is what friends do.
And there it is. Jesus Christ, on His last night before His crucifixion is sitting amongst His friends and takes the greatest path to drunkenness mankind has ever known. This is how much I love you. In the midst of a traditional Passover Seder, He takes a simple piece of bread and breaks it, sharing it amongst His closest friends. Remember me when you do this. This is my body. His friends, assembled there tracing the lines that were baked into those pieces of unleavened bread had no idea that the next time they would practice this, they would come to the shocking realization that those lines were metaphorical representations of the suffering they would inflict upon their hero. This is how much I love you. This is my body, broken for you. This is how much I love you.
With that, and with what anyone who has ever had a Seder meal knows must have been His fourth glass of wine, He drinks. He asks of us, His friends, to acknowledge His suffering. And then He forgives us. And in doing so, He frees us. The next day, the entirety of Levitical Law, the Law of Moses- basically the entire canon of every religion and law that man or God had ever devised- was completely undone in one defiant act of rebellion. This is how much I love you.
If one were to argue that what Jesus Christ drank on that night was not fermented, it sadly ignores what I believe to be the greatest point in human history. That He loved us so overwhelmingly, as to take the entirety of the law, the full impact of any of our overbearing rules and standards, and wipe our hearts forever clean of them. Instead of this being about freedom, we latch one more set of standards to the already cumbersome burden that we each must carry. This cannot be about what was in that wine, or it loses meaning. This is Jesus Christ, on His last night with His friends, drinking. “Do this in memory of Me”, He asks. “I shall not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s Kingdom.” This is forgiveness. This is how much I love you.
* I know that there are plenty of Biblical passages that warn against being controlled by alcohol, against being a drunkard; but there are also passages like Proverbs 31:6, where we are encouraged to give wine and beer to the suffering. I am not talking about drinking to excess, or in front of your friend with a drinking problem- because both are clearly warned against throughout scripture. But we cannot just pick one scripture over another to tailor a new way for us to work out our salvation, despite the fact that the Church has rolled this way for most of its history. Taken as a whole, the Bible paints a picture of alcohol being a gift if it is consumed in moderation, and a curse if it is not.
18 For John didn’t spend his time eating and drinking, and you say, ‘He’s possessed by a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man,[f] on the other hand, feasts and drinks, and you say, ‘He’s a glutton and a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and other sinners!’ But wisdom is shown to be right by its results.” - MT 11:18,19