TagCreation/Fall/Redemption

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

In Defence of Fairy Tales (4) – Redemption

jill111 / Pixabay

“And they lived happily ever after.”  In fairy tales, the good are elevated to their rightful position and the universal longing is satisfied.  So gratifying is the happily-ever-after ending that, not only does nearly every fairy tale end with it, but almost every story we tell.

In Notting Hill, Hugh Grant rushes across town with all his quirky friends to tell the gorgeous superstar, Julia Roberts, that he’d like to date her again and they get married on top of it all.  In Sleepless in Seattle, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks almost miss each other on the top of the Empire State Building but don’t.

It’s not just the romantic comedies.  In Zombieland, after they escape from thousands of the undead at the carnival, Jesse Eisenberg finally gets the family he’s always wanted and I doubt Emma Stone will fill the role of sister.  And my all-time favourite, in Die Hard with a Vengeance, Bruce Willis shoots Jeremy Irons through a pre-existing bullet hole in his shoulder and wins the day and the girl.

We know it’s going to happen, and we love it every time it does.  The fairy tale “depicts over and over an upward development, the overcoming of mortal dangers and seemingly insoluble problems, the path toward marriage with the prince or princess, toward kingship or gold and jewels.”  The crown and royal robe which we often find adorning the protagonist at the end of so many fairy tales “make visible the splendor and brilliance of the great perfection achieved inwardly” (Lüthi).

The movement of Cinderella from a lowly and hopeless state to that of a princess is a move “from an unauthentic existence [to the] commencement of a true one” (Lüthi).  Through supernatural intervention, she is transformed and ultimately married to the prince.  In this story, as in the best fairy tales, the “conflict is resolved, and happiness, joy, and contentment become the optimistic expression of hope for a world as it should be” (Meider 91).

Not Yet Happy Ever After

Although it is our deep desire, it is not our experience.  Buechner understands that the major difference between our world and that of the fairy tale is that in the battle between good and evil, the good don’t necessarily live happily ever after.

In the Christian worldview, redemption has been achieved, but not yet ultimately fulfilled.  Mankind is not yet living “happily ever after.”

The “sudden joyous ‘turn’” at the end of a faerie story, says Tolkien, does not deny that sorrow and failure are very real, but in the happy ending we get “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world.”   But even so, Tolkien believes that the “The Consolation of the Happy Ending,” is the fairy tale’s “highest function.”  Without it, the fairy tale is incomplete.

The joy we experience is “a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth.”  For Tolkien, “all happy endings . . .  give us an underlying glimpse of, the ultimate Creator’s one fairy-story that culminates . . . with the birth, death and resurrection of Christ” (Northrup)—In other words, the Fulfillment all of God’s promises.

Fairy tales return us to reality; the hope of redemption which is rooted in God’s promise that he will renew his creation and his people.

Creation – Fall – Redemption – Fulfillment

In fairy tales, we find the fundamental Biblical truths regarding Creation, the Fall, Redemption and Fulfillment—the essence of the biblical worldview.  This is not to say that reading faerie tales is the same as reading the Bible, or that we can just leave our children alone to consume them.  Who but parents can better make the connections for children that we have made here?

To declare all fairy tales and fantasy literature as harmful suggests one may hold to a rationalist understanding of reality, rather than a Biblical one. Click To Tweet

Fairy tales present a world that inspires awe and wonder and a condition of obedience; they wrestle with the presence of evil in the world, the presence of which evokes a longing for a marriage to a prince; they show that evil can be overcome but not by our own efforts; and in the happy ending, they give us hope that one day all will be restored.  Christians, then, ought not to see fairy tales as a dangerous distraction from reality, but an invitation to reality.

Read In Defence of Fairy Tales (1) – Introduction
Read In Defence of Fairy Tales (2) – Creation
Read In Defence of Fairy Tales (3)Fall

 

Resources:

Lüthi, Max.  Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales. Trans. Lee Chadeayne and Paul Gottwald. Bloomington:IndianaUniv. Press, 1979

Meider, Wolfgang.  “Grimm Variations From Fairy Tales to Modern Anti-Fairy Tales.”  The Germanic Review.  62.2 (1987) : 90-102.

Buechner, Fredrick.  Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. San Fransisco: Harpers, 1977.

Northrup, ClydeB.  “The Qualities of a Tolkienian Fairy-Story.”  Modern Fiction Studies. 50.4 (2004) : 814-837.

