Four Christians in a Coffee Shop
I sit alone in a coffee shop, a steaming mug of mint tea nearby, listening to four young men at a nearby table discuss the Parable of the Sower. The oldest, a squat, amiable man in his early thirties wearing an Atlanta Braves cap, appears to be the leader. He sits at the head of the rectangular table, placid, smiling, looking not entirely comfortable in his role. The black leather-bound bible open in front of him is brimming with yellow post-it notes. The other three young men are leaner, jittery, sitting at strange angles to their chairs and the table as if they might fall off at any moment and start climbing the walls. But he has their full attention. There is something about his Zen-like composure, as if he is manifesting the peace at the center of their faith. This is their weekly Bible study, and I can tell from their body language and the comfortable banter between them that they have been here before.
I often eavesdrop in public places, and there is no better place to do this than a coffee shop. As our society has become more individualistic and less public, the coffee shop is one of the few spaces left in American life where eavesdropping is still both possible and permissible. Because I am a writer, I am fascinated by the way people talk—their accents and their mannerisms; the things they care about; the things that make them angry, sad, or ecstatic; the ways in which they approach their subjects. Is it straight ahead? Analytical? Meandering? Do they speak in stories (or better yet, parables)? I want to know these things.
Usually, I am content to listen in anonymity. If I can do so discreetly, I might even take notes, but mostly I just listen. When I was younger, in my twenties, I would sometimes interject myself into these coffee shop conversations. This was, admittedly, always a risky move. There was always the chance of rejection, or worse, a public chastisement. But I was good at sensing in strangers their willingness to be engaged by me. If I caught the right vibe, I would look for an opening and then lean over (but not too close) to introduce myself.
“Hi, my name is Dan. I couldn’t help but notice that you are discussing the Parable of the Sower. That is my favorite parable.”
Something like that.
Lately, however, I would never dare do this. I am in my fifties now and my ego no longer drives the ship as it once did. I am no longer simmering with the desire to be heard and acknowledged by others. I no longer feel compelled to connect with strangers. Maybe I am just better at "reading the room" now or maybe I have lost that conversational openness that is so natural in teenagers and twentysomethings—that willingness to talk to anyone about anything. Whatever the reason, I am far more circumspect in public than I once was.
Today, I am content to mentally project myself into their conversation, imagining what it would be like if I did go over and introduce myself. There would be many openings for me to do so. For one thing, I actually know the Parable of the Sower. Though I am no longer a religious person, I have read the gospels carefully many times. Earlier in my life, I was fascinated by religion. I earned a Master’s Degree in Jewish-Christian Studies from Seton Hall University in the early 1990s, which required me to learn biblical Hebrew well enough to translate a text from the Old Testament. I studied Jewish aspects of Jesus in a class taught by an Orthodox Rabbi named Asher Finkel who also happened to be a scholarly expert on the life of Jesus. I have read more than a handful of books on the "historical Jesus." I could contribute something meaningful to their conversation, if they would have me.
This imaginary conversation with the four Christians goes well at first. They don’t mind the interruption. On some level, this is perhaps what they secretly hope will happen, the reason they meet in a coffee shop rather than in one of their living rooms. Perhaps they view my interruption as an opportunity to witness to me, or maybe they are simply open and friendly, as I was in my twenties.
In my mind, the conversation is wide-ranging. I will tell them that I am very interested in the gnostic gospels, for example, and some of the other gospels that were excluded from the New Testament. How would they react, I wonder, if I pushed the conversation in this direction? Would they not want to cross the line into non-canonical texts, or would they be open and curious and even eager, as some religionists are, to discuss items that are not on the theological menu? Should I care if they are comfortable or not? After all, Jesus does not belong to the four of them. He doesn’t entirely belong to Christians either. He is a cultural property as well as a religious one.
