Featured Reviews, VOLUME 5

Bryan Berghoef – Pub Theology [Feature Review]

Bryan Berghoef - Pub TheologyEmbracing “The Other”

A Feature Review of

Pub Theology: Beer, Conversation, and God

Bryan Berghoef

Paperback: Cascade; 2012
Buy now: [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]

Reviewed by Adam P. Newton

Depending upon where under the vast umbrella of American evangelicalism you might reside, the very idea of this book is probably going to rankle you a bit. I can even hear some of you thinking, “How do beer, conversation, and God even fit together? Shouldn’t it be beer, conversation, or God? I’m not sure that we should be drinking alcohol while talking about God, and we certainly shouldn’t be hanging out in places where you can buy booze.” Bryan Berghoef would be the first to admit that he remembers having that sort of thinking himself in the past, and more importantly, he’d be the first to tell you that he does not advocate that you plunk yourself down on a stool at your local watering hole and proceed to rant about the Gospel while getting drunk.

The purpose of Pub Theology is to present the framework for a concept embodied in the book’s title – pub theology is the creation of a safe space for a diverse group of people with a diverse set of beliefs to sit down and talk about deep stuff. Yes, these talks would optimally be about theology, but it could be about anything, as Berghoef intentionally hopes that these groups develop into meetings where adults feel comfortable talking about religion and politics in an open, civil fashion, free of polemics and stereotypes.

How is this accomplished? The basic answer (and it’s what Berghoef spends most of the book discussing) is that we need to listen to each other. To have an actual conversation, we need to focus upon what the other person is saying, regardless of what we think we want to say and what bit of information we have to say in order to “win” the dialogue. Specifically, he feels that Christians in the 21st century have to regain a love for “The Other” [my personal interpretation, borrowed from Zizek, John Caputo, and Peter Rollins] that Jesus evinced throughout the Gospels, and in order to spend with them, we have to meet them where they are, just as Jesus did. And for the author, a good place to start is a local watering hole that a wide range of people might find amenable.

In terms of approach, Pub Theology strikes a fine balance between Blue Like Jazz and Generous Orthodoxy. Specifically, there is a strong memoir feel to Brian’s discussion of how he as a believer and pastor came upon the concept of “Pub Theology” and the need to listen to people outside of his personal faith background, but the book has just enough of a “how-to” manual feel that any give reader can take the author’s ideas and translate them easily to a pub in his/her own locale.

Most importantly, the book seeks to address how many Christians have moved into a more post-evangelical mindset, which means that they’re tired of the old negative exclusivity and look for ways to connect with non-Christians in positive, healthy ways. This is where the listening becomes essential, because whether we admit or not, we live in a pluralistic world, and in order to have discussions about God, beliefs, ethics, and/or right practices, not everyone is going to start from a place of Biblical inerrancy. Pub Theology is not about gathering people for an old-school Bible study – instead, it’s about sharing a pint or two with other adults and being open to hearing what they might have to say, especially if it’s outside of your personal belief system or knowledge base.

If there is a weak point to Pub Theology, it’s that the book remains a bit too whimsical at times, and employs a slight over-reliance upon personal experience to make his larger points. Sure, Berghoef typically is able to address most traditional evangelical concerns about his approach, and he’s fully aware that not everyone will agree with it or even understand why he feels this change in tone regarding “The Other.” However, by resisting the inclination to inject a few practical “how-to” instructions into the mix, his suggestions can be a bit too vague at times. I wish he would have struck a bit better balance between story-telling and exposition (since he is talking to The Church with this book), and I would have really liked for him to include a list of sample questions that he typically uses to kickoff a typical Pub Theology gathering.

To his credit, Berghoef is aware that most traditional evangelicals will give him lots of guff for this approach, since he doesn’t use Jesus as a stock discussion topic or use the forum to discuss salvation. He is also upfront with the fact that Pub Theology isn’t really an “I have all the answers” sort of place, and he openly wants it to be a place where everyone can discuss his/her struggles, issues, and frustrations about religion (and other weighty topics) without any fear of being shouted down or rancorous argument. He asserts the importance of facilitating and guiding over leading and administrating, and he advocates the use of provisional language to keep the conversation flowing, rather than dictating terms from on-high with the declarative language used by pastors and preachers.

As I stated earlier, the heart of the idea driving “Pub Theology” as a book and group meet-up concept is that we need to welcome, embrace, and recognize “The Other” in all its facets and forms (and not just for the sake of conversion). What Berghoef wants Pub Theology to illustrate to The Church is that, since our world is more interconnected than ever, we come face-to-face with ideas, people, beliefs, and perspectives that can be vastly different from ours. Unfortunately, a great many fearfully violent actions and reactions have sprung forth from a negligent lack of understanding, and most of them arise simply because we don’t want to see things from someone else’s perspective.

