Monday, June 04, 2007

French Fries and the Tension Between Freedom and Responsibility in Community

The other day we went out with some friends for ice cream. I ordered a sundae with hot fudge and caramel, my husband and daughter each ordered a blizzard. And two of our friends got a large order of hot fries with their ice cream. I wasn’t really hungry, but the entire time we were there the sight and smell of those fries was distracting me. It was all I could do to keep from ordering some for myself even though they were the last thing I needed.

I tell this story to preface some thoughts that have been stirring in my head about the place of alcohol in Christian community. Like many people I know, I was raised in the ‘all drinking is SIN’ branch of the faith and, also like many people I know, have rejected that stance for its un-biblical and un-reasonable position. Among those who condemn all drinking, I will staunchly argue against their position. But I’m feeling uneasy about a growing trend that I’ve observed in the emerging church at large, but also among my own friends – emerging or not. When shots of Jager were offered at a gathering among Christian friends recently, it really gave me pause to think. There’s just a lot of drinking going on these days, and I’m not always sure how to feel about it – especially because I am related to quite a few addicts and people with genetic predispositions for addiction, including my own daughter. I also hope that the church we are preparing to plant will be equipped for ministry among people dealing with addiction. A fellow student at my seminary has told of seeing young adults he knows developing alcoholism after becoming Christians as a result of sitting around talking about God with the beers flowing among Christian friends.

And so I am conflicted about the role and place of alcohol within the church. The power of distraction that those French fries had over me the other evening is nothing by comparison to someone struggling with sobriety in a social setting where people are drinking. Can a community that accepts a lot of social drinking be a safe place for people in recovery? I’m sure most would say that they would refrain from drinking around someone they knew to be a recovering alcoholic. But what about those among us who are addicts in denial? And what about those among us who are addicts in the making? Until we are already trapped, we all tend to carry around a sense of personal immunity to addiction. But for many people, addictions wait to manifest themselves until mid-life and it’s not easy to predict who may be susceptible.

So there is this great tension between personal freedom and social responsibility in community. I don’t know how to resolve this tension. I will not make this black-and-white when it is a gradient issue. But I think we need to be talking about this and wrestling with it, rather than running with our freedom to drink down a road with an unknown destination. Your thoughts?


Joe said...

I think at the start anyone that is recovering from alcoholism really has to stay away from social situation where alcohol is being drunk. Eventually that does change over time.

Herb Leaming said...

I am a recovering alcoholic which only means that this disease is in neutral until I do something or feel something euphoric and it is quickly engaged and I could be spinning out of control and back to the races. What’s ironic is that I’ve been abstinent long enough that I don’t even know what Jager is. I’m betting I know what it feels like though.
I would like to leave the word “sin” or “salvation” out of this discussion. I wasn’t born in a strict, evangelical pew so I don’t really feel the constraints on my personal freedoms from that experience that many who were do. Especially the younger emergers who appear eager to bust out. When I came to a church community I had a long history of drunkeness, cussing like a sailor and a generally unhealthy (leaving sinful out for now) lifestyle. What the church community meant to me was a new way to live. I didn’t feel healthy, I didn’t feel good, emotionally or spiritually. I could let God’s healthy light shine on me and start feeling good about myself. I don’t want to drink or cuss like a sailor. It doesn’t me I succeed in not doing it all of the time but I don’t want to. It’s about liking myself and feeling cleansed by God’s cleanliness.
What disturbs me about some of the stuff I see in emerging land is that from my perspective it seems that it is purely an act of rebellion. Swearing on emerging websites is commonplace. Having church in a bar is a chic novelty, very trendy. Loosening up the inhibitions and lubricating the intellectual, theological discourse with a few shots. Having a toke or a line. Why not that? Illegal by whose standards? Healthy? A matter of perspective. It certainly can lend a new perspective on a conversation. Imagine the biblical insight that might be gained by a hit off of some good reefer.
What is the community going to be and what does it represent? Leave “sin” out of it. Isn’t it the essence of a Christian community to be healthy in a holistic way to as many people who walk through the door as possible? Holistic meaning emotionally, physically and spiritually nutritional. What if a person off the street, from the mission, struggling with addiction walks into Christian community wanting guidance, understanding, refuge and hope only to find it’s exuberant emergers thowing back shots of trendy microbrews. What if a person tired of being controlled and ruined by an unhealty sexual appetite and seeking healing wanders in to see tight pants, cleavage and butt cracks galore. Does it matter to the afflicted whether it is “sinful” or that it’s just some frustrated, stifled, evangelical born emergers making a statement? For that matter then when will it happen that a bottomed out, compulsive gambler who has lost literally everything and is desperately seeking help will walk into a Christian community on Casino Night?

