A Feature Review of
Pub Theology: Beer, Conversation, and God
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.
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