“[Karl] Marx famously called religion the opiate of the masses, but these days opiates are the opiates of the masses.”

That’s the first variation of this observation I came across last week, via Tim Kreider’s new I Wrote This Book Because I Love You. The second run-in occurred a couple days later, toward the middle of Andrew Sullivan’s mammoth “The Poison You Pick” essay in New York Magazine. He writes:

“If Marx posited that religion is the opiate of the people, then we have reached a new, more clarifying moment in the history of the West: Opiates are now the religion of the people…”

Two of my favorite writers, saying roughly the exact same thing at the exact same time–it got my attention. It probably didn’t hurt that I had just re-watched the episode of Seinfeld where Elaine fails a drug test because of her penchant for poppy seed muffins (about the extent of the humor one can milk out of this topic).

I’m ashamed to say that before reading the above quotes, I had avoided looking too deeply into the Opioid Crisis that’s currently ravaging this country. Call it crisis-fatigue or epidemicoverload, but when the statistics about declining life expectancy among American males hit last year and all signs pointed to opioid-related fatalities (of despair), I took them at face value, unwilling to stomach another gut-turning long-read.

Well, no longer. I’m afraid Sullivan’s lengthy treatise on the subject warrants the dreaded “must-read” label. Here’s the brass tacks:

More than 2 million Americans are now hooked on some kind of opioid, and drug overdoses — from heroin and fentanyl in particular — claimed more American lives last year than were lost in the entire Vietnam War. Overdose deaths are higher than in the peak year of AIDS and far higher than fatalities from car crashes. The poppy, through its many offshoots, has now been responsible for a decline in life spans in America for two years in a row, a decline that isn’t happening in any other developed nation. According to the best estimates, opioids will kill another 52,000 Americans this year alone — and up to half a million in the next decade…


He goes on to trace the many factors at work, not just on the supply chain side of things (overzealous doctors, market pressures and pharmaceutical innovations, especially the advent of fentanyl) but the demand end as well. Anyone who’s read Hillbilly Elegy will recognize the diagnosis: The collapse of US manufacturing along with the rise of tech-enabled loneliness and decline of traditional avenues of meaning–church and family primarily–have decimated emotional well-being in much of the rural parts of our country. Indeed, unlike the narcotic disasters of the 80s and 90s, cities are not ground zero for opioid abuse.

But that doesn’t mean it’s only a “flyover problem” (terrible phrase). I defy you not to relate to this statement, for instance:

What has happened in the past few decades is an accelerated waning of all these traditional American supports for a meaningful, collective life, and their replacement with various forms of cheap distraction. Addiction — to work, to food, to phones, to TV, to video games, to porn, to news, and to drugs — is all around us…

All of the above may be an overly tidy description, but the kernel of truth it contains is hard to deny. Fortunately, where most would be content to stick to the political and economic factors, Sullivan sees the story-beneath-the-story, “a story of pain and the search for an end to it.” He writes:

The scale and darkness of this phenomenon is a sign of a civilization in a more acute crisis than we knew, a nation overwhelmed by a warp-speed, postindustrial world, a culture yearning to give up, indifferent to life and death, enraptured by withdrawal and nothingness. America, having pioneered the modern way of life, is now in the midst of trying to escape it…

Elsewhere, Sullivan adroitly notes that cocaine, so definitive of 1980s optimism, amps a person up, keeps them going and producing, makes you think you can conquer the world, promotes a kind of manic engagement. Opioids, on the other hand, are downers, designed to numb pain and take you out of the world, not into it–the “flight” flipside to the “fight” of compulsive performancism. Hyperbole notwithstanding, this is the real story, and it is a spiritual one, by no means limited to farms and trailers:

It is easy to dismiss or pity those trapped or dead for whom opiates have filled this emptiness. But it’s not quite so easy for the tens of millions of us on antidepressants, or Xanax, or some benzo-drug to keep less acute anxieties at bay.

I might add alcohol to that list, but… touché. In our hurry to analyze and/or score ideological points, we forget the wise man’s warning about casting stones and the logs in our own eyes.

Along those lines, I was thankful to find Sullivan tempering the alarmism mid-way through by suggesting that opioid use isn’t purely a function of miserable men and women medicating themselves en masse but, “of people who didn’t realize how miserable they were until they found out what life without misery could be.” He concludes:

To see this epidemic as simply a pharmaceutical or chemically addictive problem is to miss something:the despair that currently makes so many want to fly away. Opioids are just one of the ways Americans are trying to cope with an inhuman new world where everything is flat, where communication is virtual, and where those core elements of human happiness — faith, family, community — seem to elude so many. Until we resolve these deeper social, cultural, and psychological problems, until we discover a new meaning or reimagine our old religion or reinvent our way of life, the poppy will flourish.

It’s a tragic situation, and one compounded by what Aaron Z. observed on The Mockingcast last week, namely, if indeed the crisis is (anywhere near) as ‘spiritual’ as so many suggest, then churches have an obligation to address or at least name it from the pulpit. Alas, this seems not to be the case, as we opt instead for false positivity or spiritual to-do lists. It’s acceptable to preach a topical sermon on marriage (on the right) or racism (on the left) but not… despair. Which is, ironically, the most relevant topic of all when it comes to the Christian religion.

To be fair, the reticence probably has as much to do with hope as it does with cowardice or semi-pelagianism. Because yes, the same low anthropology that breathes such honesty and life into the rooms of AA turns others off, especially those actively coked up on human potential. When unaccompanied by faith, it *can* foster an environment of morose defeatism–a wallowing almost–possibly even pride in one’s courage in facing the essential sadness of life. And that’s not the Gospel either. (How to preach a sermon that neither denies the darkness nor robs people of their joy? Only the Holy Spirit knows…)

Because if we’re talking about the story-beneath-the-story, we have to talk about its ending. Indeed, we have to talk about the picture of grace in the midst of (opioid) addiction that John Zahl gave us this past weekend in Tyler. We have to talk about Officer Ryan Holets:

Redemption for the addict, John reminded us, is often reduced to sobriety. While that’s obviously of utmost importance for physical survival, it begs the question: what about those who never get clean? For whom the grip of addiction proves too strong? After all, the world Sullivan describes is a world where that population will only increase.

The gospel, if it is to find traction in the age of fentanyl, must speak to the Crystal Champs of the world. It cannot stop at sobriety or hang on willpower; it must resonate in the Wet House as well as the dry. This gospel, if it is to be actual good news, must address men and women whose hearts and bodies are infected with all manner of trouble, bereft of hope, who see God as an exacting cop (if at all), not a loving father who meets us where we are, in our shame and sin, with mercy, help and the spirit of adoption.

Thankfully–and miraculously–it does. The gospel in the age of fentanyl is the same gospel as ever, the message about the God who intervenes upon us with outlandish charity, at a cost to himself, offering life eternal to those who’ve been checkmated by the here and now. Not one who gives hope to the hopeless, but who is hope to the hopeless.