C.S. Lewis & Alcohol

December 15, 2016 — 12 Comments

chaliceWe children of alcoholics often have a difficult time determining the proper place for alcohol in our lives. Because we’ve seen the damage its abuse can cause, some are tempted to condemn it all together.

At the same time, like the abused child who is likelier to grow up becoming an abuser himself, as a group we are vulnerable to misusing alcohol ourselves.

The church’s attitude towards “drink” does not always help. Many denominations overlook the fact that it is drunkenness that the Scriptures condemn, and extend the prohibition to all drink that contains alcohol.

They are like the exegete who transforms the warning about the “love of money” being the root of sin into a rejection of all mediums of exchange beyond barter itself.* They overlook the attitude towards the object, and make the object itself the objectionable thing. Thus, money becomes the problem.

In the case of alcohol, it is no longer inappropriate or damaging use that is condemned, it is the drinking of anything containing alcohol that is reasoned to be sinful. Moving the bar in this fashion is simple legalism.

But this column isn’t about legalism. I don’t have an axe to grind. And, as the saying goes, some of my best friends (and family members) abstain from all drink. Similarly, I rarely drink myself. My point is not that wariness about alcohol’s dangers may be wise, but pushing God’s cautions to the degree where we call sin that which is not, is wrong in and of itself.

The solution does not come in the form of devising a pasteurization process so we can improve on the first eighteen centuries of Christian worship and now enjoy “Dr. Welch’s Unfermented Wine” for holy communion.

At the other extreme, there are some religious communities that celebrate their freedom in the gospel to degrees that may invoke Romans 14:21. There is something uncomely, perhaps even sinful, in a church celebrating this liberty. (And I write this as a pastor in a denomination that frequently takes note of the arrival of Oktoberfest.)

Neither prohibiting what God has deemed lawful, nor uncritically embracing secular festivities is the right course. The proper solution to the question of how drinking can or should fit into our lives is found by looking at the Scriptures themselves.

The Biblical Christian View on Alcohol

The Scriptures could not be clearer on the use of alcohol. Unless God has directed an individual to a particular course (or vow) in their personal life, the general rule is this: in moderation, treated as a beverage without the goal of intoxication, drinks containing alcohol are okay.

I know that some churches teach otherwise, but from the Bible itself it is clear that merely drinking a glass of wine or beer is not a sin. It is drinking to excess, that is sinful.

C.S. Lewis provides an extremely clear explanation of this distinction in Mere Christianity. He explains how the principle of temperance is applicable to many aspects of our lives.

Temperance is, unfortunately, one of those words that has changed its meaning. It now usually means teetotalism. But in the days when the second Cardinal virtue was christened ‘Temperance,’ it meant nothing of the sort.

Temperance referred not specially to drink, but to all pleasures; and it meant not abstaining, but going the right length and no further.

It is a mistake to think that Christians ought all to be teetotallers; Mohammedanism, not Christianity, is the teetotal religion. Of course it may be the duty of a particular Christian, or of any Christian, at a particular time, to abstain from strong drink, either because he is the sort of man who cannot drink at all without drinking too much, or because he is with people who are inclined to drunkenness and must not encourage them by drinking himself.

But the whole point is that he is abstaining, for a good reason, from something which he does not condemn and which he likes to see other people enjoying.

One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing himself without wanting every one else to give it up.

That is not the Christian way.

An individual Christian may see fit to give up all sorts of things for special reasons—marriage, or meat, or beer, or the cinema; but the moment he starts saying the things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who do use them, he has taken the wrong turning.

One great piece of mischief has been done by the modern restriction of the word Temperance to the question of drink. It helps people to forget that you can be just as intemperate about lots of other things. A man who makes his golf or his motor-bicycle the centre of his life, or a woman who devotes all her thoughts to clothes or bridge or her dog, is being just as ‘intemperate’ as someone who gets drunk every evening.

Of course, it does not show on the outside so easily: bridge-mania or golf-mania do not make you fall down in the middle of the road. But God is not deceived by externals.

