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What Would Jesus Drink?

03/28/2008 02:48 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

A rabbi, a priest and a minister walk into a bar.

The bartender looks at them and says, "What is this, a joke?"

In one Pennsylvania bar, it's no laughing matter.

On the last Friday of every month, teams of chaplains -- one male and one female -- will set up camp in the Market Cross Pub in Carlisle, Penn., for a few hours to lend a sympathetic, non-judgmental ear to patrons looking for someone to listen to their tales of woe.

"We're not going to strong-arm anybody," Chuck Kish, the Assemblies of God pastor who started the bar chaplaincy program told the (Carlisle, Penn.) Sentinel newspaper, adding that the bar chaplains aren't there to proselytize or stop anyone from drinking. "We give more pastoral care, listening to what you have to say."

Even if you're slurring your words and don't remember it the next morning.

There is little consensus across religious traditions about whether alcohol consumption is morally right or wrong, beyond the near universal condemnation of drunkenness.

In Islam, for instance, the Quran forbids the consumption of any intoxicant, even in small amounts. But, as I understand it, the Prophet Muhammad came to that conclusion over time. First, he forbade Muslims to drink before prayer; then, he said that alcohol has both good and evil qualities but that evil usually outweighs the good. Eventually, he determined alcohol was "Satan's handiwork," designed to lead the faithful away from God.

Buddhism is even more straightforward. The fifth of the mandatory Five Precepts, governing the ethical behavior of all Buddhists, says: "I undertake to abstain from intoxicating drink."

In the Jewish tradition, wine is a symbol of the blessing of God's creation and is used to mark many significant spiritual occasions, including weddings, circumcisions and the Passover Seder. It even has its own blessing, the Hagafen.

Hebrew scripture includes stories extolling wine as a harbinger of joy, as well as cautionary tales of how too much wine has brought low the mighty, including Noah, whose grown sons saw him naked -- a big no no -- when Noah was drunk, and Lot, who got drunk and had sex with his daughters.

And Christianity, the predominant theological voice in our culture, is even more ambivalent about whether to drink or not. Gospel accounts say Jesus' first public miracle was at a wedding in Cana where he turned jugs of water into fine wine -- think Chateau Margaux, not Two-Buck Chuck -- for wedding revelers who were already three sheets to the wind.

For the first 1,800 or so years of Christendom, alcohol -- or wine, at least -- was common in the faith. Wine was used during the sacrament of communion, and wine and beer were part of quotidian existence. (I read somewhere John Calvin -- the great Protestant Reformation theologian -- received part of his annual salary in seven barrels of wine.)

But in the 19th century, in response to a growing awareness of the scourge of alcoholism, temperance (abstaining from alcohol as a spiritual practice) and eventually prohibitionism (outlawing the consumption of alcohol altogether as inherently sinful) became part of the Christian cultural norm.

Christian attitudes today toward alcohol include a whole spectrum from moderationism to prohibitionism, with the prevailing condemnation of inebriation as sinful and destructive.

Perhaps one of the questions bar chaplains will help patrons answer is What Would Jesus Drink?

Fifteen shots of Jager? Probably not.

Wine with dinner? Sure.

One of my favorite bartenders is Bouchaib "Bouch" Kribech, from the Billy Goat Tavern & Grill, the unofficial watering hole of Chicago's media off of lower Michigan Ave. I've known Bouch for years and he is unfailingly kind and caring, whether I'm drunk as a lord or sober as a judge.

Bouch is an observant Muslim. He might pour the drinks, but he doesn't partake himself. When I told him about the bar chaplain idea, he chuckled and then grew uncharacteristically serious.

"I cannot speak for Muslims, but I can speak for myself," he said. "This is the toughest question . . . . When I tend bar, people will talk to me, and they share. I share my problems with them, and they start to share theirs.

"Sometimes, when people drink, they feel more comfortable," Bouch said. "But me, I can talk about my problems with just a glass of water."