The Bible as Many, the Bible as One

The Bible as Many, the Bible as One

In a recent conversation about the Bible, I referred to it as “a collection of texts known as the Bible.” Someone responded:

In the collection known as the Bible?? I’m sorry, my friend, but you have gone off the deep end…

This response was a bit of a surprise. The fact that the Bible is comprised of various books by various authors is common knowledge to anyone who has taken a single religion class in high school or college, or to anyone who has actually opened a Bible. As a young child, I was required to memorize “the books of the Bible.” Continue Reading..

The Return of Faith

Sometimes a step back is necessary for us to move forward.

Faith vs. Belief

Every once in awhile I run across a book that keeps me up late and has me excited to wake up in the morning.  Harvey Cox’s The Future of Faith is one such book.

In the first chapter he notes that contrary to earlier predictions, faith and religion are as vibrant as ever.  But things are shifting.  People are turning to religion more for support in their efforts to live in this world and make it better, and less to prepare for the next.  “The pragmatic and experiential elements of faith as a way of life are displacing the previous emphasis on institution and beliefs.”  In short, Cox claims that we are moving from an era of ‘belief’ to an era of ‘faith.’  But aren’t belief and faith the same thing, you ask?  No, and understanding the difference is vital, not only for one’s own spiritual journey, but for grasping the undercurrents of the larger shifts in the world of spirituality.

An excerpt from Chapter One:

It is true that for many people “faith” and “belief” are just two words for the same thing.  But they are not the same, and in order to grasp the magnitude of the religious upheaval now under way, it is important to clarify the difference.  Faith is about deep-seated confidence.  In everyday speech we usually apply it to people we trust or the values we treasure.  It is what theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965) called “ultimate concern,” a matter of what the Hebrews spoke of as the “heart.”

Belief, on the other hand, is more like opinion.  We often use the term in everyday speech to express a degree of uncertainty.  “I don’t really know about that,” we say, “but I believe it may be so.” future_faith_book_520Beliefs can be held lightly or with emotional intensity, but they are more propositional than existential.  We can believe something to be true without it making much difference to us, but we place our faith only in something that is vital for the way we live.  Of course people sometimes confuse faith with beliefs, but it will be hard to comprehend the tectonic shift in Christianity today unless we understand the distinction between the two.

The Spanish writer Migual Unamuno (1864-1936) dramatizes the radical dissimilarity of faith and belief in his short story “Saint Manuel Bueno, Martyr,” in which a young man returns from the city to his native village in Spain because his mother is dying.  In the presence of the local priest she clutches his hand and asks him to pray for her.  The son does not answer, but as they leave the room, he tells the priest that, much as he would like to, he cannot pray for his mother because he does not believe in God. “That’s nonsense,” the priest replies. “You don’t have to believe in God to pray.”

The priest in Unamuno’s story recognized the difference between faith and belief.  He knew that prayer, like faith, is more primordial than belief. He might have engaged the son who wanted to pray but did not believe in God in a theological squabble.  He could have hauled out the frayed old “proofs” for the existence of God, whereupon the young man might have quoted the equally jaded arguments against the proofs.  Both probably knew that such arguments go nowhere.  The French writer Simone Weil (1909-43) also knew.  In her Notebooks, she once scribbled a gnomic sentence: “If we love God, even though we think he doesn’t exist, he will make his existence manifest.”  Weil’s words sound paradoxical, but in the course of her short and painful life—she died at thirty-four—she learned that love and faith are both more primal than beliefs.

Debates about the existence of God or the gods were raging in Plato’s time, twenty-five hundred years ago.  Remarkable, they still rage on today, as a recent spate of books rehearsing the routine arguments for and against the existence of God demonstrates.  By their nature these quarrels are about beliefs and can never be finally settled.  But faith, which is more closely related to awe, love, and wonder, arose long before Plato, among our most primitive Homo sapiens forebears. Plato engaged in disputes about beliefs, not about faith.

