In those early days we drank a lot.
When I told one of my coworkers at Baylor that I was attending UBC, he said he was familiar with the church, that it was the one that threw keg parties for its congregation. I had yet to visit a church-sponsored keg party, and was a little uneasy at the thought, but from what I experienced in those first few years I wasn’t surprised that people believed that.
The “church that threw keg parties” was an urban legend, no doubt born of the fact that the vast majority of students who contributed to the early growth of UBC were straight out of the same Greek organizations that many of the first church leaders were a part of. The alcohol-fueled parties of Saturday nights bled into the Bible-fueled worship of Sunday mornings, and I suppose it wouldn’t have been unusual to see the same people at both.
I was new to the idea that a Christian could partake in the joys of alcohol and still be considered a Christian. A good Christian, anyway. I became aware in college that some people who called themselves “Christian” drank a little, but assumed they were either backsliders or liberals. (To my younger self, those were one in the same.) Before college, I assumed that once you signed up to be on the Jesus team, you rotated off of the team that drank alcohol. I was 24 when I had my first drink. Living in Dallas for a year after graduating from college, my apartment was next door to a liquor store. I was alone, away from anyone who would know, and decided to “backslide” a bit. It didn’t “take” initially, probably because I started off with MD 20/20, aka “Mad Dog,” because that’s what I saw the homeless guy in the alley behind my apartment drinking, and I assumed it would be a good “starter” alcohol. It tasted like fruit juice gone bad, and my career as a backslider ended as quick as it started.
I came out of retirement when I became a part of UBC.
Our drinking was a result of a newfound (to us) approach to reading the Bible. Growing up, many of us began with a set of assumptions about “right living,” and read the Bible with those assumptions as our lens, rather than reading our assumptions through the lens of the Bible. When you begin with the tenet that “Christians shouldn’t drink,” it’s pretty easy to find support in the Bible for that. But when you start with “What does the Bible say about drinking,” you’ll find, well, not very much. There’s a vague reference in Proverbs to wine being a “mocker” and beer a “brawler,” but since when have we ever dictated our lives by one Proverb? There’s a proverb that says that if you send vinegar and smoke to someone, that you are a sluggard who is as the vinegar is to the teeth and the smoke is to the eyes. Outside of this, the fact that people would drink beer and wine (God hadn’t invented hard liquor yet) was a simply seen as a given, almost as much as breathing. (Of course there were those, like the Nazirites, who took vows to abstain from alcohol, but that didn’t seem to be prescriptive of all followers of God.)
Of course the Bible has a good amount to say about how we use alcohol, warning against drunkenness. But what is “drunkenness?” Is it being continually drunk, as some people who drink struggle with, or is it that any time we start to feel the effects of the drink that we are drunk. It seems like there’s a lot of space between those two extremes, and in my first few years at UBC, we used that space as our playground.
But it seemed less about the drinking and more about thumbing our nose to the places and lives we came from, which insisted on a certain code of behavior for good Christian boys and girls. One of UBC’s Core Values of Community said that we didn’t want to be a place that “encourages people to posture holiness.” That became our operative proverb– the “not posturing holiness” command. And this not posturing holiness was liberating.
We cursed a lot in those days as well. And not the sanitized Christian versions of curse-words, but full on, Samuel L. Jackson meets The Wolf of Wall Street cussin’. We took the lead from Anne Lamott, who in her memoir Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith described her conversion experience with a six-word prayer, prayed after a period of feeling followed by Jesus: “Fuck it, You can come in.” It was significantly different than the “sinners prayer” many of us had prayed when we were children– “God I am a sinner, please come into my heart.” We were probably all a little secretly jealous that we didn’t have such a colorful conversion story, but we could at least choose to live our lives of faith in a way similar to that practiced by Lamott– Open, authentic, and without fear.
As you might expect, all of this created an atmosphere that attracted quite a few characters, people you don’t typically find in church on Sunday mornings. Most of them sat off to the side, stage left. Seminary students like Phil and Ann; artists and writers like Cat, Chris and Jenn; people with ear stretchers, long before that was a thing, and tattoos, long before it was common for “church people” to be heavily tatted. Segments of our church looked very Austin, which is the Texas way of saying “Different.”
But it wasn’t just the Bohemians who found a place. Many others who would have fit in just fine at a “suit and tie” church with a choir, handbells and three-points-and-a-poem sermons, were also attracted to UBC. Not so they could drink and curse, but because the more open attitudes toward those social norms signaled a new way to reach people. “Reaching people” can mean a lot of things, but it is usually the evangelical’s way of saying that we want people to become a Christian in the same way that we are Christian. For these people, it seemed that our striving toward authenticity was simply an effort to re-market church to a new generation of people for whom church was not very appealing. They reasoned that if we could only get them through the doors with an approach to faith that said, “You are welcome, we don’t think you’re weird and you won’t be judged by us,” then maybe we could get them to become Christians, if they weren’t already, or back in church if they were.
But for others, we weren’t simply changing church for the sake of image or to reach people who were more free than us. Rather, the changes represented a seismic shift in the tectonic plates of Christian faith itself. This isn’t to say that we thought we were the first Christians to discover living authentically, coming out from under the shadow of dominant religious powers-that-be who demand a certain way of living among their followers. It did seem, however, that for us these changes were markers, signposts that something was going on underneath our feet. And there was a lot more going on under our feet than just shifting attitudes toward alcohol and language.