Readers 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.
The 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.