The nicotine journal

September 13, 2010

This summer I reread Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison in Fortress Press's extra­ordinary new edition of his collected works. Letters and Papers remains almost endlessly suggestive and stimulating theologically. But in this reading I noticed how often the imprisoned Luth­eran pastor mentioned tobacco. There are, in fact, no fewer than 20 entries in the index under "Smoking."

"I am very grateful for any smoking supplies," Bonhoef­fer mentions in one letter. In another he adds his "special thanks for the smoking supplies and to all the kind donors of cigarettes," and elsewhere he offers gratitude for "cookies, peaches, and cigarettes."

Bonhoeffer often re­inforces his gratitude with superlatives and exclamation points. "Maria's and Mother's cigarettes were magnificent," he writes. "I thank Anna very much for the cigarettes." And: "I thank you very much for everything, also for the cigars and cigarettes from your trip!" He praises a Wolf cigar for its "magical fragrance" and on another occasion declares, "I've lit the big cigar and am enjoying it immensely—thanks very much!" When his dear friend Eber­hard Bethge delivers a cigar sent by Karl Barth, Bon­hoeffer finds it so fine that he staggers at its "truly im­probable reality."

Bonhoeffer's nicotine en­comia brought to mind other theological figures who smoked. C. S. Lewis incessantly smoked cigarettes and a pipe. J. R. R. Tolkien appeared almost elf­ish in the author photo for The Hobbit, grinning and grip­ping a pipe. Barth, too, liked a pipe but sometimes smoked cigars. Other confirmed smokers in­clude Paul Tillich, Rein­hold Niebuhr, James Gustaf­son and Richard John Neu­haus.

Enthusiastic smokers can also be found in the ranks of conservative evangelicals. The British Baptist C. H. Spur­geon believed cigar drafts prepared his throat for preaching. Chal­lenged on this practice, Spur­geon replied that he would continue unashamedly to "smoke to the glory of God."

During his student days at Princeton, J. Gresham Machen remarked that cigar smoking was "my idea of delight" and wrote to his mother, "When I think what a wonderful aid tobacco is to friendship and Christian patience I have sometimes regretted that I never began to smoke."

You're never too old to start, cigar aficionados might have told Machen. And maybe he did, eventually. The mature Machen would mysteriously disappear to New York City for days at a time. Per­haps he was sneaking away to a Manhattan cigar bar.

Strenuous objections to tobacco use arise not only in fundamentalist or evangelical circles. When theologian Paul Ramsey appeared on the cover of the Methodist magazine the Christian Advo­cate, it was not his remarks on war but the photo of Ramsey with a pipe in hand that sparked a storm of controversy. One of my favorite letters to the editor in the Christian Century was the one years ago from a writer who summarily dismissed Stanley Hauer­was and Wil­liam Wil­limon as nothing more than "tobacco-country luminaries." Meanwhile, the paleo-Presby­terian (and wonderfully named) Nicotine Theo­logical Journal insists that it is not only about the joys of tobacco but takes pride in stirring up liberals and evangelicals.

Given the health concerns related to smoking, I will attempt no theological apologia for the activity other than observing that the existence of volcanoes—not to mention liturgical incense—suggests a God who apparently has a special interest in fire and smoke.

Cigarette smoking, given its highly addictive nature and the mountain of medical evidence for its harmfulness, stands beyond even tongue-in-cheek justification.

Setting cigarettes aside, I think pipe and cigar users enjoy smoking because it provides three substantial plea­sures. First, a high-quality cigar or a well-packed pipe presents occasion for patience (as Machen noticed). It takes at least 45 minutes to finish a decent cigar. That is time set aside for backyard meditation or contemplation. Few things better slow down a busy day and bring it in for a relaxed landing than a burning stogie and an iced bourbon.

Second, smoking in the company of others enhances conviviality. Conversation as­sumes a satisfying pace as the talkers pause periodically to draw on their pipes or cigars.

Third, smoking is an excellent aesthetic pleasure. There are the tools—cigar cutters, lighters and pipe cleaners—whose use is a soothing ritual. And smoke itself moves with visual elegance, in serene white or blue undulations, with a languorous ascent into the sky.

Take it or leave it, of course. But there can be little doubt why that brilliant and brave Lutheran pastor, jailed during the darkest days of the 20th century, enjoyed smoking.


Forms of smoking: does it matter?

First, I am not a smoker. I assume that 1) Rodney Clapp smokes cigars and I know that 2) just as important, he is male. How many women do you see nowadays sharing companionship with a pipe or a cigar?
But that's beside the point re Bonhoeffer, who smoked all three. For which I certainly don't condemn him. I'm glad he had this solace in prison, awaiting death.
Take a look at the self-righteous critics who objected to Obama smoking in the White House. Never mind that most of those who preceeded him did so. Yes, he smoked cigarettes: most of his generation, if they smoke at all, do. But he was bullied into promising not to smoke in his own home. Nicotine addiction is strong, and I would feel better about my president's judgment if I knew he was not fighting such an addiction with a myriad of daunting decisions facing him.
For pity's sake, let our president smoke in peace! He's not facing death (we hope) but he inherited more problems than any president in recent memory.

Smoke like Bonhoeffer

Congratulations on “The nicotine journal,” by Rodney Clapp (Sept. 21)--the dumbest story I have seen in 50-plus years of reading the Century. An item for discussion at the next meeting of a church youth group might be this: If one doesn’t want to die a martyr’s death like Bonhoeffer, one can at least smoke like him. The Century could perhaps follow up with an article titled: “Mellow meditation with medical marijuana.”

L. Ray Branton
Shreveport, La.