Year2012

Little Miss Sunshine

Little miss

They are the Hoovers because they all pretty much suck.

At the dinner table–the symbol of familial unity–they eat chicken out of a bucket, off of paper plates and drink pop served in McDonald’s collectible glasses. The nutritive value of the meal is equal to the emotional and spiritual value of this communion. A message on the answering machine interrupts the dissonance of conflicting wills. The seven-year-old Olive has, by default, qualified for the Little Miss Sunshine Pageant. Reluctantly, the family must make the long trip from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach, California so that Olive can attempt to achieve her dream and become a beauty queen.

There are many reasons that Little Miss Sunshine is my favourite movies. The acting is brilliant and the screenplay works on all levels. It’s also funny, poignant, philosophical and redemptive.

The movie is redemptive, but some Christian viewers would find this movie offensive.

That’s an Awful Movie

(SPOILER ALERT)

One of the characters is homosexual, but most Christians would be able to get past this,  The grandfather would be a little more difficult to excuse; he uses heroin and advises his grandson to have sex with as many women as he can.  It has strong language and a t-shirt that declares, “Jesus Was Wrong.” If that’s not enough, a seven-year-old girl dances, albeit naively, like a stripper.

Some might ask, “Even if there is something redemptive in this movie, is it worth seeing all the ‘garbage’ just to find that particle of truth?”

I find far more than a particle of truth in this film. Perhaps, part of the problem is that we have different approaches to understanding narrative.  If the truth is a piece of a story that can be extracted from the whole and held up and declared to be a true bit, then an argument could be made that there aren’t a lot of true bits in this movie and quite a few untrue bits.

I recently wrote a post about using the term “Implication” instead of “Application” when determining our response to Bible stories.  We can interact with any story, including a movie, with the principles of Implication.

Implication

Implication is a more appropriate approach to narratives of any kind for it maintains the integrity of all elements of the story of which the “idea” or “moral” is but one.

The first definition for term implication in the Oxford English Dictionary is the one I have in mind: “The action of involving, entwining, or entangling; the condition of being involved, entangled, twisted together, intimately connected or combined.”

The truth of a narrative is communicated through the experience it conveys–the experience in which we are entangled. Viewers of Little Miss Sunshine will find themselves entangled in the story.

Every character has a dream, hope or driving motivation. Significantly, these motivations are completely individual and they tend to divide each family member from the others. Olive dreams of being beautiful; Richard wants to have success in his career; Duane want nothing more than be free from home and his means of escape is to become a test pilot; Grandpa seeks pleasure in his waning years; Cheryl dreams of a happy family, and Frank seeks recognition and love.

Entwined into Little Miss Sunshine

Which of these dreams do you share?  Everyone has a longing for something. These dreams are consistent with the Biblical idea that we were created for more than what we experience in this life. This is the place where I become entangled in the story, for I am every character in this movie.

Each character is a long way from achieving his or her dream. Olive lacks poise and grace, and the sort of beauty that would win a beauty pageant. Richard will never sell his self-help plan because it is mostly empty cliché. The picture of a previous husband sitting on the entry table in the opening scene shows that Cheryl is divorced.  Her family is far from harmonious. Duane hates everyone, especially his family–he has stopped speaking and will remain silent until he is in flight school. Grandpa’s hedonism is self-destructive; his heroin use has gotten him thrown out of the nursing home. Frank has attempted suicide because he’s lost his boyfriend and reputation. Each character struggles with his or her own limitations as well as external circumstances.

It is very clear that, as individuals, they need something; as a family they need something; they need redemption. This too is consistent with the Biblical view of humanity. People were made to be in communion with each other. They began their journey seeking their own desires and their lives were dissonant and broken. They came together around a quest; they thought the quest was getting Olive into a stupid beauty contest, but it turned out the quest was the unification of their family around the protection of its most vulnerable.

When I become entwined into this story, I feel the needs and longings of these characters as my own.  I feel the partial meeting of these needs as the family comes together in the crisis.

What’s True in Little Miss Sunshine?

If this way of experiencing narrative truth in a story isn’t good enough for you, there are plenty of “Application” truths here as well.  If you are looking for the nugget of truth in this movie, there are many.

Here is a partial list:

  1. We all dream of being something more than we can possibly be because we aren’t nearly the creatures we are supposed to be.
  2. We are limited by our sin and the effects of sin in the world.
  3. We do things out of love, but sometimes these things are not all that appropriate (Grandpa taught Olive the only dance he was familiar with); it’s a good thing that the love in our intentions is powerful enough to eclipse the inadequacy of the results.
  4. To be naïve is not the same as to be innocent.
  5. Even in our brokenness, we can be a blessing to others.
  6. Actions are more powerful than words (the scene where Olive brings Duane back into the bus), and that’s why the Incarnation is so incredible.
  7. Human beings were made for community and within community, we can transcend our individual weaknesses.
  8. Grace, forgiveness, and LOVE are incredibly powerful.
  9. Self-sacrifice is fundamental to the expression of love.
  10. Suffering is important for growth.
  11. The world’s standard for winners and losers is completely wrong.
  12. There is a loving presence at the centre of the universe that orchestrates all things for our good.
  13. Life is tragic and beautiful and also pretty funny.
  14. Beauty pageants are stupid.

Share Your Fries

Untitled picture

Over two million people “liked” this picture on Facebook.

Shockingly, the person that “shared” it was a Christian.

I felt a rant coming on.  I really wanted to hit Reply.

“Taxed to the ‘breaking point’? Come on!”

I desperately wanted to point out that the United States has one of the lowest tax rates in the world. If taxation levels are at the breaking point, I hope I’m in Africa when some actual hardship comes to North America.

I wanted to ask, “Who is this person who is ‘able to work, but refuses to’?” Even if this described EVERY person on government assistance, the number of tax dollars going to these deadbeats would make up a small portion of the tax dollars collected.  The reality is that most of the people on assistance are very willing to work and do.

I wanted to tell a story:

My French Fries: A Parable

Once upon a time, there were three children. They were in the back seat of the car.  They cheered as the driver, their father, turned into the McDonald’s drive-through.  He passed two large fries to each of the older children and told them to share with the youngest child who, he knew, would only eat only a few.

The youngest asked for a fry.  Then asked again.  The pleaded.  Then wailed.

