Thursday, August 17, 2006

Quit Yer Wine-ing

As most people who know me are aware, I'm rather a fan of certain kinds of alcoholic drinks: beer and red wine, mainly (hard liquor tastes like flavored rubbing alcohol - but it sure clears my sinuses). But it occurs to me that there are a good many Christians who would be thoroughly scandalized at the thought of a Seminary graduate who drinks alcohol. I know a Southern Baptist pastor who refused to participate in the toast at his brother's wedding reception because it was done with champagne (and because it was a Catholic wedding).

Honestly, I don't have a problem with Christians who abstain from drinking alcohol. Why should I? I don't even have a problem with Christian groups - e.g., the Baptists - who forbid the consumption of alcohol by their members. The Baptists have every right to decide what one must affirm and how one must behave in order to be a Baptist. That's their tradition and they're welcome to it.

Where I have a problem is when certain groups declare all consumption of alcohol by any Christian to be sinful. That's a very large-scale assertion, and making it requires, I think, very strong Biblical support. Upon examination of the New Testament, however, one finds no such support. Nowhere in the whole of Scripture is it stated - implicitly or explicitly - that drinking alcohol is inherently wrong. Now, there are several exhortations in the New Testament to avoid drunkenness, but drunkenness and drinking are not the same. That's an important point.

Also worth noting is the fact that Jesus' first public miracle was the making of wine - and good wine, at that. The kind that the host of a wedding party puts out first until the guests have had enough to drink that they are no longer paying attention to the quality of the wine (see John 2). If the drinking of alcohol were inherently sinful, one must wonder why Jesus supplied an entire wedding party with the means to sin.

Some will say in response that when we read in the New Testament about "wine," as in the story in John's gospel, what is really being spoken of is more like grape juice than "wine" as we think of it. I am most curious as to where this sort of argument originated, because quite frankly, it is absolutely false. The wine the ancients drank was wine. Real, honest-to-goodness, alcoholic wine. If it weren't, how could Paul exhort his readers not to be drunk on it (Ephesians 5:18)? The plain fact is that people in first-century Judea drank alcoholic wine as a regular staple of their diet. Just as did people througout the Greco-Roman world, and the whole ancient world in general. In fact, grape juice, as something distinct from wine, is largely an invention of the modern world - something that came along with the advent of chemical preservatives and artificial refrigeration. The juice from grapes actually ferments at an incredible rate. If you take a bunch of grapes, squeeze the juice into a jug, and leave that jug sitting around for a few days, then at the end of those few days (less than a week, as I recall), you will have wine. The only way to prevent the process is by adding chemical preservatives and keeping the juice chilled, which they couldn't do in the ancient world.

Another spurious argument: the ancients only drank wine because they didn't have access to good drinking water. Yes, drinkable water was harder to come by then than now, but not enormously so. The ancients were quite skilled at finding drinkable water. They cooked with it, watered their animals with it, and drank it. They even cut their wine with it, to increase the volume. Besides, anyone who knows anything about alcohol knows that you can't replace water with wine in your diet. Alcohol is a diuretic: it increases urine production, and therefore accelerates dehydration, rather than preventing it.

A final point for consideration: the notion that Christians are required to abstain from alcohol is less than 200 years old, and is primarily localized in the United States. That means, in essence, that if drinking alcohol is inherently sinful for all Christians, then no one realized it for about the first 1800 years of Christian history. Now, there were people during that time who chose to abstain - in part or in whole - from drink, but no one (so far as I know) argued that drinking was inherently sinful. That's new.

All that being said, I want to reiterate that I have nothing against Christians who choose to abstain from alcohol. There are lots of good reasons to do so. Indeed, I'll be the first to say that there are some people who ought to do so: if you can't drink responsibly, you shouldn't drink at all. What I cannot accept is the assertion that drinking alcohol is somehow inherently wrong. There simply is no Biblical support for such a position, and most of the non-Biblical arguments used by Christians in defense of such a position are plainly spurious.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

A Different Perspective

In the midst of debate over the death penalty, it's interesting to me to look at the perspectives of other cultures. A common argument by those opposed to the death penalty is that execution is less humane than lengthy - or perpetual - incarceration. The ancient Greeks took just the opposite view: they found incarceration inhumane in the extreme. They had prisons, but one was not, for example, ever given a life sentence there. For them, either exile or death was far preferable to the long-term imprisonment of a human being.

