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Craft beer & G.K. Chesterton’s ‘theology of imbibing’

By Matt Boulter

Two concerns loomed large in my mind seven years ago when I moved from Austin, that bastion of progressive hipsterdom, to Tyler, Texas, nestled behind “the Pine Curtain” of East Texas and far more culturally typical of the Lone Star State: First, would I find adequate trails and neighborhoods to keep up my weekly running routine? Second, would I find good places to drink craft beer on tap? Thankfully, providence arranged that a construction sign appeared one day soon after my arrival, announcing the advent of a chain restaurant featuring craft beer. At least there’d be one place for me to have a decent pint with my friends.

In the subsequent three or four years, however, things changed. Flash forward to 2017, a couple of years after our East Texas county went wet, and now we have not one but at least two fine craft breweries in this town of about 100,000 citizens. Thankfully, the global village arrived in full force. No longer am I one of the top craft beer experts in the area. Truth be told, these days I struggle to keep up with the dozens of spots to enjoy a pint, and with the burgeoning craft beer community in Tyler.

The rise of the “smaller batch” craft beer industry in America is a welcome development in the context of our mass-production, corporately driven consumer culture, but it does bring challenges. Among the more prosaic: A single 16-oz. pour of a bourbon barrel-aged barleywine contains as much alcohol as four of those Bud Lights you used to drink in high school or college. Here is a call for discretion. Among the more worrisome: the pretense of connoisseurship within the craft beer community often serves to mask the dysfunction of substance abuse. Add to this the horrific event involving the drunken (now former) Bishop Heather Cook of Maryland in December 2014, together with the problem of alcoholism among Episcopal clergy generally, and one immediately sees the need for a coherent and compelling theology and practice of imbibing.

For this theology I turn, as I do in so many other areas, to the incomparable Gilbert Keith Chesterton. I offer three quotations, two brief and one lengthy, which provide the foundations for such a theology and can greatly encourage anyone in need not of strong drink but of strong truth.

The free man owns himself. He can damage himself with either eating or drinking; he can ruin himself with gambling. If he does he is certainly a damn fool, and he might possibly be a damned soul; but if he may not, he is not a free man any more than a dog. (Broadcast talk, June 11, 1935)

This first quotation reminds us that freedom in the biblical, premodern sense is not the ability to do whatever you want (a view associated with Immanuel Kant and often described as negative freedom) but rather the capacity to live into and to fulfill one’s God-given, natural purpose or telos. When Jesus in John 8 says that the truth will set us free, he means that the truth of the gospel will empower us to live into our true purpose or calling: the fullness of Christ himself (cf. Eph. 4:13). The enjoyment of strong drink, when truly spiritual, promotes our greatness, allowing us to attain our true purpose.

Man is always something worse or something better than an animal; and a mere argument from animal perfection never touches him at all. Thus, in sex no animal is either chivalrous or obscene. And thus no animal invented anything so bad as drunkenness — or so good as drink. (“Wine when it is red” in All Things Considered)

The second nugget of wisdom, in turn, articulates profound implications for theological anthropology. Patristic and medieval theologians conceived of the human being, or the rational animal, as a microcosm of reality, part angel and part beast, as it were. Likewise in the opening section of his Institutes John Calvin speaks of man’s depravity in the same breath as he extols him for his great glory. Both of these human extremes are augmented by the fermented fruits of the earth. Let’s turn now to the third quotation, which is longer. 

The one genuinely dangerous and immoral way of drinking wine is to drink it as a medicine. And for this reason, if a man drinks wine in order to obtain pleasure, he is trying to obtain something exceptional, something he does not expect every hour of the day, something which, unless he is a little insane, he will not try to get every hour of the day. But if a man drinks wine in order to obtain health, he is trying to get something natural; something, that is, that he ought not to be without; something that he may find it difficult to reconcile himself to being without. The man may not be seduced who has seen the ecstasy of being ecstatic; it is more dazzling to catch a glimpse of the ecstasy of being ordinary. If there were a magic ointment, and we took it to a strong man, and said, “This will enable you to jump off the Monument,” doubtless he would jump off the Monument, but he would not jump off the Monument all day long to the delight of the City. But if we took it to a blind man, saying, “This will enable you to see,” he would be under a heavier temptation. It would be hard for him not to rub it on his eyes whenever he heard the hoof of a noble horse or the birds singing at daybreak. It is easy to deny one’s self festivity; it is difficult to deny one’s self normality. Hence comes the fact which every doctor knows, that it is often perilous to give alcohol to the sick even when they need it. I need hardly say that I do not mean that I think the giving of alcohol to the sick for stimulus is necessarily unjustifiable. But I do mean that giving it to the healthy for fun is the proper use of it, and a great deal more consistent with health.

The sound rule in the matter would appear to be like many other sound rules—a paradox. Drink because you are happy, but never because you are miserable. Never drink when you are wretched without it, or you will be like the grey-faced gin-drinker in the slum; but drink when you would be happy without it, and you will be like the laughing peasant of Italy. Never drink because you need it, for this is rational drinking, and the way to death and hell. But drink because you do not need it, for this is irrational drinking, and the ancient health of the world. (“Omar and the Sacred Vine,” in Heretics)

The third and longest passage breathes the oxygen of a wisdom rooted in what one might think of as the logic of the gift. Here it is as if Chesterton regards libation as belonging to the order of the supernatural, that which fulfills and crowns our natural life (the very thing addressed also in the first quotation). It is not to be regarded as what one is due or what one needs; rather, it is a sign and seal of the joy of the gospel. It is best received as a gift — as in the etymology of Eucharist — and never something that is grasped.

A good friend tells me that, elsewhere, Chesterton once quipped, “I love beer so much that I don’t drink too much of it.” To me this adage just about sums it up. The ambrosial delight of a well crafted ale is one of God’s very best gifts to us. Ben Franklin was not all wrong! Yet it is precisely for this reason that we should neither reject craft beer out of hand nor give it free rein. We should savor it, share it, and let it woo us more deeply into the life and love of our good God.


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