The older child reluctantly surrendered two, the second oldest, only one.  They were very reluctant to share their fries.

The father was angry with the older children.

I’m sure you are angry with them too.

They forgot the fries weren’t theirs.

They forgot behave appropriately given the Grace they received.

You Won the Lottery

If you live in North America, you’ve won some sort of a lottery. You live in an affluent society where the infrastructure fosters wealth and where opportunities for work and education abound. You enjoy the highest standard of living of any time or any place in history. Even if you are in the lower-middle class, you take for granted luxuries not even dreamed of by the richest rulers of the greatest empires in history.

All the stuff you have is not because you worked so hard for it.  Although I don’t doubt you worked hard; you have what you have because you were lucky enough to be born here.

Share your fries.

Application or Implication

 

When I was a kid, my Sunday School teachers were always asking us, “What’s the moral of the story?”

I love Larry Norman’s critique of the propensity to seek some moral in every Bible story.  His song, “Moses in the Wilderness” after tracing the exploits of Moses, ends with the ridiculous injunction, “Never borrow money needlessly.”

I’m wondering if this reductive reading of the Bible is embedded in the idea of the “Application.”  This is the part of the sermon when the pastor explains how the Biblical text applies to our lives.

By the way some preachers talk about the application, one might get the impression that this is the most important part of the message, but as a congregant, we usually feel that it will be hard to live out the application.  Not only because Biblical standards of holiness are always out of our reach.

The difficulty may lie in the incongruity between our desire to respond to the text, and the word “application.”  The word suggests a  very modern, non-Biblical approach, and thus, a limited one.

Application

If I do some free association with the word application, I come up with Band-Aids and other things that adhere, like those decals I used to stick onto my model race cars.  To apply means to stick something onto the surface of something else.

It follows then that to apply the lessons of a sermon means to stick its teachings onto me.  The limitations of this word are becoming obvious.   For one thing, the pastor does all the work, he does the applying, and the listeners are passive, like a child receiving the Band-Aid.   And, like a Band-Aid, it makes us feel better, but it doesn’t usually stick longer than a day.  We walk away happiest if the bandage is one of those fancy kinds with cartoon characters on them.  We might even show our friends, who will be only temporarily enamored.

This is not a very good way to interact with any story, let alone scripture, for it makes of the Bible a box of Band-Aids.  A metal box filled with varied useful objects that can be extracted by the skilfull hands of a skillful and equipped expert.  I’m thinking of my mother who, with deft and nailed fingers. was able to extract the appropriate Band-Aid from deep in the box.

The idea of application presupposes a gap between subject and object–between me and the Band-Aid, between me and the Bible’s text.  It suggests that there are things in biblical texts that can be pulled out and used.  These things are almost always ideas, that is, intellectual propositions.  It’s not that stories don’t communicate ideas, but that’s not all they communicate–stories are not primarily intellectual.  We use the derogatory word didactic to describe stories that are.

Good stories don’t stick to our surface, but they penetrate us and the encounter is implicit and transformative.  Let me illustrate this with the story of “The Good Samaritan” found in Luke 10:25-37.

Sermon Writing: Stories don't stick to us, they penetrate us and the encounter is implicit and transformative.Click To Tweet

The Good Samaritan

A lawyer, in an attempt to test Jesus, asks him what one must do to have eternal life.  Rather than answer directly, Jesus asks him what he thinks the Law says.  The lawyer correctly answers that he must love God and neighbour.

The lawyer then asks, “Who is my neighbour?”

If there was a clear intellectual answer to this question, Jesus could have simply told it to him–He could have delivered the application right then and there, but because the answer cannot be reduced to an idea, a story is necessary.

A certain man was set upon by robbers and left seriously injured in a ditch.  A priest and a Levite saw him but walked past.  A Samaritan, hated by the Jews, helped the injured man and arranged for his care and promised to return.

If you were to apply the lessons of this story to your life, you’d likely be convicted to help others in need like the good Samaritan, and not ignore them like the priest and the Levite.  The problem is, I already know I am supposed to do this, and I also know that I will not do it to the extent that the God’s Law requires—and the lawyer knew this too.  So, this application adheres to the surface and will, consequently, fall off during the first bath.

So much for application.

Implication

Rather than application, I would like to suggest the word implication.  It suggests a lot more ambiguity than application, but that’s a good thing since the clarity of application is often achieved through a reduction of the truth to a moral.  Implication is not about how the sermon fits into, or onto, my life; it’s about how I fit into the story.  Implication bridges the gap between subject and object because I enter the story and it enters me–I experience the story as a participant.

The clarity of a sermon's APPLICATION is often achieved through a reduction of the truth to a moral. #SermonApplication #SermonWriting #Application #ImplicationClick To Tweet

I can enter the story of the Good Samaritan at several points.

  • I can enter it as the Samaritan and see that I am inadequate because I’m not enough like him.
  • But I can also be honest and see myself in the action of the robbers
  • or the priest and Levite who are not so different than the robbers who harm the man through inaction.  Let’s be honest, this is most of us.
  • I can also enter the story as the victim of the evil of others.

In reality, I occupy all these roles in various ways—I am in the story.  Implication is experiential.

A further problem with the term application is that it favours a self-centered understanding of the story.  It’s about me and what I am supposed to do; I’ve got to be on the lookout for the people who have been tossed in the metaphorical ditch and do something about it.

The Implication of the story of The Good Samaritan

But to read the story of the Good Samaritan as a lesson about what I am supposed to do, is to miss the point.  This story is more about what I can’t do, and what Jesus has done.

To read the story of the Good Samaritan as a lesson about what I am supposed to do is to miss the point. This story is more about what I can’t do, and what Jesus has done.Click To Tweet

If the story is about me, then I end up feeling guilty because I am a crappy Good Samaritan.  I’m a priest or a Levite.  Neither the Lawyer who questioned Jesus, nor I, am capable of meeting the injunction to “love your neighbour” as the Law requires.

The implicit meaning of the story is that I am not able to love my neighbour properly, but because Jesus did, I receive eternal life, as if I did—it’s about him.

When I understand that this story is not just about me and my inadequacy, but Jesus and his adequacy, I am free to love my neighbour out of gratitude because  I have been given the eternal life the Lawyer was asking about, even though I don’t deserve it.

