The church’s role in healing the alcoholic.

Dying for a Drink, by Anderson Spickard, Jr., and Barbara Thompson (Word Books, Inc., 1985, 192 pp.; $12.95). Reviewed by Terry Muck, editor of LEADERSHIP journal.

It was late Sunday morning and Paul Taylor dragged himself out of bed with a groan. He was sick to his stomach, his head hurt, and his hands were shaking. He wished he hadn’t had so much to drink the night before; and he was looking forward to a strong cup of coffee.

Walking downstairs, he was surprised to find his wife and children sitting in the living room with the family doctor and the vice-president of the insurance company where he was a salesman. The doctor explained to Paul that they were there to talk with him about his drinking problem.

It was Paul’s wife who spoke first, her voice noticeably shaking: “Paul, last Tuesday we went out to dinner for our anniversary, and you got drunk. You poured a bottle of champagne on yourself and made a lewd remark to a woman who passed our table. When the maître d’ asked us to leave, you took a swing at him, and then passed out on the floor. A busboy helped me put you in the car.”

Paul stared at his wife incredulously as she went on to describe in detail three other similarly embarrassing incidents of the past year. He could not imagine why she was saying such things in front of his boss and doctor—but he was too surprised to respond. When she had finished, Paul’s employer began to describe his slipping work habits.

Paul’s teenage son followed with stories of parental abuse. And Paul’s doctor explained in graphic detail what drinking was doing to his physical health.

Then came the horror stories from his 17-year-old daughter. And finally, in a relational coup de grâce, Paul’s shy, 5-year-old daughter haltingly confronted her father.

By the time they were all through, Paul was in tears—and the next morning was on his way to an alcoholic treatment center.

Drying Out

This, of course, was not a chance get-together. It represented one family’s only hope in breaking the vicious downward spiral that Paul’s alcoholism had become. The intervention followed specific rules and guidelines, and although not all such meetings end as happily as this one did, thousands have led to the eventual arresting of alcoholics’ self-destructive behavior. And this, according to Dr. Anderson Spickard, coauthor of Dying for a Drink, is the only chance most alcoholics have of breaking out of a disease that affects over 10 million people each year.

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“I told the story of Paul in the book because he was a good example of what faces someone addicted to alcohol,” said Spickard in an interview with this reviewer. “Very few truly addicted alcoholics can hope to stop drinking by themselves—the best studies suggest that fewer than one out of ten can quit without professional medical help.”

Intervention begins that help. If successful, it starts a long recovery process led by medical professionals trained to deal with alcoholics. But, according to Spickard, it is the key to getting the alcoholic to admit he needs help, and to make it work it takes the coordinated effort of relatives, friends, employers, doctors, and—oh yes, minister and church. One of the key points of Dying for a Drink is that the church does play a role, even though at times it is most effective if it just stays out of the way.

“It’s a question of timing more than anything else,” said Spickard. “In many ways my book is a call for the church to see that too often it has become an ‘enabler’ rather than a positive force in the treatment of alcoholics. An enabler is anyone who helps an alcoholic continue his addiction. It may be a wife who covers up for the alcoholic in front of his employer and friends, or a child who cleans up Daddy’s vomit. Enablers allow alcoholics to avoid the most serious consequences of their addiction, and thus help them continue to self-destruct. They do it out of love, of course, but are actually hurting the alcoholic’s chances of recovery.

“The church becomes an enabler when it doesn’t recognize the medical severity of the alcoholic’s problem. The biggest mistake made by church counselors is failure to recognize the underlying problem as alcoholism. Drinking is too often seen as a minor symptom of sin rather than an uncontrollable habit that can kill. The result is that too few alcoholics are sent to medical professionals. They are continued in nonproductive counseling relationships where prayer and Scripture study are used in place of medical help.”

Finding Forgiveness

In the first half of the book, Spickard, the director of general internal medicine and professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, outlines the problems alcoholics have traditionally faced in getting help. He notes that society has institutions to deal with alchohol-induced behavior (federal, state, and local governments), the physical havoc alcohol wreaks on heavy drinkers (hospitals), and the theological inappropriateness of alcoholic abuse and addiction (churches). But it has few resources available to help alcoholics themselves.

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To be sure, writes Spickard, each of these institutions does something to help. Through law, governments try to protect citizens from homicidal drunk drivers who kill one person every 22 minutes. But the government can only go so far with protective legislation before the laws create more problems than they solve.

Through drugs and surgery, hospitals can detoxify, tranquilize, and surgically repair human beings blitzed with alcohol-related disease. But doctors are quite candid about their relative helplessness in the face of patients who invariably deny they have a serious problem.

