Friday, June 01, 2007

Prooftexting

"The Bible Stands Against Alcohol," so I read. And while the exposition seems to be written by someone for whom English is a second language*, the idea is clear enough: the Bible is always and everywhere against drinking it.

Those who know me are probably not surprised I disagree. In fact, I just poured myself a tall cold rum and Coke and settled in for a good Friday night reading session. What better subject to write on than this one**? Now what annoys me is not that someone disagrees with me - I'm more than happy when people do, because in opposition I find inspiration for cogitation - but that they believe, as too many do, that by flinging a bunch of verses, out of context, at a subject, they can discover and deliver everything God says about that subject.

In fact there are quite a few such verses on the list, and at the risk of boring my most faithful readers, whom I truly adore and appreciate for their ability to put up with my bizarre obsession with things biblical, I'd like to lay a few of them out. The purpose of this is not to "prove" the writer wrong as if this were a competition, but rather is to illustrate a dangerous habit of the lazy and uninformed Christian: prooftexting, throwing out a sentence from the scriptures while completely ignoring the context, subject, object, and audience, and presuming all those while pretending that this sentence is an absolute command for everyone everywhere. You'll see what I mean when I get to them.

Here's a caveat, however: I'm going to pick on the easiest ones. And the reason for that is not that they are simple to defeat, but that they best illustrate the dangers of prooftexting, the main one being that you are liable to have your lunch handed to you by anyone who actually bothers to look the verses up. Because some of my best friends are Jewish (and you know who you are) I'll be sure to include a number of Tanakh texts, though to their credit Jews - and Catholics - tend to be a lot more reasonable*** about the subject at issue.

So anyway, here goes. You'll be able to check whether I'm being honest with the page by clicking thru, but if you don't, then believe me that I am reproducing the verses exactly as they are presented. I will cut a few of them short in the interest of space, but please believe that I am trying to be fair with the writer. First up is the first verse:
There is nothing from outside of the man, that going into him can defile him; but the things which proceed out of the man are those that defile the man. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear."
-
Mark 7:15-16
I don't know if I'm more astonished or aghast that this verse leads the charge. Truly. Because this set of verses has nothing to do with alcohol, but is actually a response of Jesus to Pharisaical criticism of his disciples' slovenliness. They were criticized for not washing their hands, to which Jesus replied that it was not a religious offense. Things going into you do not defile you (make you unholy or unclean), but things - by this he means words and actions - that come out of you. Can we apply this to alcohol? I think we can, but not in the way the writer assumes.
...for he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and he will drink no wine nor strong drink. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb - (Luke 1:15)
Exercise for the student: What is the first question to ask when one is presented with a verse like this? As the Irish scholastics would reply, "Not hard." The first question, "Who is 'he'?" And the first part of the answer is, "John the Baptist." The second part is, "no one else." That John the Baptist would never drink does not mean that no one else will ever drink, which we will illustrate by skipping forward a few verses:
For John the Baptizer came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, 'He has a demon.' The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, 'Behold, a gluttonous man, and a drunkard; a friend of tax collectors and sinners'
- Luke 7:33-34
John didn't eat bread or drink wine; we know that from the angel's instruction to his parents and from Jesus' description immediately above. But what is Jesus saying? He is *contrasting* himself with John. I know this is a hard concept for some, but there's a certain parallelism here that we'll flesh out:

"John came eating no bread/the Son of Man came eating." What have we here? A contrast. John ate no bread - that was part of his gig, which to be honest was to illustrate to the Israelites that appearances didn't matter, they would reject both John and Jesus. But what did Jesus do in contrast? He ate bread. So far so good, because no one seems to be against bread.

Now, "John came drinking no wine/the Son of Man came drinking." I'll let the reader work out the contrast there, in full consideration of the specific charge leveled at Jesus. And I should not be surprised if he reaches the conclusion that the passage teaches the opposite of "The Bible stands against alcohol."

By this point, the Chosen People are feeling left out, so let's jump back to Proverbs 31:4-7. We've all heard of a "Proverbs 31 Woman." Let's talk about a Proverbs 31 King:
...it is not for kings to drink wine; nor for princes to say, 'Where is strong drink?' lest they drink, and forget the law, and pervert the justice due to anyone who is afflicted.