When you read the story of The Good Samaritan, do you feel guilty or grateful? Click To Tweet

Jesus refuses to give a straight answer to the Lawyer, as to who a neighbour is.   By refusing to simplify the Truth to an application he points to something far greater–an implication–an implicit and transforming truth about God’s grace.

I am not suggesting that every pastor who uses the word “application” at the end of his sermon is leaving his listeners with a simplistic, individualistic idea.  I am just arguing that the word implies a limited understanding of story.  By using the word implication, we have a better tool to experience the transformative power of the Bible’s stories.

Have you ever experienced a powerful, unaccountable feeling of Joy?

I took this picture in Renne, France.

This feeling of Joy fell upon me.  I was in the medieval part of Renne, France.  It was a sunny summer afternoon.  I was sitting in an outdoor cafe on an ancient street drinking something called Piçon biere.  It’s hard to describe, but I think it was Joy.  It didn’t last long, but I thanked God for it immediately because I knew him to be the source.

C. S. Lewis was Surprised by Joy

In his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis describes something similar.  Of these moments Lewis says, “the central story of my life is about nothing else.”   Lewis’ recounts three such episodes in his childhood.  The first occurred while the young Lewis, looking at a blooming currant bush, remembered a toy garden he had built in a biscuit tin.  A powerful sensation came over him which he describes as an intense desire.  Lewis senses this to be a supernatural encounter in that, following this brief glimpse, “the world turned commonplace again.”  The second event was through Squirrel Nutkin by Beatrix Potter when Lewis experienced a “trouble” which pointed toward “the Idea of Autumn”; he became “enamored of a season.”  The experience was again, one of intense desire.  The last glimpse occurred through the poetry of Longfellow’s Saga of King Olaf.  Common to each of these experiences is the feeling of “unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any satisfaction.”  He called this sensation Joy.

His description of these encounters implies that this was a meeting with the transcendent for they came “without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries” (20).

Later, Joy reprises its invitation.  Lewis uses the imagery of a sudden spring to describe the second summons of Joy.  The encounter came with a quote from and an illustration of Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods which produces the feeling of “pure Northernness,” a deliberately ambiguous term describing the feeling derived from “a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of the Northern summer, remoteness and severity . . . .”  This feeling awakens and fuses with the memory of Joy to create an “unendurable sense of desire and loss.”  He characterizes the feeling as “incomparably more important than anything else in [his] experience.”  From this point in his life, Lewis pursues Joy; he is on a quest to find its source.

What do encounters with Joy mean?

A clearer idea of what these experiences may mean was suggested to me at a recent teacher’s convention.  Syd Hielema was talking about looking at our lives using the Creation-Fall-Redemption-Fulfillment paradigm.  I’ve looked at a lot of things with this template, from coffee to zombies, why not myself?

Here are Hielema’s questions:

  • Creation: How am I wired? What are my gifts? What gives me joy? In what situations in my past have I felt most fully “myself”? (Read Psalm 139:13-14)
  • Fall: In what ways do sin and fear affect me?  In what ways do I pretend to be someone I’m not?  What interferes with me loving God and loving others?  How do the wounds I’ve received from the brokenness of life affect me? (Read Jeremiah 17:9)
  • Redemption: Where have I seen God in my life? What helps me and what hinders me in terms of walking with him?  What am I quite clear about and what am I quite confused about?  Are there particular events or people that stand out on my road to Redemption? (Read Isaiah 43:1-2)
  • Fulfillment:  What might I be like when God has finished his refining work in me?  What might his universe be like?  How might I live anticipating that completion as a new creation?

It’s not very difficult to find creational goodness in ourselves, nor is it very difficult to see how we are distorted by sin.  The movements of redemption are also apparent when we look for them.  But the Fulfillment piece was something I figured was out of my experience–we get that when Christ returns.  But Hielema suggests that we might have the occasional glimpse by which we can extrapolate who we will be when God has finished his work.  And what it will feel like.

I instantly thought of my moment of Joy in medieval Renne. Are those moments that Lewis called encounters with Joy, a small sip of what it will be like when I am made new?

If they are, oh, I’m looking forward to it!

 

 

Enlightenment Dualism

 

geralt / Pixabay

Have you ever been told that an issue of “faith is a private matter and should be kept to oneself?”

Where did this idea come from? The idea that life is divided between public and private spheres?

The Roots of Dualism

Both Bacon and Descartes trusted in reason to be the arbiter of truth (Read “Fact versus Truth“) albeit from different starting points. Bacon used reason to take him from observation of particular phenomenon to universal principles, and Descartes saw the human mind as the final authority in understanding reality. Although they approached it from different angles, both trusted reason to lead to the truth.

Because of their influence, by the middle of the 17th century, science was becoming the lens by which reality was viewed. Importantly, this does not mean that there was a corresponding loss of belief. Still, as the mysteries of nature that had previously been attributed to the direct intervention of God came to be explained as natural phenomenon, a division developed between science and religion. God was understood to be the creator but was no longer thought to be necessary for day to day management of the material world because it was obedient to Natural Law. Correlative to the division between God and His Creation was a widening gap between God and human reason; reason was understood to be autonomous.

Immanuel Kant

Enter Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant saw the movement from reliance on God toward a reliance on reason as analogous to the movement from childhood to adulthood. This idea was foundational to the period we call the Enlightenment. The light of the Enlightenment was the realization that it was neither God nor the church which would lead to a better world, but human Reason. This view of is the essence of the modern worldview and is still with us today.

Kant believed that human beings were also developing morally as we continue to articulate universally recognized moral principles. All cultures and religions are expressions, to one degree or another, of these principles. He believed that these Moral Laws could be uncovered by reason. For Kant, religion was simply a particular expression of universal principles.

The light, in Enlightenment, is Reason.  It was supposed that we could arrive at universal truth using only reason.  Importantly, it was believed that reason was neutral, unaffected by belief (or history, tradition, body, etc.).   It wasn’t very long before religion was thought to be its opposite.

This is where the divide between faith and reason was formalized–this is dualism. It’s the belief that we can hold to whatever particular beliefs we want, but these are to be kept in the private sphere. The public sphere is to be ruled by universal reason. If we keep things in their proper spheres, we can all happily get along (This false dichotomy, and others, is the point of this site).

Although, this idea is considered passé by many intellectuals–not just the religious ones either–it still dominates public thought.

