Book Review on The Gospel according Starbucks: A hot awakening

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The Gospel according Starbucks: A hot awakening

Coffee is never only a drink. It is a drink that contains passion and invites an exoticism of history. It has been constantly suggested that coffee inspires meditation and dialectic thinking. For centuries cafés have been flourishing in the European big cities. Londoners, Parisians, and Vienneses frequented their local cafés not only for a novel taste, but also gusto of experience. Whether European or American, the ancients or contemporaries, in many ways all of them share a collective experience about coffee. 

This experience is made up by the flavors; even more so, it is about the romantic sentiment it stirred up. A good café experience is composed of 3 elements: coffee, people, and sentiment. Imagine that you are in a coffeehouse permeated by aroma of espresso, the barista brewing up with professional tricks, and you are having philosophical conversations under agreeable jazz music with a person you just met 30 minutes ago. With every aspect of your sensory organs and soul gratified, life can never be more enjoyable. All these attractions culminate in one Starbucks café. Believe it or not, this enjoyment is now available on a 24/7 basis, at the expense of only 3 dollars and up.

Like many coffee lovers, Dr. Leonard Sweet, professor of evangelism at Drew Theological School in New Jersey and author of The Gospel according to Starbucks, makes coffee a must of his life (« an eight-a-day cupper »- according to his self-portrait, p.1). His love of is not because of an addiction to caffeine though. Rather he undertakes the job as cultural barista to wake up the lukewarm Christians with an extremely hot cup: the spiritual passion of EPIC life: Experiential, Participatory, Image-rich, and Connecting.

Commenting on such a disputed issue cannot be an easy task. Dr. Sweet is evangelically forward-looking in proposing that the church should take cues from one particular business and learn from their principles of success. While many of his points against blind spots are valuably creative, occasionally the comparisons and applications seem problematic. His special insight on Luke 16:8, « the sons of this world are shrewder in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light, » founds the theological basis for his argument. The problems are twofold: a) the diversity of American church is being overlooked. Thousands of churches belonging to dozens of denominations should not be reduced to a mere representation of the church of Laodicean. In the first century Lord gave diagnosis for Asia Minor seven churches respectively. b) The achievement of Starbucks is overestimated. Human constitutions are all imperfect. Minimization on the dark side of story in favor of his prejudice only flaws the relevancy of his good observations.

But let’s start with the good observations. According to the statistics Dr. Sweet borrows in this book, our mainstream protestant church has been suffering a continual loss of believers for recent decades. « This is not to say that Christianity cannot be believed, but that it can’t be practiced because of its lack of lived experience (p.5) ». He suggests that an increasingly Laodicean and dogmatic running style is undermining our contemporary American churches. « Today, too many Christians line up to follow God out of duty or guilt, or even hoping to win a ticket to heaven. They completely miss the warmth and richness of the experience of living with God (p.9) ». Supposing these statements are true, the church must take the responsibility and change.

The best way to make change is to imitate an existing model, since « il n’y a pas de hors texte » (there is no outside text). Borrowing the famous quote from deconstructionist Jacques Derrida, the author considers everything as textual signs (p.7), and suggest that, through proper hermeneutic effort, we can make our own sense of everything. So why not learn from a chain business? Dr. Sweet perceived that Starbucks has set a business parallel to a successful church. Starbucks as a cultural evangelist makes people gladly spend 5 times more bucks on a cup of coffee that a decade ago they would spend only 50 cents on. The contextual intelligence of making its product an enjoyable EPIC experience is exactly what the churches want.

In the modern competition of business market, « being different » has become a slogan. Nobody wants to be indistinctive or mediocre. Postmodernism marks an era of transition, and people’s desire for product itself been replaced by a desire for an authentic experience that surrounds the product. Authentic experience gives people the identity as an existential being, which grows only in the rarified extremes of feeling. Economically (or sociologically), the middle class is dying out. They are either becoming wealthy plutocrat or the pauper. The matter is not just about money, as their need of participatory and connective experience of life is reflected by advent and growing popularity of Web 2.0 and Wikipedia.

