Book Review – Alcoholics Anonymous

Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th Edition

Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 2001

It has been three and a half years since I first realized that one of my congregants was an alcoholic.  I didn’t discover this immediately, of course.  It took months and months for the full picture to emerge through a family crisis that culminated in their estranged spouse’s death.  I didn’t think that anything was out of the ordinary.  I figured people were overreacting.  Only late did I come to the realization that someone can be an alcoholic for 60-some years of their life, that alcoholism is not simply for the young or the middle-aged.

Purely by coincidence,  four years ago I first visited the Rescue Mission here in town.  I’ve since taught there once a week, giving the men in the year-long residential recovery program from drugs and alcohol addiction the opportunity to ask questions about the Bible, Christianity, and the life of faith.  A little over a year ago I began doing the same thing at the women’s equivalent in town.

Four and a half years ago I began visiting the medium-security wing of our county jail once a week, visiting with the guys there to offer Christian instruction and the opportunity for them to direct conversations about the faith.  I learned that over 80% of the inmates in the county jail are there for drug and/or alcohol-related crimes.  Addiction is a big deal.  And it has become a big element in my weekly ministry.  So it is rather embarrassing to admit that I only just recently read the Big Book, as it is known in Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.

I’ll say for starters that I believe that AA and the Twelve Steps can be very helpful and effective in guiding a person towards a life free from alcohol or drug addiction.  From that perspective, my opinions of the book itself are rather meaningless.  If reading the book and applying the steps can help someone, then they should read the book and follow the steps and disregard what I’m about to say.

My biggest beef with the book is the way it effectively downplays spirituality and religion and God while at the same time claiming that this is really the pivotal issue in recovery.  In order to appeal to as many people as possible, the Book Book emphasizes a relationship with God or a higher power as the participant has come to know that entity.  In other words, while the religious component for the AA founders was the Judeo-Christian God, they aren’t going to allow that particular to stand in the way of someone’s sobriety.  The famed statement is that you could make a doorknob your higher power, so long as you believe that the doorknob has the desire and ability to help you maintain recovery.

This is the critical aspect of the program.  You can’t achieve and maintain sobriety on your own, and nobody can do it for you, but your trust is that a higher power can and will do this with you.  It seems grossly intellectually dishonest to me to make spirituality a central tenet yet pretend that the spirituality really doesn’t matter.  It’s more of a mind-game than a truly spiritual experience.  If the program is dependent on a higher power that is personal enough to know an individual and have an expressed interest in their recovery, it automatically disqualifies a great number of the world’s religions.  And, frankly, it disqualifies the doorknob.  I can’t be at peace with pretend spirituality, or spirituality as a mean’s to an end.  A higher power who is interested in someone’s recovery probably has a more far-reaching interest in that person’s life than just their sobriety.

As a whole, the book reminds me most of the Quran.  It is chock full of anecdotes and other efforts to convince the reader that this is the real thing.  The difference is that I believe what the Big Book says whereas I don’t believe what the Quran says.

The style of the book is intentionally anachronistic.  The original writings of the original founders have been left intact.  Many of the testimonies included in the book are also from a bygone era.  Efforts have been made to include more recent testimonies, but these seem to date from the 70’s or perhaps early 80’s at the latest.  Testimonies are inclusive of both genders as well as heterosexual and homosexual backgrounds.  The theme is consistent – we can do it and you can too if you just follow these steps.

When I teach at the jail and the Rescue Mission, I make it clear that Christianity and recovery are not one in the same.  It is possible to be a drunk Christian.  It is also possible to be a damned sober person.  AA and the Big Book are primarily about recovery from alcohol and drugs.  Christianity is primarily about God’s victory on our behalf through the incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and promised return of his Son, Jesus.  Confusing the two seems to cause confusion eventually, as I know multiple people who continue in their sobriety more or less, but who have become disenchanted with the faith that was pushed so strongly on them, and that they grasped at so eagerly for their recovery.  If you or someone you know struggles with drug or alcohol addiction, read the Big Book.  But don’t quit reading the Bible.  Go to AA meetings but go to church as well.  God desires your recovery but He desires so much more than that as well.  While that may not seem possible, or may appear pointless to the person still in their addiction, it will become clearer as you are led to sobriety.

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