Now, I'm not saying one position is necessarily better than another. I'm just offering a different perspective. We often tend to take it as a given that long-term imprisonment is inherently better than execution. It is a usually unquestioned assumption. Other cultures at other times, however, would have found it highly objectionable.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Paul's Radical Ethics

There are lots of accusations and misinterpretations of the writings of Paul the Apostle. Part of the problem is that when we read Paul's letters we only have half of a conversation. Sometimes we can reconstruct parts of the other half, sometimes we can't. Often we're so unfamiliar with the socio-historical context in which Paul was writing that we think certain passages make one point, when in fact they are saying something completely different. There are lots of examples of this, and I could hold forth at some length about them. One main point on which Paul is often quite misunderstood is his position on the place of women - both within the church and within the home. Paul is often accused of (or applauded for) enshrining the patriarchal social system of his day in Scripture. This is only possible if we remain unfamiliar with Paul's context. Again, examples abound, but I have one in mind.

In 1 Corinthians 7:3-4. Verse 3 and the first half of verse 4 would've presented no problems to Paul's readers. Verse 3: "The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise the wife also to her husband." No problem so far - Jewish ethicists recognized that husbands and wives had responsibilities to meet one another's physical needs (indeed, Jewish tradition even exhorted men to sleep with their wives at least two to three times a week). So then, v.4: "The wife is not the master of her own body, but rather her husband [is]." Again, no problem so far - husbands have authority over their wives. Paul's audience - men as well as women - would've been nodding in agreement so far. But then we come to the latter half: "but likewise, the husband is also not master of his own body, but his wife [is]." What?!? Wives have authority over their husbands?! (Note that the verb for "to be master" in v.4 is exousiazo; the noun meaning "authority" is exousia). This is a radical notion - the idea that women have authority over the bodies of their husbands equal to that of their husbands over them. This would've been scandalous. It should be noted that the grammar of the verse prohibits any varying of degrees of authority here - the word homoios, "likewise," serves to equate - the husband has authority over his wife, "and also likewise" (homoios de kai) the wife has authority over her husband.

At any rate, I could keep going at some length - about how Ephesians 5:21 and following is often misinterpreted, and so on. But the demands of home life are exerting themselves. Perhaps later in the day I'll come back.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Twoo Wuv

Today - well, yesterday, since it's after midnight - marks eight years since Jenny and I began dating. A remarkable thing, to be not yet 25 and to have spent eight years with someone. That's slightly less than a third of my life that this one woman has shared with me. It's a remarkable thing indeed. Better men live their entire lives in want of blessings I have before the end of my 25th year, and I am grateful beyond words.

But it sparks some reflection on the nature of love. We are led to believe, whether through romance novels or romantic movies that the initial feelings associated with being in love are permanent, and that the maintenance of a healthy marriage is essentially effortless. I've found in my travels that there are some things in life that you simply can't tell someone. Before we were married, I was told several times by married friends that "marriage is a lot of work." Frankly, I didn't believe them. I didn't see how that was possible. "We love each other. How can living together be work?"

Eventually I came to realize something very important: before I got married, there was no one I had lived with who I had not at least occasionally felt like strangling. Nor was there anyone who hadn't at least occasionally felt like strangling me. You see, we tend to think in our modern society that a good marriage is one in which the emotions associated with love remain strong without our aid, and in which neither partner ever feels like slapping the other.

But love is not just an emotion. In the initial stages it most certainly is, and even later, the emotions remain: just this evening Jenny and I were sitting on the couch and I was struck by how beautiful her eyes are, and I told her so. But love is more than emotion. Love is a choice. It's waking up every morning, looking at the person lying next to you, and saying to yourself "This day I give you myself. It may not be much, and I may regret it by day's end, but I'm yours, and I intend to act like it." It's an act of sheer will. Sometimes emotion makes it easier. Sometimes emotion makes it harder. I would be very surprised if Jenny has never contemplated smothering me with my own pillow as I slept. The people we let in wind up being the very ones with the greatest ability either to piss us off or to make our hearts soar.

So that's my reflection on marriage for the day, I guess. Marriage is wonderful. I love being married more than anything, save being a father. And I can honestly say I love my wife more today than yesterday, and more yesterday than the day before. But I can also say - or at least, begin to say - that I understand better now what it is to love than I did when Jenny and I first started dating, those many years ago. It's both an emotion and a choice. And the choice has to be made afresh with every new day. Bring on the morning.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

I have succumbed...

Well, I've finally gotten a blogspot blog. I mainly did it so I can comment on the blogspot sites of people I know who have them. If I use this one, it will probably be as a forum for my various theological, biblical, and philosophical musings, with maybe a bit of socio-political stuff, too. I intend to keep my Xanga site, too. I may ultimately wind up switching to this one primarily. We'll just have to see.