“Those Damn Christians”– Observations from “Bill W and Dr Bob,” a play by Samuel Shem and Janet Surrey, performed by Coho Productions.

aaReaders will know by now that the purpose of this blog is to see what people of Christian faith can learn from our brothers and sisters the recovering addicts.  I have written about how the “Gospel of Bill W”—my shorthand for spiritual lessons of the Twelve Step recovery programs—can teach Christians about a deep acceptance of our own brokenness and our need for “salvation,” about the advantages of evangelization based on “attraction rather than promotion,” about the slow and steady process of “sanctification for the rest of us,” and other such themes.  Recently, though, I had a chance to see the whole thing conversely, ie the view of the Christians as seen by the original members of Alcoholics Anonymous. It is not an especially flattering view, and in this I expect that we Christians can learn some things about ourselves.

Through a serendipitous set of circumstances a few months ago, it happened that my business partners and I were given an opportunity to sponsor a local production of the Off-Broadway play “Bill W and Dr Bob,” the story of the alcoholic suffering, friendship and recovery program of Bill Wilson and Dr Robert Smith, the two men who “founded” Alcoholics Anonymous in the 1930’s.  The story has been well-chronicled elsewhere, including Susan Cheever’s excellent biography My Name is Bill.  But the play, written by Samuel Shem and Janet Surrey, sticks pretty close to the version set out in the text of the book Alcoholics Anonymous, often known as the “Big Book” of AA, written anonymously but now known to have been largely the handiwork of Bill W.

Bill_Wilson,_Founder_AAThe short version is this: Bill Wilson, an egotistical, energetic and entrepreneurial stockbroker from New York is repeatedly defeated by alcohol. Despite his own familial experience with alcoholic disasters, he is unable to manage his drinking, and so, again and again, he loses jobs, opportunities, friendships and very nearly his marriage because of alcohol.  Finally, after years and years, and a half dozen crushing disasters in his life, he has a kind of spiritual awakening in a asylum hospital bed, and becomes convinced that the only way he can stay sober is to try to help other suffering drinkers.  After an often amusing series of failures in his efforts to find and help alcoholics, he stumbles upon a washed up surgeon on Akron, Ohio, Dr Robert Smith, who is not only a confirmed drunkard but a confirmed—and determined—atheist.  Dr Bob’s wife Ann, devout and faithful, tries again and again to save him through prayer and the intervention of her Christian friends in the “Oxford Group,” a revivalist organization popular in those days, whose purpose was to reach out to the un-churched and offer them the Gospel.

Now, Dr Bob—not an unkind or uncharitable man, even when drinking—is repeatedly put off by the air of moral superiority that he finds in Christians. This is epitomized when, finally desperate enough in his alcoholism to agree to attend an Oxford Group fellowship meeting, hears one man, named “T Henry,” declare that, as to the “four absolutes” of the Oxford Group—absolute humility, absolute purity, absolute honesty, and absolute love—he “pretty much has it in the bag” as to at least three of them, with “absolute love” being the only “absolute” that he has failed to master.  The audience to the play sees Dr Bob’s incredulous face as he hears T Henry spout about his purity, honesty and humility, and we are with Bob as we sit dubiously wondering how someone who claims absolute purity and honesty can also be absolutely humble.

The theme of God and religion runs all through the play, and indeed ran all through the early days of AA, causing as much disagreement and controversy as any single subject.  Though it is not clear in the play, Bill and—eventually—Bob, too, comes to see that the gift of sobriety is a spiritual miracle, and that only by surrendering to something greater than one’s self can the suffering alcoholic be released—and that this must be a key part of any recovery program.  Eventually, the founders of AA settled upon the idea of a Higher Power and even termed it “God” in the first several of the Twelve Steps. But they also realized that many alcoholics had had awful experiences with organized religion, and that their new program of recovery needed to find a balance between stressing the spiritual underpinnings of recovery as they had experienced it, on the one hand, and yet not forcing upon these poor souls religious constructs that had so much baggage for them.  And so the architects of AA worked out the idea that each recovering alcoholic should decide for himself who, or what, would be the bearer and source of this “Higher Power.”  Now, this decision has come in for more than a little criticism from certain Christian quarters over the decades—though the most remarkable fact is that the vast majority of Christian churches have always recognized the hand of God in AA’s way of recovery, and have supported AA and other Twelve Step fellowships in various ways, most often by offering space for such groups to meet.

But in the early days, none of this was sure, or certain; after all, these guys were making it up as they went along: they had no roadmap except their own experience.

It is not so much the resolution of the “God question” in early AA, however, that I here want to explore, but rather the way in which the Christians were—and often still are—perceived by alcoholics and addicts struggling to find answers for their brokenness.  In short, those who are at the end of their rope and desperate for answers because they have been so completely defeated by addiction are often put off by two things about Christians.