Benjamin Ady said...

Karlene, Joe, Herb

Interesting thoughts. Some thoughts from a former teetotalling former Christian. It seems to me that lots of things have a lot to do with context and history, don't they? I struggle with having a negative attitude, and thinking too much about the dark side of things, and being too isolated. In a sense these are part of my god given personality--just like he called Jeremiah, Isaiah, and company to be on the outside of community, and to see the darkness and the evil as it was more clearly than the community, and to talk about that.
But the other side of that is that we prophets have to also be *hope* bringers. The really beautiful passages that people always take way out of context from Isaiah and Jeremiah and other prophets which are so chock a block full of dazzling hope are actually even more dazzling when read within their contexts--in the middle of books which are 95% woe and doom.
For we prophet types, its blazingly easy to see all that darkness and talk about it. It's easier than lying in bed. Just comes naturally. The hard part is the hope thing. We gotta work our little asses off to do that hope thing--to bring out the bright shining glorious hope in the middle of all that doom.
What the hell am I talking about?
Well, I've had to move in the direction of doing that hard work. And part of that has been becoming more willing to connect with people, and *enter into* their joy as well as their sorrow.

so what that has meant for me, among lots of other things, is that now I drink alcohol in moderation. Because I was cutting myself off from a whole bunch of people, and from their joy, by refusing to drink. And that was just ... not helping me or them. So to drink, and eat, and be joyous with people is somethign I was shit at most of my life, and the process of learnign to do that has been extremely ... helpful for me.
I'm guessing that someone from the opposite end, who was a party animal, and too focused on the joy, and couldn't cope being alone with themselves, etc. etc. would have to learn to move toward less drinking, etc. etc.

I'm not a Christian anymore, but my understanding is that the major accusation that people brought against him was that he drank too much and spent too much time partying. So it seems very reasonable to me to see christians drinking and partying. According to their theology, they have a hell of a lot to celebrate about.


Karlene Clark said...

Thank you Joe, Herb and Ben for your thoughts on this subject and furthering the conversation!

Herb and Joe, do you think that there is any place for any kind of alcohol consumption for those who are not dealing with addiction? Where would you draw the line in Christian community? Let’s say it’s Saturday night and 8 or 10 people are meeting at someone’s house for dinner. Do ou serving any alcohol be inappropriate, unhealthy, etc.?

Ben, I totally understand what you mean about embracing the joy and celebration of life. I would like to hear you address how a community, or even a group of friends, responds to the issue of addiction. There is no room for alcohol in the celebration and joy of life for someone faced with addiction. What about the presence, or potential presence of people in that situation?


Herb Leaming said...

