As a fan of the Mockingbird blog, over the past few months, I have seen occasional references to a book written by John Zahl entitled Grace in Addiction: The Good News of Alcoholics Anonymous for Everybody (2012). As a Christian psychologist, this book piqued my curiosity. Certainly, addictions are of interest to psychologists though many of us do not work intentionally or exclusively with addicts. Furthermore, I confess that despite my knowing that Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) has “a Big Book” and “12 steps”, I really did not know much about it and I was hoping this book could shed some light.
Zahl is a recovering alcoholic and Episcopal minister. In part, it seems that he wrote this book to examine the “wall of separation between AA and the Christian church” (p. 16). Part of the divide, it appears, is grounded in the relative emphases that are placed upon a Christian’s ability to move toward God in many churches versus the sense of powerlessness discussed in 12 step groups and certain strands of Christianity, particularly Reformation Christianity. Throughout the book, Zahl tries to explore these themes. For example, Zahl discusses the concept of the “bound will” (p. 22), which Martin Luther addressed compellingly in On the Bondage of the Will (1525). Though alcoholics are often deeply aware of their bound wills, the problem is not isolated to addicts, but to all people.
After brief introductory comments, the reader is introduced to the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and similar redemptive groups. For those unfamiliar with the 12 steps, this book provides a clear description of each of them. Zahl does an admirable job of not only highlighting the steps, but providing supportive narrative to help the reader more deeply understand them. He then seeks to connect each of the steps to Christian theology.
It is probably important to clarify that AA, as Zahl presents it, resonates more with a particular brand of theology—what might be called a theology of the cross instead of a theology of glory. A theology of the cross, commonly identified with Martin Luther, has to with the inability of sinners to earn righteous standing before God whereas a theology of glory suggests that people have some capacity, some goodness, within themselves that allow them to be involved in their salvation. In fact, Zahl routinely cites the work of Gerhard Forde, who described the theology of the cross in his excellent book On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (1997). For example, on page 45, Zahl quotes Forde who wrote, “I use the analogy of addiction throughout the [Forde’s] book in the attempt to demonstrate the difference between the theologian of glory and the theologian of the cross.” For Forde, like Zahl, the death of sin comes not from “optimistic exhortation” of the believer but at the cross.
Building upon this idea while discussing Step 3 (i.e., made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him), Zahl comments that “the ‘self-made’ idea is, at least if not ‘dangerous,’ still the very antithesis of spirituality” (p. 68). One of the persistent themes that comes across is that AA encourages resting in God’s power rather than in self. He then connects this theme with Paul’s letter to the Galatians and with Augustine’s debate with Pelagius. Both Paul and Augustine were, Zahl suggests, arguing against the human ability to justify ourselves.
Zahl acknowledges that for some Christians this theology, or this view of humanity, may seem too negative. He wrote “From the outside looking in, then, AA would appear to have a more pessimistic view of the spiritual life than most Christians are typically willing to acknowledge. AA seem to embrace a more one-way, or monergistic, view of God’s work in the life of a believer. Another of AA’s classic sayings is: ‘of myself I am nothing, the Father doeth the work’” (p. 203). Indeed, one of the challenges that have been raised against this resurgent interest in resting in our justification is that pursuit of holiness may be downplayed, but Zahl is careful to point out that AA “is one of the most lucid examples of the exact sort of change that many churches like to advocate” (p. 203).
A second common theme in the world of 12 step groups is that of confession. The 5th step is: “we admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” Experience would suggest that in many contemporary churches, the role of confession is minimized despite exhortations to do so in the New Testament (e.g., James 5:16). An atmosphere that does not encourage confession contributes to persistence of guilt and shame rather than absolution and a reminder of the grace we find in Christ. Zahl makes the point that “in a rather serious sense, therapy and counseling are contemporary expressions of this confessional movement” (p. 118). As Christian psychologists, we would do well to promote an environment of honest confession and to remind confessors of God’s amazing willingness to forgive.
A third idea worth mentioning is that AA encourages the development of love, honesty, and humility and that each of these virtues contribute to sobriety. Certainly, these values also find their roots in Christian morality. Lovingly pursuing others, honest exchange and confession with others, and humbly serving others serves a culture of individual and corporate growth.
Zahl concludes his book with a chapter on what Christian churches and AA can learn from one another. AA promotes a radical equality among its members—there is no place for status. Subsequently, the same message is given to newcomers and mature attendees. “In other words, the same hope that gets you in, also keeps you in” (p. 241). Churches would do well to remind one another of the hope that is only found in the cross, whether faced with non-believers or those who have been Christians for decades.
Zahl adds that although the church has much to learn from AA, “recovering alcoholics need the Church, too. Most importantly, the Church has the story. The old, old story of ‘Jesus and his glory.’ The God of salvation is a revelation, grounded in a very specific set of historical truths that undergird and underline the spiritual realities that the addict has experienced. God is more than a subjective truth—He is an objective reality” (p. 254).
Grace in Addiction (2012) is very likely a different book than many of the professional resources with which we typically interact. Having said that, I think it is an important book and worth reading. One of Zahl’s main points—that the church could learn from AA—comes across clearly. I would also hope the church may be able to offer some correctives in return. For example, the Big Book (i.e., the manual for AA) reportedly says that “your wife may feel neglected” (p. 97) because of the amount of time, resources, and energy you are investing in others. I would hope the church, as a redemptive community of believers, could help one another understand where the balance is between home life, work life, and helping struggling addicts.
On the whole, I would commend this book to Christian psychologists, church leaders, and individual believers. It will likely provide a fuller understanding of addicts, of 12 step groups, and of certain strains of Christian theology.
(Also published in Soul & Spirit, the newsletter for Society for Christian Psychology).