Advice about Drinking?

Over at Slate Christopher Hitchens is posting bits from his new memoir. The latest installment has Hitchens discussing his drinking. In it, he makes some comments about alcohol and the three Abrahamic religions:

Alcohol makes other people less tedious, and food less bland, and can help provide what the Greeks called entheos, or the slight buzz of inspiration when reading or writing. The only worthwhile miracle in the New Testament—​the transmutation of water into wine during the wedding at Cana—​is a tribute to the persistence of Hellenism in an otherwise austere Judaea. The same applies to the Seder at Passover, which is obviously modeled on the Platonic symposium: questions are asked (especially of the young) while wine is circulated. No better form of sodality has ever been devised: at Oxford one was positively expected to take wine during tutorials. The tongue must be untied. It's not a coincidence that Omar Khayyam, rebuking and ridiculing the stone-faced Iranian mullahs of his time, pointed to the value of the grape as a mockery of their joyless and sterile regime. Visiting today's Iran, I was delighted to find that citizens made a point of defying the clerical ban on booze, keeping it in their homes for visitors even if they didn't particularly take to it themselves, and bootlegging it with great brio and ingenuity. These small revolutions affirm the human.
The essay ends with Hitchens giving some advice on drinking: are some simple pieces of advice for the young. Don't drink on an empty stomach: the main point of the refreshment is the enhancement of food. Don't drink if you have the blues: it's a junk cure. Drink when you are in a good mood. Cheap booze is a false economy. It's not true that you shouldn't drink alone: these can be the happiest glasses you ever drain. Hangovers are another bad sign, and you should not expect to be believed if you take refuge in saying you can't properly remember last night. (If you really don't remember, that's an even worse sign.) Avoid all narcotics: these make you more boring rather than less and are not designed—​as are the grape and the grain—​to enliven company. Be careful about up-grading too far to single malt Scotch: when you are voyaging in rough countries it won't be easily available. Never even think about driving a car if you have taken a drop. It's much worse to see a woman drunk than a man: I don't know quite why this is true but it just is. Don't ever be responsible for it.
As a faculty member on a Christian campus I struggle a lot about what to do in giving advice to college students in regards to alcohol consumption. Here's an example. A couple of years ago I was on a panel discussing "good decisions" out in front of Spring Break. Alcohol was a major topic. At the time, according to the Student Handbook, no ACU student, even those of legal drinking age, was allowed to drink alcohol, on or off campus. Obviously, there was no way to enforce this policy. Yet we knew that plenty of students would be drinking over Spring Break. Hence the need for the panel.

But how were we to address this reality? Because if we openly admitted the reality of students' drinking this admission would seem to condone violating the code of conduct in the Student Handbook. That is, if you said, "Hey, we know many of you are going to drink, so if you do here's some advice..." you would be seen as encouraging rule-breaking, or at least going easy on it.

So how do you give helpful and realistic advice while simultaneously supporting the prohibitions in the Student Handbook? It's tricky, and for most of the panel we just dodged the issue. Toward the end of the panel, noticing that we had said nothing remotely helpful other than "Don't drink. It's against the Handbook" I took the microphone and said "Listen, if you do drink, be smart. Don't get drunk. Particularly around strangers. Just drink one beer and nurse it through the night." This comment--if you drink, nurse it--caused a bit of a stir, but many students seemed to appreciate it. It was some sensible advice inserted into what had been a moral vacuum.

It seems to me that a lot of Christian advice for young people wrestles with this dilemma. On the one hand you have a prohibiting approach, a simple "Don't do X." Cut and dried. Just don't. On the other hand is a "If you do do X, be smart about it and here's what being smart looks like." In favor of the former is its strong moral vision with high standards. It's the ideal target to shoot for. But the downside of this approach is its lack of realism, a too optimistic view of human nature. In favor of the latter is its realism but this approach can also lower the bar, morally speaking. How do you balance the two approaches in the same conversation?

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5 thoughts on “Advice about Drinking?”

  1. I definitely get my drunk on every so often. To me, I don't think it's a problem. I don't start fights with people, I don't get behind the wheel, I don't wreck expensive things. I think it's about responsibility and having limits.

