I never thought one could come from church and get a DUI. But, maybe the dawn of a new era is here. Just an interesting story about alcohol and our culture.
The beer flows freely in Nashville, and Gallup polling just placed Tennessee in the nation’s top 10 most religious states, but those two facts tend not to overlap.
A growing exception: an interdenominational Beer and Hymn Sing group that first met in November to do exactly what its name says and nothing else.
They don’t talk doctrine. There’s no prayer or Bible study.
Once a quarter, they pack the dark upstairs bar at MadDonna’s in East Nashville to sing centuries-old favorites. The last one kicked off with “Amazing Grace,” ended with “Go Now in Peace” and featured classics such as “How Great Thou Art” in between.
The organizer, Geoff Little, said he got the idea from seeing soccer fans in London and Dublin pubs switch seamlessly from singing fight songs to singing “Be Thou My Vision.” He believed it would be a way to draw Generation X and Y friends to a religious gathering outside the classic venues for those.
“Why was Christ’s first miracle to be the ultimate bartender? Jesus was interested in celebration,” said Little, a member of Downtown Presbyterian Church. “We separate being human from being spiritual all too easily in Nashville.”
Religion-and-alcohol groups are popping up across the United States, mostly taproom Bible studies held in cities as diverse as Cheyenne, Wyo., and Raleigh, N.C.
Organizers are unclear about the origins of combining drinking with religious songs, with some attributing the practice to Methodists centuries ago. There’s no evidence of that, said Michael Stephens, a church historian with United Methodist Publishing House in Nashville. He suspects Christians naturally would have been drinking as they went about some of their celebratory religious events held before the social reform movements of the 19th century discouraged alcohol.
Geoff Little, who organized Beer and Hymns Sing in Nashville, Tenn., believed it would be a way to draw Generation X and Y friends to a religious gathering outside the classic venues for those.(Photo: Provided to The Tennessean)
Such gatherings may seem an unlikely fit in Nashville, with its strong Southern Baptist influence — the nation’s largest Protestant denomination is headquartered here. Church groups have held services in bars here, but only when the liquor wasn’t flowing.
Still, the Beer and Hymn Sing is attracting a growing number of people of various religious backgrounds, and some of them sip nothing stronger than a Diet Coke.
“No matter what your belief is, the environment is relaxed and non-threatening,” said Heidi Barrett, a participant who attends nondenominational Belmont Church. “In the Christian world, alcohol gets shunned, but it doesn’t have to be something that you have to be scared of. Beer and Hymns brings the two worlds together.”
Dave Perkins, associate director of Religion in the Arts and Contemporary Culture at Vanderbilt University, said he first heard of the movement at the Wild Goose music festival near Asheville, N.C., when a group called Agents of Future encouraged it. Members describe themselves as Portland-based Jesus-loving genre-gender-class-past-death-defiers.
“It was such a joyful noise — I don’t think I’ve heard such a passionate singing of the old hymns since my parents would take us to revival meetings from time to time,” Perkins said. “My wife and I were moved to tears. The beer may have helped with that, too.”
He said such events make the old hymns more accessible and relevant and free people up to sing them with passion. It works for some people when traditional religion does not.
Of course, those sorts of events aren’t for everybody. The Bible doesn’t directly prohibit drinking alcohol, said Dan Spross, professor of biblical interpretation and theology at Trevecca Nazarene University, but Christians must consider issues alcohol can create. His denomination swore off liquor in the late 1800s and early 1900s as people with drinking problems converted and sought to leave their old lives behind.
“Older, traditional Christians who have come out of a conservative Nazarene background would not be terribly comfortable with the setting of, ‘Let’s have a beer and let’s sing hymns,’” Spross said. “They wouldn’t think those things meshed very well.”
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