You can tell a lot about a culture by the particular words it invents and adopts. Australians have been very creative with the English language, concocting words such as fair dinkum, bonzer, digger, furphy, on the turps, and ridgy-didge. Even if we don’t use them, they tell us something about ourselves.
Then there’s the word “wowser,” a term of contempt for a person who is a killjoy – one who won’t join in the revelry and condemns others for doing so. It arose in connection with the work of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in the 19th century. The Bulletin, which was supposed to be a political magazine for the working man, often featured cartoons of women and clergy banded together in an attempt to spoil the fun of working men – mostly drink, gambling and smoking. They were ridiculed for it.
We are taught in Aussie culture to denigrate the wowser and to celebrate the opposite, the larrikin.
Painter Norman Lindsay, whose nudes were certainly controversial in the 1910s and ’20s, said wowsers were “pious hypocrites who dislike seeing others enjoy themselves.” The poet C.J. Dennis described a wowser as “an ineffably pious person who mistakes this world for a penitentiary and himself for a warder.”
We are taught in Aussie culture to denigrate the wowser and to celebrate the opposite, the larrikin. The ideal Aussie character is fun-loving, hard-drinking, loves a bit of naughtiness with the opposite sex and doesn’t hold back. We are the country of the Prime Minister who gave everyone a day off when we won the America’s Cup; and of being so drunk at the Melbourne Cup that you mount a wheelie bin as if it was a horse. Our heroes are Bob Hawke and Dawn Fraser and Dennis Lillee and Shane Warne and Barnesy and David Boon, who drank 52 cans of beer from Mascot to Heathrow. As a nation we believe what W.C. Fields once said: “Never trust a man who doesn’t drink.”
[Australian churches] have been perceived to be acting like the moral police of Australia; typecast as the death, rather than the life of the party.
To be a wowser is to be positively disloyal to our national identity. And that’s a label Australian churches have had to wear for a few centuries. We’ve been perceived to be acting like the moral police of Australia; typecast as the death, rather than the life of the party. But, you know, restricting the fun of others is not what the followers of Jesus are called to. Right? Jesus himself was fond of a party and once produced an extraordinary amount of wine for a wedding, if you recall. Oh, and we look pretty hypocritical too, since the abuse scandals have come to light.
At the same time, we’ve increasingly realised the devastating cost of the Aussie love of the binge and bender. A study by Griffith University estimated that the total cost to society of alcohol-related problems in 2010 was more than $14 billion. The Australian Government says half a million of its own citizens are in the category of problem gamblers or at risk of becoming one. The social cost of gambling to our community is $4.7 billion. Or what about another symbol of permissive behaviour – pornography? The illusion that the sex industry traded for years – that porn did no one any harm – has been completely debunked as we now realise it harms those who use it and who produce it. We are only starting to see the consequences for our society of our porn addiction.
…no one wants to be a wowser, but we can also see how damaging the impact of our devotion to revelry is.
So here’s the dilemma: no one wants to be a wowser, but we can also see how damaging the impact of our devotion to revelry is. What are we to do? In 1 Peter 4, the apostle calls on Christians to “arm yourselves with the intention to live for the rest of your earthly life no longer by human desires but by the will of God.”
And what does that look like? Well, he is clear about what it doesn’t look like. He says: “You have already spent enough time in doing what the Gentiles like to do, living in licentiousness, passions, drunkenness, revels, carousing, and lawless idolatry.”
The Christians are to show a marked difference from the pagan world by not indulging in the orgies and drunkenness of that world. Armed with a new identity and with a new hope, there is no reason to indulge in the party-fest.
…we can leave behind the pointlessness of the party because the kind of lifestyle that Christians have left is, frankly, hopeless.
So, what’s actually changed for the Christian? We now have a hope: we have our eye on the future, and we want to obey the will of God, not just do what our flesh craves. We have a perspective of what lies ahead that means that what we do with our flesh and bone is not meaningless, not a simple accumulation of pleasurable sensations, but a preparation for our future together with God.
That is: the Christian has a hope secured in Jesus Christ – “new birth into a living hope” – a view to the future kingdom of God. There’s more to come: a brilliant promise of a glorious and joyous future for us held in the arms of God. Our bodies are not simply pieces of meat; they are to be gloriously resurrected on the final day, radiant with the light of God. So, we can leave behind the pointlessness of the party because the kind of lifestyle that Christians have left is, frankly, hopeless.
The indulgence in the flesh is a theological statement: there’s no God. Nothing matters. It’s simply in denial of any future. It’s the “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” philosophy. Even if people don’t actually express that, there’s a sort of defiance of God himself in the party lifestyle.
Why would I believe in God, when I know that believing in God is inconsistent with womanising and shoving coke up my nose? I’ve spoken to people who’ve made this an actual choice. One guy told me, “Look, to be honest, if I believe in God, then I’ll have to stop looking at porn, and getting smashed, and I don’t want to do that.”
Your calling as a Christian is to show your neighbours what it looks like to live with hope.
There’s a kind of lurking sadness in this. The hopelessness of it all pokes through, if you listen carefully. We know that a life of substance abuse and sexual indulgence is physically harmful to us; but it’s also a form of spiritual suicide. After he was caught having a sexual encounter in a toilet, George Michael wrote a song with the line “There’s nothing here but flesh and bone/There’s nothing more/Let’s go outside … ” To be at the funeral of a committed hedonist is to know true despair.
But the committed hedonist is wrong. There is a God who will demand an account from us of what we’ve done with the gift of life. He “stands ready to judge the living and the dead.” The grave does not draw an impenetrable veil over us. Our lives have meaning – not because we choose a certain set of values for them, but because God himself has.
How can we live by God’s will, and not be wowsers?
We need to throw better parties.
We need to be bold in saying “No” to the lifestyle of revelry. For example: the Christian may or may not drink alcohol, but a Christian wants to give up drunkenness, because they have hope and don’t need to smash their own brain into oblivion to forget reality.
Now, the season of end-of-year parties is upon us. It’s going to be especially challenging to be a model of restraint in the midst of the bacchanalia. But your calling as a Christian is to show your neighbours what it looks like to live with hope. That doesn’t mean judgmentalism, but behaving differently as a sign of Jesus Christ’s care. Be the one who is ready to listen to your colleague who will surprisingly open up; or be the one who volunteers to organise the function in such a way that people have a celebration that isn’t destructive.
But there’s something more, too.
We need to throw better parties.
We have every reason to sing for true joy – not because we want to forget, but because we want to remember. We need to show what the true love of this meaningful and beautiful life is like, as we support one another even amid suffering. We rejoice not because we are in denial about the painful reality of this world, but despite it – because we know that it’s not the end of the story. Our rejoicing allows space for tears, but is never overcome by them. As we weep for our broken world, we also laugh with joy at the thought of the victory that is ours in Jesus.