Lent, Beer, Power, Temptation & Rites of Passage
“Beer… Now there’s a temporary solution.” – Homer Simpson
In a world of unsustainable solutions, quick fixes and with much ‘band- aiding’ of symptoms, the temptation narrative of Jesus in Matthew 4:1-11 invites us to the alternative. It is an invitation to go to the roots of our deepest problems but also to the sources of our true identity.
Jesus enters the story as a man who has just experienced a powerful affirmation of his identity at the outset of his ministry. At his baptism in the previous passage, the heavens are ‘ripped asunder’ and a dove descends upon him with the voice, “This is my beloved”.
I don’t know if you have ever experienced this kind of affirmation of your own identity? I think of it as being like a ‘Lion King’ moment where Simba has an experience of hearing from the Spirit of his Father in the midst of doubt and uncertainty and is reminded that he is indeed a King. To have an experience of knowing who one is and what one is meant to be can be a powerful animating force for both change and direction in ones’ life.
Parker Palmer in his book “The Active Life” explores the idea that ‘The closer one gets to the light, the stronger the shadow.’ A strong identity is powerful and important, but such power can just as easily be used to abuse and to exclude. We have seen this with countless ‘divinely inspired’ leaders and cultures through history, often with tragic and violent results.
So like Simba in the Lion King, Jesus must then face a true test. It is the same Spirit that blesses Jesus with this sense of identity that then drives him out into the wild to face his demons. The work and movement of the Spirit, whilst often described in the ‘feminine’ in scripture, is not always a nurturing and protective force in the way we often associate with ‘the feminine’. True identity and spirituality is more than a superficial or easily experienced happiness or peace. The Spirit drives us into hard places to face hard truths.
Ched Myers suggests that this story is archetypal of a right of passage in traditional cultures; akin to an initiation ‘walkabout’ for indigenous Australian’s or the ‘Spirit Quest’ of American Indian’s. One leaves the safety and security of the tribe and learns how to use and manage ones’ power in order to survive. Often it involves finding a connection to a totem to guide one through life’s journey.
Affirming his full humanity, there are no short cuts to Jesus’ growth and development. Like his own ancient elders ( Moses and Elijah), Jesus does his 40 days fasting in the wilderness in order to experience the ‘bright lights and dark shadows’ of his own culture.
As a youth worker in a wealthy, Western, predominantly white context, I have often lamented our loss of meaningful rites of passage for the development of personal and cultural identity. Those that we do have often celebrate the attainment of the legal drinking age or involve adventures, risks and social bonding closely associated with the excessive consumption of alcohol.
In this first week of Lent I noted that our new State government, has chosen to extend the previous governments ban on new liquor licenses in the heart of my city of Melbourne. The liberalisation of alcohol laws had been touted as necessary for Melbourne’s ‘coming of age’ as a sophisticated, modern, cultured city. Instead it has produced what the Premier himself describes as ‘Beer Barns’ for mass alcohol consumption through which it would seem surviving the hedonistic and violent jungle of Melbourne streets late at night has become our wilderness rite.
It is as true for Ancient Israel as contemporary Melbourne that the culture we strive and hope for and the culture we end up participating in are often in contrast and tension.
The ‘40 days’ is a strong narrative connection to the cultural memory of the Hebrew people’s and their sojourn in the wilderness post liberation from slavery in Egypt. If the wilderness is the site of Israels’ unique identity and calling as God’s people of freedom it is also a place where the people wrestle with and ultimately reject this identity; a site of cultural failure, denial and re-enslavement.
When I was looking to connect the home brewing of beer with a Bible study I was playing with the title, “Drinking from the Well of Beer”, based on a rather loose bit of proof texting of Numbers 21:6. (Beer in the Hebrew simply means ‘well’ as I understand it). The passage is significant however because it is presented as a place where, while a recalcitrant people grumble about their lack of resource, their thirst is quenched by a gracious God (with water not beer!)
Each of the specific temptations of Jesus by the devil is a contest over the wrong turnings and wrong handling of power of his ancient people in the wilderness. He is confronted with the temptation of economic power, (bread into stone); political power (kingdoms of the world and their splendor) and the power of the temple in the ideology and ideas of his people. (Being thrown off the temple was a supposed punishment for blasphemy).