First is the attitude of moral superiority that Christians often carry, especially in relation to someone like a still-suffering alcoholic or addict.  The Christian too often acts as if the addict is simply weak, lacking willpower, or short of moral capital; in sum, that the alcoholic or addict is just not a very good person.  Now, we alcoholics and addicts will be the first to admit that, in our disease, we very often act badly, do stupid and destructive and immoral things, that we are veritable tornadoes of chaos and selfishness.  And yet, we still know—and Christians who read their Scriptures should know—that, at our core, we addicts have the capacity to be good people, or at least redeemed people, with a life of happiness, joy, freedom and service.  For Christianity—and Judaism long before that—has always taught that all of us are created in the image and likeness of God, and so are of infinite and precious worth.  Surely if Jesus himself lived out any lesson over and over again, it is that God has special and forgiving love for the broken, the sinner, the outcast. But the attitude of the Christians too often is more Pharisaical than Christian in this idea that the practicing addict is simply morally deficient.

The second mistake that Christians make in interaction with practicing alcoholics or addicts is the simplistic and off-putting attitude that if that addict would simply accept and trust Christ, all his problems would go away.  As we see in the play Bill W and Dr Bob, the Christians are the last ones who “get” that what is ailing the alcoholic is not simply that he is not a Christian. In the play, Ann and her Christian friends pray and pray that Dr Bob will be saved.  But as the audience in the play sees—and as 75 years of experience since the founding of AA has shown—what is needed for the practicing addict is a combination of a vital spiritual awakening and practical guidance from other addicts about how to climb out of the gutter.  Indeed, in the play, it is only when Bill and Bob figure out that what they need in order to recover, and stay recovered, and what other alcoholics will need, is to be heard by another someone who has “been there,” someone who has over and over again been defeated in his attempts to stop drinking, despite all efforts, prayer and willpower.

The idea that what the alcoholic or addict needs is simply to “become a Christian” makes no more sense to someone who understands addiction than the idea that, say, a person suffering from cancer simply needs to become a Christian to be healed.

Now my brother and sisters in the evangelical world can rest assured that nothing I have written here is meant to denigrate vital spiritual conversions: I have had two: once at age 18 when I recommitted my life to Christ, and once at age 34 when I surrendered my addictions to God and crawled on my prodigal knees back to my Father’s house.  I know and love the power of Christ to save those in distress and darkness, whether that happens through a Damascus Road-style conversion or a long, slow metanoia.  But I also have seen, for over twenty years now, that, for most practicing addicts, the spiritual experience they need usually begins not with someone preaching Jesus to them, but rather with another addict sharing his or her experience, strength and hope in recovery.  God, after all, is big enough to step out of the way while this miracle occurs: for, although God is the author of all miracles, God does not need to take credit for all of them.   For some of them—say, for the alcoholic or addict getting up out of the gutter with the help of another addict—God is content to stay behind the scenes… to stay, in a word, anonymous.

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About Kelly Clark

I am a convinced, if not very virtuous, Christian, recovering from alcohol abuse and many other addictions, and have been working a program of recovery consistently for over nineteen years-- since I blew my life up with chaos and crimes and hurt many people I loved. I am active in 12 Step Fellowships, sponsoring several men and attending several meetings each week. I expect to finish a Masters of Divinity in the Fall of 2011, and soon will begin a discernment process in my church about possible ordained ministry. In my day job, I am a trial attorney, representing adult victims of childhood sexual abuse.
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8 Responses to “Those Damn Christians”– Observations from “Bill W and Dr Bob,” a play by Samuel Shem and Janet Surrey, performed by Coho Productions.

  1. Tobie says:

    Thank you for this magnificent post.

  2. Castimonia says:

    You are 100% spot on with your assessment of “most” Christians. In Sex Addiction recovery, it is MUCH, MUCH worse. It’s one thing to be addicted to an external chemical, but addicted to sex??? There are so many Christians suffering from a hidden sexual addiction and very few of them want to come forward for help because of how they might be treated or looked upon by their fellow Christians. I was just speaking to a Christian brother in recovery on how many times we “wanted” to confess and get help, but the cost seemed to high! Now, as a ministry leader in the field of sexual addiction recovery, I openly speak about this subject and challenge other men to come forward and get help. Some do, some do not. What Alcoholics experienced in the early days of AA, Sex Addicts are experiencing today. As the saying goes, “only and addict can help an addict.” Well in my case, “only a Christian addict, can help another Christian addict.” I admit my faults regularly and help other Christian (and some non-Christian) men through the journey of recovery.

    I believe EVERY Christian (not just addicts) should work a 12-step program in order to practice surrender, humility, and complete reliance on Jesus Christ.

    • kelly clark says:

      Thanks, Castimonia. I agree that we can walk into 12 Step meetings and talk freely about things that we might not be able to talk about in church groups: sexual struggles being at the top of the list. This says a lot to me about how far we have to go in the churches to become a place of true and safe fellowship of the broken.

  3. Todd says:

    Thank you for this post. As a Christian since I was a child, my largest obstacle to recovery was my own stubborn surety that if only I had been a better person, a better Christ-follower, this wouldn’t have happened to me. As a side note, a theatre company that I am involved in will be producing this play soon. I am interested in how the community outside of AA responded to your production?

