Saturday, November 14, 2009

These Guys Love to Argue

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Whether home schooling is a viable alternative to public or privates chools
was debated by Michael Matt and Dr. Kevin Ferdinandt, in the background.

All-male monthly club draws 300-plus from near and far.

Image shows 1/2 of those in attendance last Tuesday

There are two aspects of the Argument of the Month Club that you'll get no argument about: It's fun, and it's exploding in popularity.

The theological debates that began with six men at a back table in a St. Paul restaurant now are monthly meetings that routinely draw 300-plus people, some from as far away as Cambridge, St. Cloud and Wabasha.

"I came last month for the first time and it just blew me away," said Lyle Bowe, a West St. Paul resident who attended his second meeting Tuesday evening. "I've been telling everyone what a great evening it is. The food is great, the company is great, the arguing is great."

It's an all-male group, which is itself something of a phenomenon, said the Rev. John Echert, rector of St. Augustine Catholic Church in South St. Paul, which hosts the meetings in its basement.

"This is a very unique success story," he said. "Getting women's groups together in a church is often very easy, but getting men's groups together is tough. And to get this many men together. ... " He shook his head as he looked around the room before adding with a tinge of awe: "It's unprecedented."

It's happening almost completely by word-of-mouth. The club has a website (www.aotmclub.com) and sweatshirts (emblazoned with "What is truth?"). "That's it in terms of getting the word out," said Josh Teske, the club's webmaster. "We don't do any advertising."

The club was started by Roman Catholics and still focuses on issues that affect Catholics, but it's often done from a big-picture perspective that reaches beyond Catholicism and draws a broader crowd.

"We have people of all faiths here," Echert said, and, sometimes, even nonfaiths, he added, pointing to a debate in January between a religious studies professor and a representative of Minnesota Atheists. "He brought several of his atheist friends along for support, and we were glad to have them."

The group's growth has forced changes in format, but the basic approach remains the same, said Kent Wuchterl, the club's director and one of its half-dozen original members 10 years ago.

"We were all apologetics," he said in a reference to early Christians who defended their faith when they were criticized by outsiders. "We were looking for a way to defend our faith. So we took over a table at the St. Clair Broiler and started arguing."

Topics were picked in advance, with three men assigned to each side of the debate. Being at a restaurant, they also felt obligated to order something. Thus was set the format: food and a fight.

As the group grew, it had to keep moving to bigger venues and different approaches. Everyone was encouraged to join in the debate until attendance topped 80, at which point it became more chaotic than insightful.

The club started bringing in two speakers to hold a formal debate, which was then followed by an open-mike session in which club members could question the speakers. Once attendance reached 200, that also started getting unmanageable. Now the members submit written questions during the debate that are passed on to a moderator.

The meal is cooked by club members in St. Augustine's kitchen. It's a "manly" meal that consists heavily of meat -- heavy enough to challenge the strength of the paper plates -- followed by dessert. Tuesday's was a chocolate layer cake served in pieces only slightly smaller than a football. Even then, many went back for seconds of both courses. The cost is $12.

"Where else are you going to eat this well for $12?" Wuchterl asked. Or, he could have added, eat this much?

The crowd is eclectic. The meetings draw people as young as 8 (sons attending with their fathers) and as old as 90. Men in business suits pull up chairs next to guys in blue jeans. Their level of interest is apparent: In three hours, not a single cell phone rang, even though there were no signs asking members to turn them off.

The topics the club considers are not light; recent ones have included debates on what is a "just" war and end-of-life issues. Tuesday's debate on home schooling pitted Kevin Ferdinandt, director of Providence Academy's upper school, against Michael Matt, an ardent home schooler and the author of several books on Catholicism.

The debates can get heated, but Echert, who also serves as the de facto sergeant of arms, is ready to step in if things get nasty. That rarely happens.

"Sometimes we'll clearly line up behind one speaker or the other, but it's respectful," said Paul Notermann of Inver Grove Heights. Seated next to him was Terry Beaudry of Roseville, who added: "We're all here for a good time."

Echert estimates that about half of the regulars are there for the camaraderie and the other half for the debate. Andrew Lynch, in his third year of driving up from Owatonna for the meetings, clearly falls in the latter category. He often brings along a group of friends, and they continue the debate all the way home.

"I like to argue," he said. "I'll take either side, sometimes just to keep the discussion going. This is the highlight of my month. I wouldn't miss it."

If there's one concern for the club, it's what to do if it keeps growing. St. Augustine can handle about 100 more before the fire codes become a concern. Club officers have offered to help launch spinoff groups; a group from Alexandria came to observe an earlier meeting. Or they might have to start taking it on the road.

"We've talked about moving it around the Twin Cities, sort of a traveling argument," Wuchterl said. "I don't know what we'll do, but we'll work something out."

They can always argue about it later. Star Tribune


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