Tolkien, J. R. R. “The Monsters and the Critics.” The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays.Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.

In Defence of Fairy Tales (3) – Fall

cocoparisienne / Pixabay

Of all the evil characters in fairy tales, I found the Red Riding Hood’s wolf the scariest. He’s been called the “Big Bad Wolf,” but that name evokes a canine domesticated by the animator’s pen.  The wolf I encountered alone in the deep dark woods of my imagination was a terror whose title couldn’t be tamed by alliteration.

Fairy Tales and Evil

Fairy tales don’t just present readers with Creational goodness, they also illustrate the results of human failure to obey God’s one condition—the presence of Evil.  So we encounter both nobility and brutality, beauty and ugliness, harmony and conflict; dichotomies resulting from the distortions of a good Creation caused by the Fall.

In this regard, then, fairy tales reflect reality as it is presented in the Bible: that human beings live in a moral universe.  In man’s disobedience to God, sin entered the world and fairy tales reflect the moral struggle that ensues.  For in almost every fairy tale, characters and their actions embody good and evil, and “it is this duality which poses the moral problem, and requires the struggle to solve it” (Bettelheim).  That humans are moral creatures with the choice between good and evil is fundamental to the biblical worldview.

Fairy tales a biblical reality: that human beings live in a moral universe. In man’s disobedience to God, sin entered the world and fairy tales reflect the moral struggle that ensues.Click To Tweet

The power and scope of evil is another truth that faerie stories offer.  In them, we encounter external evils, like ogres, wolves, and villains whose very presence is a sign of the evil that threatens and “often it is temporarily in ascendancy” (Bettelheim).

Evil is not only an external threat but is also found in “the closest circle of intimate relationships.” Most often this intimate evil is signaled in the form of stepmothers.  These tales depict “perverted relationships within the family . . . the [reader] learns that despite all the moral teachings and the wide range of appropriate behaviour hammered into him, he cannot take this world for granted—especially not people” (Shokeid).  Scriptures clearly relate that evil is not only a force from without but also something with which we struggle within ourselves and within those who are closest to us.

In “Cinderella” we find exactly this; evil within the family.  Cinderella’s mother, “who had been the nicest person in the world,” was replaced by a stepmother who was “the haughtiest, proudest woman that had ever been seen” (Perrault).  The hyperbole emphasizes the effects of sin are not experienced only by the wicked, but also by the innocent.  Cinderella “was of an exceptionally sweet and gentle nature.”  Under the guise of close relatives, the [step relatives] function as agents who introduce the outside unprotective world into the safe family shelter” (Shokeid).

Exposing Children to Evil Through Story

Many parents believe that children should not be exposed to realities of evil but only to “pleasant and wish-fulfilling images.”  Some parent beleive children “should be exposed only to the sunny side of things.  But such one-sided fare nourishes the mind only in a one-sided way, and real life is not all sunny” (Bettelheim).

Rather than taking the child out of reality, fairy tales presents her with the reality of the Fall, and that “a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, [this] is an intrinsic part of human existence” (Bettelheim).  Through the symbols of evil, the child experiences the presence of evil and the moral dilemma that sin presents; they begin to develop the resources to live in a fallen world.

Sehnsucht

Encounters with injustice and, occasionally, brutality bring the reader into another important Biblical reality.  Because fairy tales expose the tension that exists between the good creation and the sin that has entered it through the fall, they provide a sense that things are not as they should be; they create in us a longing for a restoration of all things to what they once were.

C. S. Lewis uses the term Sehnsucht to describe this feeling which literally means “longing” or “yearning.”  Because the yearning is for what has been lost, “the crucial concept in defining this attitude is best expressed by the English word ‘nostalgia.’  In Sehnsucht there “is an underlying sense of displacement or alienation from what is desired” (Carnell).  All mankind has a deep awareness that there is something wrong with the world and “longs for and strives toward the happy ending so vividly expressed in fairy tales” (Meider).

What we long for is the perfection we enjoyed before the Fall.

Fairy tales appeal to us because they tell us something that we desperately want to be true.  They illustrate what we long for and suggest it is a possibility; they provide us with hope that we can become what we were created to be.  Lüthi says, “Every man has within him an ideal image, and to be a king, to wear a crown, is an image for the ascent into the highest attainable realms.”  This ideal is found in all humanity because we are aware of our fallenness.   Nothing is how it is supposed to be, so we long that it be restored—redeemed.

