In 2010, Mockingbird published a little pamphlet called Grace in Addiction: What the Church Can Learn from Alcoholics Anonymous, and the response was so positive that we decided to develop it into a full-length book, Grace in Addiction: The Good News of Alcoholics Anonymous for Everybody by John Z. The book is a winsome, practical and theologically astute introduction to the Twelve Steps, and is recommended for anyone who has struggled with addiction, knows someone who has struggled with addiction, or spent time thinking about the subject (and/or breathing). What follows is a hefty chunk of the introduction:

On a Friday night in late 2011, in a small nightclub in Charleston, South Carolina, I witnessed a crowd’s exuberant reaction when the DJ put on an old disco record called “I Don’t Want to Be a Freak (But I Can’t Help Myself)” by Dynasty. With its whispering voices, infectious funky hook and sizzling Cuban percussion, the track sounded amazing. The crowd of dancers gathered on the floor practically exploded with enthusiasm the moment the chorus circled back around. Onlookers rushed to join the frenzy. Soon the entire group of more than fifty club-goers was singing along to the refrain en masse with their arms raised in the air: “I don’t wanna be a freak, but I can’t help-my-self…I don’t wanna be a freak, but I can’t help-my-self…”

“I Don’t Want to Be a Freak” was recorded in Los Angeles in 1979 at the height of the disco craze. That same year it reached #20 in the UK Singles charts. Not long after that, disco took a serious nosedive in the US, becoming the epitome of un-cool. Yet here we were, more than 30 years later in the Southern Low Country, very far from Los Angeles and even further from London, and this little record was finding a second wind. It may have been one of many disco tracks played that night, but “I Don’t Want to Be a Freak” stood out because of the crescendo reaction it received from the primarily twenty-something audience.

A few interesting things were going on in that little moment. First, an old song was finding fresh life with a whole new generation of dancers. The song was as much their song in the 21st century as it had been their parents’ in the late 1970s. Second, the lyrical content made an impression. The inability to help oneself seems hardly an appropriate occasion for conviviality. But these young people were connecting with a seemingly downbeat message with a surprising amount of eagerness, the result of which, surprisingly, was joy and dancing – the thing that one associates with celebration and freedom.

I see this same dynamic at play in the world of twelve-step recovery. In owning their defeat—through the infamous 1st Step: “We admitted we were powerless…that our lives had become unmanageable”– defeated people find a pathway to hope, freedom, and exuberant joy. A tragic diagnosis opens the door to all of the things that its verdict seemed to deny. As Bill Wilson, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, wrote in 1955, “The principle that we shall find no enduring strength until we first admit complete defeat is the main taproot from which our whole society has sprung and flowered.” Alcoholics Anonymous and the various recovery programs it has spawned display a practical spirituality whose fruits are undeniable and far-reaching. Their insights are worthy of study.

The peculiarity of AA’s approach is apparent right from the outset, its foundation being an ever-unpopular skepticism concerning human willpower. David Brooks drew attention to this aspect of Alcoholics Anonymous in a 2010 New York Times editorial entitled “Bill Wilson’s Gospel: “In a culture that generally celebrates empowerment and self-esteem, AA begins with disempowerment. The goal is to get people to gain control over their lives, but it all begins with an act of surrender and an admission of weakness.”…

The world of AA closely resembles a church. People from all different backgrounds gather together on a regular basis. Prayer is encouraged. Many of the members talk about God, how He has changed their lives and enabled them to do that which they could never have done before. Plus, in AA there is an obvious social energy. Long-standing friendships are often formed. Alcoholics Anonymous offers a massive support network, has no fees, and hugely emphasizes outreach. It all sounds suspiciously familiar.

The recovery community, however, is often quick to distance itself from “organized religion.” While AA meetings may resemble religious services, it is stated at the outset of every meeting that “AA is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution…” So while it may function in the lives of its members in a way that looks like church, the idea that it actually is church is staunchly denied. This train of thought has roots extending all the way back to its earliest days. The goal was and is to avoid controversy at all costs, for the sake of unity. Thus, AA has only one officially stated purpose: helping alcoholics to find sobriety. Such driving instincts have given AA an opportunity to blossom and thrive in a world where similar endeavors often fail.

In moving from AA into the Christian Church, I have nevertheless been surprised to see how well the two do in fact relate to each other. At their best, the two have so much to teach each other. The AA text that deals with the 11th Step is especially positive on involvement with religious institutions, but that aspect of the literature is rarely mentioned.

The wall of separation between AA and the Christian Church is unfortunate. It’s as though they are looking at each other from across the street, assuming the worst about each other, rather than hoping they might become friends. I hope this book will serve to help build such a bridge, or at least reveal that this apparent disconnect is ultimately insubstantial…

Yet there are Christian theological traditions that begin with a realistic view of human nature. These traditions begin, at least in theory, with an emphasis on the comprehensive nature of human limitation and sin, and as such they are often better equipped to speak about addiction in general, and AA in particular. But for whatever reason, as far as I’m aware, none have done so. This present work seeks to take a step in that direction, showing how AA buys into an understanding of human nature that has, for the most part, been lost in both secular and sacred spheres.

My thesis is simple: AA and traditional Reformation Christianity make sense of life in a way that is relevant to every person. I have tried to show what this angle on life actually looks like, how it views the world, and how it can change a person for the better.

It may surprise many AAs to discover that there are churches that actually agree with them about the nature of life in God’s world. They might also be surprised to hear that AA actually inherited much of its worldview directly from Christianity. Conversely, many Christians may find that familiarizing themselves with old-fashioned Protestant theology, as it’s brilliantly expressed in AA, will enrich and deepen their own self-understanding. Like Dynasty’s hit from 1979, we hope that a great song from the past will find a second life in the pages of this book and in the hearts and minds of its readers.

Finally, it is my sincere hope that this material will even inspire you to try working the Twelve Steps for yourself. In the chapters that involve taking particular actions (such as Steps 3, 4, 9, and 10), I have tried my best to offer clear directions on how to do the associated work.