Sneaking in a grocery run to Wegmans before church one Sunday awhile back, I was in line behind a distinguished looking gentleman. “I’m sorry,” the clerk told him, “we can’t sell alcohol before 11 a.m.” She set aside an expensive looking bottle of Glenlivet as he nodded solemnly. From behind me a woman called out, “Is that true, I can’t buy my wine?” Like Paul Masson, it seems, in New Jersey they will sell no wine before its time. Many, I suspect, have supposed that blue laws would’ve lapsed by now. What most people probably don’t realize is that this is yet another instance of how the Bible continually impacts our lives. Although the weekend has become enshrined as relief from jobs that most of us find tedious, blue laws were biblically based to keep us in line.
The Puritans did all within their power to enforce their views onto larger society. Sunday was not only “the sabbath,” it was a time for no fun—read Laura Ingalls Wilder for getting a sense of what this was like even on the frontier—and church attendance. Nothing potentially more attractive than church was to be on offer on Sunday morning. Here in over-populated, wonderfully diverse, secular New Jersey, those doing their weekly grocery shopping were learning the Bible has a very long reach indeed. Even if many people don’t realize that the Good Book’s behind it, they must abide by Puritan standards. I suspect many have no idea why blue laws remain in force. The Bible doesn’t loosen its grip easily.
As we pushed our cart past the ends of the other check-out lanes I noticed that several of them had bottles purloined at the point of egress. I suspect that most of the would-be buyers weren’t hurrying home to get ready for church. Instead, they were probably annoyed that they’d have to go out again later to continue their purchases. The Supreme Court has upheld blue laws on the basis of giving time off to those of certain professions that work by the hour. Those of us who don’t punch the clock are, according to the logic of such a decision, given exemption from the law of the land (but not to make immoral Sunday morning purchases. Indeed, in some professions attendance at church is part of the job expectation). It is perhaps bewildering for those raised in different religions. The idea of time off, although it probably wasn’t intended for humanitarian reasons, has also become one of the hidden blessings of the Bible. Without the sabbath, our weekends would also be an opportunity for others to make more money by the usufruct of our precious time. Holding off a few hours to buy alcohol seems like a small price to pay, in comparison. The Bible giveth, and the Bible taketh away.
I have a confession to make. I’m not a foodie. These days such an admission is tantamount to a venial sin, but the fact is I’m one of those who eats to live, not lives to eat. Still, like many people I’m concerned about whence my food comes. I can’t grow my own and just about all of it comes wrapped in plastic. Thus I found a BBC article my wife sent me to be of great interest: “An uncanny mixture: God, alcohol and even cannabis” by Kait Bolongaro. Focusing on monasteries and their brewing and distilling traditions, Bolongaro uses the foodie angle well. People want to know where their grub comes from, and the current interest in knowing the location of the source plays well into this. European monasteries have long been known for their production of alcohol. Even Jesus drank wine.
I’m no connoisseur of spiritous liquors, but the story is quite interesting. Many people don’t realize that monastic orders, in addition to praying and not having sex, also support themselves through industry. Many make goods to sell. Those in this article make booze. As Bolongaro points out, the fermentation and distillation process is an exacting one. In fact, it is a science. In the case of Chartreuse only three monks know the secret formula. They control the temperatures and conditions remotely, by computer. And I thought Bible Gateway was the only place the religious spent their time.
Science and religion actually have a very long history of cooperation. Gregor Mendel, whose work gave Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection its actual mechanism, was a monk. Other religious have been close observers of nature and processes. There is no commandment against good beer, as many Teutonic brothers would no doubt point out. But to get it right you have to know your chemistry. As the article says, some things can’t be rushed and monastic life lends itself to such slow processes. The rest of us in our secular pursuits rush through life far too fast for religion or science. Contemplation requires “down time.” Time off the clock. The kind of time, we’re told, that simply doesn’t exist any more. The story, after all, appears in BBC Business. I’m no foodie, but I have to confess that the cheese and pretzels purchased from the Amish in Lancaster do tend to taste better than those that come wrapped in plastic. There may be a religion to science after all.
The holidays are a time for getting together. At a friend’s house over the weekend, we were talking about nativity scenes. I mentioned a story about how a nativity scene had been missing the infant Jesus and he said he’d be right back with a solution. I have to admit that I’ve never seen Sweet Baby Jesus porter before. “Place that in your manger,” he said. I assume this is a seasonal brew, intended to draw the semi-religious toward a kind of holiday cheer. Now, blasphemy in a bottle is nothing new. In fact it’s quite common, I expect. Nevertheless, a bottle that says “One sip and you’ll claim the name” might be offering a salvation that it simply can’t deliver.
