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When I was five years old, I knew I wanted to drink beer.

In the mid 1960’s I would watch Chicago Cubs games on TV. They were always sponsored by Hamm’s beer. I can still sing the jingle. “From the land of sky blue waters…” The Hamm’s beer bear would dance and sing. Perhaps I made a subconscious tie to the Cubs’ own mascot, not to mention Yogi and Boo-Boo, Baloo, Winnie the Pooh, maybe even Smokey. Who says cute advertising aimed at kids doesn’t work?

hamms cubs

I grew up in a teetotalling home. My mother had taken some sort of Nazirite vow as teenager. My dad was less absolutist, but marital concession, harmony, and all that. For me, thanks primarily to the Hamm’s bear (and perhaps also the Stevens family of Bewitched, who had a bar in their living room and enjoyed martinis at every possible opportunity), alcohol was cool—alluring, exotic, sophisticated—and definitely going to be part of my future.

And it is. In the summer heat, a gin and tonic with my wife on the back deck is a favored ritual. All sorts of beers and ales—usually the local microbrew fare—all through the year. Martinis for celebrations and when I’m feeling semi-affluent. Sipping scotch or cream sherry in the winter. Marrying into a French family, wine is a basic human right.

This isn’t going where you might think it is. I’m not going to confess that I have a problem with alcohol. “Hello, my name is Steve and I am not an alcoholic.” But I will confess that despite my enjoyment of all sorts of booze, I do have some ambivalence and anxiety about it. Maybe it is just proves how much my mother’s voice still rings in my conscience.

I read (actually I observe) that today’s young Christians, the millennials, are not burdened by my mother’s scruples. Dour teetotalling is not in. Millennials want to give witness to a faith of joy and delight, free from rules and guilt, where nothing God created is to be considered profane. Good for them. Like generations before them who wondered about movies or Lord’s Day observances, they are enjoying their freedom in Christ.

A few years ago, I was attending Wild Goose Fest—a celebration of Jesus, Birkenstocks, and tattoos in the North Carolina hills. One of the activities was “Beer and Hymns.” A large, raucous crowd gathered to sing old hymns from memory while enjoying beer. They were having a good time. Many were probably on the edge of being inebriated. Still, it was far closer to fun than debauchery.

As I watched, an older friend—hardly a killjoy and not a teetotaler—observed, “I don’t think they have any sense of the heartache and tragedy alcohol brings.” My friend is a pastor. He has sat with alcoholics, watched families torn apart by alcohol, futures destroyed by the drink. I think he wondered if there wasn’t something perilously naïve about the crowd at “Beer and Hymns.”

This past Lent, I gave up alcohol—even on Sundays. It was harder than expected. Not that I craved a drink, but I am a person of routines. There were simply certain times that felt like they deserved alcohol. I abstained in Lent for many reasons. I read online (so it must be true) that your liver can completely rejuvenate and cleanse itself in six weeks with no alcohol. Please, someone confirm that this is correct. I also know from experience, that I can drop five to ten pounds quite quickly simply by not drinking. And while I’m not really worried about my alcohol consumption, I suppose I did want to show myself that I was in control of alcohol, and not vice-versa.

An Episcopal bishop is facing charges of drunk driving, hit-and-run, and negligent homicide after killing a bicyclist. Richard Mouw recently shared that he is an alcoholic, now sober for 40 years.

Watching the movie version of Little Women with my children, I recall being struck that the March family’s “progressive” agenda of the 1860’s included abolition, women’s suffrage, and temperance. Could temperance ever again be a progressive shibboleth? Abstaining from alcohol not as narrow and passé, but as a progressive boycott? A moral “no”—not because drinking itself is evil, not because it is enjoyable, and not with prissy self-righteousness—but because of the social havoc it wreaks? A “no” in solidarity with the babies suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome, the abused spouses, the victims of drunk drivers, the families rent asunder? Who knows?

I know that I’m not going to lead that movement.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

One Comment

  • Terry DeYoung says:

    As I sit on our deck sipping a really fine craft beer (an IPA brewed in Bracebridge, ON, of all places!), I can’t quite say, “My thoughts exactly, Steve,” because you’ve thought through this more than I had. But I can say without reservation that I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and agree with everything you’ve written. Thank you!

    Next time we’re together let’s skip the hymns and join voices in singing the Hamm’s beer jingle. I guarantee the fine malt beverage I’ll provide will be neither a Hamm’s nor the other longtime Cubs advertiser that claims its product to be “fully krausened” (which might better describe the condition of some of those at the Wild Goose Fest).

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