“Because I was cutting myself off from a whole bunch of people, and from their joy, by refusing to drink.” What do you mean Ben? Are you equating drink with joy? Karlene, if that’s the reason that the Christian friends are gathering around the dinner table then that would raise flags with me. I guess though that I was commenting on your pondering in the context of a church gathering or the church community sponsored event in which the people who were drawn to the church searching for recovery and healing would be subjected to drinking or other behavior that could trigger something that could be detrimental. If a group of anybody can get together and drink normally and the dysfunctional baggage that comes with drinking so often doesn’t manifest, who cares? I don’t. But things have to be considered. Who is there? The old “all drinking is sin” way of thinking didn’t start by accident perhaps. Maybe the indirect wreakage of that behavior was better known in those days and perhaps the collateral damage has been forgotten in the enthusiasm of “out with the old and in with the new.” If a person is not an alcoholic but is a victim in their past of rape, sexual, physical or emotional abuse, spousal abuse, violence, divorce, incest, PTSD………. Is it okay for them to come along? Ninety percent of all this is either directly or indirectly connected to the “joy of drinking or drugging” by someone. How does this trigger those people? Alcohol and drug abuse and all of the other forms of dysfunctional behavior cannot be separated and compartmentalized. They are all hopelessly enmeshed and is a merely a symptom of our sick culture. Sorry, I sound like I’m on a pulpit.

Janice said... I sat here and typed I've come full circle and ended up backing out almost my entire post.

For many people 'church' things are separate from 'social' things and I've never experiences alcohol in terms of 'church' things. Although many of my christian friends drink alcohol.....

There is no reason a group of friends can't enjoy a beer or glass of wine. I would think though that if gatherings are characterized by drinking, i.e. if the get togethers are 'known' to always have alcohol that might be something worth evaluating. If the ministry idea is to reach people in a bar or other setting where alcohol is commonplace then I see nothing wrong with it. Or if a group of people go to a ballgame and have a few beers....If we gather at Jim-Bob's house every Tuesday for a 'small group meeting' and someone ALWAYS brings a case of beer...I might wonder about it.

I think its all about moderation, situation, etc. I am not sure there is a 'role' for alcohol in the church. There may be a place for it in our culture though and so its a part of the life of a community but I've never thought of it being a part of the 'church' perse.

I guess its different with churches that spring up out of late night theology sessions over beers - where it turns into a house church or whatever. I think perhaps at some point there needs to be a separation of 'church' things and social things....if that makes sense. It does cause me to think about the lines of 'church' and general life....gatherings of the each is characterized and if 'who we are' needs to change depending on what context we are in. Part of the emerging philosophy probably says 'no' but then again, I think its safe to say we don't typically act the same when we're home chillin' with friends as we would if we went to meet with the President of the US. (bad example maybe, but you get what I mean..?)

In the context of church or worship I'm not sure I see alcohol (as in throwing back beers) a part, though one can certainly worship WHILE drinking..I think there is a difference perhaps in corporate worship and private worship, 'formal' gatherings and informal gatherings...

And in truth, people need to be aware of their OWN limits etc and as friends (brothers, sisters, etc) we need to watch out for each other, so if we see behvior that indicates someone might be headed in the wrong direction ( as far as developing a habit which could turn into or border upon addiction) then I think we need to help intervene before it becomes a full blown addiction. Personal responsiblity and looking out for one another. (this includes personal responsibility in how we handle our drinking in groups - are we over indulging giving the wrong impression and possibly leading someone astray or are we just having a beer or two...?)

I am a fully recovered alcoholic and addict so its not like I don't empathize with the addict. I just think it can be put to any possible 'stumbling block' as someone else said about the sex addict who sees someone with tight clothes etc. I think we need to think holistically and reasonably.

I guess I come down somewhere in the middle and have rambled on - hope it makes sense.

marilyn said...

This is one of the major issues I have with the 'emerging conversation.' Relativism just isn't very practical is it?

My sister and brother-in-law were part of an emerging church several years ago. He was a university student and got caught up in wanting to be viewed as hip, intellectual, and cutting edge. Instead, they both ended up alcoholics, faithless and divorced--directly related to their involvement in their 'church of choice.'

Exitentialism plus mysticism plus post-modern thinking doesn't add up to a 'new christianity,' they add up to the old form of paganism.

