Pub Theology: The First Preacher
What was a Humanist doing at a Pub Theology meetup? Well, discussing theology and drinking beer, for starters. I’d heard of Pub Theology for some years, as an informal way for people to discuss religion and spirituality in a non-threatening environment (some people, even many who consider themselves Christians, are really turned off by churches). As a Humanist, though, what could possibly interest me in this type of gathering?
It was, in fact, a comination of recent experiences that brought me around to the idea of participating. The two most noteworthy were visiting St. Lydia’s and reading Tripp Fuller’s new book on Jesus. At St. Lydia’s I felt an unqualified welcome despite the fact that it’s a Lutheran church. I didn’t need to say under my breath that I’m non-theistic, and at no time did anyone attempt to evangelize me. As for Tripp Fuller’s book, it was reading his comment that if the Gospel of Mark could be included in the canon, many of his skeptical friends should be welcomed in the church. Those factors, along with my academic training (BMin) and continued interest in some aspects of biblical theology, drew me in.
Oddly, I was apparently the only one to bring a Bible to the meetup. At one point a question came up and I, hesitantly, pulled out my trusty NRSV (with Apocrypha). The meetup itself followed along readings included in a handout. Some of the readings were from the Bible, and others were contemporary commentary.
This was not an in-depth study, by any means. Pub Theology, at least as presented by Jim Kast-Keat on behalf of Middle Collegiate Church, is a mildly boozy, friendly, structured chat about Christian beliefs. There was no deep-dive into historical, cultural or even textual context. The real focus seemed to be on people’s experiences with the topic in question, and how they felt about it. On this evening in particular the topic could be boiled down to ‘women in ministry’, with ‘The First Preacher’ referring to Mary Magdalenebeing first to see the resurrected Jesus and then going to tell others about it.
Frankly, it surprises me that this is still an issue in progressive Christian churches. When I left the Catholic Church and joined a Presbyterian parish at 17, I had no problem with women in ministerial roles. That was in 1993. Later I took a strictly complementarian role and held on to it for well over a decade, despite some underlying discomfort with the doctrine.
This brings me to the part that makes me wonder the most about progressive Christian beliefs. They have the canon of Scripture, consisting of the same 66 biblical books that all Protestants and Catholics accept (the latter with several additional texts in their canon), yet don’t seem to hold it all equally. Of course, no Christians hold all parts of their Bible in equal regard. The Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, of which I was a part, makes a strict distinction between Old and New Testaments, favoring the latter as ‘in effect’ for our age. Fundamentalists who quote Old Testament against homosexuality conveniently ignore prohibitions on garments made of mixed types of fabrics. Matthew 25:31-46 is profoundly unsettling for faith-only evangelicals (I know, based on feedback I’ve received after preaching on it). Christians in general prefer to look the other way on YHWH’s promotion of genocide and rape in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Still, picking and choosing which passages are acceptable and continuing to consider oneself ‘Christian’ feels terribly convenient. It seems to confirm the longstanding criticism leveled by atheists at believers that their religion will always conform to whatever views become embraced by the majority, adapting and surviving in a new form. When I was Roman Catholic a parish priest where I attended often spoke against this approach as ‘smorgasbord Christianity.’
Having said all that, let me backtrack a bit and be a bit less critical. Progressive Christians would likely argue that Jesus of Nazareth is the true ‘Word of God,’ and the Bible simply points to him. They accept the 66+ books as canonical, but are ‘accurate’ only insofar as they faithfully testify to and promote the love of God revealed in Christ. Even those Christians who are non-theistic, either overtly as atheists or more discretely in holding to god-language in a metaphorical sense, see value in the Bible as a shared narrative. The stories told and lessons passed along provide a core resource and common language for people to gather around. Even as they wrestle with the text, they are interacting with it and with one another.
Groups like Sunday Assembly, Ethical Culture, the Unitarian Universalist Association and Oasis do not have anything like the Bible, leaving them without a compelling shared story. Then again, all of these groups have their own organizational history as well as human and cosmic history to discuss and reflect upon. Not having it all within a single book poses a challenge, but I’d say it’s better to have evidence-based information to work with than creative fictions. Perhaps we simply need better storytellers to work with the source material.
It was great seeing Rev. Emily Scott from St Lydia’s there, sharing about her experience as a woman in ministry. Rev. Adriene Thorne from Middle Collegiate Church was also there to do the same, and both had a lot to contribute to the discussion. Most fun was watching them play ‘My Friend You See, I Disagree’ at the end, and Rev. Thorne was wise to prefer taking the contrarian positions (hilarious). Jim did very well as host and discussion leader, despite being a bit frazzled that we weren’t able to use the usual space.
Ah, and that brings me to Jimmy’s No. 43. I’ve been to this bar before, for The Greenwich Series. I was unimpressed with the venue for that event, and attending this event there confirmed those negative impressions. The service is terribly slow. The place smells bad and the stink got into my clothing and skin. For Pub Theology, the worst part was getting to the bar to find that the back room where the group usually meets was given to another event, with no prior notice. We were put in a noisy side room right next to a speaker playing what sounded like side B tunes from some folksy 70s album. We crowded around a table on stools, and were prevented from bringing in more stools from the bar area to seat latecomers.
Despite it all, I actually look forward to the next Pub Theology meetup. It will take place on December 15 and is themed ‘Queering Christmas.’ Jes Kast-Keat and John Russell Stanger will be guests for that gathering.