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Theology Live gets spiritual--in more ways than one

The beer garden is packed. Sitting shoulder to shoulder at the long, wooden picnic tables, the Ginger Man pub's Monday-night patrons are doing, well, what people at bars do. Guffaws echo from the corner as a group of baseball-capped frat boys orders another round. The familiar crash of a pint glass on the patio floor sends a busboy running for the broom. Two khaki-clad businessmen stand along the fence, savoring glasses of happy-hour Duvel. Then, the collared priest up front clears his throat, taps his microphone and announces that they're just about ready to get started on tonight's topic: the problem of human suffering.

It's the first evening of an event called "Theology Live! Spirited Conversations," an informal meeting sponsored by a branch of the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on McKinney Avenue, and nearly 100 people have turned up. Promised good beer and controversial topics, churchgoers stop by the Ginger Man back porch to listen to a 45-minute talk on current issues, then have the opportunity to submit questions on slips of paper for a Q&A session to follow. Now in its third year, the series meets for three Monday evenings each summer and draws the faithful as well as the merely curious, says Leigh Fredrickson, one of Theology Live's founders.

"This is a really good program to bring people out," says Fredrickson, a member of the Uptown @ Incarnation ministry, the younger and hipper branch of the Uptown Episcopal church that started the gatherings at the popular pub. In past years, topics have ranged from religion vs. science to war and the nature of evil. "People really want to talk about current events and things you hear in the news."

Aside from the giveaway shirt and collar, the Reverend Michael Mills doesn't look like he is about to launch into a deep theological discussion about a supposedly benevolent God who allows evil in the world. The dean of St. Matthew's Cathedral in Dallas is dressed in stone-washed jeans, with a Guinness glass half full of soda at his fingertips. His easy smile hides the stark declaration the priest is about to make about human suffering.

"It's the most powerful intellectual argument against Christianity," he admits. "And it makes a lot of sense."

After rattling a few pints with his opening statement, Mills eases the audience into exploring other viewpoints on suffering, both secular and religious. From Buddha's Eightfold Path to the Pythagorean theory that suffering occurs to teach humans valuable lessons, it's a crash course in pain management with a few well-placed jokes along the way.

"Anybody know those late-night, four-beer Buddhists?" he asks, suddenly changing his voice to imitate an inebriated drawl. "I'll never get attached again! Then nobody will ever hurt me!"

The crowd laughs, and one of the frat boys in the corner elbows a friend knowingly. It's only a few minutes into the speech, and the audience is hooked, staring raptly at Mills. They look away only long enough to flag down the waitress for another Hefeveizen. The priest is even careful to make an important disclaimer: Finding some truth in any of those other views probably wouldn't send you to hell, either. It was shaping up to be a great big, nonjudgmental, all-inclusive suffer-fest--which is pretty much what the Theology Live creators had in mind.

The average church service, with its age-old traditions and rituals, doesn't provide much of an outlet for dialogues, says the Reverend Bob Johnston, who directs the Uptown @ Incarnation ministry and was seen parading around with an amber ale in hand early in the evening. The conversational tone of the lecture and opportunity to anonymously air religious concerns afterward would, he hopes, "break out of the pristine sense of worship you get on Sundays."

Scriptural references were minimal, with Mills taking only a brief foray into the book of Job, whom the Bible says suffered tremendous physical and emotional losses despite his faith in God. Mills was also adamant about advising the audience that suffering was not God's punishment for bad behavior. No Bible, no fire and brimstone, no tirades. Nice. In the end, however, Mills had no real answers, either.

"It's because of us that the world is just disordered," he says, referencing the story of the original sin of Adam and Eve, who he said made the first conscious decision to sin, and therefore brought suffering into the world. He just couldn't say precisely why or how. "It's what we call one of the mysteries of Christianity."

The audience didn't seem to be turned off by his lack of resolution. In fact, the nodding heads at every table indicated that this answer was, even if not concrete, satisfactory.

"I'm sorry to string you along for 45 minutes and then tell you we don't know how it works," Mills says, a small smile creeping across his face, eliciting a quiet chuckle from the crowd. You get the impression that it's not just the beer that made his conclusion easier to accept, but it probably didn't hurt. Besides, Johnston says, the drinks-and-conversation method was pretty effective for a certain other someone.

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