Book Review: Pub Theology

Disclaimer: Bryan Berghoef is the husband of the cousin of a guy I went to college with. His kids swam in my pool and proclaimed it to be the best part of their California vacation. In exchange, Bryan gave me a copy of Pub Theology.

As I was reading Pub Theology, my thoughts alternated between, “Wow, this is such a great idea,” and “Wow, this is so embarrassing.” Allow me to explain.

Pub Theology is about an idea. The idea is this: let’s get together with other people and talk about theology over beer. That’s it. That’s the whole idea. Not exactly rocket surgery, as I’ve been known to say after I’ve had a few beers myself. You’d hardly think you’d need to write a book about an idea like that. I mean, it’s a fairly short book, but still. An idea like that needs a flyer, or maybe a pamphlet. Pamphlet is a really strange word. It’s kind of creeping me out. Pamphlet. OK, moving on.

The embarrassing part is that I can see why Bryan did have to write this book. You see, in Christian circles, there’s a long tradition of discussing theology. It works like this: we meet with a bunch of other Christians in the church social hall, open with prayer, have coffee and windmill cookies (type of cookies may vary by denomination), listen to a presentation by some recognized authority (generally a pastor) and then discuss the topic amongst ourselves for 22 minutes. Often there are breakout groups and worksheets involved. At the end, the leader presents the answers to the questions and we mark up our worksheets. Then we close with prayer. I daresay that most North American Christians have never seriously discussed theology in any environment that was not ultimately controlled by some religious authority (church, Sunday school, Christian school, Christian camp, etc.).

If you grew up in that tradition and you’re uncomfortable with the idea of discussing theology over beer, with atheists, Buddhists, Jedis, or whoever else might show up, in an uncontrolled environment without any “leaders” and without any real structure (no worksheets, no agenda, no prayer), then you should read this book. Bryan makes an excellent case for why that’s exactly what we should be doing – and not as a strategy to “reach the unbelievers,” but rather as a way of building bridges and (gasp!) possibly learning something from people who believe differently than you.

If you’re outside of that tradition, the amount of effort that Bryan puts into convincing Christians that this this is a good idea may seem a little baffling to you. On the other hand, when’s the last time you had a serious discussion about theology (or religion, or spirituality, or whatever you want to call it) with someone whose beliefs are starkly different from your own? North American Christians have had a particularly easy time avoiding “unbelievers,” over the past couple hundred years, since Christianity has been the dominant religion during that time. But we all tend to congregate with like-minded people, dismissing those who disagree with us as ignorant or morally deficient.

Pub Theology is a call to all of us, not just Christians, to put down our biases and have an honest, respectful discussion over beer. And lest you think the book is one long polemic against dogmatism, it’s really more of an account of Bryan’s own experiences with facilitating pub theology gatherings (I hate that word, facilitating, but “running” doesn’t seem right), why he got started with it in the first place, and what worked and didn’t work. It’s an encouraging story and I’ll be surprised if, when you finish it, you aren’t tempted to get together for beer and discussion with some local heretics, weirdos and Bible-thumpers at your own local tavern.