To toast or not to toast during Lent?

There’s an old joke that Jews don’t recognize Jesus as the Messiah, Protestants don’t recognize the pope as the leader of the Christian faith and Baptists don’t recognize each other at the liquor store.

I thought of that tidbit of religious humor as I read a Religion News Service feature on some United Methodists giving up alcohol for Lent.

The top of the story:

(RNS) The Rev. James Howell knew he had a problem on his hands when several teenagers arrived at a church dance drunk and had to be taken from the church by ambulance for treatment for alcohol poisoning.

Starting in 2009, he urged his flock at Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C., to give up drinking for Lent and donate the money they would have spent on booze to a “spirit fund.”

It’s a timely, interesting story filled with excellent history and background on Methodists and their positions and beliefs on drinking and temperance.

However, the 800-word piece falls short when it comes to explaining how other faith groups treat the alcohol issue:

From teetotaling Baptists to Episcopalians who uncork champagne in the parish hall, what to do with the bottle can be a tricky question for religious groups to answer — especially during holy periods or holidays.

Catholics are not supposed to drink on Fridays in Lent, while Muslims are called to abstain from alcohol during the holy month of Ramadan. But to celebrate Purim, Jews are encouraged to actually get silly drunk, and what Christmas Eve would be complete without spiked eggnog?

Unlike prohibition-minded Mormons or Catholics who belly up to the bar at a Friday fish fry, Methodists — the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination — have a more ambiguous stance. Now, the denomination’s General Board of Church and Society is following Howell’s lead and is pushing a churchwide Alcohol Free Lent campaign.

Overgeneralizations seem to plague that section of the story.

I wish the report had included more details from named sources (actual Baptists, Episcopalians, Catholics, etc.) on what the various faith groups teach — and practice — concerning drinking.

I am a lifelong Church of Christ member and don’t drink. Our fellowship is pretty united on the belief that the Bible forbids drunkenness. We are less unanimous on whether social drinking that does not lead to drunkenness is a sin. In fact, in my travels to different parts of the nation, I have found myself at social gatherings with Church of Christ ministers and elders who drink wine with meals. In other cases, Church of Christ members take the Baptist approach. (See joke above.)

Given the nuances in my own faith group, I can’t help but suspect that there’s more diversity in other religious circles on this issue than the RNS story indicates.

Among my questions:

– Are most Baptists really teetotalers, or do they face the same issue as the Methodists in that the church officially frowns on drinking but many congregants do it anyway? (See joke above.)

– Unless I’m wrong (wouldn’t be the first time), aren’t Muslims called to abstain from alcohol all the time, not just during Ramadan?

– Is “silly drunk” the actual term a rabbi would use in relation to the Purim celebration? (If so, then I think that would make a terrific direct quote!)

– And why are Catholics bellying up to the bar at a Friday fish fry if they can’t drink on Fridays during Lent? (Must be a non-Lent fish fry …)

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • lisa

    I am Catholic and I have to admit, I’ve never heard the “no alcohol on Fridays during Lent” rule.

  • sharon d.

    Catholics used to have a “no alcohol in Lent” rule. It went away sometime before the end of the first millennium. The reporter is just wrong. And I don’t even understand the “belly up to the bar” comment. Lenten Friday fish frys aren’t known for their alcohol content; it would certainly make the Stations of the Cross afterwards more jolly, though.

  • mer

    Just like meat or dairy or sex with your spouse, can’t we give up alcohol for Lent in the spirit of contrition, and yet not have a moral stance against alcohol?

  • Jerry

    Wow. I don’t think I can remember seeing so many errors in a story recently. Is there an “award” for the worst story of the year?

  • Passing By

    It’s meat from which Catholics abstain on Fridays in Lent, not booze. I’ve never seen spirits at the Fish Fry (after Stations, in our case), but it’s the youth group doing it.

    And my Baptist family members are all over the place re: drinking alcohol (and dancing for that matter). Most do, some don’t, no one cares.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Jerry, I wouldn’t characterize this as the worst story of the year.

    However, it does appear to be a case where actual reporting was done on the main theme — the Methodists — as there are several named sources and some good information. But then short snippets are included on other faith groups, and it doesn’t seem like much reporting, if any, was done to gather and verify those details. That could be the reporter’s fault. Or it could be a well-meaning editor trying to provide context on deadline.

  • Michael O.

    At least in the Catholic Church, you’re not supposed to give up something sinful for Lent. That seems to be the understanding of the reporter, however.

  • http://aleksandreia.wordpress.com Hector_St_Clare

    Michael O,

    Same here, but the Catholic church (as well as my church) doesn’t consider alcohol to be sinful.

    My understanding is that the Orthodox do abstain from alcohl during Lent and Advent- it would be interesting to know when the Western and Eastern traditions diverged.

  • http://gottagetgoing.blogspot.com Kunoichi

    Growing up Catholic, I’ve never heard of a prohibition from alcohol at lent, or any other time.

