Intoxication’s Fake Feeling of Happiness

Here are some numbers: 78% of emerging adults drink; 47% binge drink; 10% drink 5x a week or more; 12% smoke pot weekly; 20% use illicit drugs. Here are some facts: “Alcohol consumption is a leading cause of death among youth, particularly teenagers, and contributes substantially to adolescent motor-vehicle crashes, other traumatic injuries, suicide, date rape, and family and school problems” (113, from Christian Smith, Lost in Transition).

Why? What’s going on? What to do?

Nonusers (22%) are of two sorts: the highly religious sort tends not to explain their nonuse on religion but on health concerns, potential damage, or the desire to control the body; the bad-family-experience sort tends toward concrete stories (“my dad…”).

Occasional substance users (25%): seek to balance fun and responsibility while denouncing hard core drugs; their focus is on self-control as a choice they are empowered to control.

Partiers (22%): drink often and often binge drink. About 50% smoke pot too. 17% have used harder drugs. They think this makes them more social. Alcohol relaxes. “Life without alcohol is boring.” Some say it is driven by stress, blues and boredom. Partiers report casual hook-ups; they take risks of many sorts (fights). The model for the partier is Animal House . Most think they are still under control of themselves. They distinguish themselves from hard drug addicts. Morally they tend to the tolerant side; don’t step on the toes of others. Individualistic ethics.

Recovering partiers (21%): something moves them away from the partiers; tend to be older emerging adults. They realize how out of control they were; or they now have to live a more responsible life; or they see potential damage in their partying. These tend to reduce drunkenness to not so often.

The recovering partiers are a resource of revelation about what is going on: about insecurities, conformity, need to relax and relate, depression and struggles in life and school, hard to control that kind of life.

Addicts: these emerge from the above partiers. The stereotype of a what an addict is fails the evidence. Most have regular jobs; most are in denial; appear normal; they see it as relaxing and normal, like taking a bath or a shower. These folks are “compulsively captive to chemically induced intoxication” (135).

They also sketch recovered addicts (among emerging adults).

All of this must be understood within a social context and not just explain it by individual choice . We need to perceive how they were socialized, what their networks were like, how social institutions work, where this all fits in culture. Decisions emerge in social contexts.

A normative culture teaches young adults that partying is what you do when you leave home and go to college. That script also says you calm that down when you leave college and get a job. Intoxication is part of the cultural script for young adults. Some social institutions benefit from young adult intoxication: global black market of drugs, and that market is the norm for young adults today. Alcohol companies make billions. In 2009 Anheuser Busch spent 4.99 billion on marketing. Follow the money. Shady marketing is part of it.

Furthermore, consumptive materialism shapes alcohol consumption as a kind of consumerism. Identity is marketed with product, people consume to gain that identity. Addiction to drugs is a kind of addiction to consumerism and materialism.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http:augustiniandemocrat.blogspot.com John W Brandkamp

    You have no idea how appropriate this post is to me right now. Thank you Scot.

  • http://cjohnsonsduilyrics.blogspot.com/ Carol Noren Johnson

    This is another excellent post, Dr. McKight. America has bars and cars. In Ireland people walk to pubs, often considered the neighborhood living room, and they don’t drive impaired to go home.

    I also think we have to do a better job of educating people on how to handle stress. If Christian friends/our churches helped us deal with stress maybe we could change the paradigm and not feel that it’s Friday and my time to drink.

    I teach Florida mandated classes for first time DUI offenders. My husband and I have also been hit by a driver who was three times the legal limit for alcohol. Sure we forgive that driver because of Christ’a forgiveness of us, but no one should be driving impaired.

    Whenever someone is killed in a crash, all parties are routinely tested for alcohol and drugs; consider that a bad driver runs into you , is killed, and you had two beers. Guess who goes to jail! Not the dead bad driver-you do!

    Marijuana also impairs driving and responsibility and stays in the system for at least 30 days. It looks like economics is winning on pot, however, with new laws passed. States can benefit from the legal sale of weed.

  • Ed Holm

    the article describes my youth some years ago. Drunk driving was a joke if you didn’t kill anybody. It took a decade beyond high school for me to get it straightened out. There is something wrong in this culture.

  • Michael Teston

    Good movie around some of these themes is “Flight” with Denzel Washington on alcoholism.

  • Joe Canner

    While I don’t at all doubt the negative impact of drinking on health and on society in general, the first paragraph probably needs some further scrutiny: in particular, the statistic “10% drink 5x per week or more”. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans considers two drinks/day for men and one drink/day for women to be “moderate drinking”, with health benefits for some people (albeit with some risks for others).

    Accordingly, it’s not the number of times per week that is important (as the statistic implies) but the number of drinks per day. Of course, many people cannot stop at one or two and it is not advisable to start drinking just for the potential health benefits, but when discussing excessive drinking we should at least be using well-recognized figures for what constitutes “excessive”.