At some point in the conversation, they will begin to wonder if I am a person of faith. What will I say if they ask me? I could skirt the subject, say something banal like ‘my faith has taken me to interesting places' or ‘I am spiritual, not religious.’ I could quote Joseph Campbell who once said, ‘I don’t need faith, I have experience.’ There is more than a grain of truth in that statement for me. If I am feeling brave, I might say what I feel in my heart, that faith is mostly a trivial matter in this life. Belief is so often fleeting and ephemeral and not a particularly instructive measure of anything that really matters, even in matters related to religion. I might say that too much faith can be a dangerous thing. People who cling too stubbornly to their beliefs can devolve into zealotry. Others set themselves up to be called hypocrites when they fail to live up to the tenants of their faith.
Or maybe I will say none of this.
At some point, the conversational openness will end. I’ve had conversations like this with evangelical Christians before, so I know that we will almost certainly hit a wall. The wall is cultural, not theological. I have had many wonderful theological conversations with Jews and Muslims and indigenous people about their religious beliefs that did not stall on matters of disagreement, but this is because we had agreed beforehand to participate in interfaith dialogue. The cultural setting for these conversations was tolerance, acceptance, and non-judgment. There were rules going in and we followed them.
It is different with evangelicals. For some reason, my conversations with them have always been guarded and tense. As soon as they sense my familiarity with the Bible, they expect me to say orthodox things. Instead, I say heterodox things, and this leads to exchanged glances and uncomfortable silences. It is as if they object to a mind like mine coming anywhere near the Bible. They would prefer that I was a scoffer or a militant atheist because then they would know which box to put me in. A secular humanist who loves the Bible? This does not compute.
Something will derail the conversation, some kind of disconnect between my culture and theirs. Maybe it will be something I say, like when I told a Christian that if Jesus was alive today, he would prefer the company of revolutionaries and criminals and people who live in tents under overpasses to practically anyone who attends his upscale prosperity gospel Church in the Atlanta suburbs. Or like the time I said that if most Christians actually believed that every human being is a son or daughter of God, our church congregations would be far more diverse, or the time I suggested that the God that created this universe probably wouldn’t have a gender. Heterodox things. Heretical things.
Or the time I told an an evangelical friend that America doesn’t belong to Christians.
Or will it be the new tribalism that derails our conversation? The forces of political division are powerful these days. As I speak, will they seek to locate me in the other of the binary socio-political camps, or will I do this to them? Will we feel the gravitational pull of this tribalism and respond accordingly, perhaps without even realizing that we were doing it? Will they appear MAGA to me merely because they are clearly faithful Christians discussing the Bible in a coffee shop? Will they label me as a liberal elite by virtue of my level of education and my analytical approach to spiritual topics?
As I listen, it is clear to me that they are not politically inclined, at least not for the purposes of this particular Bible study. I have listened carefully for signs of MAGA affiliation—the undertone of white grievance, the loose talk about elites destroying America, the word “Trump.” Nothing. Maybe the leader has set ground rules that discourage political talk during Bible study. Or maybe these young men are further evidence of the stories I've been hearing from inside the evangelical Christian world about a younger generation that is disgusted with the politicization of Christianity by their Boomer parents and grandparents. No, their discussion revolves around how scripture applies to daily living. I can appreciate this. This should be the purpose of any scripture, I think.
Eventually, they pack their bibles and leave. My mug has cooled by this time, but my mind is alive with a question: Why have Americans allowed zealots and extremists to bend our society so severely towards cultural conflict? Why haven't we demanded a pluralism that is wide and tolerant and willing to engage the other with curiosity and openness and an absence of judgment? Where is the common ground in American life?
Where would that common ground be found now that the media and politicos have divided the country into tribes, the Blue and the Red? Where is the place where nonsectarian lovers of Jesus can go to discuss the Parable of the Sower in peace—Christmas-and-Easter Catholics, ”culturally Jewish” intellectuals, the Pakistani woman wearing a hijab, the take-no-prisoners atheist, the intellectually curious welder who reads voraciously, the spiritually open recent divorcee and mother of three, the really well-read nurse with the namaste bumper sticker on her car? Where is the place of equanimity and acceptance for our Bible study?
Maybe it was a coffee shop in the Atlanta Metro suburbs last week, if I had found the courage to go over and introduce myself. But probably not.