    My Muslim friends tell me they are not to drink alcohol at all. Some take it further than others. It’s been an issue for some local cab companies, where Muslim drivers have refused to take fares from people carrying alcohol. My sister and her husband had a restaurant owner become offended when they asked for the bottle of wine they’d ordered for dinner to be uncorked. The owner/operator explained he was Muslim and that, while he felt he had to get a liquor license in order to have a successful business, his faith did not allow him to even touch the bottle.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Kunoichi, Your comment reminded me of this GR post I did last summer related to a Chicago Tribune story on the dilemma faced by Muslim liquor store owners.

    In doing today’s post, I came across this story while Googling. It’s a 2009 piece on some Muslims refusing to use alcohol-based hand gels to combat swine flu because they believed it violated their religious beliefs.

  • John D

    The classic rule for Purim is to drink until you cannot distinguish “blessed be Mordechai” from “cursed be Haman.” I’d call that silly drunk.

    I prefer to reverse the formula, as “blessed be Haman and cursed be Mordecai.” Anyone who can point out my error must need a drink.

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com Steve Martin

    I find it so odd that Jesus’ 1st miracle was turning approx. 180 gallons of water into the best 180 gallons of wine these folks ever had (at the Cana wedding)…and some Christians refuse to drink alcohol???

    Jesus not only made it, he drank it. The Apostles drank wine. The rule is to NOT get drunk.

    And if one does…He forgives them.

    I know that many people cannot drink any alcohol (they have a disease, problem, addiction), and of course that is a different matter.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Friends, please remember to focus on the journalism and media coverage issues.

    Steve, your comment seems to veer off that track, but I do think the question you raise would have been a good one to pose to someone in the story on the non-drinking side: “If Jesus drank wine, how can you advocate against it?”

  • Kelly

    Eastern Catholics such as the Ukrainian rite do have a similar structure to the Orthodox where they have a calendar of fasts through the year that can require fasting from meat, dairy, and/or alcohol.

  • Suzanne

    Another Catholic here who has never heard of the “no alcohol on Fridays during Lent” rule. In fact, at one of our(many) local Lenten fish frys, they actually serve beer.

  • http://www.post-gazette.com Ann Rodgers

    Apparently this reporter failed to do research.
    Muslims are forbidden to drink alcohol, period.
    However, I must say that certain fish fries in the Pittsburgh region are quite famous for the beer on hand.
    Furthermore, I was recently reading a book on Eastern Orthodox monasticism. It had a reference to a certain monastic tradition (not widespread) in which monks drank a lot of beer during Lent because they believed it kept their hunger down and assisted with their strict fast.
    A church history course I had in seminary covered the history of Christian teetotaling, which was strictly an American phenomenon but has probably been exported by missionaries. In the first half of the 19th century Christian volunteers who worked among immigrants were appalled at the troubles caused by whiskey, and started a campaign against hard liquor. Later other reformers expanded this to opposing all alcoholic beverages – they were capital T Totalers because they were totally apposed to alcohol. Thus the origin of the term. But the practice has less than a 200-year history within Christianity. It tends to be strongest in those traditions that began or gained their greatest strength during those years: Baptists, Methodists and independent evangelicals, although the Presbyterians also got on board. It had no real impact on the Catholic, Lutheran or Anglican churches.

  • http://www.aleksandreia.wordpress.com Hector_St_Clare

    Re: Another Catholic here who has never heard of the “no alcohol on Fridays during Lent” rule

    My understanding (from Catholic friends, and from attending Catholic services on occasion) is that you’re not supposed to drink on Ash Wednesday or Good Friday, but that there’s no specific rule about other days of the year.

    It’s not uncommon to voluntarily give up alcohol for Lent, of course.

  • JWB

    There’s a guy out there on the internet who’s trying to survive on nothing but beer this Lent, although purportedly following Bavarian rather than Ukrainian monastic traditions: http://diaryofaparttimemonk.wordpress.com/.

    The formal Orthodox norms say no wine on most Fridays (and Wednesdays) of the year, with that restriction extended to most weekdays (but not weekends) during Great Lent. Church calendars (like this one here: http://www.goarch.org/chapel/calendar/ ) are often marked to show this since the rules are of such, um, byzantine complexity that they’re hard to keep in your head, and there are regional/jurisdictional variations in terms of how important a saint’s day needs to be to formally overcome the no-wine default. Now what degree of compliance with these norms is pursued or achieved by what percentage of the laity (or clergy) is another question altogether, and there has been some variation of opinion historically as to whether no wine also means no beer.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    JWB, GR’s own Sarah Pulliam Bailey has a guest column in the Indianapolis Star that mentions the beer-for-Lent guy.

  • http://www.Libatique.com Kelly Libatique

    Yes, it is true that the prophet Mohammed banned alcohol. “Strong drink and games of chance and idols and divining arrows are only an infamy of Satan’s handiwork” (Al Ma’idah 90). I personally, however, have known several people of the Muslim faith who do, in fact, indulge. One young man I worked with, while he abstained from pork and followed all the Islam holidays, particularly enjoyed drunkenness.

