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Review by Kelly Wilson
Erin Jean Warde asks two important questions about sobriety and spirituality: What would a more mindful approach to alcohol look like? and Are churches that have a “drinking culture” safe spaces for people who are exploring sobriety?
Warde, who is a priest and recovery coach, takes us on an orderly and thoughtful review of alcohol and its effects — on the body, on spirituality, on society, and, with particular thoughtfulness, on marginalized groups, such as people of color and LGBT people. She also takes a critical look at the industry behind alcohol ads, and holds it to task for promoting “mindless drinking.”
Warde tells her story of sobriety and narrates much of the book through that lens, but she does not encourage all her readers to quit drinking. Even for those who are inspired to enter into sobriety, she cautions that the road to sobriety can be non-linear, and requires compassion for yourself.
What she does ask of the reader is to be mindful about drinking. She advises that the reasons for drinking are complex and multifaceted — from society, from culture, from advertisements — and she urges exploring the factors of one’s drinking. She also points to the cognitive dissonance between what many believe about alcohol — that drinking is good for one’s health, that it helps one go to sleep, that it helps with anxiety, that it lifts one’s spirits — and the truth about alcohol: that the health risks outweigh any benefits, that it wrecks one’s healthy sleep, that regular use contributes to increased chronic anxiety, and that alcohol is a depressant that can worsen depression.
In addition to taking a hard look at the downsides of mindless alcohol use, Warde also looks at the benefits of life without alcohol. Beyond the physical and financial gains (as well as the lack of fear over what one texted last night), she writes at length about the spiritual benefits of sobriety. She uses lenses such as the biblical story of the Prodigal Son, as well as the doctrines of Incarnation and Resurrection, to describe the return to joy that she experienced when she became sober. From her perspective, removing spirits from her life (as well as wine and beer) made room for the Holy Spirit to enter and reconnect.
One important aspect of her journey is her description of the resistance to her sobriety that she felt in her church environment. She points out that many mainline and progressive religious communities have a drinking culture. Episcopalians (whom Warde reminds us have sometimes been called “Whiskeypalians”) often celebrate that Jesus “ate and drank” with sinners, and that he not only made wine at the wedding of Cana, but that it was really good wine. From the fundraiser with the open bar at church to some churches holding Bible studies in pubs and bars, churches affirm the adage that God gave us alcohol as proof that he loves us and wants us to be happy.
Warde takes these assumptions to task as she looks at the historical record to ask if Jesus and the apostles were the drinkers we depict. She again visits the spirits/Spirit dichotomy by talking about the story of Pentecost, when passersby assumed the Apostles were drunk on wine at 9 a.m., when they were filled with the truer and more authentic “new wine” of the Holy Spirit. She asks some hard questions about the relationship between alcohol and finding an authentic spiritual life that faces life on life’s terms.
She examines the culture and rituals of the church, including the common chalice passed during the Eucharist, to ask if churches welcome those who are exploring sobriety or drinking more mindfully. For her, church created a stumbling block to sobriety, because there was such an expectation to drink, although she eventually overcame it. But she asks if the journey of others could be made easier if churches were safe spaces to ask questions about alcohol, why we drink, and what life and spirituality would be like within sobriety.
In the end, Warde offers a succinct list of reasons to think more critically about alcohol, sketches a generous and forgiving path for sobriety, and provides practical advice for communities to better support those who wish to be more mindful about their drinking. There are some bumps along the road, which may cause discomfort for those who find their drinking culture challenged by the sobering statistics and stories here, but these challenges are delivered fairly and non-judgmentally. It is up to the reader to decide how to respond.
For those who have questioned their drinking — particularly in light of its effect on their spirituality — and want a thoughtful review of our society’s love of alcohol, Sober Spirituality is a great place to start.
Kelly Wilson is the founder of Ready Writer NYC and cohost, with Mark Dilcom, of the Radical Love Live podcast.