The Pleasures and Perils of Fermentation

Alcohol, shame, nakedness, and grace.

What would you say to 1500 students at a Christian college, sitting in their biweekly required chapel service, as the guest speaker at the beginning of “Alcohol Awareness Week”? Here’s what I said—after two Scripture readings from Genesis 9 (Noah’s episode of drunkenness a few narrative moments after getting off the Ark) and John 2 (Jesus’ first sign at the wedding at Cana). As with all talks, it falls short of my standards for writing, but it still seems worth sharing. Cheers.

I have this feeling that I’ve been given a nearly impossible speaking assignment. Shane Claiborne was here on Tuesday, and I’m just not nearly as interesting as Shane. Shane lives in radical community in one of Philadelphia’s grittiest neighborhoods; I live in a cozy little suburb of Philadelphia with two kids in a lovely single-family home. I do not have nor have I ever had dreadlocks. I do not have a cool East Tennessee accent. And I do not make my own clothes. We may all be in for a boring time. Plus I’m here as part of Alcohol Awareness Week, and surely there is nothing so truly deadly as a speaker you’ve never met trying to make you “aware” of “alcohol.”

The only things I have going for me—the only things we have going for us—are these two crazy stories from the pages of Scripture. Two stories that give us two very different pictures of what alcohol means for people who want to be biblical people, who want to follow this story all the way to its surprise ending.

Human beings drink because we want to be known, and because we are afraid of being known. We drink because we want to know, and because we are afraid to know.

So, Noah. A man of the soil, he plants a vineyard. A natural thing to do—a cultural thing to do. Fresh from the Flood, Noah is doing what Adam had done—creating culture, tending God’s world. He sets to work after the devastation of the Flood and recreates a little Eden, with well-tended vines and big round grapes. This is all good. In fact, it’s an advance from what Adam, the original gardener, had done—not just cultivation but fermentation. Noah has taken gardening to the next level, the level where the invisible yeastie beasties become part of the process and something rich and tasty and effervescent emerges. All that is very good. Noah takes a deep drink, and the first taste is good. Then he takes another, and another.

Before he knows it Noah is passed out, unconscious, naked on his bed. His son comes in—by accident or on purpose we don’t know—and further contributes to his father’s shame. The other brothers try to undo the damage. An entire family is caught in the mess of one man’s drunkenness, relationships fractured, curses hurled back and forth, some playing the role of the good child, others the bad child. The abuse of alcohol brings shame on everyone involved. Not for the last time.

On Saturday my friend Harold was at the Michigan/Northwestern football game. Harold was seated in the Michigan section of the stands, and just in front of him was a 20-something Michigan alumnus who was rapidly getting as drunk as possible. Seated next to him were five young women, also Michigan grads. As the young man got more and more drunk, he began to turn his lewd and loud attention to the women to his left. Rather than rebuff or ignore him, they found his behavior pretty funny, actually, and began to egg him on. So he got lewder and louder. He began to brag about his anatomy and comment on theirs. He took off his shirt. He took off everything, in fact, except his shorts. He began to make rude, crude, physical advances to the woman sitting to his left. She still seemed to be finding it funny, but not as funny as before.

Her dad was sitting two rows back. He was wearing a gray shirt. Finally he couldn’t take it any more. He confronted the nearly naked young man who began to respond with even louder curses and physical threats. The dad in the gray shirt stood his ground, and just as the the young man threw his first unsteady punch, security officers came down and physically carried the now completely incoherent drunk out of the stands, ejecting him from the game in his underwear.

And as they carried him away, the crowd of young Michigan alumni surrounding my friend Harold began to chant: “GRAY SHIRT SUCKS. GRAY SHIRT SUCKS. GRAY SHIRT SUCKS.”

When Harold told me this story on Monday he was still angry. How could the crowd take the side of the lewd, loud drunk against a father protecting his daughter? How could these young women find degradation and objectification so pleasantly amusing? What is happening in a culture that allows and even celebrates this kind of behavior? The young man was a kind of modern-day Noah, I found myself thinking, right down to the nakedness, except without the shame. But maybe that’s not right. As with Noah, the shame was just temporarily displaced. Displaced onto the other fans, onto the women who offered themselves for his enjoyment, onto the father who dared to step in, onto my friend who was still shaken three days later as he described this scene to me. And displaced into the future, for if this young man ever comes to his senses, we can only hope he will feel shame, because that will be a sign that he has not completely abandoned his own humanity. Shame has this quality, unlike guilt—it spreads, it contaminates everyone it touches. I feel shame as a man knowing what that man did. We all feel stained by this story.

I can’t help noticing that sex is present, along with shame, in the stories of both Noah and the Michigan football game. It’s hard to talk about alcohol without talking about sex, and you can’t talk about sex these days without talking about alcohol. One of the most remarkable developments in the last twenty years has been the rapid rise of binge drinking not among college-age men, but among college-age women, 40 percent of whom have had more than 4 drinks in a row in the last week. I have a theory about this. I believe that drinking for college-age women is largely a way to make sex easier—to ease the pain of hooking up, the pain of anonymous sex. Sex with someone you’ve made no promises to, for whom you haven’t changed your name, is indeed anonymous, without-a-name sex. It’s also story-less sex, with no history and no future. When it stops feeling good, it hurts, because sex is made to change our names, to change our stories. And when it doesn’t change us, it leaves us empty and lost, stranded outside the story we were made to live in. It’s a shame—and because it’s a shame, it doesn’t just affect the individuals who choose it. It leaves all of us, like the father in the gray shirt, like my friend Harold, like the crowd at that game, stranded outside the best story.

