A friend of mine, let's call him Bob, was a faithful and lifelong churchgoer. He sang hymns with gusto, responded to the liturgy, insisted that his kids be baptized, and mingled at coffee hour. He even served in various leadership roles within the church. At the same time, Bob's life revolved around drinking alcohol.
Eventually Bob lost his job, and was on the brink of losing his marriage as a result of his addiction. Then he started attending Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). He found a sponsor, someone who had been "in recovery" for years and could teach him not only how to avoid alcohol but also how to do the introspective work he would need to stay sober. It took a year or two, but eventually Bob stopped going to church. AA was the place where he connected with his "Higher Power." AA was the place where he experienced fellowship and accountability. AA was the place where he knew himself as both broken and beloved.
Bob is not alone, and Kent Dunnington's new book, Addiction and Virtue: Beyond the Models of Disease and Choice (InterVarsity Press) provides a way to understand and respond to Bob's experience. The book offers theological and philosophical insights into the causes of addiction, challenging our tendency to blame substance abuse either on autonomous choices alone or on medical conditions beyond one's control. Dunnington generally supports the 12-step model of overcoming addiction, but critiques the theology implicit within this model. He disputes the idea that we can construct a "Higher Power" rather than recognize God's authority. And he looks beyond the narrow identities these programs assign to addicts: They are not, as the customary AA greeting would have it, mere "alcoholics," but rather children of God, beloved and redeemed.
Although Dunnington's prose is lucid and his insights helpful, many readers will find the philosophical portions heavy going. But those who persevere will appreciate his critique of our culture, and his proposal that Christian worship offers the only adequate response to the seductions of drink and drug.
Dunnington uses Aristotle and Aquinas to provide an account of addiction as habit—something between "instinct" and "disposition"—rather than a product of biological predestination or bad choices. If we understand addiction as habit, then the life of recovery becomes "a life of re-habituation rather than merely a life of repetition of acts of abstinence." In other words, recovery entails replacing bad habits with good ones—habits conducive to virtuous, meaningful lives. For Dunnington, the bad habit of addiction results from our culture's loss of transcendent meaning and purpose. Only the church, by preaching re-habituation towards the worship of God, can illuminate the path of true healing and renewal.
Unfortunately, in Dunnington's view, AA has "essentially replaced the church as the place that addicted persons go to recover … largely because of the way in which its format and method invite and demand transformative friendships." Without advocating the organization's therapeutic model, he holds out hope that AA might remind the church what it takes to create a transparent, humble community. If the church incorporates theologically sound aspects of the 12-step model, it can become a place that offers Bob, and others like him, a way to overcome addiction through worship of the triune God in community. Dunnington's work neither demonizes the addicted person nor excuses the abuse of alcohol and drugs. But it points the way toward compassion for the individual, transformation of the culture (including the church), and recovery through the fullness of the Christian gospel.
Amy Julia Becker is the author of A Good and Perfect Gift: Faith, Expectations, and a Little Girl Named Penny (Bethany House).
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Additional Christianity Today articles on addiction and worship include:
Should Christians Smoke Medical Marijuana? | Observers weigh in on pot morality. (June 14, 2011)
Rehab Revival: Evangelism Among Addicts Seeing Success | Efforts bear a mixed public blessing. (April 11, 2011)
The Rapper in Rehab | Rising star Lecrae says he was addicted to self; now Jesus is his "drug of choice." (March 15, 2011)
Can't Get No Satisfaction | Addiction is the spiritual disease of our time. (December 9, 2010)
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