Water to Wine and Wine to Beer: The Role of the Bar in Religious Combination

header4“Praise the Lord and pass the beer”- decidedly unexpected words to overhear between hymns and sermons. However, Brett McCracken describes the emerging trend of “bar churches,” religious gatherings and services that take place in the comfortable, slightly disarming setting of a traditional bar. Churches like the North Brooklyn Vineyard or Fort Worth’s Kyrie advertise themselves as unorthodox beer-friendly places of worship aimed at reaching the common man. These holy ale-houses serve as communal meeting places filled with daily debates and the casual exchange of ideas. Some churches don’t go as far as establishing an actual service in the bar, but rather focus on Bible studies or ministries with a more alcohol-friendly policy.

Beer and Christianity are not as historically antithetical as you might think. Early Christian monks drank their own homemade beer in lieu of often unsanitary water that spread disease. Monasteries were places of refuge for weary travelers, offering safety, food and drink. Beer and wine were safe and necessary parts of everyday life. The more recent Puritans brought at least 10,000 gallons of beer and 120 barrels of malt to produce even more upon arrival at the New World. Like the monastic brewers, Puritans brewed beer as a way to enjoy already boiled water- which was known to be both safe and unpleasantly tasteless. To be clear- the Puritans did (over)enjoy their alcohol, but the emphasis on beer was due to both necessity and enjoyment. In true American immigrant fashion, the Puritans brought both their religion, and their cultural affinity for beer.

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But in the long and complex narrative of American religious history, why is this small, recent movement significant? Is it a short-lived movement doomed to attract only craft beer aficionados and self-proclaimed edgy Christians? McCracken suggests that the trend is not new, but a return to an older tradition of beer and Christianity. However, the modern relationship is clearly not born of necessity- few people go to bars because they’re worried about their safety. The importance of this trend is not even found in the beer itself, but rather in setting and community in which it is consumed.

Tom Smilie, writer and brewer, explains how beer and bars have allowed him to share and receive ideas. “Sometimes I’ll go alone to a bar and have a great conversation with a person about sports, politics and most often religion.” The bar as a meeting place is important because it creates a space for honest, simple conversation about important cultural ideas. Bars can be seen as a microcosm of their surrounding areas- concentrated pockets of diversity within the larger cultural framework.

In America: Religions & Religion, Catherine Albanese describes the way that different immigrant religious groups interacted in the American religious history narrative. Religious combination between different groups was facilitated by diversity and proximity. American postpluralism, or the borrowing of ideas and practices, resulted increasingly from the new closeness that mass immigration brought. A similar yet culturally microscopic phenomenon takes place in American taverns and pubs that bring together people who would otherwise never speak freely in the ordered structure of a formal church. Scott Sullivan, owner of the Greenbush Brewing Company in Sawyer, Michigan, offers his observations. “We are the community gathering place…I’ll often have a pastor sitting next to an atheist talking about all sorts of things, which isn’t something that can happen in a conventional church setting.”

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The true value of the beer Christianity movement can be seen in the sense of community and simplicity it evokes. It is important to consider the kind of local religious combination that makes up postpluralism on a macroscopic cultural level. This local religious combination is seen not in political arenas or imposing cathedrals, but the mundane places that frame everyday interactions between the common people of America. After all, according to the wisdom of author Ernest Hemingway, “If you want to know about a culture, spend a night in its bars.”

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