As a pastor and an active member of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), John Z has noticed distinct parallels between Christianity (particularly the branches of the Reformation) and AA. With this book he introduces the two as “strangers who are friends who just haven’t met yet” (15). He says, “The wall of separation between AA and the Christian Church is unfortunate. It’s as though they are looking at each other from across the street, assuming the worst about each other, rather than hoping they might become friends. I hope this book will serve to help build such a bridge, or at least reveal that this apparent disconnect is ultimately insubstantial” (16). Z also sees the hopefully better understanding between AA and Christianity as another door for more people to become Christians. “While Christianity, and religion more broadly, often carry negative associations, Alcoholics Anonymous allows many people an entryway into religion which may not otherwise exist” (21).
Z explains each of the twelve steps of AA, highlighting the connection points with Christianity, such as bottoming out, seeing God primarily as a rescuer of troubled people, the good practice of making a list of sins by constantly asking where one was to blame, confessing those faults to a mentor, seeking to make amends, and carrying the message to others. These points do connect well to our preaching and teaching. All the topics Z emphasizes in the book lead to his praise of AA for being a community of people who are honest to themselves and to each other and who recognize the messiness of life, the slow process of healing, and importance of guiding each other. Z laments not seeing these same qualities as strongly in Christian churches.
Before reading this book, I was relatively unfamiliar with AA and its twelve steps. Three of these steps especially drew my attention.
- We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable (31). This step is foundational for AA; all the other steps grow from the honest recognition of an alcoholic’s life. Z connects this step with the doctrine of sin and what we would call the mirror of the law. His stories about AA members’ struggles vividly prove how our human nature naturally rejects the law, and he concludes, “The Twelve Steps posit that God is found primarily in the midst of weakness—not in strength. He saves people primarily from themselves” (44–45). AA (and biblical Christianity!) only works when people see the true ugliness of their messy life and their powerlessness over it. This step naturally leads to a better understanding of God and his grace. “Grace is the hope that seeks us out when we are at our worst. It looks forward to the long, hard road ahead” (263). As opposed to many messages in the modern-day church which portray God as a coach or a helper, AA consistently talks about God as a rescuer.
- We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves (83). A person working through this step will make lists of all their resentments, fears, and sexual sins. (Some groups apparently add a few other categories, but these are the ones most follow). Z notes that this is a particularly difficult step because it takes a person who has “bottomed out” in step one and leads them on the difficult path of enumerating many of these faults and staring them in the face. This is the first active step of what we would call confession. In the next steps, an alcoholic’s sponsor (a sober, experienced member of AA who is a mentor) leads them through the lists with the eventual step of making amends, if possible.
- We made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others (175). This chapter shows the active ways AA helps a person think through the fruits of faith after confessing a sin. I appreciated the baby-step encouragements that sponsors often give to their sponsees in first deciding which path they should take in each case (face-to-face amend, letter amend, living amend, or wait-and-see-but-be-willing amend) and then the careful instructions (such as expecting some people to vent angrily when the AA member asks to apologize to them). All these tips are helpful for counseling any sinner in sanctification.
At the beginning of the book, Z says that “the world of AA closely resembles a church” (15). With all the stories and quotes he uses, the reader gets to live inside that AA world. This book helps me become a better Menschenkenner in that AA world, which for many people, both inside and outside the church, is their only world. Besides a greater appreciation for the patient, enduring community that is AA, I feel better equipped to connect intelligently and biblically to someone who is in AA. From general impressions of AA to little phrases such as “the gift of desperation” (49), this book is beneficial.
I recommend this book for leaders who are in communities, families, or congregations where there is a strong AA presence. It will help you better relate with a more detailed knowledge of the twelve steps and be a handy guide to help you spotlight the parts of AA which are particularly biblical and useful in our spiritual lives. Talking openly about addiction and ways to address it will also hopefully prompt your people to seek help when they need it.
AA’s teaching and wording may leave many of us Confessional Lutherans a little concerned at times, especially with its tendency to be work-righteous in many of its steps, but this book will help you extract the good and use it for your very Lutheran purpose. As AA’s Big Book says, “Not all of us join religious bodies, but most of us favor such memberships.… Be quick to see where religious people are right” (254). AA tips its hat toward our direction. This book will help you return the favor in a way that will enhance your Lutheran preaching, teaching, and counseling.