The Slippery Wine Skin
by Jack Hoehn
By Jack Hoehn, November 6, 2013
David Neff once pastored the church I attend, so when the Editor Emeritus of Christianity Today speaks, I tend to listen. Now because he is an ex-Adventist pastor, I tend to listen critically and carefully, but in general I have found David to be a friend of Adventism and a constructive critic of his former church.
He has made many important contributions to generic Protestantism from his bully pulpit as Editor in Chief of CT and other leadership positions with that magazine for the past 28 years, where he is lauded as a “gentleman-scholar.” I have read him with benefit many times and listened to him with appreciation several times in person, but I would like to indict and contradict him just this once.
David has slipped on a slippery wine skin, which slides one very quickly into the gutter of alcohol risk minimization. In his book review posted on the CT website September 11, 2013, he speaks approvingly of Divine Vintage (Heskett and Buttler, 2012. One of the authors imported wine, the other is president of the Institute of Masters of Wine.),i which presents a pro-wine interpretation of Biblical Oenology, ending with the inane pop-cultural trick question, “What wine would Jesus drink?”ii
Perhaps a slight twinge of Adventist heritage prompts David to mention, “The authors have no time for the conservative Christian belief that in the Bible, wine is always a bane and never a blessing. (On the second page of the preface, they announce that they simply will not treat all of the pointless claims that promote abstinence…)”
David? That’s it? “Conservative Christian belief…” “the pointless claims that promote abstinence…” and off we go in oblivion to the millions of crushed lives due to alcohol?
David is a Christian enough to cringe when the authors of the book, both wine merchants, try to evolve wine paganism into Abrahamic and Christian religion (Christ is a type of Dionysus?). Good eye, David.
I have not read and will not be buying this book, so this article is not about debating if wine in the Bible is mentioned to promote or restrict its use. I personally think Sam Bacchiocchi’s argumentsiii are more rigorous and equally valid points of view as those of the wine merchants in this book, but that is not what I wish to defend or promote.
What I am upset about is the problem David’s review demonstrates: the modern blindness that sees only the possible pleasures and perhaps minor benefits of alcohol, and is largely quite—strangely silent—about its dangers and harms. This is about the massive minimalism of the pain and destructive reality of alcohol.
I understand that it is possible with care to use radioactive materials for the benefit of mankind. But all of the US border stations large and small have installed radioactive monitors sensitive enough to pick up radiation from your thyroid gland when you drive over them in your car. My friend Howard Gimbel was immediately stopped and his car was surrounded by US border control officers with Geiger counters when he drove from Calgary, Alberta, into Northern Idaho near Creston, BC, after having a short-acting radioactive body scan a few days before his trip. They let him through, but only after a careful evaluation and identification of the trace medical grade isotope they picked up as his vehicle drove over the sensors.
The dangers of radioactivity and its adverse effects are great enough to demand huge investments of money and care into prevention of possible dirty bombs being smuggled into this country by terrorists. Even the tiniest residua of medical radiation is carefully monitored and evaluated because of possible risk.
But I know for a fact that from that very same Canadian border town (Creston, BC), each day huge trucks with hundreds and thousands of gallons of Kokanee Beer cross into the USA, with not the smallest warning, not the quietest protest, not a single beep from any warning system, of the dangers or possible risk to the population from that alcohol. Dr. Gimbel was stopped by a few rads of left over radiation; the alcohol trucks drive though without a hitch.
What I am complaining about to David Neff and the rest of the media of this world, Christian and otherwise, is the strange, even pathological reluctance to publicize and warn about the actual risk and very present dangers of all forms of alcohol. Like the family members of an alcoholic, society if not an alcohol abuser itself, covers up the very real abuse. We then become partners, enablers of alcoholic terror and crime by overlooking or minimizing the risks.
Nuclear Terrorism and Alcohol Terrorism
The 2011 tsunami that destroyed the Fukushima, Japan, nuclear power plant has caused no deaths from radiation. In fact since 1952 there have been 99 major accidents involving nuclear facilities, yet except for Chernobyl (30 direct deaths, 56 total) there have been no workers or members of the public killed by nuclear radiation in the other 98 accidents.iv
Wine, Beer, and Spirits on the other hand kill every year more than 75,000 people in the US alone, shortening each of those lives by an average of 30 years.
You do the math.
Nuclear reactor or power plant accidents, worldwide deaths, for 60 years = 67 deaths.
Alcohol deaths, USA alone (not Russia, Europe, Asia, Africa, Central America, South America), = 4,500,000 deaths for 60 years.
Seventy-five thousand deaths a year in the USA alone,v and “the authors have no time…?” Four and a half million American deaths directly caused by alcohol during my lifetime, and “they announce that they simply will not treat all of the pointless claims that promote abstinence”? Four and a half million dead Americans cheated of an average of 30 years of life—that is a big number of years lostvi—and “they simply will not treat” it? David Neff does not mention it even in passing.