    I think it's far more dangerous to be "straight edge" and then, inevitably, get peer pressured into a drinking game and not knowing how to handle it.

    Some people seem to have a dangerously childish approach to morality and believe that if they can just follow little rules like never drinking or swearing, it will prove that they are holier-than-thou and not in fact and petty and mean-spirited people they are. I can't get my dad to drink a beer with me but he's convinced Muslims need to carry a special ID - just in case.

  2. Isn't this the problem with sex-ed in this country in a nutshell? Saying "dont' do it, but if you do, use protection" sounds to a teen like "when you do it, use protection". On the other hand, saying "don't do it, ever" leads to Bad Things when some of them, inevitably, do.

    Excellent illustration of a major problem. If a rule is, in practice, unenforceable, then having it can do more harm than good. A better option is to do everything we can to equip them to make their own good choices.

  3. As a young person who often looks to the older and wiser for sage advice on how to not screw up my life I have found that even at a Christian college you can find one hundred different people with one hundred different standards for Christian behavior. Some will tell you that Christians shouldn’t ever let a drop of alcohol touch their lips; others find no problem with throwing back a few. Some will abstain from even kissing until their wedding day; others will go much farther than kissing with no shame. Some refuse to watch rated R movies; others find genuine spiritual messages in films like Fight Club. Some will avoid using words like “sucks” and “crap” in their efforts to avoid “obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking” (Ephesians 5); others employ profanity for the sake of genuine expression rather than the Christian mask.

    I tend towards the more modest sides of these spectrums. I don’t drink; I don't kiss boys I'm not serious with; I try not to use profanity (though not always sucessfully...); I don't watch movies or read books that I feel are too "worldly." Part of the problem at ACU, and I think in the Christian community at large, is that drinking and other behaviors that walk the line between right and wrong carry too much stigma with them in the Christian community. It seems that people who tend to be on the more modest side have tried to make criminals out of our brothers and sisters who operate under different standards. This of course is foolish. Romans 14 would indicate that my kind are in fact "the weaker brother." While this hurts my pride to admit I don't know how else to read the passage. Romans 14:2: “One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables.” As the weaker sister, I often have to resist the temptation to judge my stronger brothers and sister.
    All that said, I'm not sure there is a great way to give advice about these kinds of things. Just today I was talking to a teenage boy in the youth group about the girls he dates and being smart about the choices he makes. While ideally, he would choose to date a Christian girl, and they would choose to be pure- he may not choose that. So we also talked about not having kids while you're in h.s. and not getting diseases. Real life is messy. Luckily, your students have someone like you who takes both God's call to holiness and God's call to compassion seriously.

  4. Amazingly, Christians re-answer these questions time & time again. I've found that CS Lewis addressed this issue very well in his book Mere Christianity. (I think it should be required reading for every Christian undergraduate with a great deal of study and discussion going into it.)

    Here is an excerpt:

    "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 wants to give the money to the poor, 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."

    I wish that I could say it better but when someone else says it so well I'll just give them the credit. Maybe if Christians began to understand virtue instead of just simple moralistic rules we would have a better take on these issues. (By the way, I recommend Tom Wright's book "After You Believe" on this topic.)

  5. Hi Shannon,

    OK, you don’t drink. Neither do I; the main reason being that I don’t like it. And, I see no need to cultivate a taste for it.

    At any rate, although I would like to comment on several of your points (the older / wiser, the 100 people dilemma, real life being messy, etc.) I will focus on only the Scriptural point regarding Romans 14 to keep this short.

    The weaker brother in my view is one who has not yet realized his liberty in Christ. So we have this weaker brother who only eats vegetables in 14:2. First, both the weaker and the stronger brother here are both in Christ, saved eternally, and can’t lose that regardless of what they may eat. I hope we are together on that?

    Second, if the weaker brother has actually sought God on this matter and has concluded that God wants him to only eat vegetables; then so be it. When he matures in Christ, he will see per Romans 14:14 that ‘nothing is unclean in itself.’ In the mean time, the rest of us sin by judging him if we think him wrong.

    So, just because you ‘don’t drink’ does not necessarily make you a ‘weaker sister.’ Likewise, just because another does drink, that does not necessarily make her a stronger sister.

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