This review of Edward Welch, Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave was first published on Amazon.com in 2005.
Similar to the central themes of the other books in the “Resources for Changing Lives” series, Welch explicitly states the “point” to the book in the preface: “Theology makes a difference” (xvi). With relation to addictions specifically, then, this means that “Addictions are ultimately a disorder of worship.” In keeping with this central theme, the first part of the book, “Thinking Theologically” lays the foundation for the approach, while the second part develops specific “Essential Theological Themes.”
Welch begins by discussing the very idea of “practical theology.” Why is it that a faithful Christian who knows theology well, even teaching it at church, can respond to sin in such a way that seems to betray a lack of any theological knowledge at all? This is a common problem-the problem of a disconnect between faith a life-that Welch argues has at least two sources. First, due to the influence of unbelieving authorities, many of us have wrong theology in the first place. Second, even when we believe true things, our actions betray not a disconnect between faith and life, but a failure to really believe that which we say we believe. The solution is to turn to God’s Word for perspective, and to listen to the counsel of others when we may think we are self-deceived (3-10). In my estimation, this basic approach is of great usefulness, even far beyond the specific issue of addictions. When it is clear that we are living in a manner inconsistent with our confession, there are two things we need to do: turn to God’s Word and involve ourselves in the church. The usefulness of the rest of the book flows from this fundamental insight: addictions betray theological error; specifically, they betray a worship problem. Diagnosing the problem rightly is key to fixing it. Any source of help that denies this diagnosis is going to be of minimal lasting worth.
On the foundation of this broad diagnosis, Welch begins to explore issues specifically related to addiction. He wisely warns of misunderstanding that can arise from the term. It is fine as a description of behavior, but not necessarily as an explanation for behavior. He also argues that we ought to allow for a broad understanding of addictive behavior (beyond simply drugs and alcohol), for this more faithfully acknowledges the biblical teaching about the sins underlying addiction (11-15). In this connection, his chapter “Sin, Sickness, or Both?” is a veritable gold mine of insights. He sternly and pastorally insists on the necessity of dealing with sin as the foundational issue; his work here is a wonderful example of how to deal with difficult issues in decidedly pastoral fashion (17-22, e.g.). As we consider the sinful roots of drunkenness, for instance, we find that at root it is a lordship problem. “Drunkards are worshipping another god-alcohol” (23). But with all this emphasis on sin, what do we make of evidence that genetics can be a factor? Welch grants-again, wisely-that biological factors can certainly have influence. But he is quick to point out that the idea that genetics may influence a situation is importantly different from saying that addictions are determined by genetics. He illustrates this by discussing different types of cravings and demonstrating that even when the physical is an important factor, it is never the ultimate cause of sin or addiction. To be sure, sin may begin to feel like a disease, but this is a natural stage in the evolution of sin, even as revealed in Scripture (34-39). In “New Ways of Seeing,” Welch develops the metaphor of idolatry, along with other biblical metaphors, as a means of interpreting and approaching the problem of addiction. This is particularly important in response to the prevalent use of disease as a metaphor for addiction. In the fourth chapter, Welch describes “The Descent into Addiction” along five stages: the stages of being unprepared, of friendship, of infatuation, of love and betrayal, and finally of worship. For all of his talk of the importance of sin and biblical responses, Welch isn’t afraid to make use of a psychology of addiction, particularly as a descriptive tool. Throughout his discussion, however, all that he says is submitted to the interpretation of Scripture.
Welch spends the remainder of the book discussing eight theological themes that are essential to dealing with addiction: speaking the truth in love; respecting, listening, and inviting; knowing the Lord; fearing the Lord; turning from lies; saying “no;” staying violent; and being part of the body. The last two themes seem particularly helpful. “The problem is that as Christians, we often forget we are in a war. Or worse, we don’t even know that there is a war” (228-229). In the battle against addiction-and all sin-it is important that we take seriously the spiritual struggle in which we are involved. It is also important that the role of the church be emphasized. I would commend Welch for treating the church as an important biblical theme.
But it is at this point that his book should perhaps be faulted the most. He mentions, for instance, the importance of the church as a source of one’s identity. The one struggling with addiction should say, “I am part of the body of Christ” (250). Even one who struggles with alcohol is no longer defined as an “alcoholic.” To be sure, this theme of one’s identity in Christ (and his body) is important; but in my estimation, it is far more important than Welch makes it out to be. This is always the structure of pastoral exhortation in the epistles: live in the light of who you are in Christ. Furthermore, Welch fails to emphasize the importance of the means of grace as the means by which the Lord sanctifies us. It is beyond me how he can speak of one’s identity without mentioning baptism, or of unity in the church without mentioning the Lord’s Supper. These are not mere theological quibbles; in my estimation they are fatal flaws. The means of grace lie at the heart of Christian spirituality, and any discussion of struggling with sin ought to give them the central place.
Is lordship the problem? Let’s talk about how baptism defines you in terms of to whom you belong. Is the lack of edifying relationships with others the problem? Let’s talk about the Lord’s Supper and how it ties us together as the body of Christ. Is the problem one of incorrect theological perspectives? Let’s discuss how preaching goes far beyond simply informing us, to the point of shaping and molding us existentially. All else should flow from these means.
Despite this fairly serious shortcoming, Welch’s work is nevertheless a wealth of biblical and pastoral wisdom. His way of discussing the central importance of sin is worthy of imitation. He provides helpful insight into the psychological nature of addiction. And perhaps most importantly, his approach to handling addiction serves as a worthy model for any area in which Christians struggle with sin.