Creeds are clusters of beliefs.  But the history of Christianity is not a history of creeds.  It is the story of a people of faith who sometimes cobbled together creeds out of beliefs.  It is also the history of equally faithful people who questioned, altered, and discarded those same creeds.  As with church buildings, from clapboard chapels to Gothic cathedrals, creeds are symbols by which Christians have at times sought to represent their faith.  But both the doctrinal canons and the architectural constructions are means to an end.  Making either the defining element warps the underlying reality of faith.

The nearly two thousand years of Christian history can be divided into three uneven periods.  The first might be called the “Age of Faith.” It began with Jesus and his immediate disciples when a buoyant faith propelled the movement he initiated.  During this first period of both explosive growth and brutal persecution, their sharing in the living Spirit of Christ united Christians with each other, and “faith” meant hope and assurance in the dawning of a new era of freedom, healing, and compassion that Jesus had demonstrated.  To be a Christian meant to live in his Spirit, embrace his hope, and to follow him in the work that he had begun.

The second period in Christian history can be called the “Age of Belief.” Its seeds appeared within a few short decades of the birth of Christianity when church leaders began formulating orientation programs for new recruits who had not known Jesus or his disciples personally.  Emphasis on belief began to grow when these primitive instruction kits thickened into catechisms, replacing faith in Jesus with tenets about him.  Thus, even during that early Age of Faith the tension between faith and belief was already foreshadowed.

Then, during the closing years of the third century, something more ominous occurred.  An elite class—soon to become a clerical class—began to take shape, and ecclesial specialists distilled the various teaching manuals into lists of beliefs.  Still, however, these varied widely from place to place, and as the fourth century began there was still no single creed.  The scattered congregations were united by a common Spirit.  A wide range of different theologies thrived.  The turning point came when Emperor Constantine the Great (d. 387 CE) made his adroit decision to commandeer Christianity to bolster his ambitions for the empire.  He decreed that the formerly outlawed new religion of the Galilean should now be legal, but he continued to reverence the sun god Helios alongside Jesus.

Constantine also imposed a muscular leadership over the churches, appointing and dismissing bishops, paying salaries, funding buildings, and distributing largesse.  He and not the pope was the real head of the church.  Whatever his motives, Constantine’s policies and those of his successors crowned Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire.  The emperors undoubtedly hoped this strategy would shore up their crumbling dominion, from which the old gods seemed to have fled.  The tactic, however, did not save the empire from collapse.  But for Christianity it proved to be a disaster: its enthronement actually degraded it. From an energetic movement of faith it coagulated into a phalanx of required beliefs, thereby laying the foundation for every succeeding Christian fundamentalism for centuries to come.

The ancient corporate merger triggered a titanic makeover.  The empire became “Christian,” and Christianity became imperial.  Thousands of people scurried to join a church they had previously despised, but now bore the emperor’s seal of approval.  Bishops assumed quasi-imperial powers and began living like imperial elites.  During the ensuing “Constantinian era,” Christianity, at least its official version, froze into a system of mandatory precepts that were codified into creeds and strictly monitored by a powerful hierarchy and imperial decrees.  Heresy became treason, and reason became heresy.

…Neither the Renaissance nor the Reformation did much to alter the underlying foundations of the Age of Belief… The Age of Belief lasted roughly fifteen hundred years, ebbing in fits and starts with the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the secularization of Europe, and the anticolonial upheavals of the twentieth century.

Still, to think of this long middle ear as a nothing but a dark age is misleading.  As we have seen, throughout those fifteen centuries Christian movements and personalities continued to live by faith and according to the Spirit.  Confidence in Christ was their primary orientation, and hope for his Kingdom their motivating drive. [I cut a fair bit of this and the preceding paragraph for the sake of brevity.]

