Thursday, November 21, 2013

I believe in discourse.

What our porch looks like on Pints & Pipes night
Thursday has quickly become my favorite day of the week. Around 8pm, I set out a batch of my homemade guacamole, pour a test taste of my "fruit-infused water of the week," and light the outdoor fireplace. Soon enough, people begin to stroll into our basement for an event we affectionately refer to as "Pints & Pipes." As the name implies, we spend the evening imbibing on superb draft beer while puffing on black cavendish and other fine tobacco. Yet those things have become secondary - Pints & Pipes is really about relationships and discourse.

Supplies for a recent Pints & Pipes
The art of discussion seems to be lost in our society today, and I want it back. I read with fascination about how our nation was founded on ideas hashed out through lively, productive discourse in taverns, fueled by rounds of locally-brewed beer until there were no wicks left on the candles. Somehow we've traded that kind of open, respectful discourse for shouting our views at each other on television, and I think it's a travesty worth combating. Pints & Pipes is my dog in that fight.

In my assessment of the issue, my key observation is people have deeply-held views formed by their cultural upbringing and limited personal experience, and are unwilling to consider neither empirical evidence nor counter-cultural beliefs contrary to those viewpoints, even while thinking they like discourse. For example, I was once curious about Mormonism in high school, so I read a book written by an orthodox Christian that explained how Mormon beliefs conflicted with the Bible and were merely the invention of one man's imagination. I wanted to have enough knowledge of Mormonism to look smart, and maybe even be able to quote a few lines from the Book of Mormon to use in arguments against them, but I was only willing to learn from a viewpoint consistent with my pre-existing beliefs. No wonder my opinion didn't change! I believe this flawed way of thinking is prolific, and it leads to us seeking out bullets to fuel our existing arsenal of beliefs without ever questioning if we're carrying the wrong weapon. In order for true discussion to happen, there can be no sacred cows - we have to be open to our current beliefs being wrong.
My photo of the Mormon temple in SLC

A few years ago, a colleague and I spent two weeks conducting business reviews of our operations in the western USA. Our plan was to fly into Salt Lake City, drive 4 hours to Elko, NV for a 3 day review, spend the weekend in Salt Lake, then drive 4 hours to Rock Springs, WY for another review, then make our way back to SLC to fly home to Atlanta. About two hours into the drive to Elko, the topic of religion came up, and I learned something new about my colleague - he was a Mormon. I frantically looked out the window, but saw nothing but desert - there was no way out, this intense religious conversation was about to happen whether I liked it or not. I immediately started flipping through the rolodex of facts in my brain, trying to recall as many jabs as I could from that anti-Mormon book I read. Yet just before I shot my first zinger over the bow, I had a realization: this could end poorly. Riding in a rented Chevy Impala is uncomfortable enough - spending the foreseeable future alone in silence with someone I'd exchanged harsh, belief-bashing words with would be untenable. So I chucked my agenda out the window onto the Bonneville Salt Flats, and just asked "How did you form your beliefs?" Our conversation continued for three days straight.

Every petrol head has to stop at the Bonneville salt flats!
When I let my guard down on staunchly defending my beliefs and instead focused on understanding my colleague's perspective, I was immediately intrigued and had to know more. Every time we got in the car, I asked him more questions - about the history of the faith, about how his beliefs affected his world view, and what he thought made his beliefs stand out against all the other faiths of the world. I was fascinated by his viewpoint, and he gave me truckloads of information to mull over. He spent the weekend visiting his relatives in Utah, so I was left on my own in the Mormon capital of the world. I spent those days reading as much as I could, I visited the Mormon temple, I conversed with former and current Mormons in restaurants, I watched a few Mormon programs on television, I sipped on Polygamy Porter at the Wasatch Brewpub (not LDS-approved!), and I even went to a Mormon comedy club (actually really funny). In the end, I had some major misgivings about the religion, found many of their beliefs to be contradictory, and determined there was no corroboration for Joseph Smith's claims. Yet when I hopped in the passenger seat of that awful Impala on Monday morning, I was able to communicate these misgivings to my colleague with a very liberal dose of respect, love, and understanding, and was even able to share my beliefs with him without any raised voices or animosity. I wasn't repeating words I had read in a biased book like a weird Jesus drone, I was sharing my wrestled-with beliefs - and I think my authenticity was evident. The discussion was natural, and didn't result in any awkward silence. He's become a mentor to me at work, and I frequently seek out his sage advice - I hold him in extremely high esteem. We've continued our discussions on faith many times since then, and his views seemed to have changed significantly since that long road trip. I'm really glad I considered changing my belief system that weekend - I know my faith has grown exponentially because of it.

Our discourse had such a profound impact on me that I have sought to replicate the experience as many times as possible. I'm writing this from Madrid, and literally just returned from a very late (by American standards) dinner with a Spanish coworker. During our mealtime discussion, he mentioned he was one of the "new Catholics." When I asked him what he meant by "new Catholic," he responded: "We're pretty much like the old ones, but we really like sex." I ended my questioning there and prayed to not hear any more details. Nevertheless, these open dialogues on faith with people around the world have been eye-opening for me, and the diverse perspectives have strengthened my beliefs by forcing me to seek out earnest reasons for believing what I do. I longed for my friends in Atlanta to have these kinds of experiences, and since I couldn't fit them in my suitcase, I decided to bring the discourse to them through Pints & Pipes.

One Thursday, we debated the origins of morality, and the next week we discussed whether science conflicted with belief in God or not. Another time, my friend Peter shared his experience of growing up in Kenya, and talked about (and showed graphic pictures of) how most Kenyans growing up in the slums of Nairobi went to their graves without ever knowing that some of the most beautiful beaches in the world were a mere few hours' drive away. Just as we were all getting filled up with pity for these people living in hell when paradise was only a few kilometers away, he said: "It really reminds me of America, and how people here are so willing to settle for a mediocre suburban dream when epic living is knocking at their door - it's a shame" (the whole room of 40 people expressed a collective "ouch" as that honest statement hit home). Another Thursday, my friend Mike, a Palestinian Arab, discussed growing up in Israel during the 50's & 60's. His mother tongue is Arabic, but he's also fluent in Hebrew and English, and he's a professing Christian. His multifaceted and rich perspective on the Middle East rendered us absolutely speechless (I still wish I had recorded that meeting of Pints & Pipes). He was even open enough with us to share about the painful time someone burned a cross on his lawn (he was living in the USA at this point) during the Iran hostage crisis (even though he wasn't Persian, and wasn't a Muslim, but that's beside the point). These amazing discussions have changed my life immensely, and I hope they've impacted my friends, too. Each Pints & Pipes session costs at least $100-$150, but I think it's a worthy investment because I firmly believe this discourse is desperately needed in our community.  
Guess which of these beautiful people is Peter

The way I see it, Jesus claimed to literally be the truth (John 14:6), so if I earnestly seek the truth, I should find Him there waiting for me. I shouldn't be afraid of facts or thoroughly listening to the perspectives of others, because if Jesus isn't there at the point of truth, then He must've been a sham and I should move on with my life. If you're ever in Atlanta on a Thursday evening, I hope you'll join us for a pint or a healthy pour of fruit-infused water. We'll make you check your agenda at the door, but we'll intently listen to what you have to say. Who knows, you may just be able to make a strong enough case to make me finally drop this Jesus following nonsense.

What I'm listening to during this post: