Sacramental Beer

Plus: Backhanded Apology

Sacramental Beer
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.

"This is the kind of thing Jesus did," Johnston says, gesturing to the crowd around him. Clearly pleased with his analogy, he smiles broadly and adjusts his Buddy Holly-style glasses. "Jesus hung out in places like this, with tax collectors and sinners," he says, quickly noting that this audience was not necessarily full of such characters.

In fact, the crowd turned out to be a relatively average cross section of Uptown society. Under 40, overwhelmingly white and employees of places like Merrill Lynch and Neiman Marcus, many people used the term "laid-back" over and over again to describe the evening.

"Anybody could come and ask their questions," says Sharisse Butler, who attended the meeting with her husband, Oliver, who is studying to be a priest. During the second half of the event, attendees submitted concerns about suicide, the effectiveness of prayer and whether the story of Adam and Eve is real. In his responses, Mills was thoroughly un-dogmatic, even vague.

"The story of Adam and Eve is authoritative," he says, after struggling for a few moments to find the right words. "It's reliable. Let's leave it at that."

For the second time that night, the audience was left with more questions than answers, and nobody seemed to mind. After all, says Buddy Apple, an SMU law student who has been attending the Church of the Incarnation since December, it's about the conversation, not the resolution. And maybe a little bit about the beer.

"If you tell people that you're having a discussion about God at a bar, people are like, wha?" Apple says. "But they end up coming, anyway." The Theology Live organizers don't seem to be swayed by the surprised, and sometimes negative, reactions they get. The key, they say, is moderation.

"We have had people who say they won't come," Johnston says. "If they're against it, they're just trying to be careful, but it is possible to sit down and have a pint and talk theology."

The last Theology Live meeting will deal with the tensions between Christianity and other religions, to be held June 27 at 7 p.m. at the Ginger Man. --Andrea Grimes

Backhanded Apology
Texas' two senators absent from list of co-sponsors in lynching apology

On June 13, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution apologizing for not making lynching a federal crime--but like most things on Capitol Hill, "unanimous" is subject to interpretation. The resolution was adopted by "unanimous consent," meaning that the senators did not actually have to vote for the measure, but rather simply declined to oppose it.

The resolution's sponsor, Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, preferred a "roll call vote" that would have put each senator's position on the record, but Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee insisted on the unanimous consent route. Still, when the time came, 78 of the chamber's 100 members, including Frist, had added their names as co-sponsors, eager to be on the record as apologizing for the Senate's inaction in the face of the racial terrorism that from 1882 to 1962 claimed at least 4,742 lives. Texas Senators John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison, however, were among the 21 who had not joined Landrieu as co-sponsors.

"It is a statement in itself that there are not 100 co-sponsors," Senator John Kerry told The New York Times the next day.

Eight senators have since thought better of that statement and signed on as co-sponsors retroactively--the most recent being Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah on June 17, four days after the resolution was adopted. That leaves 13 senators, all Republicans, still choosing not to have their names on the resolution. The missing include both senators from Mississippi, the state with the most recorded lynchings, and both from Texas, which ranks third (both senators from No. 2 Georgia signed on).

Staffers for Hutchison and Cornyn have given a stirring performance of the Texas two-step in an attempt to downplay their absence.

"It wasn't a decision not to co-sponsor it; it was a decision to support the bill," insists Cornyn spokesman Don Stewart. Stewart notes that the offices of all senators are contacted before a unanimous consent adoption to see if there are any objections. "We did not object," he says.

Hutchison's office says the senator wasn't even consulted on the decision not to co-sponsor. "When it came to us it was so overwhelmingly supported that we just offered our support and moved on," says Hutchison press secretary Chris Paulitz. "You can never have every senator co-sponsor something."

Technically he's right, because one senator must introduce the resolution as the "sponsor." But this year alone, the Senate has adopted four resolutions with one sponsor and 99 co-sponsors.

"It's not particularly unusual, because most resolutions are to declare National Girl Scout Week, for example," says Cal Jillson, an SMU political science professor who has written six books on American government.

The four resolutions with everyone on board recognized victims of the December tsunami, the January elections in Iraq, the death of the pope and the death of a former senator from Nebraska. Hutchison and Cornyn also saw fit to join in on heavily co-sponsored resolutions recognizing Greek Independence Day (54 co-sponsors), calling for a constitutional amendment banning desecration of the flag (53) and proclaiming "Extension Living Well Week" (49).

Though Stewart insisted that Cornyn doesn't co-sponsor resolutions "as a general rule," the senator has, in fact, co-sponsored 16 resolutions this session. Some were obvious candidates--like the one introduced by Hutchison lauding the Baylor women's basketball team--but some were not, as when he joined five other senators in co-sponsoring a resolution eulogizing Yogi Bhajan, a Sikh cleric. Hutchison co-sponsored 12 resolutions, including recognizing National Mammography Day and the 65th anniversary of the Black Press of America, and joining Cornyn in supporting "Dia de los niños."

The evidence suggests that both senators are more than willing to add their names to symbolic resolutions they consider important. Their reluctance to do so in this case, even retroactively, has raised the ire of civil rights activist Daisy Joe of Dallas-based Black Citizens for Justice, Law and Order, among others. "I think we've gotten a message from our senators," Joe says. "These politicians just don't care about the people that put them into office."

Another way to look at it is that maybe they care a little too much. "Think about the Republican primary," Jillson says. "You're not going to have many black votes there." Hutchison had been considering a run against Rick Perry for governor next year. (She announced Friday that she would seek a third term in the Senate instead.) In any case, her absence from the co-sponsor list is unlikely to cost her moderate Republican votes, Jillson says, but it may solidify her standing with the party's right-wing base. Cornyn, on the other hand, isn't up for re-election until 2008, plenty of time for any backlash to subside.

Hutchison has cultivated ties with African-American groups, and though Cornyn didn't put his name on the resolution, he spoke in favor of it on the Senate floor, so the duo's absence probably reflects less on their personal convictions than it does on Texas politics. "It does not say, 'We approve of lynching in the past,'" Jillson says. "What it does say is that lynching is such a raw issue in Anglo Texas that we are not going to make a big deal about it." --Rick Kennedy

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