Michael Metzger

Now that Colorado and Washington have made selling marijuana legal, the question is whether this signals anything of significance. Oliver Sacks thinks so. He smoked pot in the Sixties. Now he denounces it as a shortcut.

On January 1st, 420 days after the citizens of Colorado voted to legalize marijuana, around 37 pot shops opened their doors. The state accepts licenses without a cap and cultivation for personal use is allowed. Washington’s law is more restrictive. There are limits on the number of licenses and keeping plants for personal use is not allowed.

More states are leaning toward legalization as public opinion on the issue has shifted dramatically – from 32 percent support for legalization in 2002 to 58 percent in the latest Gallup poll. This comes amidst considerable evidence that smoking pot is addictive in about one in six teenagers. Young people who smoke go on to suffer I.Q. loss and perform worse on other cognitive tests. Despite this evidence, David Brooks says many Americans are reticent to sound judgmental on the issue. “Many people these days shy away from talk about the moral status of drug use because that would imply that one sort of life you might choose is better than another sort of life.”1

Oliver Sacks, a pot smoker in the Sixties, isn’t so shy. Sacks is a physician and professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center. In a 2012 essay in The New Yorker, he recalled his pot smoking days. “Living on a day-to-day basis is insufficient for human beings,” he wrote. We yearn to “transcend” the daily and “see over-all patterns in our lives.”2 Sacks views the Sixties as a decade when people trafficked in the idea of transcendence and were serious about seeking it.

Seeking involved experimentation. Sacks’ circle sought to appreciate nature, art, religion, and practice spiritual exercises. Many smoked pot in the “belief that there is a mysterious link between spiritual realities” and drugs. “But it was difficult to get many people outside the drug culture to take the idea seriously,” writes Sacks “especially Christians.” That’s sad, as John Stott, a Christian, took this stuff seriously. If Sacks had read Stott, he might have sooner lamented what he’s since learned, how “drugs offer a shortcut; they promise transcendence on demand.” And if Christians read Stott, they’d see why Sacks is unlikely to experience transcendence in today’s church.

Lauded as the closest thing to an evangelical pope, John Stott, who died in 2011, was an Anglican cleric and cultural analyst who saw the Sixties as an era of widespread hunger for spirituality. He described it as a “quest for transcendence.” Stott then asked whether those thirsting for transcendence find it in the church, “in whose worship services true transcendence should always be experienced.”3 His answer? “Not often.”

Stott was an evangelical who felt that “evangelicals do not know much how to worship. Evangelism is our specialty, not worship.” Evangelical worship demands little of participants. There is no requirement to be faithfully present, fully present, and practicing spiritual disciplines. Instead, worship is often reduced to “meeting your needs,” being “relevant,” and highly entertaining. It “seems to have little sense of the greatness and glory of Almighty God,” wrote Stott. It’s “frivolous to the point of irreverence.” Small wonder Stott mourned how “those seeking reality often pass us by!”

Oliver Sacks seems to be seeking reality. He’s no longer into shortcuts. But he’s not checking out the church either. For this to happen, Christians might consider reading Sacks as well as Stott. Sacks helps us see why the Colorado and Washington decision is a shortcut, similar to gambling, another shortcut that’s proving immensely popular. Stott helps us see how the church is somewhat culpable in this by being trendy rather than helping congregants experience transcendence. Reading both might invigorate church leaders to pursue what seekers like Sacks yearn to experience – transcendence.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

1 David Brooks, “Weed: Been There. Done That.” The New York Times, January 2, 2014.
2 Oliver Sacks, “Altered States,” The New Yorker, August 27, 2012.
3 John Stott, The Living Church: Convictions of a Lifelong Pastor (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2011), p. 44.


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  1. Thanks for this one, it offers some good insights and thoughts!

    Yesterday I stood face to face with this, but was also left asking the question of children in worship – how do we develop a culture of worship that will include kids and last a lifetime, without going over their heads or excluding them, OR making them think the whole service is about their amusement and entertainment? The simple answer is preach the Gospel to every age group, and then get out of the way to let the spirit work, but what does that actually look like?

  2. Dan:

    I understand the spirit of “get out of the way and let the spirit work” but this sort of thinking excludes the role of human agency. The Spirit of God delights to work in and through us, even though he does not need us. If you conscience is clean, he does not want us to get out of the way but in get in the ways he is working.

    When we do that, we see this is a complex and mysterious faith. It is entertaining in the best sense of the word. The root of the word “entertain” is “to hold” (as in entertaining a thought”). Most worship is simplistic, describing the faith in dichotomies that fail to hold the attention of intelligent people. This sort of thing can be conveyed to younger folks without dumbing it down.

  3. Mike great read would love to share this with my 25 year old daughter living in Vail, Colorado with her boy friend and 2 year old daughter and yes love the fact they can now smoke pot legally. How come there is no share link to Face book on here? Thanks so much for your insight.

  4. Mike, thank you for your thought provoking writing and encouragement every week. Delighted to read it. Have you considered making DoggieHeadTilt an actual facebook page? This would increase exposure and possibly have greater impact. Proud to have you.

  5. Thanks Mike. It seems we tend to reduce or notions of worship to what takes place in a church service. I don’t think that is supported in the Scriptures. For example, Romans 12:1-2 calls is to offer our whole lives as a living sacrifice, which is our spiritual act of worship. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word Avodah means both worship and work, indicating that professional life done in faith is a form of worship. So, biblically, it seems that all of life should be an expression of worship. If we as believers can imitate Jesus in all we do, Sachs and others might see and experience more transcendence even though they are not willing to sit in church. Our narrow view of worship in evangelical circles limits our ability to convey the glory of God to the secular world.

  6. Glenn: I agree.
    Jeff: I agree.
    Apparently I am one agreeable chap.

    On a serious note, I’m working with others to join the social media world in a thoughtful way. Stay tuned.

  7. Just pondering,
    How would worship have been exhibited in the Garden of Eden? Does Adam and Eve’s behaviour give us a clue as to boundaries and errors?

  8. Barnabas: The Hebrew word for “worship” is also translated “work.” Adam and Eve worked the Garden. That’s one way they exhibited worship. Works the same way today, as most folks go to work every day.

  9. Thanx Mike. Another thought is, Some worship truth and others spirit, whereas Spirit and Truth is the calling.Maybe the alarm bell is the word ‘shortcut’.Shortcutting the cross being a major.Knowing Christ, but not sharing in His suffering, power of His resurrection and death. Creating clones and clowns.

  10. Paul’s innovations in worship while in prison and while being shipwrecked on 4 occasions also spring to mind. Where do pain, sickness and other disconnects fit in worship? Have we forsaken reality and lamentation at a risk?

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