Now we stand on the threshold of a new chapter in the Christian story.  Despite dire forecasts of its decline, Christianity is growing faster that it ever has before, but mainly outside the West and in movements that accent spiritual experience, discipleship and hope; pay scant attention to creeds; and flourish without hierarchies.  We are now witnessing the beginning of a “post-Constantinian era.” Christians on five continents are sharking off the residues of the second phase (the Age of Belief) and negotating a bumpy transition into a fresh era for which a name has not yet been coined.

So, can we make a distinction between ‘faith’ and ‘belief’?

The book, as best I can tell (I’m into Chapter Four), dives further into this delineation, into what got us to where we’ve been, and what might move us forward into the future.

Terrific stuff, and as I read it, it seems to make a decent amount of sense.  And perhaps more pertinent, it seems to connect with what we find in the text: Jesus himself and the earliest believers, it seems, were not motivated by assent to a list of beliefs, but rather a deep-seated and profound faith that God was doing something new and his kingdom was breaking into the world in unprecedented ways.

I find that for some time perhaps I’ve been losing faith in belief, even as my faith continues to grow in new and exciting ways.  It is encouraging to consider this larger movement of God’s Spirit in the world, which, despite our best efforts to constrain it, continues to “blow wherever it will.”

Way out West

While out West I had the chance to get the word out a bit about my new book.  I put up a few flyers, sometimes without asking…

Here is a sampling of some of the places you might see a Pub Theology flyer:

Communal posting board at Port Reyes Station, CA across from Station House Coffee
At Mountain High Pizza in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Photo snapped by a friend’s mom who was there on vacation three weeks later.
California bookstore along Highway 1
Posting board outside of San Francisco
The Bookcase in Durango, CO is excited about Pub Theology!
Grains & Goods in Monte Vista, Colorado
Two Chicks and a Hippie Coffee Shop in Pagosa Springs, Colorado

Other places out West you may see a poster or a book:

Magpie News and Coffee, Durango, CO
Durango Bagel Company
Maria’s Bookshop, Durango, CO
Elysian Brewing Co, Seattle
Valley Bookstore, Jackson Hole, WY
Grand Tetons National Park, WY
Tumbleweed Book Store & Cafe, Gardiner, MT (just north of Yellowstone)
Some random coffee shop in the middle of Washington State
Espresso Coffee Stop, Capital Reef National Park, Utah
Moab Brewery, Moab, UT (claims to be Utah’s only microbrewery – turns out, not so.)
Pagosa Brewing Company, Pagosa Springs, CO
A truckstop in the middle of Kansas
Windows Booksellers, Eugene, OR

If you see a flyer or come across the book – snap a photo and let me know, we’d love to share it!

Book Buzz

Or was that the delicious IPA I had before dinner? » The book is out, people are buying it, and apparently some are even reading it!

I’ve heard from readers spread out as disparately as Portland, OR and Washington DC, as well as Turkey and Guatemala.

So far only positive feedback, but some crabby, negative reviews are sure to come. That will have to be a separate post!

Here’s a taste of the great feedback coming in from readers of Pub Theology:

“I started reading your book and I can’t put it down! So refreshing! I wish I lived closer so that I could come to the pub theology meetings!”

“Finished the book. LOVED IT! Bryan, your view of the world and how it can be is refreshing!”

“Just bought mine on Kindle. I can hardly wait to read it. Your help in getting us started with our Theology Pub in Alamosa CO was very much appreciated. It’s going great. We have a good mix of Christians, atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, Universalists and undecided’s coming.”

“Very interested in your book. I’m doing some in-depth research into our pub discussion scene here in Portland where there is even a church meeting in a pub. Ordered one yesterday. Eagerly awaiting delivery.”

“Congrats on the new book! As an indie bookseller I’m really excited to see this is out.”

“[My son] gave me your book because I am kind of a pub theologian but with Jack Daniels. My brother and I preach to a Church that meets in our old airplane hanger and is full of broken people, including the Preachers. We make our living in the lumber business but along the way met old radicals like Will Campbell and others. Your book has some great stuff in it, good luck in DC.”