Good luck with your dilemma, you're going to need it.

Janice said...


what is your answer to the main question though? Do you think alcohol is to be avoided at all turns?

I don't see this as being an emergent vs. other christian church issue.

As far as the story you relate, first I am sorry to hear of the stuggle in your family (if indeed this is a true case of your family, not sure if you're relaying a tale or sharing from experience) I'd say though that the problem seems to be 'wanting to be hip' etc. at the expense of cultivating a relationship with Christ. That's not necessarily an 'emergent' problem but rather seems to be a big problem at large in the christian community.

Its widely applicable to the entire christian community in a sense.

As far as relativism, I have come to the conclusion that we are all subject to it to some degree. Its not possible to exempt ourselves from it. Not in the world we live in.

marilyn said...

Well, that was really 'christian' of you Janice; what a nice, diplomatic way of calling me a liar.

I'm not sure where you got the idea that I was comparing churches, there was nothing in my comments to suggest it; I'm no more enamored of traditional church than you are, and despite your protestations to the contrary, 'being hip' and current is what the emerging church is all about--do I need to quote Brian Mclaren for you?

This issue doesn't have anything to do with alcohol itself, but it has everything to do with the way emergents do church--when you have no authority, no accoutability, and the permission to live any way you please, it's impossible to solve problems such as this.

Janice said...

wHOA, Marilyn, I'm sorry! That was not my intent at all! Though I can see how readily it may have come across that way. I was trying to avoid presumption, not call you a liar. It was simply unclear to me if you were sharing a family story or relaying something overheard or sharing an illustration. Seriously, it wasn't meant to imply anything about you.

You did seem to me to be comparing the emerging church to 'something'....'new' christianity vs. old paganism vs. 'something'...just not sure what your 'something' is. ?

I don't see emerging being about a concern for being hip 'at the expense of'. My statement said 'at the expense of a relationship with Christ'. I do see the emergent thought process as being concerned with being relevant. But again, not 'at the expense of'. (and yes, you may indeed at some point need to quote mclaren as I've only read a smidgen of his writings)

Can you share where you find yourself in all of this? you said you are not enamored with the traditional church....

The way 'emergents do church'...for purposes of this conversation, that is indeed where alcohol apparently comes in. Simply because there is no formal emergent denomination doesn't mean there is necessarily a void of authority or accountability within a group of beleivers. The permission to live anyway 'you' please is far from characteristic of the life of a believer, except within the path laid before us from God - within that path there is a wide breadth of latitude. Much like the garden there is an abundance of freedom......

also, I wasn't sure the conversation necessarily focused on 'church' as in corporate worship...that was something I was trying to get at...but I'm not sure the originator is going to respond....

I would like to explore this farther Marilyn, I'd like to find out sort of where you are in all of this. As for me, I don't attend an emergent type church.

marilyn said...

For the record Janice, the story is very true. As for my comments about my brother-in-law wanting to be 'hip,' I was not judging his relationship with Christ, it was merely my impression.

To answer your question about comparison, I was not comparing church structure, I was addressing the issue of truth--or the lack of it.

I would assume that you are familiar with the concept of the emerging church or you would not be frequenting this site. Trying to define what emergents believe is like trying to pin fish to the bottom of the ocean, but there are some things that are common to most of them which I pointed out in my previous comments. I initially was attracted to the emergent voice because of my disillusion with traditional churches--I've been chewed up, spit out and left for dead too many times to count--and I started to explore this 'new christianity' (which is a term they use to describe themselves) at the urging of the aforementioned family members. I read Brian Mclaren and a few others, and became alarmed and concerned not only for my family members but for the church as a whole; this 'new gospel' is nothing of the sort, it just ends up being a 'new ism' of a different kind.

