Teetotaling on the Law? Not Hardly: The Bible, Binge Drinking, and You

Many people mistakenly think that we Mockingbirders have a low view of God’s Law. Some […]

Many people mistakenly think that we Mockingbirders have a low view of God’s Law. Some even call us (dramatic pause) antinomians. I know, I know. I’m as shocked as you are, but there it is. (In case you don’t know, antinomian is the fancy theological term for someone who thinks that Christians, because of God’s grace, can now go about the business of fulfilling all their little immoral whims. They are “anti” (against) God’s “nomos” (law).) The Apostle Paul, the guy who wrote half the New Testament, was accused of this (see how he responds to his critics in Romans 3.31, 6.1, 6.15).

Well, nothing could be further from the truth. The reason we are so big on Grace is because we are big on Law. We hear Jesus’ dictum: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” and rather than water it down with language about “good intentions” and “figures of speech,” we take it at face value. As a result, we run pell-mell to the cross of Christ and fling our desperate arms around it.

So we follow the teachings of Jesus, St. Paul, and all Scripture that God’s Law is holy and good. What we question, however, is the idea that the Law on its own can produce what it demands. In other words, were not so sure that telling people what to do actually gets them to do it. Or to do it in a way that pleases God (that is, with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength; one might wonder whether grudging obedience pleases God, as it denies God’s worth; does your spouse like it when you give him or her a gift out of obligation?). In fact, we think that telling people what to do actually often produces the opposite. As St. Paul said (in the Bible!): “Now the Law came in to increase the trespass” (Rom 5.20a, ESV). A command seems, in the very act of its proclamation, to stir up mountains of resistance in the human heart.

Two great examples. First, read this paragraph (from Slate‘s recent article discussed in JDK’s fantastic post below) about what happened after January 1, 1920, when Prohibition went into effect in the U.S.:

But people continued to drinkā€”and in large quantities. Alcoholism rates soared during the 1920s; insurance companies charted the increase at more than 300 more percent. Speakeasies promptly opened for business. By the decade’s end, some 30,000 existed in New York City alone. Street gangs grew into bootlegging empires built on smuggling, stealing, and manufacturing illegal alcohol. The country’s defiant response to the new laws shocked those who sincerely (and naively) believed that the amendment would usher in a new era of upright behavior.

Second, Advertising Age recently publicized the results of a study on ads designed to curb binge drinking:

It has long been assumed, of course, that guilt and shame were ideal ways of warning of the dangers associated with binge drinking and other harmful behaviors, because they are helpful in spotlighting the associated personal consequences. But this study found the opposite to be true: Viewers already feeling some level of guilt or shame instinctively resist messages that rely on those emotions, and in some cases are more likely to participate in the behavior they’re being warned about.

The reason, said Kellogg marketing professor Nidhi Agrawal, is that people who are already feeling guilt or shame resort to something called “defensive processing” when confronted with more of either, and tend to disassociate themselves with whatever they are being shown in order to lessen those emotions.

So there you have it. Prohibition of alcohol caused a 300% increase in alcoholism. And shaming people about their binge drinking gave rise to–surprise!–more binge drinking.

Some might say, “Yes, the Law doesn’t work for non-Christians. But if you’re a Christian, it’s a new day, and we can hear the Law without reacting against it.” This argument, however, fails to take into account the fact that Christians are in process, a mix of old and new. As Luther said, “The Old Adam [our hedonistic sinful self] is drowned in baptism. But he is a very good swimmer!” If you want to say that there’s a part of you, as a Christian, that can receive the law, fine. But keen students of the Bible and human experience might be wise to remember the articles above and be a little more careful about giving advice, incessant preaching of hortatory sermons (whether your pulpit is in a church or at the dining room table), or simply telling people what to do.

What’s an alternative? Rather than law-based appeals to muddled human wills, try this little prayer, chock full of mind-blowing sweet theological truth, which Anglicans/Episcopalians are getting ready to pray this Sunday–in a church near you! (And remember, “keep” here means “maintain in safety from injury, harm, or danger”):

Almighty God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (The Collect for the Third Sunday in Lent, Book of Common Prayer, 1979)