The book, Alcoholics Anonymous, was first published around 1940 in sufficient numbers to place its lifesaving possibilities in the hands of great numbers of suffering alcoholics. It was published in the United States, at first especially for alcoholics in the culture of the US, then later, it was made available for alcoholics in many other countries and cultures.
In the US the new program was, naturally, designed for a population of alcoholics almost entirely familiar with general Christian traditions. Chapter Two of our book states boldly: “We are average Americans. All sections of this country and many of its occupations are represented, as well as many political, economic, social, and religious backgrounds.” (BB p17) Of course, the exact nature of the Christianity practiced by drinking alcoholics varied greatly, especially with respect to the individual attitudes surviving from childhood training once the disease had reached its full blown state.
All through our book’s discussion of both the possibility and the necessity of spiritual growth in one’s recovery from alcoholism, this reassuring addition is made constantly, “...as you understand Him.” We have to assume that this was not a simple phrase, inserted here and there, in hope of embracing the “comfort level” of alcoholics who found themselves on the outer edge of this group. We can probably also assume that the inclusion of this phrase was more contentious than it might appear to us, many decades later. It does not take its place in our book by either accident or oversight.
Most, if not all, of our book continually focuses on ideas about spiritual growth. Much of this material, quite reasonably, was (in 1940) directed to an audience who had been well schooled in ideas from the prevailing Christian traditions at some time in their lives. Here we are speaking of extremely general traditions (think of a one paragraph notation in Cliff’s Notes), not the rather more elaborate theological subtleties which divide, say, Baptists from Lutherans.
For example, the Third Step Prayer is preceded with the phrase “...as we understood Him,” and followed (in the next paragraph) with the sentence, “The wording was, of course, quite optional so long as we expressed the idea, voicing it without reservation.” (BB p63) Our modern sponsor knows very well that he may not only need to translate the words of this great prayer for the new man, he will also need to express the idea of it in terms the new man can comprehend and accept. Step Three does not require fluency in the language of historical relic or the foundations of divinity as expressed in a prevailing religion. Step Three requires an honest commitment to “start getting spiritual.”
Religious literacy is not a condition for sobriety, and the frank explanation of the ideas required for sobriety falls squarely within the responsibility of the sponsor. The new man seeks sobriety, not conversion.
The bottom of this Appendix shows thirty-seven sample references from our Big Book expressing different ideas about spiritual growth. Those included are far from complete, but hopefully this list will provide examples of the varieties of terms and concepts selected by these astounding amateur authors to communicate the nature of the solution they had discovered.
Consider for yourself how strongly each of these phrases and sentences relies on a previous religious understanding, one quite removed from the philosophy of the AA program.
So, what exactly is the point?
As we consider these examples, we can see that some follow the idea of “as you understand Him,” while others derive significant meaning from general religious concepts of Christian theology. Both types are represented. Some seem to have lifted themselves right up out of a Christian Bible while others seems to have a more independent quality. Some reflect a tendency toward institutional, religious ideas. Conversely, others reflect an originality leaning more toward the AA idea which might very well indicate that one is starting from scratch.
Those examples which are oriented toward religion can be quite communicative of Big Book ideas, yet using them will require at least significant familiarity, if not tacit acceptance, for their corresponding ideas from Christian theology. Absent such a basis of understanding, that is, without the unmentioned but implied additional information which might have been the result of previous religious training, these phrases become more difficult for new members without experience in a Christian tradition. This problem is further aggravated when such concepts are expressed in the historical English language of the King James Bible, an editing mechanism used in our Big Book to signify and separate (emphasize) prayer or religious authority from the surrounding text.
The authors of our Big Book used whatever style of language was necessary to guide our modern thinking about its message. There is absolutely no reason to complain or condemn such usage. Most experienced AA’s actually grow quite fond of it. Nonetheless, this paper concerns sponsorship, and our modern sponsors had better be ready to guide a new man through this confusing language. One most relevant example of this is our Third Step Prayer (“Thee, Thou, wilt, Thy, Thy, Thy and Thy”). This prayer, once it is understood, represents one of the most beautifully simple, and powerful concepts for spiritual growth, yet, to the new man who has never been exposed to such a Biblical form, it can easily present an incomprehensible hardship, one quite unnecessary for his understanding of the prayer.
No serious and determined sponsor can allow such antiquated language to block this prayer’s great benefit from a new man who has never entered (or paid attention in) a Christian church! In 1940, perhaps, alcoholics such as these were infrequent. Any sponsor working in the 21st century is well aware that these conditions have changed.
Of course, the essential message of AA is the same now as it was then. Likewise, the absolute necessity of getting AA’s message to those who ask for it has the same, lifesaving importance.
The first column of the Table indicates the page number where the phrase or sentence appears. The letter in the second column locates the phrase on the page indexed. “A” for the top third; “B” for the center third, and “C” for the lower third. No context for complete phrases is provided (only a truncated form is shown to meet space requirements). It is strongly suggested that the reader turn to each entry, reading at least a few paragraphs before and after for the full context.
The graphic bar at the right side of the table is a rough comment on the phrase’s origin. The more to the left the bold symbol appears, the more literacy in Christian theology is required to accept or comprehend the language and the corresponding concept. The more to the right the bold symbol appears, the more universally available the comment or concept is to the non-religious member.
If an AA considers this proposition irrelevant or exaggerated, he probably hasn’t had much recent experience with sponsorship. Frankly, comments such as these might have actually been such an exaggeration when our program was new. However, as we reexamine them in AA’s modern context, we have to admit that, for a new member raised without religious training, they may present a serious challenge to understanding.
That challenge translates quickly into a sponsorship responsibility. Once again, literacy of the Christian Bible or familiarity with Christian religious traditions are not prerequisites to AA recovery.