Cinderella creates a sense of longing in the reader.  Cinderella was an exceptional young woman, but the stepmother “could not endure” Cinderella’s “excellent qualities” and so, mistreated her—she “thrust upon her all the meanest tasks about the house” and “made her sleep on a wretched mattress in a garret at the top of the house” (Perrault 39).  The combination of the goodness of Cinderella and the injustice of her treatment at the hand of her step-relatives creates a sense of longing for the past, for life as it was when her real mother lived.  This is Sehnsucht.

In “The Reason For God,” Tim Keller talks about beauty being a clue to the existence of God.  He suggests that “innate desires correspond to real objects that can satisfy them”; we experience hunger, thirst, and the desire for sex and friendship, and these needs can be satisfied with food, drink, and other people.  The presence of beauty, joy, and love evokes an “unfulfillable” desire in us, and we “want something that nothing in this world can fulfill” (134-135).  Keller says that because it is true of other innate desires, it is also true of this one: there is something to satisfy it—or more accurately, a someone.

Although many deny its existence, Evil is real.  Those who believe in the existence of evil might want to question where they are standing when they are amongst those who treat them too lightly and declare them mere fantasy.

Read In Defence of Fairy Tales (1) – Introduction
Read In Defence of Fairy Tales (2) – Creation
Read In Defence of Fairy Tales (4) – Redemption


Resources:

Bettelheim, Bruno. “The Struggle for Meaning.”  Folk & Fairy Tales. 3rd ed. Ed. Martin Hallet and Barbara Karasek. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2002.  376-391.

Carnell, Corbin Scott.  Bright Shadow of Reality: Spiritual Longing in C. S. Lewis. Grand   Rapids: Eerdmens, 1974.

Keller, Timothy.  The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York: Dutton (2008).

Lüthi, Max.  Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales. Trans. Lee Chadeayne and Paul Gottwald. Bloomington:IndianaUniv. Press, 1979

Meider, Wolfgang.  “Grimm Variations From Fairy Tales to Modern Anti-Fairy Tales.”  The Germanic Review.  62.2 (1987) : 90-102.

Perault, Charles. “Cinderella.” Folk & Fairy Tales. 3rd ed. Ed. Martin Hallet and Barbara Karasek. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2002. 39-45.

Shokeid, Moshe. “Toward an Anthropological Perspective of Fairy Tales.” The Sociological Review 30 (1982): 223-233.

In Defence of Fairy Tales (2) – Creation

ddouk / Pixabay

We get a lot of rain in south western BC so we often talk about it, often disparagingly.  We fail to see magic anymore—even when it drops out of the sky and hits us on the head.

In science texts, rain is presented as a result of a series of intractable processes.  First, water in the ocean is obligated by impersonal forces to do something we have called evaporation; as it moves inland and cools at higher altitudes the water vapor begins a process that human beings have named condensation; eventually, gravity takes over and the water falls in some form of what we have labeled precipitation.  Why does water do these things?  It does it because we think it can’t do anything else.  We expect it.  It’s the law—Natural Law.  We have named all these mindless processes, the water cycle.

What is happening here?

WATER IS FALLING OUT OF THE SKY!!!

When you think about it, it’s incredible! Water is falling out of the sky!

What kind of a world is this, where water falls out of the sky?!

It didn’t have to be this way, but it is!

John Piper makes a similar point in a more thorough manner here.

Magic?

What’s true about the water cycle? Does nature tediously adhere to natural law, or is it “a wild and startling place, which might have been quite different, but which is quite delightful” (Chesterton).

Which is more consistent with the Biblical teaching of Creation?

The Bible begins by telling us that God made everything and it was good (Genesis 1:31).

This means there is no such a thing as an ordinary thing, and Chesterton claims that fairy tales help us to remember this truth.

In the fairy tale we encounter a golden apple and this brings back to us the “forgotten moment,” and the ensuing thrill, when we first discovered that they were green.  We come to see the creation, not as slavishly following a deterministic law, but joyfully producing green apples again and again, like a child who wants to be thrown into the air one more time, “Again . . . again . . . again.”

It is not law, but “magic” that we find in creation.  There is no wonder associated with law, but there always is with magic.  Chesterton claims that “[a] tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree.  Water flows downhill because it is bewitched.”

These things, indeed all created things, ought to invoke our sense of wonder.

