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Analyzing "The Big Book" and its principles

April 29, 2013
by Shannon Brys, Associate Editor
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In a field where new treatment modalities and theories are constantly researched, updated, and applied, “The Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous has seemingly held its ground.

John P. McAndrew M.A., MDiv, Director of Spiritual Care at the Betty Ford Center, believes that the text has been around for as long as it has because the principles within the book are universal.  “I think we have different experiences with them and different language around them, but whether they’re experienced in a 12-Step meeting or in your own church background, the principles remain the same,” he says.

McAndrew, who will be presenting a session at the September National Conference on Addiction Disorders (NCAD) titled, “The Big Book,” Alcoholics Anonymous: Developing Spiritual Principles for the 21st Century, stresses the importance of these universal spiritual principles found in “The Big Book.” He believes that the gender, culture and language obstacles encountered in the text can be overcome as individuals discover these spiritual principles and find their own conception of a Higher Power.

He says some of the major objections some clinicians have to using “The Big Book” as their primary treatment tool can be summarized in these points:

  • Language and culture issues reflect a (supposedly) homogeneous early/mid 20th century American culture.
  • Gender issues-  particularly how women have had to “translate” the “by men/ for men” assumptions found in the text.
  • Religious issues-noting, identifying and moving through the foundational Oxford Group Christian worldview underlying the spiritual language of the text.
  • The absence of any tools for dealing with grief as a primary reaction or response to addiction treatment.

McAndrew has identified seven essential spiritual principles that are found in all major world religions, and in all authentic spirituality, and has recognized how those are experienced in the 12 Steps. These seven principles will be shared at his presentation at NCAD in September.

He believes it’s important to focus on spiritual practice rather than spiritual belief, and says “maybe then we can take the fight out of spirituality.” Why is there a fight? McAndrew says it’s because most people’s understanding of “religion” and “spirituality” focuses on belief systems.

“As soon as I tell you what I believe, then you have to decide whether you agree or not, and as soon as we do that, the war is on,” he says. “Whereas in 12-Step spirituality, we simply tell a story of our own experience, so there’s really no fight about that. I’m not telling you what I believe in, just telling you my experience. We can focus on spiritual practices instead of spiritual beliefs.”

By treating these principles as practices, one can see the 12 Steps instead as a design for living, a way of life. McAndrew compares the 12 Steps to Buddhism because neither of them has a particular deity.

“The narrative approach at the heart of the text (hearing and telling of individuals’ stories) remains the foundation for integrating and applying the practice of the Steps. The Big Book uniquely identifies addiction as a ‘spiritual’ malady, so a holistic bio-psycho-social-spiritual approach will continue to benefit from the experience, strength and hope of millions of addicts/alcoholics who look to the 12 Steps as a ‘design for living,’” McAndrew concludes.