If he were alive today, Lewis could easily add sports-mania and social media-mania to his list of excesses that voraciously consume a person.

The fact that C.S. Lewis could enjoy a pint of beer with his friends becomes a stumbling block to some who would otherwise benefit from reading his work. Likewise, some readers of Mere Inkling may consider this post an endorsement of drinking.

That could not be farther from the truth. We children of alcoholics are acutely aware of the pain and chaos caused by its abuse.

On the contrary, these words are written to caution my brothers and sisters in Christ about a potentially more destructive sin, legalism.

Fortunately, the simple solution to both problems is an unfiltered, honest reading of God’s word.

_____

* This is an exaggeration, of course. Few, if any, reject all coin and currency, even if they misquote 1 Timothy 6:10 in alleging “money is the root of many evils.”

** “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble” (Romans 14:21).

12 responses to C.S. Lewis & Alcohol

  1. 

    Nice post. Not to make light of it, but it reminds me of a couple of similar ideas about alcohol.

    First, in the U.S., there’s the “Baptists & Bootleggers” proposition: that both want a total prohibition of alcohol – only for different reasons.

    Having been raised a Baptist, there was never any alcohol in my parents’ home. In fact, I once watched my mother pour a pint of whiskey down the kitchen drain when an uncle brought it into the house. (She was right in that case because my uncle couldn’t control himself; he was always an immoderate drinker as far as I know.)

    Second, it reminds me of Noah Sweat, Jr’s “If by whiskey” speech in 1952 during a debate in Mississippi over whether to continue Prohibition there (which lasted until 1966).

    “My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, here is how I feel about whiskey:

    If when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.

    But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman’s step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life’s great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.

    This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.”

    • 

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I’d like to offer a thought on each point, considering the second first.

      That’s a very intriguing distinction offered in that speech. He’s drawn the dichotomy between use and misuse quite well. (Some points could be debated I’m sure, e.g. whether the taxes derived from the sales truly offset the cost to society of alcohol’s abuse.) Still, the picture he paints of the two paths is quite vivid.

      It was the former that moved many chaplains during the Civil War (one of my research obsessions) to make promotion of the Temperance movement (in its narrowest sense) a priority in their ministries.

      As to the remembrance of your mother temporarily protecting her brother from drink… It reminds me of one of my own uncles. A wonderful man, when he drank he always drank to excess. And he was not a gentle drunk; he invariably became argumentative and insulting. While I never witnessed any physical aggressive, his alcohol-induced mean spiritedness was sufficient to bar his attendance at family gatherings for some years. He was welcome to attend, of course, but not to drink when he did so.

      His life followed the path of many alcoholics… loss of his business, destruction of his marriage, and ill health that led to an early death.

  2. 

    Hi Rob,

    So, true. We have to guard against anything that hinders our walk. It is a life in progress, right?

    Merry Christmas,

    Gary

  3. 

    Perfect last line ( and response to gpavants)
    Running by to wrap up the holidays…
    Waiting for sunset on Christmas Eve is like standing toes-over-the-edge on a high diving board.
    Every year we’d cruise casually by the window to keep an eye on the sun’s progress until it was officially evening.
    Then the shout “Christmas Eve Gift!” would ring out.
    You see, the traditions says that the first person to voice that phrase on Christmas Eve to another would be graced with good fortune and joy all the next year.
    (And of course, whomever was first won. Everything was a contest…)
    It’s more difficult to be first now with caller ID.
    As all those who have become my friends in blogland are spread widely across time zones, I’d like to wish you all “Christmas Eve Gift” now.
    And as I already feel so fortunate to have such wonderful readers and writers in this neighborhood, I wish to share any phrase acquired good fortune and joy with you in thanks.
    No matter where you are or what you are guided by, hope you have a very merry Christmas and a new year full of adventure and joy.
    Peace on earth and goodwill towards all creatures great and small.

    • 

      What great Christmas Eve traditions… the initial family one, and the tradition of offering a blessing to your blogging “family.” May your Christmas be holy and your new year richly blessed.

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