Beer, lederhosen, dirndls, beer, and giant pretzels and beer. Oktoberfest is here again!
I’ve been living in Munich teaching English for nearly eight years and every year I know to expect the question from my students: So are you going to the Wiesn this year?
I usually tell them that I might go to take some photos (the ones in this post!) but since I don’t drink, it’s not as much fun for me as for others.
You don’t drink!?
This then invites the question about why I don’t drink and pretty soon I’ve outed myself as a Mormon. Which is great! I get to answer questions about my faith, dispel myths, educate, and maybe do a little missionary work. But answering Mormon questions isn’t always easy and some concepts in Mormonism are more nuanced than others, and the principle that keeps me from drinking beer at Oktoberfest is one of them.
On its face, the Word of Wisdom would seem like a fairly straightforward practice: we abstain from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea, and harmful drugs and should in turn eat and drink foods which are healthy and nourishing. But if you look at the original revelation that later became commandment 1 then it’s not quite so clear. For example, here is the bit that forbids coffee and tea (Doctrine & Covenants 89:9):
And again, hot drinks are not for the body or belly.
Friend: What, no hot drinks at all? Not even hot chocolate?
Me: Well, that has been clarified as meaning specifically coffee and tea. Hot chocolate and even herbal teas are just fine.
Friend: Ok, so it’s the drinks with caffeine that are taboo. I see.
Me: Well, no… Coke and Pepsi are not prohibited.
Friend: So it has to be hot then? So like an ice tea or iced coffee would be ok?
Me: No, it really has nothing to do with the temperature of the drink nor the levels of caffeine. It’s just coffee and black (and green?) tea are no nos.
Friend: But a can of Coke is much worse for you than a cup of earl grey (hot).
Me: Maybe, but one is specifically forbidden by the Lord and the other isn’t.
I can understand if my friend is rather bewildered by this law of health. He might even be confused as to why it’s called “The Word of Wisdom” rather than a title more specific to health like “Nourish and Strengthen Your Bodies!”
Indeed we usually present the Word of Wisdom as a law of health and rightly so since it talks about these foods in context of being good or bad for the “body or the belly” and couples obedience with promises of receiving “health in their navel, marrow in their bones,” and “they shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint.”
Healthiness is clearly the core of the commandment. These specific proscriptions against tobacco, alcohol, coffee, and tea are natural starting points from which we can use our own intelligence and agency to decide what is good or bad for our bodies and more fully live the law.
Friend: Wait, sorry, I’m still not satisfied. I mean, no tobacco and alcohol I can understand, even coffee to some extent. But tea? There are many health benefits of tea even black tea. And you won’t even take one sip even though you’ll happily down a mug of Diet Dr. Pepper.
Me: No, not diet. That’s gross.
But my friend has a point. Why does tea make the list? Tannins? Here’s where I believe the Word of Wisdom is not simply about health. It is about obedience, of course, but it is also about setting ourselves apart from the world.
Wine, beer, coffee, tea – is there a major culture on earth where one of these four drinks does not play a major role? Whether its beer in northern Europe, wine in France and southern Europe, tea throughout the Middle East and Asia, and coffee the world over, these drinks are essential elements in the social rituals and daily habits of pretty much everyone everywhere.
We bond over beers, celebrate with champagne, party with cocktails, meet up for coffee. In Asia it’s all about the tea. Have you tried traveling the Arab world, India, or East Asia without drinking tea? I mean, you can do it but if you’re dealing with locals then it’s a lot of awkward declining hoping that you don’t offend your hosts. Imagine living there as a tea-totaler! 2
The point is, these beverages and their communal consumption are important in making an individual part of the in-group in a society. Imbibing is integration. There’s nothing wrong with that, in fact it can be rather beautiful if you think about it, but it’s also not entirely essential. This is where the wisdom comes in.
I believe that by strictly avoiding these drinks, Mormons establish themselves as being peculiar in a way that is distinct and sometimes difficult on a personal level when faced with the peer pressure, but it also doesn’t completely alienate them from society either.
That societal pressure to become fully integrated in the in-group is for some Mormons a very difficult trial of their faith. Yet if they are faithful to this commandment, the consequences are rarely more severe than a loss of status or the failure to fully share in a group experience. In other words, it’s a commandment that directly affects our pride. It’s brilliant.
Since the Beginning, God has given commandments that have set His people apart from the world without physically isolating them from it. The ancient Israelites constantly chaffed at the peculiarities of the Mosaic law with its jealous monotheism, its odd prohibitions, and its rituals. The early Christians were one of the few religions to be systematically persecuted by the generally tolerant Romans for their stubborn refusal to conform to certain political and religious norms. It seems the Lord has always carefully designed his commandments to keep his people separate and strange while still expecting them to remain otherwise integrated in whatever society they are in. He seems to want us to have a constant reminder that in whatever society we find ourselves, our first loyalties go to His society, even the family of Heavenly Father, Mother, Brother, and siblings that we have chosen through covenants. It can pull us upwards to a higher perspective that reveals us as “strangers and pilgrims on the earth.” 3 The laws of peculiarity are divinely-anchored lifelines against moral danger—not just that of getting drunk or getting hooked on a substance, but the danger of forgetting where our better natures have once chosen to belong.
A vivid example of this is when the Israelites were living amongst the Egyptians as their slaves. They too suffered from the plagues brought on by the stubbornness of Pharaoh, but before the final plague they were given a commandment to do something that would distinguish themselves not only from the Egyptians but even the less faithful Israelites. They were told to mark their doorposts with the blood of a slaughtered spring lamb. Very peculiar. Weird even. But those households which made themselves separate from their neighbors through obedience to this commandment were saved from terrible loss.
With this in mind, the final blessing for those who keep the Word of Wisdom is especially apt (D&C 89:21):
And I, the Lord, give unto them a promise, that the destroying angel shall pass by them, as the children of Israel, and not slay them.
Of course, the wisdom doesn’t stop there. A bonus feature of the Word of Wisdom is that its peculiarity gets people to ask questions to its adherents. Those questions lead to opportunities for Mormons to discuss their faith and invite others to come and see why they think it’s so great. In my experience, the question that has most often revealed my Mormon faith and led to further discussion is, “why don’t you drink?” I am sure I am not alone in this.
And so I am happy to forego the revelry of Oktoberfest and in exchange distinguish myself as Mormon, part of a peculiar people, but not without good reason for the hope and whatever wisdom might be in me.
Check out more of my photos of Oktoberfest, Munich, and a bunch of other places here.