While he knows that millions of teetotalling Christians disagree, Father William Miller believes he can make a theological case for the moderate consumption of beer through a simple use of evangelistic math.
“Beer is the universal beverage. If you want to sit down and have a friendly, personal conversation with about 90 percent of the people in this world then that is probably going to take place over a beer, that is if you want them to open up and level with you,” said Miller, who is — logically enough — the author of a chatty book called “The Beer Drinker’s Guide to God.”
“Think about it. If you’re serious about talking to ordinary people about God, are you telling me that you don’t want a chance to sit down and connect with about 90 percent of the world?”
Miller is aware that it’s easier for an Episcopal priest to make this case than it would be for clergy in many, but not all, doctrinally conservative Protestant flocks. In an admirable demonstration of restraint, he resisted the temptation to open his book with the old proverb that wherever two or three Episcopalians are gathered together, “you will always find a fifth.” Instead, he went with Catholic wisdom from St. Bridget of Kildare: “I should like a great lake of the finest ale for the King of Kings.”
Then again, the great Protestant Reformer John Calvin took part of his salary in barrels of wine and the feisty German theologian Martin Luther was, truth be told, a German Lutheran who wrote classic hymn texts — such as “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” — to fit the melodies of popular drinking songs.
Since Miller grew up steeped in the traditions of the Church of Christ in Texas, he is very familiar with conservative arguments against the use of alcohol and he is quick to quote biblical injunctions against drunkenness. This is handy since, in addition to leading St. Michael and All Angel’s Episcopal Church in Kauai, Hawaii, he is part owner of a bar — called Padre’s — in Marfa, a West Texas community so edgy and artsy that, despite it’s tiny size, it has been granted its own National Public Radio station.
The bottom line for Miller is that alcohol is part God’s creation and can be used in ways that are sacramental and glorious, as well as sinful and depraved. He is convinced that Jesus would, as his first miracle, have turned water into beer if that particular wedding party had been held in Texas.
“God has entrusted us with many very good gifts that can be abused and that, if we make the wrong choices, can even be turned into addictions,” said Miller, who has long worked with Alcoholics Anonymous to help parishioners and others wrestle with alcohol abuse. When doing premarital counseling, the priest is also open about the fact that he is divorced.
“Food, money, wine, sex, sports and even religion are all good things — God made them all — but they can easily be twisted and turned into obsessions that wreck people’s lives,” he said.
“When we are facing these kinds of issues we have to be honest and deal with all of that. We have to be tough and tell the whole and holy truth.”
While he is quick to joke about the theological significance of beer, Miller is convinced that a serious issue is looming in the background.
Far too often, he said, religious believers are less than honest with themselves as they consistently try to divide their daily lives into things that are real and things that are religious. He noted this wisdom from the late Johnny Cash: “I am not a Christian artist. I am an artist who is a Christian.”
“We have driven unnecessary wedges between spirituality and service, politics and piety, worship and work,” argues Miller, early in his book. “We have drawn lines in the sand between the sacred and the secular, the profound and the profane. We have opted for either the baptismal font or the watering hole, for approaching the altar rail or bellying up to the bar. We assume we have to distill out the goofy to reveal what is godly.
“God makes no distinctions. God made it all, blesses it all and uses it all to further God’s living purposes in this world.”