In each instance, Jesus responds with the ancient words from the wilderness stories that point to the Creator Spirits’ alternative to an ‘Egyptian’ or ‘imperial’ way of living and being. Many of the problems of today require more than temporary solutions but a serious journeying into their deep cultural roots and our best religious (religio = to bind) healing resources. This is why study of the Bible is still a vitally important and prophetic act in Western culture. It contains our deepest wilderness stories, our dreaming, if you will, which is forgotten at our cultural peril.
Last month I made a trip to Central Australia and Alice Springs. Coming from inner city Melbourne, this was a wilderness experience for me, and not simply in a geographical sense. Alice is a profoundly contested space in present Australian cultural identity. It starkly embodies the huge gaps between indigenous and non-indigenous people in terms of life expectancy, housing and conditions. A government ‘intervention’ for which the Human Rights Act has been suspended also highlights the present differences between the cultures before the law.
As I “Take up Beer for Lent” in the midst of Melbourne’s drinking problems, I recognise that beer is also a huge temptation, symptom and cause of problems in the Northern Territory as today’s article on drinking culture and so-called ‘animal bars’ reveals. (2 of them among the top 3 most economically successful pubs in the country I was told whilst there).
As part of my work I had come to Alice to attend a National Indigenous Cricket Tournament. During a meeting an indigenous elder proposed we should work harder on getting much needed sponsorship from certain beer companies who liberally support mainstream cricket. He said his family made regular ‘contributions’ to the industry and so were entitled to receive something back. Other elders would not go anywhere near it, such is the devastation of the industry upon their own families. I was mindful of the temptation narrative, the powers at work and the truth that each voice represented.
Within moments of leaving the meeting, our car was forced to stop to interrupt a violent, alcohol-fuelled confrontation between a couple in the middle of the street. For her safety the bleeding woman came and sat next to me in the backseat of our locked vehicle. As we awaited the police to take her to hospital she screamed at her partner outside in an ancient, traditional language. In that moment I was powerfully aware of both the strength of a spirit of a cultural identity, much older and enduring than my own, but equally of its suffering and captivity to a spirit of contemporary violence.
During the first weekend of Lent I had an equally powerful but different wilderness experience.
It involved journeying out to the far reaches of Western Victoria for a cricket match with some of the families who are descendants of Australia’s first national touring sporting team, the Indigenous Cricket Team of 1868.
The place, story and annual cricket match hold much meaning for the participants. Perhaps it was the mix of this and some bonding around the fire over a few beers after the game that, on the edge of a river, surrounded by darkness, one of the elders started to open up about some of his cultural knowledge, about traditional spirits and darkness and the importance of keeping those young and vulnerable close to the camp and to the fire.
He told of the importance of totems in guiding him through life and the land, as well and his often dramatic encounters with spirits. He talked of destructive spirits being created when there was unresolved injustice or no respect for ancient protocols and law. He spoke of the physical power these forces had had amongst the generations of his mob.
Interestingly his scariest personal spiritual encounters and contests had occurred around the old Christian Mission sites where people had been re-located by the imposed colonial law, dating back to the original cricket team. In his mind these were the places where the culture had become most ‘confused’ and where many bad things had taken place. (The word used for Satan in this passage is ‘diabolos’ or ‘confuser’.) He spoke of the need to put things right in order to quell the power of these spirits. Young and old were gathered around the fire, hanging on every word.
Thomas Keating was a Trappist monk, (who are also famous for their beer brewing traditions.) He was also a great spiritual teacher who once wrote that Lent is a time of “confrontation with the false self.”
We too comfortably live as Homer Simpson types in a culture where we are seemingly addicted to ‘temporary solutions’ in order to make living more bearable. We too easily cave to the temptation to diminish our vulnerability by consuming beer, people, things and stuff in ways that abuse our power and our world. Under all those layers we too easily lose our identity.
In the wilderness and at the margins of our empire, stripped of our pretensions, we might remember who and what we really are. Remember the roots of the deepest problems we face. Remember the power of the sources of God’s justice and gracious redemption. That’s why I want to go ‘Drinking from the Well of Beer!” this Lent.