Through a sermon, Sunday school class, or home Bible study, churches can effectively hold up the ideal of sobriety. But alcoholics, swayed by our culture’s unmistakable sermonizing that drinking is cool and controllable, become quickly apologetic-proof. No group of people is more adept at rationalization and compartmentalization than alcoholics.

So what can be done? In his book, Spickard recommends intervention with a program specifically designed to help alcoholics. The intervention itself needs to be choreographed by a professional, who helps choose the five or six members of the intervention team and the appropriate time and place for the intervention. The professional also helps the interveners rehearse the data of the confrontation—three or four specific instances where they were personally threatened or embarrassed by the alcoholic’s inappropriate behavior.

Once treatment has been accomplished (either 30 days in an alcoholic treatment center or 90 straight days of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings), close follow-up is necessary to prevent relapse. This is the time, according to Spickard, when the church can become the focal point of the alcoholic’s recovery. Up until now the church has been a very important supporting actor in the process. Now it has a chance to reassume the role of leading man.

“People come out of alcoholic recovery groups with their spiritual antennae fully extended,” said Anderson. “They want to know forgiveness. They are never more ready to hear the gospel. This is where church support groups can make a difference by providing two things: fellowship and a clear voice of what the Scripture teaches about Christian love and peace.”

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Dying for a Drink is a book about people who are dying both physically and spiritually. There is treatment for both problems. But two different kinds of medication must be provided, and they must be taken in the proper order. This book responsibly describes that process, and gives hope to both alcoholics and a church that seeks total health for the body.

“Let My People Go”

Exodus and Revolution, by Michael Walzer (Basic Books, 1985, 149 pp.; $15.95). Reviewed by Rodney Clapp, associate editor of CHRISTIANITY TODAY.

John Calvin prooftexted from it. The English Puritans expropriated it. Black slaves were sustained by it. And Karl Marx quoted it.

In fact, according to political philosopher Michael Walzer, the story (historical narrative, not fiction) of Israel’s exodus from Egypt has been something of a foundational model and source of encouragement for nearly all the most important radical political movements in Western history. And thus the primary purpose of his book: To look at the pervasiveness of “exodus” thinking in influencing the action of the downtrodden throughout history.

Exodus Applique

Exodus and Revolution is a scholarly historical survey, never stinting on documentation. Consider Walzer’s citations from the period of the English Puritans. “Israel’s experience [in the Exodus] is on record in Holy Writ for our encouragement,” an English Puritan preached in 1642. And Oliver Cromwell claimed Exodus was “the only parallel of God’s dealing with us that I know in the world.…” That the Exodus was widely discussed, and even used to measure the rightness of the Puritan revolution, is evidenced in a 1645 pamphlet that noted, “But some will say, that our bondage is not yet so bad as that of Egypt was,” and went ahead to argue that, for some English at least, the “popish” oppression was just as bad.

Closer to home, we are reminded of American colonists attacking the “British Pharaoh.” They thought of their venture as an “errand into the wilderness”; and Cotton Mather dubbed John Winthrop the “American Moses.” By the time of the Revolution, the new land was “God’s new Israel.” And it occurred to both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson that the Great Seal of the United States should feature the Exodus. Franklin proposed that it show Moses with rod lifted and the Egyptian army perishing in the sea; Jefferson suggested the column of Israelites proceeding through the wilderness behind pillars of cloud and fire.

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These examples could be multiplied many times and not without a periodic tinge of irony. In Walzer’s words, “The Book of Exodus came alive in the hands of Boer nationalists fighting the British, and it is alive in the hands of black nationalists in South Africa today.” The oppressed have become the oppressors, and the very story that served well their ancestors now empowers their opponents.

Truth And Consequences

Having seen (through Walzer’s labor) the historical pervasiveness of the Exodus, it is important to note that Exodus and Revolution is not a wild-eyed polemic. Walzer, of the Princeton Institute of Advanced Studies, is neither writing a brief outlining God’s political handiwork nor addressing such crucial (and largely theological) questions as the appropriateness of employing Marxist analysis in a strategy for Christian social reform (liberation theology). He is, on the contrary, concerned with the recurrent manifestation of the Exodus story in Western politics, and not the correctness (or incorrectness) of each historical or contemporary application. There can be no improvement on his own eloquent statement of his thesis: “The Exodus is a story, a big story, one that became part of the cultural consciousness of the West—so that a range of political events … have been located and understood within the narrative frame that it provides. This story made it possible to tell other stories.”

The late Francis Schaeffer was fond of saying that ideas make a difference in the real world. Michael Walzer’s book serves to remind us that some of the most potent ideas come inextricably embedded in scriptural “stories” (whether society acknowledges the Source or not). Writes Walzer: “Though in attenuated form, Exodus thinking seems to have survived the secularization of political theory.” Stories—some special ones in particular—have consequences.

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