In short, Bryan Berghoef’s Pub Theology expresses the idea that, if Christians truly want to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, they need to seek out fresh, healthy ways to embrace “The Other” without any sort of condemnation, anger, or fear. And like Jesus, this often means we have to break a loaf of bread or two, uncork a few bottles of wine, and pop open some brews with people and do so in places that the church establishment might not find too acceptable. If Jesus can eat, drink, and be merry with lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, and Samaritans  (and have Pharisees troll him for it,), we should welcome the opportunity to share our thoughts and words about God (you know, the actual meaning of “theology”) with doctors, lawyers, bricklayers, teachers, and accountants of different religious, ethnic, and social backgrounds.


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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com


  1. Thanks for the review. I have been wondering about this one.

  2. I am nearly finished with Berghoef’s work, which I had high hopes for. I appreciate points of your review, but I have to say that I do disagree about some of Berghoef’s intentions. If it were merely a monograph to discuss active listening in interfaith settings, I would be all ears. But within that framework he exposes that he is not a Christian living in a pluralistic world, he is a pluralist. I don’t say this with disrespect but in recognition that he is seeking to shed the “exclusitivity” of fundamentalism and traditional Christianity while learning what it means to “climb to the top of the mountain” of understanding and knowing God, asserting that multiple faiths can be incorporated into Christianity without any taking priority. (See his illustration of the telescope for an example). In establishing pub theology, he is also seeking to deconstruct Christian theology into a more cultural friendly model. I admittedly am frustrated with what you call his “whimsical” approaches to these gatherings. I too believe that there needs to be real listening and understanding, but I would not go so far as to say that this negates some central tenets to my own faith. I think that I can still be an “orthodox” Christian while also dialoguing with other faiths. From Berghoef’s Reformed background, he seems to posit the rigidness and fear of that upbringing as something that all people universally experience with tradtional Christianity. I would say that his context is dictating his views of others’ experience with the church in a way that molds his book. Maybe I am not progressive enough, but I don’t see religious pluralism as the necessary next step for Christianity, remembering that Jesus calls Himself the “way, truth, and the life.” The trouble I have with this multi-faith approach to God is that many of the faiths mentioned, at least in their primary Scriptures, see themselves as the sole route to God. To omit this is to in some way neglect what is a central part of the different faiths represented, and it’s a naive approach to interfaith dialogue.

    These are just some of my relatively disjointed thoughts, but I’ve been wrestling with this book and needed to get them out.

    • Hi Alex-

      Glad to hear you are reading the book, and I share your high hopes for it. 🙂 I entirely appreciate your comments and your frustrations, and am glad you posted them. Also, before I forget, I’ve spent significant time in evangelical settings, so I think I have a fair grasp of (and to an extent have been shaped by) this perspective as well.

      The book is meant to draw us into a setting of conversations where we actually do encounter others. Part of that requires at least sitting down to the table as a “pluralist,” in the minimal sense of: I believe all people are created in God’s image and have something to teach me. This does not necessarily mean everyone is right, or all paths lead to God, or anything of the sort. At that point you’re reading into what I’m saying (or not saying). I’m pretty sure I don’t make any claims in the book as to people’s eternal destinies. (Though I do hope and trust that God’s grace and mercy are much wider than I can imagine).

      When discussions happen with people of various (and often competing) worldviews, there are going to be disagreements. Yes. Absolutely. Perhaps I could have articulated this more strongly in the book (though I think it is evident in some of the pub anecdotes and elsewhere). There have often been evenings at the pub where I have, as a Christian, flat out disagreed with people over important issues. An honest discussion demands this.

      However, the point of the book is not to give an exposition of my own theology (though it arises at points), but rather to encourage the setting in which true and good dialogue can happen, and indicate ways in which one’s own faith or perspective (regardless of which kind), can be broadened.

      I intentionally don’t show all of my cards, or even give the hoped for “But you’re going to tell everyone Jesus is the only way to God, right?”, because I want people to live in the tension. The tension of true interfaith connection, in which we hold the possibility (even if we don’t embrace it), that “the other” may well be right, and we are the ones who need to learn. As I note in the introduction, for too long the church has taken the place of preacher and teacher, and perhaps it is our turn to listen. Your comments indicate the discomfort that arises with such tension. You want to enter such discussions, not really to learn, but with the safe knowledge that you are right, and anticipating the moment you can share that. (Ironically, we Christians often come to such discussions hoping others will be open to our perspectives, while having no intention of being open to theirs).