Growing up, Christmas never had any connection with drinking. My father was an alcoholic, and inviting this particular spirit to the holidays seemed misguided. Still, I recognize that in many cultures tipples were a way of coping with the excessive periods of darkness. Even in these days of ubiquitous artificial lights, I find that the darkness just outside bears a considerable weight. We festoon our houses with colorful lights to ward off the night. We prepare special foods to take our minds from the bleakness outside the window. And yes, some turn to Sweet Baby Jesus to offer its own kind of shine.
The holidays mean many things to many people. The commercial aspects appeal less and less as the years go by, but having some time off work to be with family and collect my thoughts grows more important each year. What makes a day holy, I expect, is that you have things that are otherwise difficult to find. Life, for many, is a long series of denials of what they really want. When the holidays come, they indulge. Who am I to begrudge someone else of what makes their ordinary days sacred? Who indeed?
Although I frequently, and unapologetically, express my opinions on this blog, I try not to reveal too much about myself. The books we read, however, are formative for who we are. Anyone looking over the hundreds of books on which I’ve posted over the last few years will have a reasonable idea about my inner life. One aspect I don’t often discuss is the fact that I grew up in an alcoholic household. It is difficult for me to discuss and I tend not to read about such things because it is too much like therapy and I end up feeling pretty lousy afterwards. Nevertheless, a friend who is a recovering alcoholic gave me a copy of Augusten Burroughs’s memoir Dry a few years back. Guilt at not having ever read it caught up with me and so I decided to make an honest friend of myself. Despite the very clever language and some laugh-out-loud moments, it was hard for me to read. Time flew by as I had the book open, but too much turmoil attended it.
Once I attended an Al-Anon session. This was a seminary assignment; we were to observe and take notes and write up a report for a sociology of religion class. Instead, I found myself participating. I know recovering alcoholics who dislike Al-Anon—it is an organization for families of alcoholics—because it can be judgmental. The fact is, however, that those who are part of an alcoholic family do suffer. I didn’t go back to Al-Anon, and I religiously avoid self-help books. I do know, nevertheless, that my outlook was profoundly shaped by my youngest years and the insecurity that dogs me every day of my life has its origins then. I also thought about how memoirs of alcoholics can become bestsellers. The jacket blurbs say how funny they are. I don’t hear so much about memoirs of those who were collateral victims. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not blaming alcoholics. Alcoholism is a disease. It may be treatable, but it is tragic for those afflicted with it. That doesn’t diminish the impact of having to live with it when you’re too young to have a choice.
When I was in college an erstwhile friend took me to see Arthur. Dudley Moore was rocking the critics with his performance. I smiled through my horror. There was nothing here to laugh at. So a book like Dry makes me feel…? Conflicted. What do I understand now that I haven’t before? I read about how even prestigious colleges are increasingly renowned for their parties, lurching about under their laurels. Some will experience it as a temporary fling and will move on. Some will never graduate. What can be done? We can listen. I suppose that’s why my friend gave me the book in the first place. I need to put aside my pain and fear. I need to listen.
The American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting is a big thing. It draws a myriad (literally) of scholars together every year and invades a fair sized city that may or may not be a religious haven. San Diego feels like a pretty Catholic city to me. My cab driver from the airport was a Muslim, but many of the churches and place names around here reveal a natural comfort with Catholicism. My first night in town, on my own and somewhat weary from awaking at 3:30 on the other coast to get ready to catch my flight, I wandered through the Gaslamp District looking for some authentic Mexican food. It is surprisingly tricky to find, although I’m only twenty miles from Tijuana. Along the way I passed a bar that had a welcome AAR/SBL poster in its window. Now here was a vender that recognized their client!
Many of those outside the profession assume such conferences as this are like higher education Sunday schools. Undoubtedly, there are those who wish they were. For some, perhaps, the annual meeting allows for the indulgence of personal peccadillos far from watching administrative eyes. Others are more sanguine about it all. Religion scholars are just as human as the next guy. As I looked at this bar window, I reflected on how Christianity (in particular) came to regard alcohol as an evil. Wine and beer were known from ancient times, and even the New Testament has Jesus presented as an imbiber. Temperance, however, grew out of American Fundamentalism that seemed to have forgotten its scriptural roots. I remember learning, as a child, that the wine Jesus drank was really only grape juice with a little kick. Who wants an inebriated God running around the Middle East?
Still, I realize that drinking has its consequences. As the child of an alcoholic, I know the damage that this can do. On the other hand, I know many religions view “controlled substances” as gateways to alternate realities. Other planes of existence. There are even cases where Native Americans have been arrested for using their traditional ceremonial substances in a nation not quite Christian, not quite not Christian. Even on my way to the Gaslamp District, I was saddened to see so many homeless about the city. I knew that as evening fell and the scholars arrived, the bar would come alive. And I knew that when the rain came, some would get wet while others stayed nice and dry.