When world events happen it is easy to remember where we were at the time. For the rest of my life I doubt I will forget what I was doing when the planes crashed into the Trade Centers or the Challenger blew up. Another weekend I will remember was the one that Princess Diana died way back in 1997. It was this weekend that I had my initial exposure to “Love Wins” theology. I had just moved from Ohio to Michigan a few months earlier and hardly knew a soul in my new locale. I decided to become involved in a church group that had a retreat up north on the aforementioned weekend. The other people attending told me how good and cool the speaker, an intern pastor from the sponsoring church, was going to be. When he walked up to speak, my initial impression was clearly he was much more concerned about fashion than me. To this day I have to admit his look has an uncanny resemblance to Steven Page, formerly of the music group BNL.
He began by raising his hand and stating the disclaimer that he had friends that were alcoholics. He added that if we hung with him, would hopefully look at the Bible in a new light. His topic was good wine and bad wine. He stated when wine is mentioned favorably in the Bible, such as Jesus turning water to wine, that it is grape juice or “good wine”. When spoken of unfavorably, such as Proverbs 20:1 that it is “bad wine” or fermented alcoholic wine. When he finished his presentation I was utterly shocked that a group of young adults aged 20-something had no questions about fermented drink being outlined as intrinsically evil. I decided to ask some questions, particularly:
1) How could wine be clearly labeled as good (non-fermented) or bad (fermented) when in the absence of modern canning or freezing technology a spectrum of fermentation would be present as opposed to the all or nothing scenario he presented. Some degree of fermentation would be sure to take place between harvest to consumption so how could one possibly tell when enough fermentation took place for it to be referred as the "bad wine"?
2) The dominant theme in the Bible consisted of warnings against getting drunk as opposed to drinking alcohol in general (Eph. 5:18 And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess - Such verses were conveniently not mentioned in his presentation) If the intention was to ban all alcohol it would not be hard (as Mormonism and Islam do). But rather does the Christian Bible not emphasize temperance rather than teetotalism?
His response was the technology to prevent grape juice from turning to alcohol was present and suggested I read Wine in the Bible by Bacchiocchi. I do not doubt that some strategies mentioned in this book to slow down fermentation were performed in antiquity, but they are clearly overstated in the referenced source. If anyone disagrees and could prove me wrong we could make millions with a new “as shown on TV” food preservation device. As for my second question he stated that again he had friends that were alcoholics. He also asked how much I really knew about how the Bible happened and suggested that I would interpret it differently if I did.
There are many good reasons for a Christian not to consume alcohol such as a family history of alcoholism or to give something up that is not a bad thing alone to increase devotion to God and etc. It is a totally different thing to suggest no consumption of alcohol for as the standard for all Christians. I did learn several things from this experience:
1) Labeling things, such as fermentation, as evil takes the blame of us and allows us to be innocent victims. This world, this creation was declared good. Evil cannot create it can only pervert. Pornography is taking of a good thing such as sex and perverting it. Cocaine addiction takes place when a substance that controls pain and could be technically used in lieu of lidocaine (notice the common endings) is perverted for our own selfish ends. When we fail to see that our human depravity is the issue by putting the blame on something that can be used appropriately or inappropriately, it becomes much easier to accuse God of not conforming to our sense of fairness.
2) When we interpret the Bible with the starting point of affirming our own experiences, we risk turning it into an idol by which we worship our own view. Only interpreted in its entirety can it transform us. Granted, honest people can come to different interpretations in many areas. This however is much different than prooftexting verses to to affirm what we want them to say, and ignoring verses that contradict our opinion. I (like most people) have friends that struggle with alcoholism, but this does not make Eph 5:18 go away. I wonder if this Intern Pastor got away with sloppy biblical methodology initially with stuff that the church has an easy time falling for to later propose harder to swallow theological leaps such as questioning the importance of the virgin birth?
3) Toleration of sloppy Bible interpretation leads to a similar toleration of sloppy historical scholarship (more on this in the future).
4) When he asked how much I knew about how the Bible came to be it took me back a little bit. I had some general understanding of how the canonization process took place and was well aware that the Bible did not fall from the skies in a puff of fire to a single individual. I observed carefully in the future and heard this same response many times - kind of a default talking point. I could be wrong, but this pastor seemed to disparage the canonization process, perhaps suggesting that direct revelation to a single individual (as is done with the Koran or the Book of Mormon) would be more credible.
I know this seems a bit tangential to the current brouhaha about Hell, but I will eventually get there.