catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 24 :: 2006.12.29 — 2007.01.12


My kinda guy

The scriptures indicate that the Pharisees called Jesus a drunkard and a glutton.

“Sounds like my kinda guy,” my priest responds each time that lectionary reading comes up.

I lived all of my childhood and teens in a small town in the Midwestern United States, where people described “holiness” as “them that don’t drink, smoke, nor chew, and don’t go with them that do.” My parents wanted nothing to do with church or religion, and they still quoted that phrase to me, so I would know who is who in relation to righteousness or self-righteousness. The lines were clear: them that “do”, don’t fit in the realm of religion. The religious folk that “do” are “backsliders”, in a state of sin and hypocrisy. A lesser-used description of Christendom, also from the outside, was the “saved, shaved, and well-behaved.” Both of these descriptions speak volumes about the worldview of retreat from “worldliness”, and a view of sanctification based on being “clean” from the stains of the culture where we live. Otherworldliness was the supposed goal of religion.

Here is a secret I don’t think I’ve stated clearly in decades: I took a vow. I promised, by way of a pledge sounding very much like the Boy Scout pledge, not to drink alcohol or take illegal drugs, to avoid addiction in all of its forms, by the help of God. The vow was meant to be lifelong. And I meant it when I said it. I thought that’s what it meant to follow God, giving up some things that others find pleasurable. The people who drank made stupid decisions while drinking, and I didn’t see the point of spending my time or money that way.

So it is not a small irony that the first alcohol to touch my lips was communion wine, and I didn’t expect it because I’d never been in an Episcopal church before. I spent my college winter break in Colorado, and this was a Christmas Mass in a beautiful log church in the Rockies. My bet is that everyone in that church knew it was my first communion—at least my first communion without grape juice. I sputtered and my eyes flew open wide with surprise, the sweet burning stopping me in my tracks. I immediately started thinking about power and potency, and the poetic mystery of one small sip began to work on me. It would be more than a year before my next sip, nearly a decade before I would buy my first bottle of wine, but that small sip was the tiny seed of change settling into a saved, shaved and well-behaved kind of life. I began to question some of the flat impotency of my very protestant life, in time, and to question the nature of my history with taste. I questioned every corner of my faith, not just the question of alcohol—and I questioned tentatively and carefully, with no drastic moves.

My sophomore year of college, I transferred from the kind of place where everybody drinks all the time to a Christian college that also required a vow, of sorts, not to drink while I was a student. The vow was no big deal, since I didn’t drink anyway—the vow also included dancing, though, which I never understood, and it caused me anguish. Nonetheless, I interviewed for The World’s Most Fabulous College Ministry organization in the middle of my senior year, and two great guys drove cross-country to interview me. They took me to a bar. I thought perhaps they were testing me, but they really thought a bar was the best place to interview for college ministry, and that I’d feel at home there, that I’d like to escape from the rules of my alma mater for a few hours. I’d never met anyone like them, and they’d never met anyone like me—and I’d never really been in a bar. Somehow we managed to talk despite differences.

I knew already that some guidelines for living a Christian life were bound by different cultures in different regions of the country, but I still thought Midwestern norms were the real standard. When I moved to do summer training for the college ministry, my neighbor Rick walked into a Bible study with a beer, popped it open and sat right next to me, and I wondered if he and I were from the same planet.

“You did that on purpose, didn’t you? To challenge me.” I asked.

“You say you don’t think drinking is a sin, right? You say the Bible is not against drinking,” he said.

“Yes. Drinking is not wrong. Jesus drank.”

“So what’s your problem? I’m not just doing it to bug you: think. What makes you nervous?”

I laughed. “It’s called a taboo. You are crossing a taboo from my culture, mixing religion and drinking.”

“But we both agree that God thinks drinking is permissible.”

“In my head, yes. The Bible includes many stories about drinking, and admonishment only about drunkenness. But you are hurting my head, drinking a beer at a Bible study!”

“Precisely. Your head needs to be hurt.” 

I grinned and said my head probably did need to hurt, and asked him why beer had to smell so bad. He hugged me from side and breathed beer breath right at me, knowing he’d made his point.

The time came for me to decide, really decide how I intended to deal with that childhood vow. John the Baptist took the vows of his culture and kept them. Samson took the vows of the Nazirites, to never cut his hair and to never drink strong drink, and broke them, and things didn’t go so well for him. Keeping these stories in mind, I still decided that the vow not to drink alcohol was actually important to break, because at its heart, the vow was based on ill reasoning and misinformation. I took the vow to be godly, and godliness is not really based on drinking or not drinking. The vow was no longer meaningful to my faith and it was getting in the way of good (and godly) conversations with students and friends. At the same time, just so you can see I did not shift to a life of wild abandon, I decided my commitment to chastity was worth keeping, because it seemed sane to me—not prudish but just smart. I’m not interested in judging people who choose differently, any more than I am interested in judging people who really struggle with drinking. I’m saying that when I examined the culture in which I was raised, many presumptions didn’t seem relevant to a Biblical worldview. They just seemed like dumb rules I’d been stuck with, along with that hair-raising feeling of a taboo being crossed. My spiritual mission emerged: I examine everything. I need to know why I believe what I believe, about everything.

When Christians say, as we often do, that we ought to live more like Jesus, I wonder if we take into full account what we read, what his reputation was, why some people hated him so and felt so threatened by this man who was without sin and yet plainly loved the company of sinners—sinners shamelessly enjoying his company and enjoying themselves. What would Jesus do? He’d make water into wine, and not just wine but really tasty wine to make a wedding host proud. And then he’d accept a nice glass for himself.

I’m drinking a glass of shiraz while writing this story—it is intensely flavored and very dry. I will never be a connoisseur, but I do like wine very much. I chuckle at the surveys I take whenever I visit doctor’s offices—I look for the space that says “not a teetotaler but less than one drink a week,” if there is such a space. When I travel back to my homeland in the Midwest, I try to remember to carry with me something decent to drink—a bottle of wine or an imported ale—just to remind my folks that while I’ll never smoke or chew, I’ll occasionally drink and I’ll most certainly go “with them that do,” to wherever they need me and wherever they invite me, and I’ll take my faith with me, with no trace of backsliding, as I go.

That Jesus, what a drunkard and a glutton. He must have been onto something. I’m not quite as bold as that, but I do like a glass of shiraz, now and then. That Jesus: definitely my kinda guy.

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