The Great Emergence
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Beer and Bible

Written By Phyllis Tickle

The following reflection first appeared in March 2009 as part of  First Sundays with Phyllis Tickle, a series of monthly blogs written by Tickle and posted on explorefaith from 2008 to 2010.

Last Tuesday night, I was sitting in a pub, enjoying the beer and the camaraderie of an evening of “pub theology,” when the conversation veered into what I thought—and still think—is a direction worth pondering for a long, long time … or at the very least, worth pondering from Tuesday until Sunday.

Those of us who gather in that pub every other Tuesday night for some serious engagement of Christian thought and Christian heritage prefer to call what we do by the more dignified name of “Beer and Bible” rather than “pub theology”; but by whatever name, it basically is theology that we are doing. One of the characteristics of emergence Christianity, of course, is that over the last two or three decades, in hundreds of cafes and coffee houses and bars across the first world, post-institutional Christians like us have come together for just such casual, unstructured, but deadly serious conversations. 

What they—I should say “we”—seek…what keeps us coming back…is the fellowship of two hours of free-ranging, non-refereed, non-institutionalized conversation with impunity about God and Jesus, about Christianity and religion, about theology and truth, there being a perceived tension or distinction, in most of our minds, inherent in each of those pairings.

It’s a motley crew with whom I hang out on alternate Tuesday nights when I’m in town. Some of us are professional religionists and clergy folk, but most of us are not. We run the gamut from accountants to school teachers, doctors to truck drivers, and musicians to paralegals. In age we tend, like a bell curve, toward the middle-aged with a healthy proportion of retirees and of just-getting-starteds to anchor us firmly in statistical normalcy.

On any given Beer &Bible Tuesday, we will number about twenty or so; but if one were to take a census of all of us who come in and out as our schedules permit, we would number about twice that, I suspect. There is, however, one common and undeviating factor that ties us all together and brings us back every other Tuesday at Happy Hour: Each of us shares with the rest of us an active, probing, chronic interest in God-talk, which expression is a kind of shorthand, elliptical way of trying to name something a bit larger than we would otherwise know how to articulate.

What we seek, in other words, is the kind of unfettered exchange of honesty about the Christian faith that will help each of us live into it and/or with it in more formative, honest, and transparent ways. Inevitably, over the course of many Tuesdays, we have also—thank God—developed an affection for one another that, with every passing B&B evening, veers closer and closer to something which, theologically speaking, would be called “Church” and/or mystically speaking, would be called “the beloved community” by most observers. Either of those, by whatever name, is a context for being that is as difficult to define as it is to authenticate, once inhabited.

We have some characters amongst us, of course. Probably I am one myself, come to think of it. But the one who is our leader, to the extent that we have a leader, is The Rabbi. He’s not actually a rabbi, but he certainly is what every rabbi should be and many are—deeply wise, deeply and widely read, Socratic in conversation, and gentle in his brilliance. Born and reared Russian Orthodox, he is denominationally whatever he is, though so far as I know none of us actually knows or has ever thought to ask what that might be. He is simply faithful—richly, wisely, insightfully faithful.

Last Tuesday, as we were settling in around our big square of pushed-together tables, we fell to talking about the uses of formal exegesis and biblical interpretation in one’s faith formation, as well as about the obvious dangers thereof. The Rabbi chuckled and said, “Well, sometimes you have to admit that it is more interesting to not know. When I was a youngster growing up and read that part about the eye of a needle and how it was more difficult for a rich man to get into heaven than it was for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, I thought it meant what it said. As a kid, nobody ever told me the bit about the 'eye of the needle' being the name for those low gates in city walls where, to get inside, everybody wanting in had to unload everything on the outside side, make his camel get down on all fours, and then the both of them crawled through.

“To tell you the truth,” he said, “I was really disappointed when somebody did tell me the difference. I still think the real eye of a real needle is better, kind of like a mandorla … those in there have taken off everything except God and threaded their way upright into the center…

“And besides that,” he continued, “how do they know which one Jesus meant, and why couldn’t He have meant both, playing with us, so to speak? …Worries me sometimes that we explain so much that we keep making everything smaller and smaller and more and more specific … dicing it til it’s trapped back there in some kind of cultural history, so to speak, like that needle’s eye.”

…which cautionary tale, it seems to me, really is as worthy of consideration on a Sabbath morning as on a Tuesday evening.

Perhaps it is even more so, come to think about it.

Copyright © 2009 Phyllis Tickle