Bacchus is the Roman god of wine, of abandon, and of freedom from restraint. (His Greek counterpart is Dionysius.) Traditionally Bacchus was presented as offering wine, music, and ecstatic dance that freed his followers from the limits of daily life. Is this sounding familiar?
Our name for the worship of Bacchus is addiction – to substances (wine and other forms of alcohol, certainly; but also to drugs and tobacco and even food), and also in what are called behavioral or process addictions that consume those in their grip with shopping, exercise, computer gaming, social media, or gambling. Just as there’s nothing wrong with alcohol in itself, so exercise, gambling, and shopping can be good servants of human flourishing – but each also can be a deceptive master when partaking in it overtakes proportion and good sense. This overtaking of good judgment is the worship of Bacchus. Good judgment – and even a large degree of freedom of choice – disappear when someone is in the god’s service. And like every idolatry, worship of Bacchus has its shrines and rituals.
Take gambling. From its “holy city” of Las Vegas through the cathedral-like casinos down to today’s version of roadside shrines (we call them Lotto terminals), gambling has its sacred sites. And its rituals: (Watch compulsive gamblers enter a trance before a slot-machine, if you dare.) Gambling, those caught up in it admit, doesn’t really give the desired “high” without some ritual, be it idiosyncratic and personal (picking a “number” for the day in a particular way), or shared (March Madness, anyone?)
As a confessor I hear about the desperation, and the ruined lives and families, of compulsive gamblers. And it makes me both sick and furious how our governments – which are supposed to work for the common good – now feed gambling addictions with lotteries. This is the worship of Bacchus by the state. (Or, perhaps, the state uses its citizens’ worship of Bacchus in order to feed its true clientele’s worship of Mammon.)
(Again, I have nothing against gambling when it’s a simple entertainment; I’m talking here about lives oriented around gambling, as too many lives are and which the government shamefully encourages.)
Or consider drug addiction, alcohol included. Again, the issue of (unconscious) idolatry arises when a drug – legal or illegal – becomes the orienting center of a person’s life, something that promises happiness (or at least relief from sadness) and an opportunity to step away from a depressing normality. (I’m old enough to remember when “Better living through chemistry” was a non-ironic advertising slogan; the advertisers may as well have named Bacchus as their inspiration.)
To return to my larger point: Idolatry is always our central temptation – we humans are expert in making things that are not God into “god” for ourselves and for our societies. It is useful for us, as disciples of Christ, to learn to recognize that the culture in which we live is no longer (if it ever was) “Christian” in its guiding principles. Our culture worships not God in Christ, but Mammon, Mars, Moloch, Aprhodite, Bacchus, and others. We live among pagans – which is not a condemnation, but a clear-eyed recognition that many of our contemporaries are lost, “like sheep without a shepherd,” as Christ described them.
What are we to do? First, to recognize that a disciplined life is necessary so that we ourselves are not seduced into this false worship that surrounds us. And second, to be confident: the Christian message has found a ready hearing among pagans over and over in its history. We are in place to do it again.
I’ll talk about that in a few weeks. Until next week, peace.