“Hi Bryan, just started your book, Pub Theology. I am a graduate of Hope College and currently serving  with my wife in Guatemala.

I stumbled across your book on Amazon by “accident”. I was searching for books on breweries to give me a foundation for my love of beer. The Guatemalan beer is just awful and a recent dream of mine has been start my own microbrewery in Guatemala (in addition to our ministry).

I have been struggling on how to combine my passion for beer with my biggest passion: Jesus. I am just embarking on this process of prayer and excited to gain your insight about finding a genuine faith at the table of conversation. I hope to gain insight and apply it not only to my life, but to our mission in Guatemala.

I have never been much of a reader, but I haven’t been able to put down your book. Can’t wait to finish it and hopefully discuss some of it with you! Thank you.”

And there are a couple reviews up on Amazon:

Moving the Church Forward July 9, 2012
By Ca
Format:Kindle Edition|Amazon Verified Purchase

Three things that I love: beer, conversation, and God. For those that love all three of those things…or even just two of those things…or even just one…this book is for you. Berghoef writes honestly and candidly. He crafts stories that are humorous, engaging, and challenging. Like Berghoef, I grew up in the traditional church and was severely discontent with how the church forbid conversations about other faiths (and said you couldn’t drink beer). It will challenge readers to enter into a nonjudgemental conversation with others, where it is not necessary for you, as a Christian, to have all of the answers…in fact, you shouldn’t. There is a contagious excitement in this book and it does not let go of you from beginning to end.
Including a review from one of our own pub theologians!
Format:Kindle Edition|Amazon Verified Purchase

(Full disclosure: I’m a regular attendee of the author’s Pub Theology gatherings, so you may want to take this review with a grain of salt. On the other hand, I can vouch for the accuracy and honesty of his account, so there’s that.)

“Pub Theology” makes me hopeful. It’s about sitting down with people and talking about ideas, and that’s something that few people bother to do any more. Even fewer bother to talk about ideas with people who disagree with them. In “Pub Theology” Bryan Berghoef has provided a pattern for starting (and continuing!) conversations with those who disagree with us – conversations which can move beyond argument or debate and into the realm of communication and actual understanding.

Pub Theology – the practice, and the book – is mostly about talking. Not always talking about God, but always talking within a community that respects and appreciates itself and each member. Talking in this way is a skill, and it doesn’t always come naturally. Some people have a hard time expressing their thoughts in a group, and some people have a hard time listening. But as with other skills, it’s something you can acquire. The ability to understand others and to make oneself understood even when you disagree about your fundamental values and presuppositions is a wonderful thing to have. Through the anecdotes and insights in this book, Berghoef explains how to create an nurture a community that fosters these skills in its members, and shares some ways that community has shaped his faith and ministry for the better.

I can imagine this book being frightening to some; Berghoef touches on ways in which religious traditions can make the possibility of communication with those outside the tradition seem dangerous. But even if – especially if – you are one who holds to a beloved creed or catechism, I would recommend reading and reflecting on this book. Berghoef is far from an iconoclast; he comes from a strong Dutch Reformed tradition and understands the power and importance of tradition in religion. Nevertheless, he has found that interacting with those of other faiths and of no faith has made his own faith stronger and more robust, and in “Pub Theology” he invites us all to join him. Try a sip!

If you haven’t checked out the book, pick up a copy! Don’t forget our book launch is tomorrow at Brew!

Otherwise you can pick one up online.

I am looking for more reviews, as well as a blog review or two!

Would love to hear what you think, and most importantly, for you to get involved in some good conversations wherever you are.

Pub Theology Topics, July 5 2012

The book, the beer, the sheet

On a busy night in Traverse City, fresh off the Fourth of July and on the eve of the Cherry Festival, a few of us found our way to a pub for some reasonable conversation.  It was good to be back at Pub Theology tonight after a couple week hiatus.  The Saugatuck IPA was a welcome addition to the menu, and we had a good evening of discussion.

