From the pulpit to the pub

Local groups discuss faith and belief over beers

at Pub Theology meetings

On a recent Friday evening, on the second floor of The Grog restaurant and bar in downtown Newburyport, Mass., a small group of faithful sit in the corner of the room underneath a flat-screen television, glasses of beer and wine in hand. On the screen the Red Sox are losing their match-up against the Toronto Blue Jays. But those gathered aren’t the usual baseball devotees there for the game. This is a bimonthly meeting of Pub Theology Newburyport, and the group is there to discuss religion, spirituality, “Star Wars,” the riots in Baltimore, and everything in between.

Clad in a black and white checkerboard sport coat and jeans, the Rev. Ogun Holder leads the conversation from his perch on a windowsill. The evening’s topic of discussion is faith through the lens of the “Star Wars” films. On the coffee tables in the middle of the group are strips of paper with six discussion topics that range from the Force, the belief that guides the heroes of the “Star Wars” movies, to the recent riots in Baltimore. The first question is an icebreaker: what is your favorite line from “Star Wars”?

“If you quote from the first thee (prequel) movies, I will forgive you,” Holder says jokingly.

The most popular quote turns out to be from the diminutive Jedi master Yoda: “Do or do not, there is no try.” Holder uses the quote to pose a series of questions: What does trying mean in regards to religion? Is the truth of God’s existence relative for those who do or do not believe?

“Truth is relative based on perception and belief systems,” Holder says.

“And the only absolute truth is that truth is relative,” says a woman in a green sweater. Holder nods.

“What is the definition of religion?” asks a man sitting near the window, cradling a dark ale in a snifter. A murmur runs through the group as they mull over the weight of the question.

“If there’s anything about church that’s still valuable, it’s the community piece of it.”
— Rev. Ogun Holder

This is common terrain for the group’s regular discussions. At two months old, it’s one of the newer chapters in a loosely affiliated national Pub Theology movement inspired by Bryan Berghoef’s 2012 book, “Pub Theology: Beer, Conversation, and God.” It’s not the only Pub Theology chapter in the Seacoast — the First Congregational Church in Rochester hosts a bimonthly meet-up the second and fourth Tuesday of each month at 6 p.m. at Mel Flanagan’s at 50 North Main St. The groups are open to people of all faiths, no faith, or some place in between.

“The fact is the spiritual, non-religious group is the fastest-growing spiritual group in this country,” Holder says. “And I believe that when people say ‘spiritual, not religious,’ what they (mean is) the ‘not religious’ part may not be wanting to subscribe to a specific set of beliefs. It’s the traditional definition of religion.”

The idea, according to Holder, is to bring discussions of faith outside the structure of organized religion. He got his first taste of the movement in Washington, D.C., first attending a pub theology group as a participant and then leading discussions. An ordained Unity minister, Holder came to the North Shore last year and began leading services at Unity on the River in Amesbury, Mass. He decided to bring Pub Theology with him. A recent Pew Research Center study found that New England is one of the least religious regions in the country, and Holder says he sees fewer people attending traditional Sunday services.

“But that doesn’t mean that they don’t want to be a community,” he says. “If there’s anything about church that’s still valuable, it’s the community piece of it.”

The bimonthly Pub Theology discussions get back to those roots, bringing people together and discussing faith and religion in the context of contemporary culture. For Holder, it’s a new kind of church. He points out that it isn’t a new religion, nor is it discrediting any other church. But it isn’t simply a fad, either. It’s about making faith accessible and dynamic, an ongoing discussion rather than a set of static beliefs.

“I think when you look at people sharing a meal and breaking bread together, there’s something so very ritualistic about that that’s vital and important,” he says. “It’s the same thing with sharing a drink together; the informal gatherings where, for the most part, everybody’s opinion is heard and respected.”

Holder says his Newburyport group isn’t as diverse as the one he led in Washington, D.C., but he hopes it will grow. His previous group consisted of Hindus, Christians, Muslims and atheists. It wasn’t always a smooth ride, but Holder found a formula that worked.

“The trick to that is to listen,” he says. “That’s how we build relationships, through dialogue … and conversation, not to convince, but conversation to commune. I think what will happen is when they realize that the unspoken agreement here is that everybody has a place at this table, they will choose to either keep coming or not.”

Pub Theology Newburyport meets every second and fourth Friday of each month, next on Friday, May 22 at 7 p.m. at The Grog, 13 Middle St., Newburyport, Mass.