Briefly Noted: History with a Beer Chaser; Or, Why Theology is Best Done in Community

January 14, 2013 by Bruce Ashford

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Not at Southeastern Seminary, mind you, but at Ithaca College. That’s where they have a Beer’n’History club. So writes Michael B. Smith in a recent edition of The Chronicle Review (Dec 14, 2012). In the article, Smith tells the story of a small group of faculty members who get together regularly to dialogue about history, writing, and life. As Smith tells it:

Having ranged in size from four to six members, the Chapter House writing group—aka Beer’n’History—has helped midwife 10 books and nearly a score of articles and book chapters, a powerful testament that we have succeeded in our purpose. As publishing has become an ever more significant part of the reward system in academe, Beer’n’History has been indispensable to all of us, both for encouraging our scholarly productivity and for celebrating the craft of writing. But above all we value our gatherings for the way they embody what too often seems to be missing from academe: trust, honesty, and the absence of hierarchy.

Smith goes on to delineate the benefits of this small community of scholars. First on the list is the vigorous and rigorous exchange of ideas; the conversations are sometimes heated and often humorous as everyone at the table engages fully and honestly with the ideas being set forth. But equally significant is the friendships they’ve built that go far beyond the campus borders. “The camaraderie and trust forged around those tables,” he writes, “have not only enriched our lives as academics but also led to collaborations on home renovations and soccer fields, to an annual intergenerational family football game the day after Thanksgiving each year, to canoe trips to the Adirondacks.”

Smith is “spot on” about the value of a close circle of peers doing their scholarship and writing together and at the same time building friendships that go beyond their scholarship. The first time I remember reflecting upon the value of such friendships was years ago during my M. Div. studies when philosopher L. Russ Bush told the story of Tolkien’s and Lewis’ famous friendship, of the walks they took together, the hours they shared at The Eagle & Child, and the countless discussions and debates which sharpened them both. The second time I was forced to reflect upon this was during my Ph. D. dissertation stage, sitting in Stanley Hauerwas’ office. Dr. Hauerwas was my external dissertation adviser, and he graciously gave me upwards of 15 hours helping me with my dissertation. During that time, he mentioned several times how much he had benefited (personally and professionally) from the friendships he had built over the several preceding decades.

Since then, I’ve increasingly become convinced of the value of community for theology and scholarship. A sound theology puts our feet on this sort of path. First, God created humans to be relational beings. Second, our human propensity towards idolatry has deleterious noetic effects which can be lessened because of the positive influence of community. Third, God saved us for relationship with him and his church (universal and local). God created us to be thoroughly social and communal beings, and this need for relationships remains and is even enhanced in the aftermath of the Fall.

What does “theology in community” look like in practice? Each person’s situation differs, but for me, there are several ways this works out. First, I have chosen to co-author or co-edit many of my writing projects, including the manuscripts I am working on right now. If a book or essay is co-authored well, it might take more time to write than if one writes alone. The authors discuss, debate, write, re-write, and then discuss and debate some more. I am a far better theologian (or perhaps a “less deficient” theologian) because of the influence of friends such as Heath Thomas, Keith Whitfield, Craig Bartholomew, and J. D. Greear. Second, I’ve been blessed to hold informal “theology and coffee” or “theology and mission” discussion groups with students. Most semesters, this lasts from 6:30 a.m. until 8:00 or so, as we read through a book, discuss the ideas, and pray together. The lively exchanges we’ve had have benefited both student and professor.

Third, I am enjoying a Tuesday lunch appointment with 8-10 colleagues in which we discuss theology and life, and share more than a little laughter. Similarly, we have impromptu Earl-Grey-and-Chat meetings during some late afternoons in my office. Fourth, I thoroughly enjoy doing theology in my local church context. God’s church is in fact the primary context for receiving the word of God, and I remain profoundly grateful to my church and to certain friends in particular for sustaining me theologically. Fifth, I am grateful to global Christians (Asian, African, Middle Eastern) who teach me much about the gospel. Finally, I cannot fail to mention the great theologians of yesteryear who provide substantive and sumptuous theological fare for our benefit, and who help point out blind spots in our 21st century theologies.

So, if you’re a Baptist friend, I heartily recommend that you find a group similar to Smith’s Beer’n’History club. Maybe you can call it Milk’n’History. Or Cheerwine’n’Theology.

 

 

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