I always learn from the “Faith Matters” columns (published in the Christian Century) that are written by L. Gregory Jones, a Methodist pastor who is dean of the Duke Divinity School. In his current column, Dean Jones writes that, as “an heir of the Methodist tee-totaling commitment, I grew up with a clear sense that alcohol is dangerous and to be avoided.” This will seem foreign to most of us. Jones himself left behind an “excessively legalistic approach to Christian living” and would presently defend the moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages. But, still, we shouldn’t completely dismiss the “Methodist tee-totaling commitment.” Here, Dean Jones writes with a newfound appreciation of “my older Methodist sensibilities”:
I began to read more about the consequences of alcohol abuse. I had been reasonably aware of the links between drunkenness and destructive behavior, but I vastly underestimated this force, as well as the strength of existing data. Excessive use of alcohol increases the likelihood of sexual assault exponentially, especially on college campuses. The economic costs of lost productivity due to alcohol abuse have been calculated to be in the billions of dollars. For the overwhelming majority of people in prison, there is a direct connection between their crimes and alcohol or drug abuse.
I could feel Wesley’s prophetic critique welling up in me, even as I also knew the risks of sounding like a prudish, moralistic Christian—or at the very least a killjoy. Yet I am also convinced that it will not suffice to simply urge abstinence or initiate a “just say no” campaign for undergraduates and other Americans for whom alcohol use is pervasive in most social gatherings. What alternatives are there?
The fifth chapter of Ephesians offers us a clue. To be sure, the prophetic critique is there: “Do not be drunk with wine, for that is debauchery.” Immediately following, however, is a constructive suggestion: “Be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:18b-20).
The writer suggests that we all want to be lifted out of ourselves, beyond ourselves. Drunkenness does this in ways that diminish and destroy; becoming faithfully intoxicated with the Holy Spirit draws people together into life-giving praise.
In the light of Ephesians, I recall that the 18th-century Methodist movement at its best was not primarily a moralistic critique of alcohol abuse or any other forms of sinfulness, but rather networks of Christian disciples inviting people to become intoxicated with the Holy Spirit. Perhaps a small change in the weekend parties we choose to attend could make a huge difference—and an important, faithful witness. We can offer such a witness to young and old, blue-collar and well educated, when we risk participating in worship and parties that are animated by the Spirit rather than by spirits.