Wonder

Tolkien refers to this characteristic of fairy tales as “recovery.”  It is the quality that “allows us to stay ‘childish,’ in the sense of viewing the world in the same way a child does—as if everything is brand new.”  We recover the sense of wonder that creation affords by “not seeing things as they are, but seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them” (Northrup).

This recovered sense of wonder is not “a mere fancy derived from fairy tales; on the contrary, all the fire of the fairy tales is derived from this” (Chesterton).  According to Chesterton, the natural response—the child-like response—to the creation is one of wonder.  And the immediate effect of wonder is praise.  To be filled with wonder at the world around us and to respond with praise to the creator is to be brought back to reality, not drawn from it.

Fairy tales help us to recover a sense of wonder, and understand that our happiness rests on a condition of obedience.Click To Tweet

In the fairy tale “Cinderella,” through the presentation of the extraordinary, we experience the ordinary as brand new.

When Cinderella’s fairy godmother transforms an ordinary pumpkin into “a beautiful coach, gilded all over” and six ordinary mice into six “dappled mouse-grey horses” (Perrault), we see anew the commonplace pumpkin and mouse as exceptional. Because they were turned into something different we can, with Chesterton, marvel at their original state.  Which is a greater marvel, a carriage or a pumpkin?  Because it could have been otherwise, we get a sense that in the orangeness and roundness of a pumpkin, “something has been done” (Chesterton) by a creator.  Mice and pumpkins are not as they are simply because they must be; Chesterton proclaims it magic and then stands in awe of these ordinary creatures.

How much more enriching is life when we live in a world where there are no ordinary things?

Limits

So fairy tales help us to see the reality of the wonder of Creation. But there is another Creational truth that fairy tales help us to see—the reality of limits.

Cinderella’s fairy godmother “bade her not to stay [at the ball] beyond midnight” (Perrault)—this was her incomprehensible condition of joy. Happiness depends on not doing something: if Cinderella stays beyond midnight, she will be humiliated and lose her happy-ever-after ending. This is a perspective that the fairy tale provides and it is consistent with the conditions found in Eden.  Accept the curfew and happiness will endure, leave after midnight and suffer humiliation; do not eat of the Tree of Knowledge and enjoy paradise forever, eat of it and “you will surely die.”

Man was placed in God’s good creation to enjoy and prosper, but there was a condition—that he “must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” for to eat of this tree would bring death (Gen. 2:17). This prohibition seems arbitrary and irrational, but upon it hinges life itself.

Chesterton recognizes this biblical reality in fairy tales where we find “incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition.”  He calls it the “Doctrine of Conditional Joy.” Chesterton metaphorically compares this condition to glass, a prevalent substance in fairyland.  “Strike a glass, and it will not endure in an instant; simply do not strike it, and it will endure a thousand years.”   The fairy instruction is, “You may live in a palace of gold and sapphire if you do not say the word ‘cow.’”

Although these fairy restrictions may seem arbitrary and irrational, they are not unfair. When held up against what we can do, we should not be resentful of the little thing we cannot do.  Chesterton’s illustration of this point is monogamy.  Many chafe under the Christian restrictions of sex only within marriage, all the while failing to see, and be grateful for, the great gift that sex is [Read “Kraft Dinner and Premarital Sex”]. Chesterton thought that “existence was itself so very eccentric a legacy that [he] could not complain of not understanding the limitations of the vision when [he] did not understand the vision they limited.” The thrill of what we can do outshines that which we cannot do and our happiness depends on obeying the restriction. This aspect of fairy tales is consistent with reality as presented in scripture.

Fairy tales help us to recover a sense of wonder, and understand that our happiness rests on a condition of obedience.

Read In Defence of Fairy Tales (1) – Introduction
Read In Defence of Fairy Tales (3)Fall
Read In Defence of Fairy Tales (4) – Redemption

Resources:
Chesterton, G. K. Orthodoxy. New York: Doubleday, 1990.
Northrup, Clyde B. “The Qualities of a Tolkienian Fairy-Story.” Modern Fiction Studies. 50.4 (2004) : 814-837.
Tolkien, J. R. R. “The Monsters and the Critics.” The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.

In Defence of Fairy Tales (1) – Introduction

Photo by JR Korpa on Unsplash

Many years ago, I had to defend the use of Madeleine_L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time for use in my 7th-grade classroom.  Fortunately, the key figure in the battle was so exhausted from a prolonged war in another school district that they no longer had the energy to wage this war again.  Later, there was a battle over whether books in the Harry Potter series ought to be in school libraries.