  4. Aloha! Are you familiar with the work of Dick B. (www.DickB.com) on the Christian upbringings of Bill W. and Dr. Bob, about the Christian message Bill W.’s “spiritual sponsor, Ebby T., brought him from “A First Century Christian Fellowship,” and about the original Akron A.A. “Christian fellowship” founded by Bill W. and Dr. Bob in 1935? See, for example: Dick B., “The Conversion of Bill W.: More on the Creator’s Role in Early A.A. (http://dickb.com/conversion.shtml); and Dick B. and Ken B., “Dr. Bob of Alcoholics Anonymous: His Excellent Training in the Good Book as a Youngster in Vermont” (http://dickb.com/drbobofaa.shtml).

    As to the Christianity of A.A. cofounder William Griffith Wilson, here are a couple of points:

    1. Frederica Templeton, archivist of Burr and Burton Academy (known as “Burr and Burton Seminary” when Bill W. attended from 1909 to 1913) and author of the official history of Burr and Burton Academy [“The Castle in the Pasture: Portrait of Burr and Burton Academy (Manchester, Vermont: Burr and Burton Academy, 2005)], told Dick B. and me during our research trip to Vermont in June 2008 that Bill Wilson had taken a required, four-year Bible study course at Burr and Burton Seminary.

    2. Bill W. himself stated in his autobiography that he was president of the Young Men’s Christian Association at Burr and Burton [Bill W., “My First 40 Years” (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2000), 29].

    3. Looking back on:

    (a) his discussion with Dr. Silkworth about the “Great Physician” during Bill’s third visit to Towns Hospital in September 1934 [Dale Mitchel, “Silkworth: The Little Doctor Who Loved Drunks” (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2002), 44];

    (b) his “spiritual sponsor” Ebby T.’s having told Bill in late November 1934 that he (Ebby) had “got religion” (code words for having been born again) and having shared with Bill the message of “A First Century Christian Fellowship”;

    (c) his trip to Calvary Mission around December 7, 1934, during which Bill had accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior; and

    (d) his fourth visit to Towns Hospital December 11-18, 1934, during which Bill declared in his autobiography that he had thought “But what of the Great Physician?” [Bill W., “My First 40 Years,” 145] and had said to himself “‘I’ll do anything, anything at all. If there be a Great Physician, I’ll call on him.’ And had “cried out, ‘If there be a God, let him show himself.'” [Bill W., “My First 40 Years,” 145]. And his statement that: “Suddenly my room blazed with an indescribably white light. . . . ‘This,’ I thought, ‘must be the great reality. The God of the preachers.’ . . .” Followed by his statement: “I thanked my God who had given me a glimpse of His absolute Self.”

    Look back on those (and other) major life events, Bill W. stated in his autobiography: “For sure I’d been born again.” [Bill W., “My First 40 Years,” 147].

    As to the Christianity of A.A. cofounder Robert Holbrook Smith, M.D., here are a couple of statements from the A.A. General Service Conference-approved biography of Dr. Bob: (a) “(Dr. Bob was always positive about his faith, Clarence said. If someone asked him a question about the program, his usual response was: ‘What does it say in the Good Book?'” [“DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers (New York, N.Y.: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1980), 144]. (b) “He [Dr. Bob] read the Bible from cover to cover three times and could quote favorite passages verbatim.” [“DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers,” 310].

    By the way, as to the authority of the playwrights to comment on the Christianity of A.A.’s cofounders, you might note that: (1) Stephan Bergman, coauthor of the play, describes himself as “a Jewish doctor” [http://harvardmagazine.com/2009/07/if-you-love-rats (accessed 3/25/13)]; and (2) his wife and coauthor of the play, Janet Surrey, is a “Buddhist teacher” according to the official Web site for the play [http://www.billwanddrbob.com/whoswho.htm; accessed 3/25/13].

    For more on the roles played by God, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Bible in early A.A.’s astonishing successes, please see: http://www.DickB.com, http://www.ChristianRecoveryCoalition.com, http://www.ChristianRecoveryRadio.com, and http://www.DrBob.info.

    In GOD’s love,

    Dick B.’s son, Ken

  5. Tamarah Jane Pringle says:

    Kelly- My background is Lutheran/Episcopal and I have never looked to His Holy Eminence as my spiritual leader. That said, I am increasingly affected by Pope Francis and his notion of leadership. I almost think he is single-handedly extinguishing that stance of moral superiority by his humble and loving gestures towards those less fortunate. Maybe somebody at the top needed to do something somewhat radical to set the tone for the rest of us. To me, this looks like genuine leadership: walking the walk.

  6. Ken B. says:

    Aloha to you, Kelly, from Maui, Hawaii! I wondered if you prayed to GOD in the name of Jesus Christ before you launched this article–specifically about using the word “D…” in the title of the article (which is the first people see when they come across the article on the Internet)? In GOD’s love, Dick B.’s son, Ken “ChristianRecoveryCoalition dot com”

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