Fact versus Truth

The idea that Science and Religion are at odds is a very common misunderstanding.

Those who accept that science and religion are fundamentally in conflict, are then left with a decision: which one are you going to believe?

The Roots of Conflict

The roots of the perceived conflict between religion and science came out of, not a battle between science and religion, but a battle between science and language (Klassen). The root of this view is in two ideas — empiricism and rationalism. Empiricism comes from the method articulated by Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and rationalism from the fertile mind of René Descartes (1596-1650).

Both empiricism and rationalism were seeking to ground reality in certainty. In the previous centuries, reason and emotions were not antithetical, but part of an integral whole which found expression in language. Language reflected a delight in elaborate patterns and complicated ornamentation. Like the elaborate patterns in gardens, gowns and poetic forms, language was a marriage of wisdom and eloquence, of content and style.

By the 17th century, there was growing interest in the particulars of the physical world than in universal ideas and the world to come. The interest in the things of this world prompted thinkers like Bacon and Descartes to escape the ambiguities of language and emotion (not Christianity) and get at the clear expression of certain knowledge.

Empiricism

Bacon sought to achieve a more direct path to knowledge than one mediated through language. His approach is called empiricism, or the inductive method: through experimentation and observation, one might use reason to draw universal conclusions–the truth.  He believed that knowledge could be accumulated through impartial observation of the natural world; this information would be shared publically so that it could be critiqued and verified by others and, through this process, human knowledge would grow.

Rationalism

Like Bacon, René Descartes desired a more certain foundation for knowledge, but rather than using inductive reasoning from experience, Descartes used deductive reasoning that began with the mind. He purposes to seek certainty by setting aside anything “which admits of the slightest doubt” even if the only certainty discovered is that there is no certainty. Since it is possible to doubt the existence of the body, all operations of the body, (and consequently the attributes of the soul which require a body,) are also in doubt. So Descartes looked to the mind and concludes that he does in fact exist because he can conceive in his mind. Even if he is deceived, and everything we perceive is an illusion created by a deceptive God, his existence is still a certainty because one must exist to be deceived.  His conclusion is that truth is deduced using reason.

The influence of these two thinkers on Western thought cannot be exaggerated. Reason became the means by which we can understand all reality.  Intuition, emotion, subjective opinion, and religious beliefs were sent packing.

Do the principles of empiricism and rationalism provide us with a clearer picture of truth than that which is mediated through language (and intuition, emotion, subjective opinion, and religious beliefs)?

This question is answered in Truth and Poetry.

Coffee and Conscience – Part 3

Pezibear / Pixabay

“Where quality is the thing sought after, the thing of supreme quality is cheap, whatever the price one has to pay for it.” – William James

For many, coffee can only be enjoyed when they know that the production of it hasn’t had significant environmental and human costs.  To help such concerned consumers find ethical coffee, various organizations have begun to certify producers and label coffee according to standards of stewardship.  For those who want to drink coffee that doesn’t hurt the environment or the people who produce it, these labels help direct them to this coffee.

The Fair Trade label indicates that the producers and workers in developing countries have received a fair price for their coffee and a fair wage for their labour.  The rap against Fair Trade coffee is that it is restricted to small, family run farms, and, even though there are larger, non-family run farms that produce coffee ethically.  Furthermore, there is nothing stopping greedy merchants from taking advantage of well-intentioned consumers by charging exorbitant prices for coffee bearing the label.  These concerns may be valid, but a third is not.  The objection that Fair Trade coffee isn’t quality coffee is misapplied; average ratings given to Fair Trade coffees by professional tasters are the same as those of other specialty coffees, and they are on the rise.

The Certified Organic label means that the coffee wasn’t grown using pesticides, chemical fertilizers or genetically modified seeds. Bird Friendly and Rainforest Alliance-Certified Shade Grown coffee labels mean that it was grown using traditional methods so that trees on coffee plantations are preserved, rather than clear-cut.  The Rainforest Alliance has begun to certify coffee producers who raise coffee in areas that have been deforested if these producers are pursuing a program to return trees into these clear cuts and cultivating coffee in the shade.

There is another way you can be reasonably assured that your coffee is produced ethically—simply drink great coffee.  The idea here is to pay a higher price for a higher quality and by doing so, rewarding the most committed growers.  Great coffee is not grown in the full sun of a clear cut and doused with chemicals.  Great coffee requires great care at every step of the process.  There’s a wonderful principle at work here.  The best coffee is produced using methods and means that respect the people who grow it and the environment in which it is grown.  It’s as if justice and natural law have been fused.

*

Suzanne, a friend of mine, has visited Honduras twice in the last three years.  She did so as a member of her church’s Missions Team.  She was struck by the poverty she saw there.  In order to eat, entire families worked on the coffee plantations and were paid almost nothing.  Suzanne believes that if the adults received an adequate wage, the young children would be able to go to school and the cycle of poverty would be broken.

The Missions Team, believing that serving ethical coffee was essential to supporting the coffee producing communities, like those in Honduras, convinced the church leadership to switch to Fair-Trade coffee.  They agreed, but Suzanne now wonders if perhaps they agreed because they believed, as do the corporate advertisers, that ethical coffee was chic and would be an attractant of sorts.  When Suzanne’s church began a large building project, there was an over-all increase in donations, but less was directed to church ministries.  Cuts were necessary.  They switched to a less expensive coffee.

*

Residents of Abbotsford, BC, where I live, are the most generous people in Canada.  Their contribution to charities is more than double the national average.  One explanation is that the community is very religious.  My experience with the religious community in Abbotsford is that they will, in a flash, write a cheque to help a school in Nicaragua or a water project in Guatemala.  But, all the while, they go home and make a pot of coffee from a can, not realizing how much they could help those very communities by switching to good coffee.

They buy the cheaper product because they are good people with a commitment to stewardship, unaware of the global effect of their purchase habits.

*

What about Starbucks?  Starbucks has good coffee.

If you are concerned with the social and environmental effects of coffee production, your choice between buying Starbucks and corporate canned coffee is clear—buy Starbucks.  Starbucks does deserve some thanks.   Although it was unintentional, they have helped the plight of the coffee grower.  In their quest for profits, they have given us a taste for good quality coffee. When I had my first sip of Starbucks, I thought it was too strong and too bitter.  By the time I finished that cup, I realized there was much more to coffee than caffeine and a bit of warmth; I realized I loved coffee.  It was Starbucks that helped me to see coffee as more than a caffeinated brown liquid.  And by introducing me to good coffee, they put me on a quest for a great one.

