It was one of those “Beer and God” nights ever popular with congregations that want to keep it real and relevant. Nearing Easter, a decade back, 13 people met in the Upper Room (yes, 13; and yes, it was actually called that) of a Toronto pub’s second floor. We ordered our pints, our greasy plates. The early career minister led us in prayer, and then we watched a video featuring a slick evangelical talking about the Resurrection.
Most of the people were from the minister’s mainline Protestant congregation. I was there as a friend of the minister and an observer. I sat at the back, kept my opinion, sipped my beer.
As the group members went around the table to discuss the Resurrection, to my surprise, they stated they did not believe it actually happened. One woman in her late 70s confessed she also had great difficulty with the virgin birth and the miracles — the very tenets of her Christian faith. One man in his 60s categorically stated that Shakespeare’s Hamlet had more truth in it than the Bible.
The minister struggled to gain control of the evening as his congregants, empowered by each other, spoke boldly, seemingly for the first time.
I watched as they twisted themselves into complicated theological contortions. Three congregants in their 20s spoke of a generic God and spirituality. They didn’t understand why there had to be miracles. “Magic tricks,” one said. The Hamlet-lover pounced on that.
“Deus ex machina!” he proclaimed. (That essentially was his critique of the Bible, perhaps missing the point of the holy book.)
“Nobody ever taught me these things,” said the 70-something woman. “We were told the stories when we were kids, but we weren’t allowed to ask any questions. I’ve never dared to ask any questions.” Those may not have been her exact words, but that’s how I remember them. I’ve heard that speech before, and since, from many people who regularly go to church.
I ordered a second pint. An hour in, the minister had given up on leading. The 12 non-clergy in the Upper Room were really no different from the original dozen. Those disciples had just gone through three years of unique experiences, including intimate conversations with Jesus himself. And still they hadn’t quite figured out the whole “Christ” thing. They had their doubts.
After the crucifixion, they all had difficulty accepting Jesus had risen from the dead. Not one of them believed it could happen. (Well, the women did, but that’s a different essay.) One demanded physical proof. And I have a feeling, based more on the nature of humanity than the inherited text, Thomas was just speaking up on behalf of the others.
We see that throughout the Hebrew Bible: God is a pillar of smoke, a gust of wind, a voice, an actual human-like presence in the garden, and every time the followers are like, “Yeah, that can’t be happening.” Church hasn’t changed much in a few millennia.
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We crave awe. We crave beauty. God places these before us, and we shake our heads in disbelief. And the people in the Bible did not have to contend with the post-Reformation obsession with rationalism like we do. “It’s not scientific,” we say.
So, I have some compassion for the dozen of us in that room above the noisy pub, dipping our fries into ramekins of ketchup, sighing our doubts about the Resurrection. If Jesus did rise from the dead, then that means God does exist, and that means there may well be more to life than the prosaic pursuit of our daily bread and weekend pleasures. And that would mean that church, regardless of the denomination or ideology, is about much more than filling pews and paying for bureaucracies and old buildings.
I didn’t finish that second pint. I stepped out, paid my tab at the bar and went for a walk in the mid-spring evening. From a corner of my brain, I pulled out a familiar quotation: “There are more things in heaven and earth…than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” I said it out loud in my Laurence Olivier accent, and I started to laugh.
Andrew Faiz is a writer in Toronto.
This story first appeared in Broadview’s April/May 2022 issue with the title “Of beer and God.”
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