Noah, too, was stranded outside the best story. Noah’s drinking binge is part of a grim downward spiral in the early chapters of Genesis, from a fruit tree to a brick tower. As the Fall works out its inexorable logic, knowledge becomes forgetfulness. Adam and Eve sought to know good and evil; they ended up forgetting how to do good and resist evil. The other sense of knowing, that wonderful biblical word for sexual union, turns to forgetting as well. When Noah’s son Ham sees his father sprawled and naked, in one sense he “knows” Noah better—but Ham’s brothers understand that this kind of knowledge is fruitless. It would be better not to know. After the Fall, to be naked, to be truly known, is to be ashamed.

Yet there is another story we also read today. This story takes place at a wedding. And here too there is a threat of shame in the air—not the shame of having too much wine, but the shame of not having enough. Jesus steps in, at his mother’s insistence, to prevent this shame. Amazingly, Jesus does not seem concerned with moderation in this story. We get the idea that the party is well underway—if the guests are not three sheets to the wind, they are at least far enough along that they might not notice if the Chateau Lafitte is switched out for some Barefoot Chardonnay or Two-Buck Chuck. And Jesus provides more wine—lots more wine, not in 750 ml bottles, but using the huge jars that normally held dozens of gallons for the rite of purification.

And yet this wine that Jesus provides does not seem to induce forgetfulness. Senses are heightened just when they should be getting dull. Disciples and servants suddenly become alert to an impossible possibility, that here is someone who is more than just another wise rabbi. Here is someone who can make the world come to life. Here is someone who is, quite literally, the life of the party.

Jesus has come to undo everything that the Fall did. His wine bursts even from water jars. These water jars, of course, were there for the purification rites that allowed women to escape the shame of their monthly bleeding. This was water that took away shame and separation. But now the water of purification is poured out and made wine for every guest, male and female. And this wine does not bring shame. It covers shame. It purifies. So different from the wine that leaves Noah lonely and naked, this wine sanctifies the one-flesh togetherness of a man and a woman who need no longer be ashamed.

The crucial question for all our moral choices can be put this way: Which story are we joining? Which story are we joining with our choices? Are we joining the story of shame, or the story of grace? Are we joining the story of anonymity and loneliness, or the story of restoration and community? This should make at least one moral choice you face right now very straightforward. To choose to drink while you are a student here is to choose the story of distance from others, to choose the anonymity that comes with deception. It is to become less and less well known, to lose the ability to be true to yourself and to others in this community. And it is to miss out on the kind of community that is learning to play and pray and work and love one another without any of the artificial aids the world uses to make relationships seem easier.

But what about when we leave college, legally of age to drink? Then, again, we’ll have to ask what story we are joining with our choices. We may know our family story well enough to know that alcohol, in this fallen world, is very likely to master us in the way it mastered Noah. Or we may find ourselves in a culture where alcohol has become so intertwined with shame that for a Christian to consume it would be to bear false witness. That is true right now in many parts of Africa, where our Christian brothers and sisters have seen the evil that the colonizers’ alcohol brought with them; it may well be true in Russia, with its devastating national history of alcoholism; and I suspect it’s true at Michigan football games.

Whether we abstain for our whole life or just in certain contexts, there is good news for us. We know the Jesus who turned water into wine. Jesus is the life of the party. He does not require wine to get a party going. He can work with anything. He does work with anything, or anyone. He will make us effervescent, bubbling over with life, a sign of the best news for the world, without a bit of fermentation required.

On the other hand, we may well discern that in the place and time where God has put us, fermentation is a gift we can receive. If so, there is good news for us there, too. Jesus heightens our senses. He makes us alert to everything that is most real in the world, and dulls our taste for everything that is false. So we will never need to drink too much. One beer will last us a long time, because we will be tasting it, savoring it, noticing it, knowing it—not just drinking it. If we have any sense we’ll save our precious discretionary dollars for what is best—the best beer, the best wine, the best whiskey, so we will not drink often but we will drink well. We will drink from glasses that bear witness to culture at its best, to the long history of grapes and barley and wheat, to the lingering taste of soil and water and barrels and air. Jesus is the life of the party. He saves the best wine for last. Why would we get drunk, get to the point where we can’t recognize the best wine when it arrives? The best wine will be better than anything we’ve ever tasted—the wine that celebrates a marriage, the feast of union between all that had been torn apart.

At the bottom of it all, I think human beings drink because we want to be known, and because we are afraid of being known. We drink because we want to know, and because we are afraid to know. The sad Michigan fan, along with the whole sad world that swirled around him last Saturday, wants desperately to know—in the sexual sense, to be naked and unashamed, to be intimate and close, but also in the sensual sense, to taste something true and vivid and real. But just as he casts off his inhibitions he finds himself—they all find themselves, we all find ourselves—to be shameful and ashamed, only able to imitate the gross motor movements of intimacy, our tongues thick and our memory blurred. And so we lose our grasp on what we want, and find ourselves in the grip of what we most fear.

But perfect love casts out fear. For now, for you in this place and time, perfect love means that you will know and be known without the help or hindrance of alcohol. But be assured, at the great marriage supper of the Lamb, all the best of culture will be poured out to be fully tasted and fully enjoyed. It will be fully enjoyable because it will be fully part of the best story ever told. When Jesus’ glory is revealed, we will say, “You saved the best wine for last.” And then we will all enter into the feast where we will know, just as we are known: we will eat the food and drink the wine that makes us whole, and well, and unashamed.