But, to whom should Starbucks be compared?  If you are comparing Starbucks to a small roaster—again, the choice is clear—don’t buy Starbucks.  Because there are so many good coffees to experience, it seems a shame to limit oneself to Starbucks’ Pike’s Place blend.  Further, the variation found in the coffee be reflected in the environment we drink it in.  Since when did conformism become a core American value so that the coffee shop needs to look exactly the same in Seattle as it does in Soho—or worse yet, the same in Vegas as in Venice.

*

On Saturday mornings, I often accompany my wife to the local farmer’s market, an excursion made much more attractive since Grab-A-Java set up a booth.  Grab-A-Java, “a small-batch, wholesale micro-roaster,” is owned and operated by Dave Perrit.  I visited his roaster one cold November afternoon.  The small black roaster squats in the middle of a room in his house.  It is warm and the hum of the fans swirl the woody aroma of the roasting coffee beans.  Dishevelled piles of labels run along the counter which is shared by large bins filled with freshly roasted coffee.  His coffee comes from one supplier, Organic Products Trading Co. (OPTCO), which sources green coffee from all over the world.  All the beans are both Free Trade and Certified Organic, but they are special in another way.  They are Café Femenino beans.

Café Femenino is a cooperative formed in 2004 by women in Northern Peru who were searching to improve the lives of their families as well as to gain some control of the coffee they worked so hard to produce.  To sell coffee from Café Femenino, a roaster must commit to contributing to local women’s shelters and/or the Café Femenino Foundation.  Grab-A-Java supports both.  This concept is spreading to existing co-ops in Columbia, Nicaragua, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Brazil and Guatemala, and soon to be introduced in Rwanda.

*

In 1999, I watched a bandana-masked protester heave a USA Today newspaper box through the window of a Starbucks during the World Trade Organization riots in Seattle.  This attack wasn’t just random window breaking—it had targeted the coffee shop.  At the time I was disgusted by the lack of respect for property and authority.  But one question lingered: What are they so mad about?  Since then, I have heard things, dark whisperings about coffee and third-world exploitation.  I worry that maybe righteous anger is the appropriate response, and I should indignantly slam my coffee cup (empty) into the bin.  But I love coffee.  Coffee is why I get up in the morning; it’s why I can teach writing to 16 year olds in the last class of the day; it’s why I am willing to run errands after work.   But I also desire to do what’s right and good, so I have endeavored here to find out if there is such a thing as an ethical cup of coffee.

It turns out there is—a great one, best served with a home-made chocolate-chip cookie.

Coffee and Conscience (1)–Creation

Coffee and Conscience (2)–Fall

 

Other resources:

Bacon, Chris.  “Confronting the Coffee Crisis.” World Development33:3 (2004) : 497-511.

Ball, Barbara. Coffee Talk: Sharing Christ Through Friendly Gatherings. San Bernardino: Churches Alive!, 1979.

“The Coffee Addiction.” Scott Wapner. CNBC, Shaw Cable, West.  29 Sept. 2011. Television.

Capon, Robert Farrar.  The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection. New York: HJB, 1969.

Davids Kenneth. “Starting with Cans: Mainstream Supermarket Coffees.”  Coffee Review.  Jan. 2007. Web. 5 Nov. 2011

Ditto, Jason. 2basnob.com. “Coffee Tasting” n.p. 2008. Web.  12 Oct. 2011.

Ellison, Katherine . “Can Great Coffee Save the Jungle?” Smithsonian 35. 3 (2004) : 100-107.

Gaudio, Rudolf P. “Coffee Talk: StarbucksTM and the Commercialization of Casual Conversation.” Language in Society.  32:5 (2003) : 659-691.

Karris, Robert J. Eating Your Way Through Luke’s Gospel.  Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2006.

Leonard, Annie. The Story of Stuff.   Free Range Studios, 2007

Moguel, Patricia and Victor Toledo.  “Biodiversity Conservation in Traditional Coffee Systems in Mexico.” Conservation Biology.  13.1 (1999) : 11-21.

Murray, Douglas L. “The future of Fair Trade Coffee: dilemma’s facing Latin America’s small scale producers.” Development in Practice. 16.2 (2006) : 171-192.

“Pencils, Metal Recycling, Coffee.” How Its’ Made. Discovery.  Shaw Cable, West. 12 Oct. 2011.

Rottenberg, James A. “Ecological Role of a Tree [Gamelina Arborea] Plantation in Guatemala.” The Auk. 124.1 (2007): 316-330.

Steer, Simon M.  Eating Bread in the Kingdom of God.  Diss. Westminster Theological Seminary, 2002. Ann Arbor: UMI, 2002.

 

 

Coffee and Conscience – Part 2

Pezibear / Pixabay

“If this is coffee, please bring me some tea.” — Abraham Lincoln

*

C. S. Lewis explores the demonic view of pleasure in The Screwtape Letters.  An experienced demon, Screwtape, offers advice to his nephew, a novice demon, on the use of pleasure to ensnare a human soul.  He tells him, “You must always try to work away from the natural condition of any pleasure, to that in which it is least natural, least redolent of its Maker, and least pleasurable” for when dealing with any pleasure in its “healthy and normal and satisfying form we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground.” For Screwtape, the demonic formula for the distortion of pleasure is “an ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure.”

