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Raising the bar on pub theology

Raising the bar on pub theology

by Sam Laurent

Talking about church stuff in a bar! Can you believe it? Such is the energy behind innumerable articles and blog posts about pub theology, theology on tap (that one’s trademarked, so proceed with that awareness), or any other name for getting together in a bar to talk about church stuff. I’ve been a leader for one such program, which we call Indulgences, for two and a half years now, with some sessions really taking off into something beautiful, some not so much, and a good amount of trial and error in between. This model has been around long enough that I don’t think it counts as edgy or innovative anymore, and my main point here is that it never was terribly edgy or innovative, and edginess and innovation really have nothing to do with good pub theologizing, anyway. Those values, in and of themselves, offer little for the folks who come out for a pint and some discussion, and also don’t give much to the life of the church, other than maybe some hypothetical bragging rights.

Right at the top, let me be clear that doing pub theology is terrific, and I don’t want to discourage it at all. Quite to the contrary, I think it can be a vital part of how we engage our faith and our negotiation of the complex and mysterious waters of Christianity. Talk about church stuff in a bar! Do it!

But don’t do it to make your church look cool. If that’s the motivation or expectation, you can expect the engagement with it to go no deeper than the superficial trappings of the event. And it will quickly grow stale. If the novelty of being at a “church thing” in a bar (or “beer church” as one friend calls it) is the primary energy you bring to the event, then you may find yourself casting seeds on rocky soil.

I like to think of our Indulgences sessions as an intentional reclamation of the pub atmosphere as a place to discuss theology. My inspiration for this comes from the beers of England, many of which have rather low alcohol contents, and are termed “session ales.” They’re meant for folks who gather at the pub and talk for hours, so they can drink for a while with friends and still possess their faculties. So the story goes, anyway. So, my love for English bitters (on cask!) has an ideological facet to it.

The idea of a pub as a place to gather, enjoy company, and to engage in something more than just small talk has a tremendous appeal, and can be a refreshing thing for churches, where cultures of clericalism or a simple forgetfulness of the fact that church teachings arise from living discussions can stifle difference and conversation. Rocky soil, you see. Pub theology can do some tilling. The informality of the setting, the ritual of having a pint (or whatever…), and the act of gathering around a table all help open up a space for discussion, and indeed it is the discussion that is rewarding.

With this aim at a pub discussion, a few guidelines come into view.

First, it must always be a discussion. Lectures and classes are suited to other venues, but to me, the point of doing theology in a bar is to open up a conversation. At the Advocate, we try to choose topics that are live issues within the church and in the wider world, and we don’t shy away from debating. After all, the tradition of debating in bars is time-honored. So folks who lead these sessions need to shift out of traditional Christian education mode, and let things be looser. I make handouts for our sessions, with a few passages of scripture or theology which can serve as grounding points for our discussion, and I generally open things up with a quick introduction of the topic, but that’s the extent to which I intentionally plan out the conversation. As a leader, I certainly try to facilitate deep discussion, but I don’t need to control what that discussion sounds like.

A lot of this, especially for folks accustomed to a more traditional role of teacher or instructor, is a matter taking on the discipline of letting it be a pub conversation. Unlike some other program offerings, pub theologizing will often actively resist any attempt to end up with a designated belief or doctrine being agreed upon. Rather than insisting on consensus, we aim to get ideas out on the table that we can use in our thinking, praying, and living, to test-drive those ideas and see how they work. We often tackle a genuinely big question and end up in a genuinely ambivalent space at the end of the session. Those have been my favorite sessions.

So go talk about church stuff in a bar. It’s a good thing to do, and it’s a lot of fun. But don’t think of the bar as just a change of venue. It changes the ethos, shifts the tone of the conversation, and inherently decentralizes it, which is to be commended, I think. Moreover, by providing a less formal place, where people don’t feel the eyes of church hierarchy holding their every statement up to the yardstick of orthodoxy, pub theology reveals levels of honesty and frankness that often aren’t ventured on Sundays. And that is very good. We say that all opinions are welcome, and I feel obligated to honor that, as a matter of hospitality and honesty. If we aren’t debating, if we aren’t questioning deeply and courageously, if we aren’t saying “oh, that’s a really great way to think about it”… if we aren’t really digging into some aspect of our life with God, then I think we’re missing the opportunity that pub theology programs provide us. Frank and thoughtful discussion is a beautiful and engaging thing.

