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:
...here 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?