The topics:

1.    If you were stranded on a desert island and could only have one item, what would it be?

2.    Are all spiritual experiences legitimate?

3.    What is happiness?

4.    “The very meaningfulness of rational discourse depends on God, as everything depends on God.”

5.    If our world belongs to God, is the idea of private property a contradiction of this?

6.    Man exists in a state of distance from the world that he nonetheless remains in the midst of.
Can the distance be overcome?

7. What really matters?

We shared some experiences and perspectives, some sips and some tips.

Great stuff.

We also celebrated the arrival of Pub Theology, the book!  You can buy your copy locally at Brew, and soon at Horizon Books – both downtown.  You can join us at the Book Launch next week Thursday, July 12 at Brew, from 6-8pm, preceding our normal Pub Theology conversation.

In the meantime, share your thoughts on the above topics!

The Book

So…  it’s official!  I’ve been offered a book contract.  The publisher is Cascade Books, a division of Wipf and Stock. They are out of Eugene, Oregon.

About Cascade Books:
Established in 2004, Cascade Books is the most selective of the four imprints of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Under this imprint we publish new books that combine academic rigor with broad appeal and readability. Encompassing all the major areas of theology and religion, Cascade Books has published such major authors as Stanley Hauerwas, Jürgen Moltmann, John Milbank, John Howard Yoder, Margaret Miles, and Walter Brueggemann.

What’s the book about?
Well, it is a book about doing theology at the pub (>shock<).   It will be comprised of stories, musings, and theology viewed through the prism of our regular Thursday evening gatherings.

Working Title:
Pub Theology: Beer, Conversation, and God (what else?)

From the proposal:

From London to New York to Ann Arbor, people are gathering in pubs and bars to communicate, connect, and learn from one another over the topic of religion, of all things.  In Pub Theology, pastor, writer, and pub theologian Bryan Berghoef draws from his own experience in one such setting in Northern Michigan.  Speaking to fellow Christians, Berghoef explains how they must turn their evangelism mentality on its head:  from being those who need to evangelize others to those who need to be evangelized by others.  Through anecdotes, stories, and theological musings, readers will discover how to move from a place of preaching to a place of listening, from a place of teaching to a place of learning.


  • Reality:  We live in a culture driven by fear of ‘the other’.  Other religious views, other sexual orientations, other political views, other ways of being in the world: these are no longer perspectives we read about in books or hear about on television.  They are held by our neighbors, our co-workers, perhaps even our friends, but also by those we may never meet.  We react to these perspectives too often from a perspective of fear.  And we respond to this fear by getting louder with our message, by withdrawing ourselves from the culture to our own safe little enclaves, from which we toss grenades of ‘truth’ over the wall, often hoping to cause more damage than true positive change.
  • Hope:  If the church wants to have an impact on an increasingly post-Christian and pluralistic culture, it must shift its emphasis from preaching to listening.  It must move from the prideful position of teacher to the humble position of student.  It is no longer our turn to stand and lecture.  It is time for us to take our seat and listen. This is no easy shift.  But it is critical.  It is time for the church to move beyond its fear, to come out from behind the safe walls it has constructed and learn to actually inhabit this world we all share.

From the author:

“More than ever it seems that we as a culture are afraid of people who are different than us. This is especially true in the arena of faith.  I have been involved in conversations about God at the university level, in Europe, in the States, in a Muslim culture, in the pews, on the streets, and in pubs. I am convinced that if we are willing to sit at the same table and listen, we will be changed from evangelists who see others as targets to convert, to fellow human beings – potential friends to love and understand.”

Bryan Berghoef

If you have a story or thought from a night you’ve attended a Pub Theology gathering, post it here – you never know – maybe it’ll be in print!

Pub Theology Recap March 10

Well it was a fun night last night at Right Brain Brewery.