Karlene originally started this conversation because of an uneasiness she felt concerning the use of alcohol both in and out of the emerging church setting, and seemed to be trying to define what personal responsibility should look like, and therein lies the problem; if you have no reference points for authority or accountability this will remain an unresolvable dilemma--hence my comments about relativism. Emergent thought denies the inerrancy of scripture, embracing it instead as 'mysterious' and 'unknowable' which in turn, dilutes both righteouness and sin. If truth is relative, not absolute, how does one explain the consequences of sin, and how do we reconcile personal responsibility with personal freedom?

Karlene Clark said...

I apologize for not being more active in the conversation so far. I was down with a migraine yesterday – very unusual for me. ugh.

I think that this conversation is exemplifying some of the reasons why the subject matter is such a difficult and controversial one. We are all informed by our experiences, whether it’s a struggle with addiction (our own or a loved one’s), escaping faith-crushing legalism, learning the ability to celebrate and be joyful, or abuse related to drinking, or experiences of healthy moderation.

One of the reasons this issue is challenging is because the scriptures are not absolute on this subject. Marilyn, it sounds like you’ve encountered and been repulsed by some liberal treatments of scripture. But on the issue of alcohol, even the most conservative, “inerrant” approaches to interpretation leave us with a general acceptance of moderate alcohol consumption. I’m sure you know the texts… Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding celebration. The wine used by Jesus at the Last Supper. The instruction that elders not be people of much wine (not ‘no’ wine). Paul’s personal advice to Timothy to drink some wine for his stomach problem. Admonition against drunkenness, but not all alcohol consumption. To say that the scriptures absolutely forbid alcohol consumption is to twist them with all the skill of the most liberal interpreters. Faithfulness to scriptural authority does not lead us to tee totaling. Your thoughts?

And so this leaves us to work out the details within our own culture and context. And this is why I raised this issue to begin with. The “holiness” legalism I was raised on didn’t produce the fruit it was supposed to produce. It was, in my opinion, so hung up on personal sin that it lost sight of everything else, and didn’t even do a good job with personal sin. (Other traditions have erred to the opposite extreme, but that’s another subject matter.) It was more narrow on the issue of alcohol than the scriptures it claimed as its authority. And there are plenty of people recovering from that stifling legalism, of which alcohol was just one small part.

Which leads me back around to the origin of the conversation. How do we work this out in the context of community, here and now? How do we nurture healthy communities that do not elevate personal freedom to the expense of others, but also do not crush people with extra-biblical requirements? How can we be safe communities for people struggling with addiction, or people who are in denial about their potential for addiction while avoiding the pitfalls described above?

Janice and Herb have both talked around the difference between sanctioned church events and informal social gatherings. My thoughts go in this direction too, but in small churches it can be hard to make clean distinctions between the two.

Marilyn, I’m curious what you would say is the resolution for this issue? What do you think a church’s position should be in regard to alcohol consumption? I’m interested in engaging your opinions about the emerging church in general, but maybe separate from this issue of alcohol which I think transcends church type.

Thank you all for engaging this conversation!

marilyn said...

Hi Karlene, thanks for the comments.
I think you presupposed a few things from my position that are incorrect; I never said that alcohol is wrong or that christians should'nt drink, that's not what I believe at all. I have no problem with alcohol in the proper setting. The scripture is clear that we shouldn't get 'plastered,' but it actually recommends wine for digestion. I was simply responding to the question you asked, in the context you asked it. This is actually a conversation we have had around our dinner table a few times--given the family history-- and although we never came to agreement then, I think we probably would now that we're older and wiser.

From what I've seen and experienced, and from what I've read in the Bible and elsewhere, alcohol is too much of a temptation for too many, and doesn't belong in the church setting except possibly for communion, and I have my doubts about that. I believe we are accountable to each other for both spiritual and physical health, and ultimately accountable to God. What we do in his name shouldn't cause or enable someone to engage in destructive behavior.