  • Michael

    Joe – the first paragraph also says 47% binge drink. Does that meet your standard for excessive drinking?

  • http://rwtyer.blogspot.com Rory Tyer

    Sure, the numbers could be analyzed further – there’s a large difference between having two G & T’s at a bar downtown every night and having two glasses of wine with a dinner you cooked every night – but anybody familiar with the twenty-something crowd here in Chicago can easily corroborate the authors’ sense that a large majority of this (my!) age group do not practice consistent discernment when it comes to substance abuse. And as Michael pointed out, it’s the binge drinking, rather than the multiple times a week, that matters more, because that often indicates a mindset in which the goal is to get through the work week so that Friday and Saturday nights (which usually also means very early Saturday and Sunday mornings) can be spent going out.

    I think many twenty-something Christians just haven’t been exposed to a consistent, thoughtful, non-alarmist, Kingdom-centered, and wise social ethic of drinking. That’d be a great topic for a book.

  • http://bookwi.se Adam Shields

    The other part of over drinking is the sex. I am about 40 and married. But many of my 20 something single friends do not seem to recognize that hooking up and binge drinking go together.

    I am not opposed to drinking. I know I often have more than 5 drinks a week. But rarely more than 2 in a day. I drink because I like beer and wine.

    But I get seriously concerned when I go to parties with many of my younger friends. The point is drinking to get drunk and get drunk fairly quickly. Of course this is not everyone. But it is some.

    I think Rory is right that when the church’s only response to alcohol is don’t do it at all (even if there isn’t any real biblical support for that) then it is an all or nothing message. You either don’t drink at all or you might as well get plastered. Preaching a message of moderation and responsibility around alcohol is not only biblically more responsible, but I think would also make a long term difference in sexual activity.

  • http://rwtyer.blogspot.com Rory Tyer

    To expand a bit on my comment: such a social ethic would include a heavy dose of history concerning alcohol in America (situating this globally and with respect to the way alcohol and alcoholism is handled / made manifest in other cultures); it would include a discussion of the history of specifically the way various parts of the North American church have interacted with alcohol; it would include rigorous engagement with a few key biblical texts on discernment (such as Paul’s various discussions of eating meat sacrificed to idols and the weaker / stronger brother principles, as well as some holiness texts and worship theology [Rom. 12 and Heb. 12-13 especially]); it would relate the issue of alcohol consumption to a host of other ‘contested’ issues requiring wisdom and discernment; it would probably do a bit of biblical theology on wisdom and discernment; and it would conclude with robust practical guidance on handling alcohol in the various sorts of situations in which it’s normally encountered in North America, as well as guidance on how to effectively teach on wisdom in this area to various sorts of people (from recovering addicts to twenty-something bingers to people who have the self-control to handle it responsibly). And all of this would need to be tied together by the indwelling / empowering of the Spirit and the various differences that makes in a believer’s life.

  • Steve Sherwood

    As adolescence, by most standards, now extends well past the end of high school or even college and into one’s late 20′s, it is not surprising to me that drinking habits once deemed to be the domain of HS/college years have stretched years further. My guess would be that all kinds of recreational habits that folks once “grew out of” after college now continue for almost a decade after. What gets complicated, it seems to me, is trying to figure out causation. Do 20somethings, emerging adults, continue to binge drink because of the experience itself, or because their social relationships now remain very similar to what they were in their late teens and early twenties? A spouse, kids, mortgage and 40-50 hour a week job likely have calming effects and fewer and fewer emerging adults are living anything like that lifestyle.

  • MatthewS

    I was raised in a teetotalling home with a legalism against alcohol. I have chosen to specifically reject that, with the understanding that moderation is good, alcohol itself is neutral, and getting drunk (and other drinking to excess) is bad.

    Someone commented here on JesusCreed a while back that alcohol is like flypaper. I think that is an apt warning.

  • Joe Canner

    Michael #6: Of course 47% binge drinking is excessive; I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. I just wish the statistics were more directly applicable to the actual social and physical risks. As it stands, it appears that someone who drinks a glass of wine every night with dinner is being equated with a binge drinker or a pot smoker. Even the binge drinking statistic is hard to interpret without a frequency: is this a once-a-year episode or once-a-week?

  • Phil Miller

    This subject hits somewhat close to home to me, but I be interested to see these sort of stats for older generations. I don’t know if I buy the underlying assumption that younger people are drinking more than older ones. I think plenty of older adults still drink and get hammered, but they have come up with better ways of hiding it. I know I’m still kind of shocked when I go to professional functions and see people makes asses of themselves. Actually, a few years ago my boss bought my wife and I tickets to go to a charity ball sponsored by a local hospital. I’d say a majority of the people there were doctors. I don’t know if I’ve ever been around so many drunk people in my life.