*

I first started drinking coffee in university.  My mother had sent me off to school with the essentials: fifteen pairs of underwear, with my name written on the band with a laundry pen, and a little, yellow, two-cup kettle to boil water.  At some point I picked up a little jar of Taster’s Choice instant coffee.  My coffee consumption was strictly utilitarian: I drank it to stay sharp while writing papers and cramming for exams.  I didn’t particularly like the taste, so I drank it with lots of sugar and nondairy creamer. I might just as well have taken NoDoz.  Like a cup of coffee, one caplet contains 200 mg of caffeine, and, according to the company’s promotional material, it’s much better than coffee:  “Fewer pit stops, cheaper than a cup of coffee on the go, no awkward ordering, conveniently keep it in your pocket or purse and never gets cold.” For many drinkers,  the attraction to coffee is the caffeine.  The appeal of caffeine is three-fold.  It reduces drowsiness by blocking adenosine, a chemical created in the brain that slows down nerve cell activity.  With the increase of neural activity, the pituitary gland releases hormones that tell the adrenal glands to produce adrenaline so the subject is ready for fight, flight or even a very animated discussion on the merits or absurdity of the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Caffeine also increases dopamine that activates pleasure centers in certain parts of the brain.  In short, it gives you a sparkle and jolt and an ahhhh. Father Capon is a lover of food and drink, and more foundationally he is a lover of things.  He says “things are precious, before they are contributory.”  I think he’s onto something; to reduce coffee to its function as a conveyance system for C8H10N4O2 is to commit some sort of crime against this precious thing.  True delight is a far more appropriate response.

*

If it’s the caffeine you want, the most efficient coffee product to deliver the goods is instant coffee.   It requires only a spoon, a cup and some hot water.  Because the process to make instant coffee creates such a poor tasting coffee anyway, cheap, poor quality beans can be used.  Instant coffee production extracts twice the stuff from the bean as does the brewing of a regular coffee.  From the position of taste alone, the additional extracts should have been left and tossed out with the grounds.  But by squeezing out more product per pound of beans, profit margins are increased.  Unfortunately, the over-extraction of the grounds results in a bitter and aromaless product.

*

I remember the commercials for Nestlé’s Sunrise instant coffee.  The advertising slogan encouraged consumers to buy this coffee because it was “mellowed with chicory.”  Chicory is an adulterant.  It is cheaper than coffee, so by adding it to the ground coffee the price can be dropped.  Chicory isn’t the only adulterant added to coffee over the years.  Mark Pendergrast offers an amazing list of adulterants.  I suppose parsnips and pea hulls aren’t so bad when one considers baked horse liver and brick dust.  But, by principle, chicory is no different than burnt rags and coal ashes or dirt and dog biscuits—the fundamental principle is the increase of profit margins.  Although this list comes from the Industrial Revolution, the motivation behind the addition of adulterants to coffee is alive and well in the big coffee producers to this day. Cheap coffee means more coffee sold and that means more profit.

*

 “The best part of wakin’ up, is Folgers in your cup.” I hate waking up.  The thing that gets me out of bed is the promise of a cup of coffee.  Because I delay getting up as long as possible, my first cup is usually at work.  There we drink whatever is on sale at Costco.  We’ve had Folgers “Classic Roast” in the bright-red plastic container.  Proctor and Gamble’s promotional material says that the classic roast is a “blend of Arabica and Robusta beans for a smooth, full-bodied flavor.”  That little word “for” suggests causality, does it not? Approaches to coffee cultivation lie on a continuum between the traditional shade grown coffee and the more modern unshaded monoculture.  The first is carried out at higher elevations under a canopy of trees where there is a constant replenishment of organic material as the leaf litter decomposes.   The trees are a home to an array of beneficial insects and birds that act to control potential pests.  The unshaded monoculture, on the other hand, demands the removal of all organisms but the coffee plants.  These are set out by the thousands in rows upon rows that stretch for miles.  This method allows for efficiencies like mechanized harvesting, but it also results in environmental degradation—water pollution, soil erosion, declines in local fish populations due to sedimentation and bird populations because of loss of trees, increased soil and air temperatures, and lower amounts of moisture and microorganisms in the soil.  The problems that directly affect the coffee production are solved by the application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. Essentially, two varieties of coffee beans are grown.  The Arabica variety grows at high altitudes.  Its beans develop slowly and are few.  The Robusta grows at lower elevations. Its beans develop quickly and are more numerous.  When it comes to flavour, Arabica beans are superior in every way.  From a commercial perspective, Robusta beans are superior in every way: The mechanized Robusta plantation will out produce traditional Arabica shade farm by as much as four times per acre.  The result is a vastly inferior tasting cup of coffee. You can buy a three pound can of Folgers Classic Roast at Costco for $12.99 CDN.

*

In an online discussion, the question was asked, “Which coffee do you liked best?”  Here’s one of the replies: “Well I love Starbucks . . . as much as the next person. The reality is, I will not pay the price for it on a daily basis, buying it in bulk for home is just as expensive. I can buy a huge container of Folgers/Maxwell House for $7 at Wal-Mart whereas the little Starbucks’ bag costs the same.” For many, price is a significant factor in what coffee one drinks.  But the questions must be asked, “If I am not paying for the coffee I drink, who is?”

*

Several years ago, I watched an animation called “The Story of Stuff” narrated by Anne Leonard.  She asked a question that has haunted me since.  When stuff is so cheap, who’s paying the cost? A long chain of costs connects the coffee plant to our coffee cup here in North America: plants must be tended, fruit must be picked and transported to the processor, the pulp removed from the beans, the beans dried, and sorted and bagged, the bags transported to a warehouse to rest, the rested bags must be transported to the roaster, the roasted coffee graded and packaged, and the packaged coffee transported to retail outlets. Roasted coffee costs less than 5% of the total you pay for a Latte in a fancy coffee house.  If you brew canned coffee at home, the coffee is costing you less than 10 cents per cup. If we are paying so little for the coffee, who, then, is paying for all that goes before?  The companies that transport, roast, and package the coffee aren’t paying for it.  They are enjoying healthy profits.

*

Although they have risen in the last year or two, world coffee prices are volatile and, for the last decades, have been very low.  Low coffee prices had a lot to do with a large surplus of Robusta and poor quality Arabica being produced by huge coffee plantations in Vietnam and Brazil.  When prices are as low as they have been, farmers get less for their coffee than the cost of its production.  Consequently, throughout the coffee-growing world, desperate farmers abandon their trees to look for work elsewhere while their families live under plastic tarps by the roadside.  Some daughters resort to prostitution to support their families.  Other farmers have burned their coffee plants and replaced them with drug crops like coca or qat.

