September 20, 2006
Eat, Drink, and Be Merry: Clergy holiness codes miss the point
Last week a study was released by economists called "No Booze? You May Lose." Researches found that people who drink alcohol make more money and may have an advantage in social settings. But does the same hold true for pastors? Author, professor, pastor, and regular contribut-Ur, David Fitch is back to discuss the popular restriction on clergy to abstain from alcohol and tobacco. Are such rules helpful, and could they possibly be making us fat?
On August 25th, Chicago Sun Times religion columnist Cathleen Falsani wrote a piece entitled "Weighty Matter: Is religion making us fat?" In the piece, she recited Adam Ant's lyrics in the 80's "Don't drink, don't smoke, what do ya do?" She raised the question whether those Christian denominations that prohibit drinking and smoking are abusing food as a substitute for these other prohibited pleasures. For support, Falsani quotes a Purdue University study that concluded (after accounting for several other factors) that some kinds of churches seem to encourage the problem of obesity. In fact, the study states that churches where drinking alcohol, smoking, and even dancing are prohibited, "overeating has become the accepted vice."
My denomination, along with others rooted in the old holiness movements, still hangs on to the holiness codes that prohibit alcohol and tobacco for its clergy. I consider this to be "an adventure in missing the point," to quote Brian McLaren, and I believe Falsani helps us see why. Let me explain.
If we prohibit certain behaviors for pastoral ministry, are we not really revealing the fear that we lack the mature character for ministry in the first place? If drunkenness and chemical addiction is what we fear, why not name drunkenness and addiction as the symptoms that require discernment? By totally prohibiting alcohol and tobacco we are not really dealing with the issue of whether our clergy has mature character. We are just providing conditions to displace the lack of character (if it exists) to some other object that is safer, i.e. from tobacco or alcohol to food.
I want to be careful here about painting a broad-brush stroke across all of us who have struggled with weight. That's not my point. I am someone who's had food and weight problems. And I've had my own recent crisis with diabetes as a result. Rather, what I am trying to show here is how the holiness codes of my denomination and others do not address the issue, they merely reveal the symptom of the "Real" underlying problem.
Slavoj Zizek, post postmodernist (if there is such a thing) cultural critic, is famous for helping us see the ways cultures can manifest symptoms of the "Real" in ways that surprise us. I might just suggest a Zizekian view of our denominational holiness codes - over eating is the symptom of the Real. The zeal of evangelicals to be different than culture by forbidding alcohol and tobacco, has in essence revealed that nothing is really different. Instead the "hard kernel of the Real" has erupted in the obesity epidemic in our holiness coded churches. As a result, the holiness codes reveal the Truth. In Zizek's words, "we overlook the way our act is already part of the state of things we are looking at, the way our error is part of the Truth itself.
In the end, character is about the ordering of one's appetites towards God's purposes in creation through a purified vision of Christ and His glory. If such desires are not ordered, if such desires are not integrated, holiness codes can only cover up the existing problem. The holiness codes then become a case of misrecognition. And as Zizek states, "the Truth arises from misrecognition." Thus we have obesity as an epidemic in our churches.
More and more, the new generations cannot stomach these holiness codes. I have regularly met with outstanding candidates for ministry who raise their eyebrow at my denomination's persistence on its holiness codes for clergy. This is because these codes are not holy. Instead, they trivialize holiness. The real question for us holiness denominations, if we are ever to be taken seriously by the postmodern generations (and our credibility slips everyday we hold onto to these "legalistic and unbiblical" codes of behavior - e.g. there is no Bible verse prohibiting drinking alcohol, quite the contrary), is whether we have the wherewithal to be sanctified in such a way as to be trusted with a drink or a stogie.
The real issue that our denominational leaders should focus on concerning the fitness of clergy is the commitment to a holy life and what that looks like in community. Obviously this refers to issues like drunkenness, addictions that reveal our lack of dependence upon God including tobacco, pornography, gambling, and yes, food! But this should also include how we handle money, how we engage the poor, how we speak to our neighbors, whether we engage in conflict in holy and Christ like ways. We should not resort to legalism! To the postmodern generations, "no alcohol, no tobacco" speaks only of rules, not holiness.