N. showed up with the usual goodies – this time pretzels (some even peanut butter-filled).


Then A. shows up with a heavy pan of Guinness brownies – complete with decorations.  A delightful treat, and it was enjoyed by all.  It said: “Cheers to our ‘soon to be’ PUBlished Theologian!”

I’ve been working on a few writing projects as some of you know, and I had written up a book proposal about Pub Theology, comprised of stories, thoughts and theology through the prism of our regular Thursday gatherings.  I had sent it around a bit to get some feedback, and the consensus I received from Brian McLaren, Phyllis Tickle and others was that unless you already have a ‘market in hand’ – i.e., tons of readers of your blog (thank you, loyal few), hundreds or thousands of Twitter followers, and a large regular speaking audience, most publishers aren’t willing to take on a relatively unknown.  So with that encouraging start, I sent out my manuscript to a publisher, and a few weeks later got a message back that my proposal had been accepted and they are willing to offer me a book contract!  Very exciting.  No contract has been signed yet, and I’ll wait until then before giving any more details.

In any case, it was a celebratory evening, and the rich Guinness brownies were just right with a cask-poured Black IPA.

The topics:

1.    How can deprivation connect us to God?

2.    Ignatius:  “We must never seek to establish a rule so rigid as to leave no room for exception.” Never?

3.    Does God force people to believe in him?  Or does he let them choose?  Discuss the differences.

4.    “Trust in God could impose an additional burden…”  Could it?  How so?

5.    “If there were no evil, there would be no good, for good is the counterpart of evil.”  Your thoughts?

6.    Who killed Jesus?

7.    If you could ask God one thing, what would it be?

8.  Is the church above the law?

So, we quickly skipped no.1, as it was not a night for deprivation.  On to no.2  After Steve aptly pointed out that Ignatius was breaking his own rule (clever), we reflected on ways in which rules can sometimes get in the way of the thing they set out to address.  We had some good examples, but I’m not sure I’m able to recall them here.

No.3 – Nearly everyone agreed (everyone who holds to a belief in God, at any rate), that God allows us some level of choice in choosing to follow him or choosing to ignore him.  To say that we have no choice, and it is all predetermined, would sort of make a mockery of the whole thing, and remove any kind of responsibility, not to mention any chance of genuine relationship.  That is not to say that God might not already know how things are going to go, but that is different than God making the decision for us.

No.4 – see the following quote:
“… trust in God could impose an additional burden on good people slammed to their knees by some senseless tragedy. An atheist might be no less staggered by such an event, but non-believers often experienced a kind of calm acceptance: shit happens, and this particular shit had happened to them. It could be more difficult for a person of faith to get to his feet precisely, because he had to reconcile God’s love and care with the stupid, brutal fact that something irreversibly terrible had happened.”

In other words, it is hard to understand sometimes why bad stuff happens when you believe that God is good and he has your best interests at heart.  If you don’t think God is there, you assume bad stuff will happen at some point, but you don’t take it personally.  We noted several instances of where we try to make sense of and draw meaning from tragedies and difficulties, also noting that for many people (even many of us), our faith gives us the strength to get through such situations, even when we don’t understand what God is up to.

no. 5 – we skipped

no.6 – who killed Jesus?  My blog post on this got some conversation going earlier in the week.  I tended to lean toward the creation being responsible for killing Jesus, not the Creator.  Some versions of atonement theory lean toward the latter, but those paint a rather gruesome picture of God, in my opinion.  Someone at the table noted: the Romans killed Jesus, what else is there to talk about?

no.7 – skipped

no.8 – Is the church above the law? We noted that there are instances where the church seems to get special treatment (see Catholic church and pedophilia abuses), and that that is bad stuff and should stop.

We enjoyed a visit from some newcomers – C, P and their son, A, on break from MSU.   K and B made it out, as did S & R, and G & J.  And of course, N., A., and me.  A good night, all around!

Next week: Pub Theology St. Patty’s-style!