*

Historically, American consumers have insisted on a low price for coffee.  Cheap coffee has been so important that when the price of coffee rose sharply, Congressional hearings were held to investigate the reason behind the increases.  Some were blaming the producers of taking advantage of the defenseless coffee drinker. The documentary Black Coffee records a speech made by Congressional witness, Andrés Uribe*, when prices spiked in 1950.  He explained the sudden price rise was because of a shortage of coffee.  He pointed out that most of the money Americans paid for their coffee did not go to Latin American producers, but to U.S. roasters, retailers, and restaurants.   Uribe said, Gentlemen, when you are dealing with coffee, you not dealing only with a commodity, a convenience. You are dealing with the lives of millions of people.  We in Latin America have a task before us which is staggering to the imagination—illiteracy to be eliminated, disease to be wiped out, good health to be re- stored, a sound program of nutrition to be worked out for millions of people. The key to all of this . . . is an equitable price for coffee. Other-wise, you cast these millions of persons loose to drift in a perilous sea of poverty and privation, subject to every chilling wind, every subversive blast. His words had no effect.

*

The real enemy of coffee growers, the environment and the consumer is the big coffee companies.  They provide a market for Robusta beans, the production of which is not environmentally sustainable, and thus, driving down the global price of coffee.  This threatens the viability of producing the quality Arabica coffees.

Coffee and Conscience (1)–Creation

Coffee and Conscience (3)–Redemption


* the New York representative of Colombia’s National Federation of Coffee Growers and chairman of the Pan American Coffee Bureau

Coffee and Conscience — Part 1

Pezibear / Pixabay

On the eighth day God created coffee — Zazzle Mug from zazzle.com

*

At the farm, coffee time never varied.  I’m not sure why I recall coffee time at Grandma’s with such reverence and affection.  Perhaps it was grace—inclusion in a ritual when I was too young to partake in the eponymous element. To a child, it wasn’t about the coffee, but the cookies—the same cookies: home-made chocolate chip and store-bought chocolate-covered, marshmallow-puffs with a drip of raspberry filling.  I occasionally used to buy a box of those marshmallow cookies out of nostalgia, but they were never as good as their memory, and not nearly as good as the homemade ones.

Coffee time was a regular and holy mystery—the conversation was as incomprehensible to me as the black stuff the adults drank.  In something as quotidian as coffee time, I experienced what priest, writer and gourmet chef, Robert Capon, calls the “unutterable weight of glory.”  But at the time, I had no idea; I’m sure that I had to be prompted to say thank you before I raced outside.

*

The coffee plant is particular as to where it grows, for it desires heat.  It climbs up the equatorial mountains where it hides in the oppressive humidity of the world’s jungles.  And it likes rain—lots of rain.  The earth and air flavour the fruit.  In Africa, the seeds absorb essences drawn from rich black soil, evening fog and very hot days.  In Central and South America, mountain vistas and heavy humidity suffuse the beans with both light and depth.  Coffee grown on the slopes of the Pacific Islands is imbued with the vastness and verve of the surrounding ocean.

Because of its capacity to absorb its environment, coffee offers some of the most complex and varied flavours of anything that we put into our mouth.  Furthermore, all the flavour of a particular bean is present at the time of its picking.  Nothing will be added, but without due care, much can be lost.

*

I sit watching an episode of How It’s Made. First, the frenetic assembling of pencils; then an exposition on the processing of scrap metal, and then comes coffee.  The narrator explains that coffee “boasts over eight hundred flavor characteristics; at least double those of wine.”  The human senses can discern all these complex flavours.  And poetic language is necessary to even come close to celebrate them.   Kenneth Davids’ is a coffee aficionado and reviewer.  His reviews approach poetry.    With a few omission and some restructuring, a poem is created:

Kenya Karatu AA” by Caféa Rotisserie

 

Aroma

Sonorously bright

Lush yet delicate:

Flowers, orange, nut, fresh-cut fir

 

Flavor

A rounding hint of milk chocolate.

Silkily smooth.

 

Finish

Sweet but crisp,

Orangy chocolate.

*

The flavor is extracted from the extraordinary beans by various methods.  The most common in coffee houses is the espresso, brewed by forcing a small amount of nearly boiling water under pressure through finely ground coffee.  Then the human creator fulfills his mandate to innovate.

The variations to the making of an espresso include lungo with more water and ristretto with less.  You can add water to make an Americano, steamed milk to make a Latte, lots of steamed milk to make a Macchiato and equal parts espresso, steamed milk, and frothed milk to make a Cappuccino.  Each of these vintages has variations, as well.  For instance, a Cappuccino can be dry with less frothed milk and no steamed milk at all.  It can be Mocha with chocolate syrup and Breva if made with half-and-half, instead of whole milk.  All of the above can be upgraded to a Double: two espresso shots rather than one.  Further, a plethora of syrups, flavorings, and spices can be added.  Chocolate is the most common, either sprinkled on top or added in syrup form. Other favorites include cinnamon, nutmeg, and Italian syrups and nearly any alcoholic beverage.  And it need not be hot, had warmed or even iced.

*

Starbucks has over 170,000 beverage possibilities.

I was standing in line to order an Americano.  In front of me was a young man casually dressed only in black and white.  His track pants were black with white stripes, and his jacket was black with white sleeves.  His backpack was black with white detailing, and his shoes, white with black detailing; bracelet, black; earbuds, white.

From his position in the line of customers, he was writing on the side of a Starbucks’ cup (white) with a pen (black).  With the flourish of a calligrapher, he wrote something in every one of the instruction boxes, except the one labeled “Decaf.” He passed the inscribed cup to the barista.

“They let you do that?” I asked.

“I work here,” he explained.

“It looks complicated.”

“May I help you,” the barista asked me?

“16-ounce Americano, please.”

“Would you like room for cream?”

“No thanks.”

I took my coffee and the guy in black and white was still waiting for his.  Such extravagance takes time.  I asked him if he could write his recipe on my cup.   He did so gladly.

Shots:              1 Aff, 1 Ris

Syrup:              4pV

Milk:                S

Custom:           140° x C Driz

Drink:              CM

And then with the pride of the artist, he signed his masterpiece, “Scott Hancock.”

“Did you invent this drink?” I asked.  He nodded proudly.

Three days later, I tried Scott’s masterpiece.  How could I not?

I will stick to my simple Americano.

It was good, but I will likely not order it again.  It came up on my bill as a Macchiato.  I like my coffee very hot but this one was served at only 140°.  It was also too sweet for a guy that drinks his coffee black.  I don’t ever take milk, let alone soy milk.  I think it was the soy that offered an aftertaste that I didn’t like.  I momentarily tasted the espresso, but it was distant and quickly subdued by the milk.