    I’m also in two bands at the moment. One is a “Christian” band that plays mainly for Christian-type outreach functions – one gig is a homeless shelter, and another is a Celebrate Recovery group, for example. My other band is an R&B/Funk band that plays in many different bars and clubs around town. So a few weeks ago, one of the band members in the R&B band told us he was joining AA because he felt he was drinking too much. A few days later, a guy in the Christian band was pulled over for a DWI, and he confessed to us that he had been dealing with excessive drinking for a long time. This guy is in his 50s, and you’d never think of him as someone with a drinking problem. I don’t think I actually ever saw him drink…

    My point is that I think American’s attitudes toward alcohol transcend age divisions. Younger people may be more open in their abuse, but there’s a lot of damage done by it. I’m not a teetotaler, btw – I have a beer or a glass of wine every now and then, but I feel fortunate that I never got into the whole culture of alcohol glorification. That’s what I see. In the US, we treat alcohol as inherent vice a lot of the time, and because of that there’s a forbidden fruit quality to it.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    I have found the culture regarding drinking on this continent rather bizarre though. It is always seen as “SOMETHING, OOOHH, AAAHH”, and not as something normally done by people. This creates a very unhealthy attitude towards alcohol in general, and among the newly legal drinkers in particular.

    This must be a remnant of prohibitionism, and pelagian / pietistic theologies in particular. The legacy of Burnt-over-district shenanigans, maybe?

  • Matt Edwards

    What are universities doing to discourage this culture?

  • TriciaM

    If anyone’s reading this and wondering how much is too much, have a look at this calculator. http://www.drinkaware.co.uk/tips-and-tools/drink-diary/

    American beer is lager.

    Men should drink no more than 21 units per week and woman no more than 14. I don’t know one teetotal Christian here in the UK so we talk regularly about this topic. Recent research shows that, in the UK, middle aged people drink more than teenagers and young adults.

  • Phil Miller

    What are universities doing to discourage this culture?

    For about 12 years after graduation, I lived in a college town for a university that was consistently voted one of the top party schools in the US throughout the years. I’ve seen the administration try to do all sorts of things to discourage underage and binge drinking, but, really, I don’t think anything they’ve done or can do will be that successful. First, once a student turns 21 and lives off campus, what can the university do?

    I really think it takes reaching out to students on a more personal level. When I was a campus pastor, we would do various things. We would have a late night coffee house/open mic every other weekend. It’s hard to walk the line between not be being judgmental and showing students you’re genuinely concerned.

  • Gary Lyn

    Lots of interesting and help information and data here, but then comes the statement:
    A normative culture teaches young adults that partying is what you do when you leave home and go to college. That script also says you calm that down when you leave college and get a job. Intoxication is part of the cultural script for young adults.

    This is not an attempt to minimize the problems that can be associated with some of this information, but I ask: Where is the evidence of this normative culture that teaches partying is what you do? Where is the evidence of the script? This just seems to be some cultural assumptions that we accept to be true, and yet, there is no evidence of this, and how can it be a normative cultural script when a great majority of the young people are not following it.

    I don’t want to minimize but I don’t want to be alarmist either. Both of those options keep us from identifying clearly the problem and how we might address it!!

  • Kenny Johnson

    I guess I’m a recovering partier. I abused drugs and alcohol in my later teens. Before I turned 21, I pretty much stopped all recreational drug use (mostly marijuana) and binge-drank on occasion. This was all before I became a practicing Christian, but I think even if I had not found the Church, I would have had a similar path…. which is that I now rarely drink (maybe a couple times a year) and when I do, I only drink 1-2 drinks… mostly wine and beer.

  • TJJ

    It is a huge problem full of very bad consequences, sometimes very tragic, and the mainstream culture could care less! Thus, very little to nothing is done about it.

  • Marshall

    Rory #7:there’s a large difference between having two G & T’s at a bar downtown every night and having two glasses of wine with a dinner you cooked every night

    Not sure that’s true from a fake-happiness, medical-dependency, Christ-avoiding point of view.

  • tanyam

    Got it. Getting drunk is bad.

    I think we need to spend a little more time understanding why young people do it. Does it offer shared experiences, are there times when young people take care of one another of one another after a bad night, and that, and those war stories, are bonding?

    Alcohol greases the social wheels. If you have no idea what to say in a social situation, it gives you something to do, it makes everything a little funny — and well, that’s fun.

    Older adults preaching about consumerism — I don’t think they’re going to actually touch this. I can’t find it, but somebody did this sort of research a couple of years back –helping us understand what is the actual reward system in drinking. Incredibly helpful for those who work and care about young people.
    We also need to grapple with scripture — which sees the problem of drunkenness, but Psalm 104 reminds us that “he has given . . . wine that makes the heart glad.” Like other things we consume, and consume to excess, there is something good in there. The problem is the “too-muchness.” Let’s deconstruct why, about all pleasures, we don’t seem to know when enough is enough.


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