The Coffee Cup of Salvation
by JUSTIN D. BARNARD
Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship
July 28, 2008 - Diagnosing the human predicament in our postmodern culture is much easier than proffering a solution. Movies portray it, musicians sing about it, and young people feel it. We are, in a word, alone. In his new book, The Courage To Be Protestant David Wells points out the irony of our alienation in light of the “connectedness” that new technology offers.
Wells writes: “Never before have the lines of communication between people been more numerous, more efficient, or more used; e-mail, text-messaging, and cell phones are ubiquitous in our culture. We are the Wired Generation living in a mostly electronically mediated world. However, have you noticed that while everyone is speaking, no one is really listening? We are swamped by voices. So many want our time and attention that for our own protection we shut out most of them. And while we are surfing the Internet, e-mailing, watching television, or playing video games, we are doing it all alone. We are wired, but we are also more lonely and have fewer confidants than ever before. The Putnam thesis of the 1960s is correct: we are in touch with everyone potentially, but we know and are known by almost no one in particular.”
As Wells rightly points out, one of the greatest contributing factors to this aspect of the human condition has been “modernization – the rearrangement of our societies around cities for the purposes of production, consumption as a defining factor in life, the omnipresence of technology, and our enlarged means of communications.” This is part of what makes self-consciously independent coffee shops such strange entities.
Such coffee shops sell more than a cup-o-Joe. Many peddle an entire soteriology rooted in fair-trade coffee, sustainable business practices, and support of local markets. Consider, for example, the mission statement of Republic Coffee. “Republic Coffee is a privately owned and operated café whose main goal is to bring to market world class coffees and truly exceptional food. We are purveyors of the world coffee markets and roast bean varieties locally. Our food is grounded in the practice of Slow Food, and we strive to build community through service in our space. We are dedicated to service and to acting LOCAL while thinking GLOBAL.”
While one should encourage the efforts of any business to be good and faithful stewards of God’s resources (Psalm 24:1), both human and environmental, Christians ought to be wary of both diagnoses and cures to the human condition that run afoul of the Gospel. Sensing the alienation in our postmodern world, such coffee shops offer “community” as the salvific goal for which “we strive.” The means of community building rest on the very foundation responsible for much of the felt alienation in the first place: consumerism. But the vain hope – expressed in such doctrines as fair-trade, sustainable business practices, organic foods, etc. – is that better consumerism shall overcome. This is because the diagnosis only goes skin-deep. Our problem, in the view of such cafes, is strictly material – not spiritual; thus, the hope of an economic cure.
Sadly, the evidence for the failure of “coffee shop theology” sits alone in front of an illumined screen in a coffee shop near you, where “free wireless Internet” can connect with anyone and anything save the Creator from whom we are chiefly estranged. Christ, not better coffee, is the only remedy for the latter.