Hip magazines like Wired, Outside, upscale journals like Sunset Magazine, New Yorker, foodies magazines, news magazines like Time, Sports Illustrated, all professional sports stadiums, all Super Bowls, Stanley Cups, World Series, TV ads for the same, morning shows, soap operas, movies, and alcohol advertisements, are in a massive societal conspiracy to say the same tired, meaningless lawyer prompted escape clause: DRINK RESPONSIBLY.
How irresponsible of the 75,000 people dying this year from alcohol. Shame on them. Shame on the victims of alcohol incited violence and alcohol fueled rape. Shame on those in the cars hit by the intoxicated driver. Put a white cross by the side of road for the irresponsible, but don’t say a word of caution as you discuss the smoothness, the body, the hints of tannin and oak, the fruity notes, and the great throat feel of your next sip of dear old alcohol.
A Teaspoon a Day Keeps the Doctor Away
Isn’t alcohol good for you? Yes. If you eat a highly saturated, animal fat rich western diet, you can reduce the incidence of heart attack and perhaps strokes in your old age with a small amount of alcohol. (Yes it is the alcohol that does it, not the red grape juice. Vodka and beer and Jack Daniels are equally beneficial to the highly promoted wines.)
How much alcohol do you need for this benefit? 5-10 ml.
That is not a misprint. One to two teaspoons of absolute alcohol has a scientifically demonstrated, experimentally confirmed cardiac benefit. One teaspoon for a woman; 2 teaspoons for a man. So you dilute the alcohol down to whatever percent your preferred form of the drug (whoops, did I mention that alcohol is a drug?) and there you have the health benefit for alcohol.
Ladies, how to get your 5 ml of alcohol a day:
Beer (5% alcohol)= 100 ml
(7 Tablespoons, 3.3 oz)
Wine (12% alcohol)= 42 ml
(3 Tablespoons, 1.4 oz)
Spirits 80 proof (40% alcohol) = 12.5 ml (1 Tablespoon, 0.4 oz)
Gentlemen, for your health please double the above generous portions.
Can You See the Problem?
No one I know takes this little alcohol. Everyone who drinks is getting more than the ideal amount of their alcohol health medicine.
Kokanee Beer comes in 12 oz/350 ml cans.
Wine is served in 5 oz/150 ml glasses and 750 ml bottles.
Whiskey is poured from a big bottle into 1.5 oz/50 ml shot glass.
The second problem is that the majority of alcohol related deaths involve people younger than 45, while almost all of the benefits of reduction in coronary heart disease occur in people older than age 45.
If we lived in a rational society, the drinking age would never be 18 or 21 years of age; it would be 50!
I have had the life and death panic of face-to-face, mouth-to-mouth resuscitation for an SDA-raised young man in an alcohol withdrawal seizure, who was trying to die with a blue face, back arched, eyes bulging, no respirations and heart slowing in an otherwise completely healthy young man. I have wept over a young woman—once the most beautiful girl in her SDA academy class—with end stage alcoholic cirrhosis starting at or before age 32. I’m not talking about bleary-eyed alcoholics sleeping in the sidewalk under cardboard. I’m talking about beautiful, intelligent, otherwise healthy young adults severely damaged by beverage alcohols like wine, beer, and spirits.
If we were serious about the “health benefits” of alcohol we would absolutely ban the production and distribution or sale to anyone in our grade schools, high schools, colleges, and universities under 50 years of age. Of course, to be consistent we would also require our senior General Conference presidents and vice-presidents to take their 10 ml of absolute alcohol a day. (Okay, every day except Sabbath!)
Alcohol Disease Litany
In spite of the cardio protective benefits of a small amount of alcohol, there are cardiac damaging effects of large amounts of alcohol, but there are also spiritual heart problems with even modest alcohol consumption. There is more marital discord and divorce with higher alcohol consumption. There are carcinogenic effects of higher alcohol consumption. Have we mentioned pancreatitis? How about major upper GI bleeding? Hepatitis C is made more fatal by alcohol consumption. Alcoholic workers lose jobs more frequently. Babies are damaged for life by maternal consumption during pregnancy; there are no safe levels for the fetus. And this is true also for preconception binge drinking by young mothers and perhaps by fathers. Criminality is more common with alcohol consumption. Both traffic injuries and fatal non-traffic injuries are worse with alcohol consumption. So “Drink Responsibly” you all. By all means “Drink Responsibly.”
