Talks on Tap raises the level of discourse in Charleston 

A Dash of Urbanity

One of the things I most enjoyed about my undergraduate experience was talking with my friends late at night. You know, about politics, religion, the meaning of life.

It seems sort of corny after more than 40 years, but then it was heady and exciting stuff to sit up with a group of peers until three in the morning — sometimes in a welter of beer cans, sometimes in a haze of marijuana smoke — and try to figure out who we were and how we fit into this crazy world. And we were doing it away from our small town and parochial environments, away from parents and teachers and the other prying eyes and listening ears that had largely repressed us for the first 18 years of our lives.

It was also important to learn that if things got out of hand, if tempers flared or voices raised, there was no adult to step in and restore order. For the first time in our lives we were the adults in the room, and if we made fools of ourselves, we had no one but ourselves to blame.

My dear old daddy would turn in his grave if he knew this was the most valuable thing he paid for during the four years of my undergraduate education. But it was worth it, dad, every dollar. Today, I look at Limbaugh, Beck, O'Reilly and the other screamers and wonder if they flunked out of that non-credit undergraduate seminar where millions of us spent our evenings so long ago.

For those who miss that long-ago thrill of undergraduate discussion and debate, there is a local institution that you should check out. I've written about it before, but it is as lively as ever and worth another mention. I'm talking about Talks on Tap, a movable feast of debate and discussion. For more than four years, it has made thinking fun and respectable in this stodgy old town.

ToT is the brainchild of Colin Kerr, the director of Christian Education at Second Presbyterian Church. He and his informal group meet on the second and fourth Tuesday of each month in downtown bars and restaurants to discuss issues, ethics, and ideas in a respectful forum. That forum moves from venue to venue, wherever the beer is cold and the food is good. On June 21, it was East Bay Meeting House.

Kerr chooses a speaker or issue for each meeting, and his program for the June 21 session seized my attention. He wanted to explore what people meant by the expression "sacredness of life." It's a term that spans the political spectrum and is used most commonly by the pro-life crowd, yet it is also used by anti-war, anti-death penalty, and animal rights groups to advance their respective agendas. But what does it really mean to believe that life is sacred? I found the question compelling enough to make my way to East Bay Meeting House to find out.

Kerr had invited an excellent cast of advocates from the various "sacredness of life" positions. They included Sue Edwards, representing the group Carolina Peace, and Malcolm Brennan and other members of the local pro-life group, 40 Days for Life. Most interesting by far was Christian vegan Samantha Gentrue, a public school teacher who also teaches vegan cooking to help people get out of the habit of eating animals.

The pro-life crowd did most of the talking but had the least to say, in my opinion. They seemed to be garden variety Christians who I suspect were also Republicans. They maintained that life began at conception, and they were sticking to it. Edwards declared that she is an atheist and that humans must make their own destiny and create a humanistic environment to live in.

Gentrue said it is important for people to think globally and see how their personal decisions affect others. "I am conscious all day long of what I do and who I might affect with my actions," she said.

The one-hour format could not contain all the ideas and questions in that small restaurant any more than this column can communicate them. But the experience reminded me that this is part of the reason why human beings created cities — to have a sanctuary where it is safe to think, talk, and be different. In that regard, I see Talks on Tap as an expression of Charleston at its best, reaching beyond its porticoes and magnolias, to be something greater. Sure, we have Spoleto, and that's wonderful. But I have always dreamed of living in Athens with Socrates, in London with Dr. Johnson, and in Paris with Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Sartre. Talks on Tap lets us have our porticoes and magnolias — with a dash of urbanity.


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