I don’t really know how traditional American church looks like the image that Dr. Sweet has depicted. But he seems to overgeneralize the diversity among different sects of American churches. At least the Pentecost church and the Assembly of God are burgeoning and should not at all under the critique of becoming Laodicean or lukewarm. All critiques in this book, unfortunately, only wrestle against an imaginary category: the American church. I believe when Dr. Sweet says « in a worst-coffee country, where were you served the worst of the worst? The church » (p.16), he is neglecting the Church Growth Movement which has just brought about immense spiritual revival. So our model, why must it be Starbucks?

Dr. Sweet just swears that Starbucks has not given me extra coupons or coffee beans. Actually neither will Starbucks choose to do so. I would not suggest that Pentecost church or the Assembly of God will serve for a better embodying church for Dr. Sweet’s conception despite the growth of statistic figures. As we all could roughly sense the loom of their undermining crisis (being extremists toward spiritual gifts), Starbucks, however, is also suffering from a broken-image when Dr. Sweet was about to publish this book.

The story begins in 2006, when the Ethiopian government was trying to win trademarks for its Sidamo, Yirgacheffe and Harar coffees in the western world in order to bring added benefits to millions of poor farmers and help alleviate poverty. The Starbucks Coffee Company continued to stonewall its bid in the United States. Although promising to sell fair-trade coffee beans (indeed these beans only occupied 10% of its overall sales) under the fierce attack of Oxfam international, Starbuck continues to ignore calls from Ethiopian coffee farmers and exporters to sign a royalty-free licensing agreement. It really confused me that Dr. Sweet seems to be so placated by Starbucks business propaganda that he announces that « Starbucks boasts it is North America’s largest purchaser of Fair Trade Coffee (p.106) ». Hardly could he feel sorry about Starbucks’ openly supporting for Bush’s military invasion and Israel’s counterattack against Afghanistan, which has invited an immense controversy and public concern. The branch store which Starbucks donated for US army base has become their lively advertisement with the slogan written « We proudly serve ». And as a Christian reader I really sorry that Dr. Sweet not only ignored this fact while he was praising the contextual intelligence of Starbucks, but he also implied that the « 10000 avowed terrorists » as « a tiny speck of the global population », instead of sinners need to be redeemed just as all of us. Such kind of remarks somehow made arguments in this book insupportable for Christian readers who are non US citizens.

Last it is about the accomplishment of this book. The Gospel according Starbucks served as a good reminder that we Christians should be aware of not becoming Laodicean. Jesus is the perfect example of a life being lived out with passion. This is for us individuals. Nonetheless, the church and its leaders should be also given concrete advises of how to get back and be involved in the business what it is really in: bridging connections and serving as the « 3rd place ». Thus, the Apostle Paul’s insight (such as Pastoral Epistles) is crucial to amend the insufficient teaching from the four Gospels. The Bible consists of 66 books. This is the entire Gospel. So it is important not to only favor our preferred passages. The church should be moderate and cosmic rather than extreme and radical. It should neither become a school of ought nor a sanctuary of ecstatic believers speaking in tongues with nobody can interpret (1 Cor 12:10). Postmodernism will pass away; the extreme of spectrum will fade. But « Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. » (Mat 5:18)

Reading this book has been provoking my reminiscence about When Jesus came to Harvard, another peer work guided us to think about current issues by borrowing the rabbinic wisdom of Jesus. What would Jesus say to our church? Which of the seven churches in Revelation does yours resemble? I would propose a balanced spiritual diet, of faith, hope, and love.

2 thoughts on “Book Review on The Gospel according Starbucks: A hot awakening”

  1. 那本「心靈海嘯」也是璲特 Sweet 的作品。星巴克的福音,台灣好像也有譯本。其實,我的餘生夢想之一,是安靜在咖啡館裡寫作。但是台灣的 starbucks 太吵。他們又喜歡大聲呼喚來賓所點的飲料。感覺哩,歐洲的咖啡店就靜謐許多,更有氣質吧。只能想像。其實,該引進一種巴黎哲學風味的咖啡館。

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