Some of our previous dinner table discussions about the use of alcohol centered around the validity of New Testament church order as it pertains to guidelines and accountability; my emergent family members would argue that structure was counterproductive to the 'conversation' and guidelines stifled their 'spiritual creativity.' They argued that alcohol often helped people open up and was actually a useful tool for worship and discussion. Scotch and cigars became a favourite 'church enhancer.'

This was not an anomaly to one particular emergent church; Herb also referred to it and I have now been privy to the 'joys' and 'sorrows' of at least three different groups, and the use of alcohol has always, always, always come up as an issue. As of yet, I don't know of a single one that's solved the problem--and the casualties are mounting. Please let us know how you guys end up dealing with it.

Janice said...

Again Marilyn, I am really sorry about your brother – and his wife. What we get ourselves into is truly truly a sad thing (again, spoken from experience, not as a judgement).

OK, you were addressing truth – in comparison – some churches have it, the emerging church does not. But whatever. J I don’t think any church, denomination, or belief system has ALL the truth. Though some come closer than others I suppose.

Well, I can’t say I frequent this site- in fact I came her brand spanking new from a link on the emerging womens blog. Frequenting THAT site though, yes, indicates I have some concept of the emerging ‘church’ though I don’t believe there IS an emerging church, I tend to see it as a conversation or way of thought. I guess some new churches that are cropping up are calling themselves emergent though there doesn’t seem to be any formal denomination, so in that regard I rather think of them as non-denominational churches. Maybe I’m viewing it as a technicality.
I had to laugh at the pinning the fish at the bottom of the ocean….and yes, very true. Again, I think its because its more a way of thinking than the ACTUAL beliefs. Rather than a set statement of beliefs or doctrinal proofs that is agreed upon, there seems to be more a way of handling their beliefs and applying them to life. I am sure though that there are many that have common beliefs – I’d have to go back to your other post to get what ones you were referring to…..
I’m sorry you’ve had bad experiences with the traditional church. I came to the faith as an adult and have really been quite lucky I guess in the church I found and have been at ever since. I do hear horror stories though, and in reality, I am sure those things could happen at my church too (some of them)…..people can get very hung up on all the rules and the ‘doing’ of church that they forget to love. I have been reading a book this week that is really reminding me of that in some interesting ways – how the author relates things to the Pharisees. I think that is a great problem with many believers today.

I’ve never heard the term ‘new christianity’ used by anyone other than detractors of emerging..but again, I’m not that well read into it or into the ‘big names’. What I like about emerging is that I can converse with so many different people and explore so many different ideas without the shock and horror of those in the ‘traditional’ camps. I came to the emerging conversation less than a year ago and there are a lot of people and ideas in emerging that I shake my head at, but there are a lot of good things too (one of them the openness to discuss). I can’t say that I’ve really rejected any doctrinal positions or changed my beliefs in anyway since coming to emerging (maybe a few minor things…can’t say I can put my finger on any of them) but I ‘handle’ my beliefs differently and I apply them differently. I am much more ‘grace’ filled.

When you say ‘new gospel’ that is being espoused by emergent – are you referring to a rejection of inerrancy of scripture? Not all emergents believe that and people mean different things when they say that…and I am not sure that emergents in general reject ultimate truth, absolutes, or scripture as being mysterious or unknowable. In fact, many think they know a good deal about scripture though what they believe it to say differs from what many traditional evangelicals believe it means. As far as your last question, I think it depends on how one defines sin.

Lets say for example we view sin as an action – lying is ‘sin’. Corrie Ten Boom lied to protect jews when the soldiers came knocking at her door. How does your statement about truth being absolute or relative relate to consequence of the sin and personal responsibility vs freedoms…? [or am I totally missing what you are saying]

And I apolgize in advance.....for I am beginning to think maybe I shouldn’t even BE in these conversations.

Janice said...

Marilyn, I do have some comments to add after reading your last post to Karlene - but it will have to wait - I'm really multi-tasking today, Sorry. Or maybe I can email you? or you me its janiceihg AT hotmail DOt com