Saturday, December 22, 2012

Beer, Conversation and God

So a Jew, a Presbyterian and a converted Lutheran walk into an Irish bar. Wait for it, wait for it. But sorry: while it sounds like the setup of a joke, there's no punch line. It's just another night of Pub Theology at O'Connor's Public House. The group gathers, orders some drinks and begins to chat. This being that certain time of the year, the topic for the night is the meaning of Christmas. And the decidedly untraditional setting? It's something new that Paul Alcorn, the pastor at a local church, is trying, or as he describes it to me, "A way of having conversations in a neutral space."

It's an idea popularized in a recent book called "Pub Theology" by Bryan Berghoef, a pastor now living and preaching in Washington DC. When he was in Traverse City, MI, Berghoef founded a faith based community called Watershed. Looking to expand his reach, he hit upon the pub idea. As he writes in his blog "Pub Theologian," it had historical context: "Some of the most important moments in the history of the church took place in the pub. Luther kick started the reformation over a few pints. The Church of England was started in the White Horse Tavern. Seemingly, all the best conversations take place in the pub."

And so he started a gathering at a local watering hole to chat about topics big and small, in a setting designed to attract those who might shy away from the church or even practice a different faith, as well as church goers who might feel more inclined to talk in a less imposing setting. As Berghoef writes, "The format is simple: beer, conversation and God. Everything is up for discussion, no assumptions, no barriers to entry. If you are going to get upset because someone questions something that is important to you, maybe this isn't for you. But if you think that whatever might be true ought to be able to stand up to being questioned, then maybe it is."

It's certainly nothing new. Pub Theology nights have existed for years, and can be found in places from Adelaide, Australia to Seattle, Washington. The sessions run the gamut from traditional religious gatherings held in non-traditional settings, to more informal bull sessions with a spiritual overtone. Calling it a movement is probably too strong, but the idea has garnered a certain following, and has gathered some steam in the wake of the book. As Berghoef sums it up on his Amazon page, "My argument is simple: good things happen when we sit down at the same table together and talk honestly about things that matter - and frankly, having a beer doesn't hurt."

As to our session, it was a small gathering, a generous half dozen. In front of us was beer, yes, but also wine, a drink with a piece of pineapple on it and a Diet Coke. Paul passed around a paper with some questions to get us thinking: Is there really a war on Christmas? If you don't believe in Jesus should you celebrate Christmas? Is it now more a commercial holiday than a religious one? What about religious symbols in public places? His ground rules, printed at the top, were simple: We don't need to agree; we do need to listen.  

The conversation, along with the drinks, was free flowing and respectful. We heard from moms, grandfathers, business owners and academics. It was give and take, challenges and anecdotes, stories and opinions. There were also a generous amount of laughs, and some new friends were made, along with different ways of thinking. And the only voices raised were to be heard over the Knicks-Nets game playing above the bar.

And as to the questions before the group about Christmas? I can't say we came to any definitive answers. We talked about the religious and historical connotations, the spiritual versus secular aspects, and the appropriateness of the church/state split. But the bottom line is that it did indeed came down to a Jew, a Presbyterian and a converted Lutheran sitting in an Irish bar, sharing a drink and having a meaningful conversation. And if that's what the holiday is all about, well, at least from my perspective, you could do a lot worse.


You can find out more about the local version of Pub Theology from Paul Alcorn at Wollin's column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

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