So I’ll close by admitting that I often head into our Indulgences sessions with a bit of nervousness, because I don’t know what folks will say. As a leader at these gatherings, I’m supposed to be able to help facilitate a good conversation, to ask provocative questions, and to offer something that would seem to justify my years of graduate work. So the necessarily open-ended structure of our sessions is not the most calming, ahead of time. But it really pays off every time someone offers an honest and insightful thought that energizes the whole conversation, and sends us into a space that none of us could have outlined on our own. It’s easy to make jokes about doing theology in a bar, and indeed the title of those programs rightfully ought to indulge a little cheesy humor, but when the Holy Spirit gets some traction in our conversations, I’m always glad I didn’t try to lecture or indoctrinate. Not in a pub.

Sam Laurent Ph.D. is the resident theologian at the Episcopal Church of the Advocate in Chapel Hill, NC and director of the Center for Theological Engagement


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Sean Tracey

Visiting my grandfather’s birthplace in a small town (Monasterevan) in Ireland, and meeting the locals and cousins, we did pub theology with the local parish priest every night. Not a new thing for him, for sure.

barbara snyder

I totally agree about people “finding their own voices.”

Talking these things through – honestly and frankly, as you say – is just really crucial, I think. EFM, with its discussions on the readings and its “theological reflections,” often gets into this territory, too.

Best of luck with the indulgences! Sounds really great, to me….

Sam Laurent

Thanks for your comments, Barbara. Your point about folks with alcoholism is well taken. A couple such folks have joined us, and not everyone among us has a beer when we meet (especially in Lent), but I agree that we miss out on a great deal of wisdom. I know of a couple of coffee shop groups, and they prove that alcohol is not the Spirit of consequence in a good conversation.

As for indoctrination, I too wish that it had more collaborative or ministerial connotations, instead of being over in a semantic corner with brain-washing. But I am also responding here to some models for such programs where the leader has a microphone, which to me sets up a power dynamic that doesn’t so much encourage people to find their own voices as Christians. To me, theological teaching is about helping folks find that voice (indeed, that vocation) by digging into the ongoing discussions that shape doctrine, and you can’t find your voice without talking. So perhaps including more programs like this in our educational offerings can help shift the popular perception and we can reclaim indoctrination!

barbara snyder

(On a separate note: I also think it’s a shame that at this point Christian teachings are thought of as “indoctrination” in the negative sense – rather than as what they seem to me to be: a pointer towards a way of seeing life and the world that’s meant for healing and wholeness. I wish we could reclaim that idea somehow.

This is not meant as a criticism of your piece at all, BTW; I completely agree that there are times when discussions are far better left to simply flow freely, without being “corrected” in any way, and without any attempt to guide them in a particular direction. That kind of talk is, truly, often terrifically fruitful. “Questions” can’t always be answered immediately anyway; sometimes they require some consideration, often of the long-term variety.

It’s just too bad that Christianity has come to be seen as something primarily about a bunch of (sometimes rather bizarre-sounding!) propositions, rather than about ways of seeing and understanding the world, with the good of real human beings in mind.)

barbara snyder

Interesting article. It is, truly, fantastic to get down to “levels of honesty and frankness that often aren’t ventured.” That’s wonderful – and too bad that these things don’t go on on Sundays, if that’s true, because to me the whole purpose of the church is precisely “frankness and honesty.”

It’s too bad, though, in a way, that by holding these conversations in bars you’ll be excluding one group of people – recovering alcoholics in A.A. – who know a lot about the faith life and about “levels of honesty and frankness that often aren’t ventured on Sundays.” A.A. people tend to avoid bars, for obvious reasons; perhaps we’ll need to start “Coffee shop theology” groups too….

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