Christians have heard all about the dangers of alcohol but what about the benefits?
Imagine something for me. Think of two young Christians doing their best to seem intellectual. They’re college students meeting a group of atheists from the same school. We all know the type. Young, brash, outspoken know-it-alls. Both groups.
Now throw some beer into the mix. Everyone is two or three deep and tongues are loosened and wagging. How do you think that meeting would go? Probably not well.
That’s exactly the situation my brother and I found ourselves in when we were about 22 and 23. We were down at the bar throwing a few back, having the loudest, most energetic arguments you’ve ever heard with some atheists from our university. They shouted. We shouted. They told us both God and Santa were suspiciously hard to find. We told them Richard Dawkins probably had to use spellchecker on “philosophy,” given how unfamiliar he seemed to be with good arguments.
And the whole time we laughed our backsides off. We parted hugging and wiping away tears of laughter, planning the next time we’d get to hang out down at the bar. Years later, those atheists are still our good friends.
No, we never convinced them and they never convinced us, but that’s not the point. We developed deep and abiding friendships across a nearly insurmountable ideological gulf with those guys and girls, a friendship that formed while sharing a few pints. In many ways a friendship, I would argue, made possible by the fact that we shared drink.
As my brother and I learned, beer is a wonderful catalyst towards community. I’d even argue that beer shows us something of God’s intentions for us.
This is especially relevant for those of us in Cascadia. As most people know, Cascadia is in love with beer. By many metrics, Oregon ranks number one in the States for beer. Washington is not far behind at number five. Washington, Oregon, and Idaho grow 97.8% of the hops in the U.S. The brewing and drinking of high quality beer (and wine and liquor) has seeped into the culture of Cascadia. Our love for fine drinks, and the celebration that accompanies them, give us a grand glimpse of the wedding feast in the world to come, the celebration of Christ and his bride, the church.
Beer is a theological good. I realize that probably sounds kind of ridiculous. For the last few centuries the history between the church and alcohol has been fraught with antagonism and misunderstanding. We are the inheritors of that tradition. Though Christians’ hostility towards beer may have waned in previous decades, we still often treat beer like the awkward second cousin no one really expected to show up to the reunion: a little too loud, a little too brash, a little too willing to share. It makes our finely honed Christian sensibilities uncomfortable. We’ll go out to the bar with friends and sip our one, thin lager for the night, or we’ll buy our six-pack, which sits in the fridge for half a year, unopened and forlorn.
We may have stopped outright forbidding alcohol (a negative theology), but we’ve not gone far beyond that point (we often have merely a permissive theology). What we need—especially in Cascadia—is a positive theology of beer. We need to know why God chose to create it. To borrow a phrase from Fremont Brewing, a Seattle-based brewery, we need to know why beer matters.
A Good Creation
Let’s start with our understanding of creation. God created the world and everything in it and then called it “good.” These two points form the bedrock for my understanding of a positive theology of beer.
First, it’s important to acknowledge that humans don’t actually create. We don’t have that power. Only God creates. Think about it. What human created the fact that when you mill wheat it becomes flour? Or that when you get that flour wet it becomes dough? Or that when you add yeast (another thing we didn’t create) the dough fills with air? Or that when you apply heat it turns into bread? No human created any of that. We merely discovered those things and then utilized those discoveries. God created all those ingredients and interactions. In a very real way, God created bread.
God is the one that created grains, water, hops, and yeast. And God created the particular interactions between those ingredients that result in beer.
The same is true of beer. God is the one that created grains, water, hops, and yeast. And God created the particular interactions between those ingredients that result in beer. Even better than that, God created our bodies and the way in which our bodies are affected by beer. In short, God created beer.
The second point is this: God called creation good. There is nothing in this world of God’s that is inherently an evil (or else God created evil). As such, God has called beer, being a part of God’s world, good. “But hang on,” you might say. “If that’s true, then God also created nuclear bombs!” And you’d be right. A proper understanding of God and creation has the implication that God created all the physical things in the world we normally think of as evil. What should we make of this?
We should realize that evil is not a really real thing; it doesn’t exist on its own. This is an old (and not entirely uncontested) theological position that argues that evil is the result of twisting God’s otherwise good creation. It’s not that the creation itself is bad; it’s how it has been twisted away from God’s purposes that’s bad. Bread, created by God for our nourishment, now has the capacity to make us obese. Nuclear fission, which can provide energy, also carries a frightening destructive power. Beer, of course, can enable great harm when it’s abused. It makes it harder to control our bodies. It lowers our inhibitions, playing a part in our making harmful choices.
We do well to acknowledge this danger. Much more could be said about this, but I don’t want to linger here too long (which is what we Christians often do). As bad as beer can be, it can also be that good. Which is to say very good, indeed.
Relax a Little
Beer might lower inhibitions, but are all inhibitions good? What about the person suffering from crippling social anxiety? That’s certainly an inhibition. What about the person experiencing overwhelming stress? Beer is a relaxer. When applied appropriately, beer helps people soothe their stress and anxiety and lets them relax. (To the person who argues that artificially altering one’s state of mind is automatically wrong, I respond with “coffee!”). Or what about the person who is terminally ill or in pain? Scripture explicitly commands us to give such a person “strong drink” (Proverbs 31:6).
Most helpfully, as my brother and I discovered, beer can be a catalyst towards community. I see this as its chief theological function. The net effect of beer—the relaxation, its ability to bring down our mental and emotional walls—enables community. A group of friendly acquaintances, even ideological opposites, might find the process towards becoming a tightly knit community expedited through the sharing of beer.
Imagine you’re down at the bar and you see a group of friends having a few beers. How do you think you would describe them? What qualities probably typify their experience?
Laughter. Openness. Conversation. Perhaps even genuine love (or loving debate).
This is exactly the sort of community that beer—on its best days—moves us towards. It gives us a glimpse of the community of the world to come. It not only shows us what is possible in this world, but also what we have to look forward to in the world made new. At Christ’s wedding banquet—when he will surely replicate his first miracle but on a grander scale—we’ll be able to raise our glasses high and drink to our hearts’ content, without having to worry about alcohol poisoning, hangovers, car crashes, the revelation of sinful character, or anything else. On that day, we will be a community of light and laughter, of good food and good drink, of cheer and merriment.
It not only shows us what is possible in this world, but also what we have to look forward to in the world made new.
This is what beer, and more importantly, a culture that embraces beer, shows us. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, beer truly is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy, in this world and the next.
What is the church to do in this land flowing with milk stouts and mead?
Let’s embrace this part of Cascadian culture as a wonderful opportunity. Let’s work with it in the formation of kingdom-oriented community, both for ourselves and for our non-Christian neighbors.
So, the next time you’re down at the bar with friends, raise a glass or three, laugh, love, and go about the business of good cheer and merriment. Use the ingredients of this region to realize the kingdom yet to come.