Fairy Tales are Anti-Reality

One of the arguments against such books is in an online article entitled “Christian Fantasy: Biblical or Oxymoron?” The author asserts:

God would not have His children take refuge in unreality . . . .  If a Christian is loving the Lord with all his mind (imagination), he will be dwelling on truth, reality, His Word, and Him, not fairy tales and fantasy!  . . . Because fantasy is anti-reality, it is against godliness, it opens the door to deceit, and is an affront to the very core of your being as a Christian.

Although this position is extreme, there are many Christians who are suspicious of fairy tales because they contain magic or other impossibilities.  They mistrust these stories fearing they see them as an unhealthy escape from reality.

Escape From

Escape FROM Reality

Those who take this view, often see fantasy in opposition to reality.  But this is not so. Rather than being the opposite of reality, fairy stories bring us back to reality—a biblical reality, for in reading them we can experience the wonder of Creation, the presence of evil and brokenness caused by the fall, and the hope of redemption.

 

Escape To

J. R. R. Tolkien was apparently familiar with the argument that escape through reading fantasy literature and fairy tales was harmful.  His response to this charge is found in his essay “On Fairy Stories.” He agrees that reading such things is an escape, not an escape from reality, but an escape to reality.  He compares the escape of the prisoner of war to the flight of the deserter and suggests that the kind of escape provided by fairy tales is that of the prisoner.

Those who see fantasy literature in opposition to reality, fail to understand both literature and reality. Rather than being the opposite of reality, fairy stories bring us back to reality. Click To Tweet

He argues that these stories do not take us unjustifiably away from our duty to cause and country which gives the enemy the advantage, as in the flight of the deserter.  Instead, the escape we experience in these tales is that of the prisoner of war from an enemy so that we can go home and return to fight another day.  His argument is that we misunderstand reality, and in so doing, misunderstand the nature of escape.

Tolkien is not alone in his belief that fairy-tales actually return the reader to reality.  G. K. Chesterton argues as much in his book Orthodoxy.  He says, “The things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales.”  Although each fairy tale contains a healthy principle particular to itself, Chesterton is not concerned with these specific truths “but with the whole spirit of [fairy] law . . .  a certain way of looking at life” which is rooted both in our experience and in the scriptures.

Fairy Tales and the Gospel

Frederick Buechner’s chapter entitled, “The Gospel as Fairy Tale” is found in the book, Telling the Truth.  In it, he discloses the truths found in fairy tales—the fundamental truths of the gospel.  For Chesterton and Buechner, fairy tales return us to reality—the biblical reality.

Escape TO Reality

When these authors use the word reality, they mean the reality presented in the Scriptures.  The Old Testament tells of a God who created all things and declared his creation good.  Evil is not a part of creation; it is not found in the structure of the universe but is in the human heart and in our disobedience to God’s will.  Man was created good, but ‘fell’ by his deliberate choice to turn away from his creator.  The redemption element says that because of his love for us God will redeem us; he will forgive us when we turn back to him.  We are powerless to save ourselves from evil, but God is actively seeking to rescue us.

Accepting the Hebraic understanding of Creation and the Fall, Christians have an expanded the notion of Redemption.  They believe that Jesus Christ is the epitome of God’s redeeming love and power and that this redemption is available to all humankind and even the whole creation through him.

In short, reality is what the Bible tells us about Creation, the Fall, and Redemption.  This is the reality to which fairy tales bring us.

Reality is what the Bible tells us about Creation, the Fall, and Redemption. This is the reality to which fairy tales bring us.Click To Tweet

Read In Defence of Fairy Tales (2) – Creation
Read In Defence of Fairy Tales (3)Fall
Read In Defence of Fairy Tales (4) – Redemption

Resources:

Buechner, Fredrick. Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. San Fransisco: Harpers, 1977.

Chesterton, G. K. Orthodoxy. New York: Doubleday, 1990.

“Christian Fantasy: Biblical or Oxymoron.” Biblical Discernment Ministries. Ed. Rick Miesel. June 97. <http://www.rapidnet.com/~jbeard/bdm/Psychology/fantasy.htm>.

Perault, Charles. “Cinderella.” Folk & Fairy Tales. 3rd ed. Ed. Martin Hallet and

Barbara Karasek. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2002. 39-45.

Tolkien, J. R. R. “The Monsters and the Critics.” The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.

 

 

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