*

Cultural expressions of coffee add to the variety—Madras filter coffee from southern India is very different from the Kopi Tubruk from Indonesia.  Oliang from Thailand is distinct from Turkish and Vietnamese style coffees—all exceptional, and all brewed and drank with unique cultural differences.

The celebration of friendship and family is central to the Ethiopian coffee ceremony.  In a process that takes hours, the coffee is always prepared and served by a woman or a girl wearing a traditional white dress.  After she has arranged a tray holding the cups, she will roast the carefully cleaned coffee beans over an open fire.  A nutty aroma fills the room as the stirred beans rattle against the metal of the long-handled pan.  The heat coaxes out the oils making the beans shiny and black.  When they start to crackle, the woman removes the pan from the heat and walks around the room so the smell of freshly roasted coffee fills the air.

Using a wooden pestle and mortar, she grinds the roasted coffee and then stirs it into a black earthen coffee pot.  The pot is left for a moment while the grinds settle to the bottom and the flavours permeate the hot water.  The pouring of the coffee requires grace and skill.  To further diffuse the aroma through the room, the woman pours the coffee in one continuous stream from over a foot above the small handleless cups.  It falls to the youngest child to announce that the coffee is ready and to serve it, starting with the eldest member of those who will partake.  The coffee is drunk with plenty of sugar. The woman is lavishly praised for her efforts in producing the coffee.

Three rounds of coffee are served with stories and conversation.  The last cup is called, “Baraka”—the cup of blessing.  It is possible to come as a visitor to a simple peasant hut in Ethiopia and be treated to this Yirgacheffe, which is, according to coffee experts, one of the best coffees in the world.

*

 “HEY! Coffee time”

Don, our boss, almost always barked, “Hey!” before he said anything. I think he liked to see us jump.  If we were shoveling, he’d yell, “Hey!” and sternly and impatiently show us the most efficient way to move dirt.  And if you called it dirt, he’d snap, “Hey! Dirt is what’s under your fingernails; this is soil.”  Until I got used to his manner, and I never really did, I always had the sense that I did nothing right.

He knew we were on edge and he seemed to derive some pleasure from it.  Twice a day he’d come up behind us and bark, “Hey!” followed by a much softer, “Coffee time.”

When we sat down for coffee, everything changed.  He told us stories about the Vietnam War and laughed at our stories about college life.  The breaks were supposed to be just fifteen minutes long, but if the mood struck, he’d sit there much longer.  We never checked our watches; we just enjoyed the company of those who worked hard together and enjoyed the grace of a few minutes of holding a coffee instead of a shovel.

Coffee and Conscience (2)–Fall

Coffee and Conscience (3)–Redemption

Bad stuff in movies can be Good, if you do the math.

Photo by Antoine Dautry on Unsplash

I never really understood math.

Apparently I could do it, because I got Bs in my math classes, but doing it and understanding it was not the same thing.  My strategy was to look at the pattern in the sample question and repeat the pattern in the exercises.  The trick on the test was just to apply the right pattern.  This was hit an miss.

I never understood why multiplying a negative by a negative was a positive.

(-n)·(-n)=n

It took 30 years, but I now understand this, until recently, impenetrable mystery, and I understand it because I understand that sex, violence, and coarse language are not necessarily a bad thing in movies.

[tweetshare tweet=”I now understand how (-n)(-n)=n, because I understand that #sex, #violence, and #coarselanguage are not necessarily a bad thing in a movie.” username=”Dryb0nz”]

Math teachers have been telling me for a long time that “a negative times a negative is a positive,” but I never understood how this was possible.   It was counter-intuitive as far as I was concerned—a special knowledge reserved for great a mathematical shaman like Mr. Stauffer, my high school math teacher.  Multiplying negatives ought to result in a whole lot more negative.

But I know understand how this could be possible.

Sexual Content, Violence, and Coarse Language

Many people, when it comes to the movies we watch, think that strong language, sex/nudity, drug use, and violence are things to avoid (for more on this topic, read “Dog poop in the Brownies”).

I was talking to someone who had this view and heard myself saying, “A movie can have ‘bad’ things in it, but not be a ‘bad’ movie.”  I was talking about Groundhog Day.  Bill Murray’s character, Phil Connors, was doing bad things like driving drunk and having sex with a woman to whom he was not married.

Because this movie condemns this bad behaviour, this movie is good.

Math Exercises

Exercise 1  — Instructions: Reduce the following  to an equation (show your work):

In Groundhog Day, Phil Connors is drunk driving and manipulating a woman into having sex with him because when he wakes up in the morning the day will reset and nothing he’s done will have happened.  A day without consequences.  Early in the movie, Phil Connors is incredibly self-centered.  When he realizes he is caught in a time loop he uses people to satisfy his selfish desires.

Groundhog Day is critical of Connors’ selfish behaviour.

Being critical of a bad thing is a good thing.  

A negative, shown to be negative, is positive.

(-n)·(-n)=n

(drunk driving)(is dangerous) = a true statement.

The math just works.

If a movie has a bad thing in it and calls it good, it’s bad.

(-n)·n = -n

(drug use)(is good) = a false statement.

A positive (shown to be) negative is negative.

n·(-n) = -n

(sexual purity)(is silly) = a false statement.

A positive (shown to be) positive is positive.

n·n=n

(performing the Heimlich maneuver)(is good) = a true statement.

The key, then, to assessing the good, true and beautiful in a movie involves discerning the movie’s stance toward the false, evil and perverse in a film.

It’s more than adding up the # of objectionable words/phrases, etc.

The Test

Failure to understand the implicit attitude toward these things in a movie places both of the following movies in the same category.

Parental Advisory #1

  • Sex/Nudity: sexually related dialogue and gestures
  • Drugs/Alcohol: drinking, marijuana is used; mention of other drugs
  • Violence/Scariness: people are killed; gunfire; fighting
  • Objectionable Words/Phrases: 295

Parental Advisory #2

  • Sex/Nudity: sexually related dialogue
  • Drugs/Alcohol: drinking, smoking
  • Violence/Scariness: fatal shooting, beating up, intimidation of others
  • Objectionable Words/Phrases: 140

The first is Pineapple Express, the second, Gran Torino.

Don’t see the first; don’t miss the second.

 

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