    Jesus Himself neither endorsed it nor condemned alcohol, but it is unknown whether He ever drank it. In fact, Jesus did not say anything about alcohol. He could have easily included the subject in one or more of His teachings, even just to say it is okay in moderation, one should avoid it, or never touch it, but He did not. One thing He did say in regard to eating in general was that it is not what goes into a man’s mouth that makes him unclean (or ‘defiles’ him), but rather was comes out of a man’s heart (Matthew 15:17-18). Some have contended that this offers proof that Christ was okay with drinking in moderation, but most would not take it that far.

    In regard to the “wine” at the wedding in Cana, whether or not it was fermented, Scripture does not say if He drank any of it. If Christ did actually consume any alcohol in Cana or elsewhere, He did not get drunk because He was without sin. We can also conclude that alcohol was not a considerable nor regular factor in His life, if it was at all.

    We know at one point the Pharisees accused Jesus of being a drunkard (Luke 7:34), which suggests that He at least was seen in the company of individuals who were drinking, and probably drinking too much. Some have concluded from this that Christ did drink, but again this was just an accusation, and it does not prove anything. We, of course, know that His ministry was for the lost and the unsaved, which is why He was in the company of at least some drunkards to begin with.

    Another place people say Jesus drank fermented wine was at the Last Supper. But if you study Scripture where this event is recorded, Matthew 26:27, Mark 14:23, and Luke 22:17, you will find no reference to wine, only the “cup.” In the proceeding verses (Matthew 26:29; Mark 14:25; Luke 22:19), only the NLT uses the word “wine” while all the other translations say the “fruit of the vine.” There are specific words for “wine,” as we have seen, so the accuracy here of the NLT may be questionable. The conclusion of this author is that the Last Supper, by the description in Scripture, did not contain fermented wine. “And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; (28) For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.”–Matthew 26:27-28 (KJV)

    For a walk-thru of Scripture on the subject, Google: A Toast to the Holy Ghost?

  • MJBubba

    Ann Rogers (# 16)said: “Christian teetotaling … was strictly an American phenomenon.” No, teetotaling came from England, where it was launched and promoted by the Methodists (Whitefield and the Wesleys, etc.). They were reacting to the “gin houses.” Gin was a new invention in their time, and a host of other hard liquors soon followed. This allowed a cheap drunk to be had by all the displaced countrymen who had moved into the cities seeking work. The gin houses were encouraged by municipal officials who were getting fearful that mobs would form among the unemployed. The Baptists soon adopted the Methodist view of alcohol. By the time of the Second Great Awakening teetotaling was firmly established in American Protestantism, even while already beginning to wane in England.
    Teetotaling was a reaction against that first evil of modern industrial society, hard liquor.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com mattk

    Hector, the divergence between east and west can be in fasting practice can be traced back to, at least, 1650 when Ernst of Saxony appealed to Pope Urban VIII, asking that the bakers of Dresden be allowed to use butter when they made stollen. Urban granted the request. Up until then the Christian west, like the Christian east abstained from all dairy food during lent.

  • Julia

    I’ve never heard of unfermented wine.
    Wouldn’t that be grape juice and not wine?

    This is another Catholic who knows for sure there has never been a requirement to abstain from alcohol – even during Lent. Posters here who say a friend told them about it are mistaken. However, it is not uncommon for some Catholics to voluntarily abstain from alcohol during Lent.

    A poster also mentioned beer supposedly staving off hunger. In former times beer was thicker and more nutritious. As such, it was probably drunk more often during Lent when only one full meal a day was allowed. There was no limit on liquids.

  • http://adeaconswife@wordpress.com Susan Kehoe

    Kelly,
    Jesus drank wine. It was fermented as grape juice begins to ferment as soon as the juice is extracted. The process for making unfermented “wine” was invented by Thomas Welch around 1869 for his church’s communion service.

  • Kevin Eckstrom

    Folks:

    Now is the appropriate time for me to fall on my own sword. You are indeed correct that this story was not as sharp (or accurate) as it could have been. That is my fault, and not the writer’s.

    Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

    We’ve revised the story, issued a correction, and posted an updated version here: http://bit.ly/fTpcIA

    Thanks,

    Kevin Eckstrom / Religion News Service

  • Julia

    Kevin:

    I see the problem now.

    There are no rules on alcohol for Catholics during Lent, although Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are mandatory days of penance and abstinence

    The word abstinence is used in the rest of the article as referring to alcohol. The Catholic rules for the Western Church only require abstaining from meat. From the article it seems that American Protestants mean specifically abstaining from alcohol. The use of the word word “although” in the citation above indicates the writer is not sure what US Catholics mean by “abstinence”.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Julia,

    My understanding is that Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are both days of strict fasting (one meal a day) not just days of abstinence.


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