Give strong drink to him who is ready to perish; and wine to the bitter in soul: Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more.
I've separated the 2 parts into 2 parts because here we again have a contrast. It is not for whom to drink wine and why? It is not FOR KINGS to drink so they don't PERVERT JUSTICE. This is a perfectly good, if restrained, limitation on the use of alcohol. None of us would want to be tried for a crime before a judge who had been drinking. If we want to expand it, we might reasonably say that drinking at work is not a good idea for anyone. The same principle applies to another verse from the list, Lev. 10:9 ("Drink no wine nor strong drink, you, nor your sons with you, when you go into the Tent of Meeting..."). It was a command to the priests to not drink while performing their vocation. Good advice, that.

But, but, but, there's another verse, because there are some who SHOULD drink. Who? The dying and the bitter, the frustrated and the poor. Drink can bring forgetfulness or at least release from the chains of the now, and here we have a command that some should be given drink for the very release which drink brings. While remembering that the purpose of a proverb is to state a truth rather than give a command, it is still difficult to conclude that this verse makes the Bible stand against all alcohol always and everywhere. For at least some, drinking is an acceptable escape.

Sticking with the OT, we find an interesting quote in the Law of Moses:
Then shall he that offereth his offering unto the LORD bring a meat offering of a tenth deal of flour mingled with the fourth part of an hin of oil. And the fourth part of an hin of wine for a drink offering shalt thou prepare with the burnt offering or sacrifice, for one lamb.
- Numbers 15:4-5
How this is to be constued against alcohol I don't know, because we can conclude that the Hebrews were commanded to produce wine, if only for sacrifice to God. But there is an interesting command (Deu. 14:24-26) that goes with that and which applies to people for whom the traditional place of sacrifice was to be made was too far away:
And if the way be too long for you...Then you shall turn (your sacrifice) into money...And you shall spend that money on whatever your heart desires, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink...and you shall eat there before the LORD your God, and you and your family shall rejoice."
So not only could you sell your sacrifice for money, but you could buy Captain Morgan with it and have a celebration. It's again hard to see how this is "against alcohol." But it is easy to see how the Bible is for rejoicing.

One final one, from Proverbs again (Chapter 4) and we'll let it go. This one illustrates the biblical limitations on wine and why the Prohibitionist is incorrect in his biblical argument:
Don't be among ones drinking too much wine, or those who gorge themselves on meat: for the drunkard and the glutton shall become poor; and drowsiness clothes them in rags.
Here we have a parallel, those who drink "too much wine" and those who "gorge themselves on meat." Must the Christian be a vegetarian because of this verse? I have never seen anyone promote it as such. So then does the problem not lie in "too much" rather than the thing there is too much of? The Christian is to be just as concerned with gluttony as alcoholism, and the minute he speaks out about overeating in a church full of fatassed Americans, that minute he can be taken seriously for using this verse against alcohol.

But what about positive verses? All we've done here is shown that the verses presented against alcohol are not against it per se but against inappropriate or excessive drinking. Isn't there some positive? I believe there is****: Gen 14:18-20. It occurs immediately after Abraham rescues Lot from the four kings (bandits) who have captured him. On his way home, Abe is met by Melchizedek- whose ministry Jesus' is favorably compared to in the Book of Hebrews (Chap. 5). An interesting thing happens:
And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God. And Melchizedek blessed Abram, and said, Blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth: And blessed be the most high God, which has delivered your enemies into your hand."
Here we have a priest of God, meeting with a man of God, to celebrate an act of God, and what do they drink?

If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.

The point is that a long list of verses, devoid of both thought and context, may shock and awe, but they do not a good argument make. One can make a decent argument against drinking on the part of the Christian - though it's obviously one with which I disagree - but one cannot truly make a good biblical argument for *anything* unless one is willing to respect and explain the context, who is being spoken to by whom under what conditions and why. If that still supports one's argument, then great. In this case context, IMO, not only defeats the argument but shows the Christian making it to be both lazy and ignorant.

* This is not a cheap shot. Read the page. I simply do not know what "here are quite a few biblical references where it states it as test of the nation" means, if anything.

** NO! I'm done with housing I tell you, done.

*** Whether it's because they know they know less and therefore speak less I don't know. Baptists on the other hand (and I are one) tend to know less and speak more. It's apparently an occupational hazard of knowing ahead of time that everyone else is wrong.

**** Actually I believe there are a large number, but this one will have to suffice.

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