Responsible Not Drinking
It is irresponsible to drink alcohol before age 50. It is irresponsible to drink alcohol if you are still going to have children. It is irresponsible to drink more than 1 drink a day for women and 2 drinks a day for men, and it would be more responsible to not drink at all for 2 days every week. It is irresponsible to drink and go to school, as teacher or student. It is irresponsible to drink and work. It is irresponsible to drink and drive. Alcohol is a depressant, so it is irresponsible to drink if you are depressed or taking medications for depression. It is irresponsible to drink if you have North American Indian genes. It is irresponsible to drink if you have depression, alcoholism, or mental illness in your family tree. It is irresponsible to drink in the presence of children or young adults. Alcohol can cause dementia, so it is irresponsible to drink if you want to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. It is irresponsible to drink alcohol if you have any cardiac arrhythmias. Cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, colon, and breast are worse when you drink alcohol; the more you drink, the higher the risk, so it is irresponsible to drink if you don’t want cancer.
Oh, did I mention that of every 10 people who start to drink alcohol, 3 will have an alcohol-caused problem during their drinking, and 1 out of each 10 will become an alcoholic? Of those men who drink 3 or more drinks a day, 20% will have cirrhosis of the liver.
22% of police time is spent trying to solve alcohol related problems.
40% of all traffic related deaths are alcohol caused.
13% of employee sick days are alcohol related, and those who drink are 10% less productive than non-drinkers.
Alcohol is more dangerous than marijuana and methamphetamine. Alcohol kills more people every year than die of AIDS, TB, or gun violence.
Would David Neff write an article praising the beautiful manufacture and collector value of hand guns, and their possible benefits in the home without a balanced discussion of their risks? I don’t think so, but alcohol has this magic pass, letting it be so charitably promoted and praised with the least possible exposure of its many sins.
The Bible suggests it is responsible to give alcohol, and I assume other drugs, for hospice care.vii It suggests that priests and prophets should avoid alcohol.viii It suggests that kings, and I would guess presidents, should avoid alcohol.ix New Testament church leaders had to be “temperate” and “no drunkard”.x The wisdom book recommends abstinence for all.xi
All of this keeps me very comfortable with the Adventist Abstentionist positionxii that says God may have permitted alcohol consumption in the past, but Christians today for personal health and for societal benefit should avoid completely the consumption of alcohol. If you wish to modify that so that those over 50 should sip 1 or 2 teaspoons of absolute alcohol a day as a prescription drug against western heart disease, I might listen to your arguments with a generous mind, although I still fear the large number of side effects of that drug more than I anticipate any benefits.
I assume our former Adventist friend David Neff is now a Moderationist and no drunkard. I know he is over 50. I suspect he never drinks while working. And I hope he is not one of the 3 out of 10 men who will have alcohol trouble during their lives, or a heavy drinker who will have a 20% chance of fatal liver cirrhosis. I hope his limited use of alcohol prevents a heart attack or stroke (although as a physician I could likely do the same or better with a cholesterol check and a statin prescription and I hope he remembers the safety found in a plant based diet).
But I must insist that any article promoting the beverage use of fermented wine by Christians does the responsible thing and clearly lists the great dangers and strangely overlooked harms caused by this risky fermentation of grape juice.
Responsible writing means giving balanced presentations of the truth. Grapes are a fruit and a food. Grape juice is a concentrated extract and an occasional treat. Fermented wine is a drug. Like all drugs it may have some benefits if taken as prescribed, but it has real and present dangers that our church has decided are not worth the risk.
Alcohol can grab you and take you where you never want to go. Will the 7 in your pew who may be able to navigate alcohol’s risks care about the 3 in your pew who won’t? And are you willing to keep turning upside-down your wine glass to offer 30 or more years of extra high quality life to your child or grandchild? I am, and Adventism is.
David Neff and all journalists, especially Christian ones, owe that principled Abstentionist position a little more respect and the very real dangers of alcohol a lot more public debate and exposure.
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COMMENTS: Dr. Hoehn has requested that this article be presented with edited comments. If you would like to submit a comment, you can send a message to Dr. Hoehn via the editors at firstname.lastname@example.org. All comments will be read with interest. Signed contributions that contribute to the topic may be reproduced whole or in part for the wider readership.
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i Randall Heskett and Joel Buttler, Divine Vintage: Following the Wine Trail from Genesis to the Modern Age, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
ii The clear Biblical answer to this question (“I will drink no more of this fruit of the vine…” Mark 14:25) is obviously, none, fermented or otherwise.
iii Samuele Bacchiocchi, Wine in the Bible, Biblical Perspectives, 1989.
v WHO estimates 2,500,000 deaths a year directly caused by alcohol in the world.
vi 135 million years of life stolen by alcoholic beverages in USA alone and 4.5 Billion years of life stolen by alcohol throughout the world since 1953.
vii Proverbs 31:6
viii Isaiah 28:7; Leviticus 10:9-11; Ezekiel 44:23.
ix Proverbs 31:4
x 1 Timothy 3:2-3; Titus 1:7-8.
xi Proverbs 20:1; Proverbs 23:29-35.
xii Samuele Bacchiocchi, Wine in the Bible, page 45 for definition of the traditional SDA position.