      You may not be in a place where you have something to learn from others, which perhaps might indicate your frustration with the book, and that’s fine. But many, many others have found the book to be a welcome volume which allows their own doubts, questions, and answers to be honestly wrestled with.

      The book is not a defense of the Christian faith, or any other faith, though I write it as a Christian. It is simply one person’s experience of engaging others, and realizing that our world will be a better place if we can all sit down together and talk, instead of dismissing each other from our own safe enclaves.

      I have no grand project of converting others at Pub Theology, except to this: to be a better person — one who loves more fully, questions more broadly, listens more intently, and hopes more strongly. I trust that at the end of the day, God’s purposes will happen, and the truth will win out.

      As Augustine put it: “The truth is like a lion. You don’t have to defend it. Let it loose. It will defend itself.”

      God doesn’t need me to sit at the pub and tell everyone they’re wrong if they don’t believe a particular (often, narrow) version of Christianity. He needs me to create a space of hospitality, where all are received and welcome, and where his very way is incarnated and on display. Where saints and sinners are equals. And occasionally, yes, I tell people about Jesus.

      • I enjoy what interfaith dialogue I have had (though admittedly I have not always been in environments where this is possible, as the place I currently minister in is very white and eurocentric), and do believe that I have much to learn from other faiths. I appreciate Thomas Merton’s interactions with the Dalai Lama and Buddhism; I would love to have those same sort of discourses as supplements to my Christianity. I also believe that Jesus meant what he said when he told his disciples that those who are not against us are for us; God has many revealed truths in other religions that we may fail to see because of our current contexts or backgrounds.
        My issue with “Pub Theology” is not that I want to sit down at a table with my stack of tracts (which I deplore) or my giant Bible as an answer book. Nor is it that Christians should control the flow of information in order for the meeting to be productive. If there is information or beliefs that could truly challenge our faith, then maybe we should well listen to it; maybe what we believe isn’t as stable as we thought.
        My struggle with this and other books from the “emergent” perspective is this: where is this sort of ecclesiology leading us? It is all fine and well to have these interfaith discussions and to learn from one another. In fact, in a time where fear of “terrorists” and “the others” has taken control of the evangelical right, I think these discussions and cooperation are necessary. In a recent issue of the Mennonite Leader Magazine, an article talked about the interfaith work being done between Christians and Muslims and Jews and how this cooperation helped the community through the debacle of the Dove World Foundation Church (or whatever the exact name is).
        In getting back to my point, where does this pluralist ecclesiology lead the church? Jesus certainly lived amongst and dialogued with “the other.” And God uses “the other” many times throughout the Bible. But I don’t see Jesus allowing the truth of the “other” to supersede at least the basic tenet of Christianity that Jesus is the manifestation of God on earth, and that life and salvation come through Him. What that means and looks like may be up for challenge, but surely this is key to his message. So, if we open ourselves and our churches up for this to be challenged, then where does this lead the future church? What does your personal faith or truth or belief matter if we collectively are no longer willing to assert at least some form of bottom line? I hate even typing this because I don’t want to come of as some sort of fundamentalist, which I am not; but surely Christ-centered ecclesiology is still important to the church, even though we may be post-modern, post-denominational, and/or post-Christendom.
        I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but though I perceived you hold personal convictions, in the book at least, you weren’t making them as an apparent importance to you, or at least on equal footing with pluralist leanings. The purpose of your book, as I read it, is to encourage open dialogue and active listening, which is great! But by not including also some kind of Christian truth rhetoric, it presents a troubling ecclesiology. At the end of the day, what do we do with this new knowledge? As individuals? As a church? Do we toss away Christianity altogether? And if Jesus stresses the importance of following Him specifically, then what do we say about “the other” who do not follow Him? Is God’s will and grace for all to come to Him, regardless of the path they take? I appreciate your telescope analogy, but I’m not sure that line of thinking isn’t from a humanist/postmodern understanding of faith rather than one founded in Scripture.
        I should say too that I don’t believe in inerrancy of the Bible, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think it contains truth; or that if the truth is emphasized more than once, such as the primacy of Christ, that we have the right to relegate it to secondary. I subscribe to the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, so I believe that reason and logic are necessary to understanding faith. But, these need to be coupled with and tested by Scripture and tradition.
        I would love to see a companion piece to “Pub Theology” which discusses how to integrate it into our churches or our “Christian Theology;” I don’t see the two as being interchangeable. Along with that, what would this type of theology mean for the future of the church? Is it the next Reformation, or is it simply a passing experiment?

        Thanks for your response. I hope you have a blessed Christmas.

      • I guess I should also clarify, I’m not evangelical; I would subscribe more to Anabaptism.