Hallelujah, praise the Big Book

It's the Holy Grail. It's the holy writ. It's as if the words "had appeared from somewhere on high." "The Book That Started It All" will be released to the public on Friday, and there's a media storm a-brewin'.

If you'd like a copy, go outside first thing in the morning and wait for the heavens to open up and deliver it to you. Or if you'd prefer, try Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

The big deal is the release of the original working manuscript of the Big Book, the Bible of Alcoholics Anonymous. Now, this news is probably not quite the level of knowing which commandments were rejected before God settled on The Top 10 Thou Shalts and Thou Shalt Nots, but it's big nonetheless. And yes, there's a highly significant religion angle.

The top of the story from ABC News:

For decades, addicts have adhered to Alcoholics Anonymous' 12 steps and the book that lays them out, informally known as the Big Book, as if the words in it had appeared from somewhere on high.

But it turns out that the original manuscript, written in 1939 by AA co-founder Bill Wilson, was heavily edited to make it less religious and more welcoming to people who did not consider themselves Christians. The original is being published next week as "The Book That Started it All."

Sid Farrar, the editorial director of Hazelden Publishing, which is publishing the manuscript, called it "one of the more important documents in the movement."

"This shows the book didn't come down from heaven," he said. "It wasn't written by one person, but it was this remarkable group process."

After being hidden for 70 years, the edits of the Big Book show there was debate, largely unknown until now, about how overtly to reference God and Christianity in the group's tenets.

Michelle Boorstein of The Washington Post explains:

The group's decision to use "higher power" and "God of your understanding" instead of "God" or "Jesus Christ" and to adopt a more inclusive tone was enormously important in making the deeply spiritual text accessible to the non-religious and non-Christian, AA historians and treatment experts say.

The editors softened Step 7 of AA's renowned 12 Steps for example, by deleting a phrase that evoked church worship. "Humbly, on our knees, asked Him to remove our shortcomings - holding nothing back," became "Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings."

In the first chapter, a sentence that read "God has to work twenty-four hours a day in and through us, or we perish," was edited to replace "God" with "faith," and a question was added: "Who are we to say what God has to do?"

The Associated Press and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune offer other insightful coverage.

The basic tenor of the coverage: AA made a brilliant decision not to focus its 12-step program on a single faith (Christianity) and Higher Power (Jesus).

From ABC News:

Because it's not exclusive, the text has since been adopted by many diverse faiths and also by those who struggle with addictions other than alcoholism, from drugs to gambling to sex.

The ABC report does include an alternative voice -- from left of center, that is:

An alternative to AA called Smart Recovery, which was founded in 1994 and has about 600 meetings across the country, doesn't use spirituality or religion in its program. AA is the biggest treatment program by far, with more than 2 million members.

"We have no objection to a higher power, but what we teach is not connected to that," said Tom Horvath, Smart Recovery's president. "That would be like if you're going to medical school to learn how to treat cancer. I don't care if you pray about it, but that's not what I'm going to teach. It's an entirely secular approach."

ABC's right-of-center voice? Sorry, but I caught no reference to Celebrate Recovery, which rejects AA's concept of addicts choosing their own concept of a Higher Power and teaches that Jesus is the only sufficient Higher Power. Celebrate Recovery, associated with Rick Warren and Saddleback Church, has been implemented in more than 3,500 churches, according to a recent news story.

To her credit, Boorstein's piece notes that AA's 12-step program "has been retooled by groups ranging from Chabad (for Jews) to Rick Warren's Celebrate Recovery (for evangelical Christians)."

She tacks on a dissenting voice at the end of her story:

Jack Cowley, a former prison warden who worked with AA for decades and now helps run faith-based prison programs, said the manuscript reflects "a cop-out" on Wilson's part, to make an inherently religious process "the least confrontational."

"The power is in the understanding of how Christ can apply these [steps]," Cowley said. "It's the scripture where the power is, it's not AA. . . . This is the same thing we're doing today. We're downplaying the faith issue to get more people."

It's interesting that much of the coverage focuses on AA's role as a "spiritual but not religious" organization. AA, of course, is not a church. Then again, maybe it is.

A Time magazine writer explains:

While many AA members sincerely believe that the program is "spiritual, not religious," and people from many faiths -- even atheists -- have found it helpful, as I wrote earlier, federal courts have unanimously ruled that coercing people to attend AA violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

By all means, click the links and read the stories. Is the coverage fair and the religion angle handled adequately? Do you see any ghosts?

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