Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The Gospel and... Starbucks?

Two or three years ago, my husband was given the book The Gospel According to Starbucks: Living with a Grande Passion by one of our sons. Interesting title. Interesting book, so my husband told me.

I only picked it up recently, intrigued by the title, and wanting something different to read.

I like post-modern books, in general. I like Christian books which offer a new perspective on faith. And I was curious to know how the author would approach his subject.

I haven't finished yet. When I do, I'll review it on my books blog. But the first few chapters have raised some interesting questions in my mind. The author talks about Jesus being radical, relational, exciting. About the Christian life being a great adventure, with multi-sensory thrills. I'm paraphrasing, but that's the idea. Fair enough. Too many people see the Christian life as boring or restrictive, God as some benign Santa character in the sky. Life with Jesus can and should be much more exciting than we often see it.

However... my problem with the book is that the author keeps comparing the Christian life with Starbucks. A coffee shop. Yes, a new idea in coffee shops when it started - offering easy chairs to lounge in, free wi-fi, books to browse, snacks to eat, and a large number of variations on the theme of coffee. I thought perhaps there might be fifty or sixty possible ways to drink coffee at Starbucks. According to this book, there are several thousand. Fair enough. One can customise one's drink, to a pretty cool degree. And, of course, pay through the nose.

But still... Starbucks is not actually different, in principle, from any other food chain. Yes, the first ones may have been radical. But the owners found a formula, it was popular, and so they started spreading around the world, training their staff to produce exactly the same drinks, to the same specifications, wherever they happened to be.

Isn't that pretty much what McDonald's did?

Except that McDonald's products are pretty inexpensive. Junk, to be sure. I suppose paying anything at all for fast 'food' is rather a waste of money, but it's popular, and cheap, and at least provides calories. The shops are clinical white, with fairly uncomfortable seats. I doubt if anyone lingers in McDonald's for longer than they have to.

Starbucks is the other extreme. Ridiculously expensive, comfortable seats, and they want people to hang around. On the face of it, the only thing it has in common with McDonald's (other than coming from the USA) is the enormous numbers of calories that can be consumed in a single portion.

So, the originators have made a fortune, the advertising worked, the product sells. Fair enough, that's how capitalism works. Nobody has to go to either of these chains if they don't want to.

But to compare Starbucks with the Gospel? Isn't that just a little sacrilegious? The uniqueness of each human being created by God is surely far more significant than umpteen thousand blends of coffee, identical whether ordered in Singapore or Switzerland or Spain. The artificiality of the comfort and supposed friendliness of the Starbucks baristas (carefully trained to give the required responses and make the exact drinks required) bears no resemblance at all to the reality of life with Jesus.

I guess it doesn't help that I'm not a huge fan of Starbucks coffee anyway. I like it - well, the two or three varieties I've tried, when nowhere else is available for wi-fi - but didn't find it as good as either Costa Coffee, or the Coffee Bean chain, popular in Asia.

And since nothing would convince me to buy Starbucks coffee first thing in the morning - I am plebeian enough to prefer my Maxwell House instant - many of the book's analogies rather leave me cold.

Perhaps this makes me rather a has-been, albeit a mostly post-modern one. Or is it just that I can see through the hype, and fail to see why an over-priced coffee shop should have my custom (other than those necessary occasions mentioned) merely because it has an internationally recognised image?

1 comment:

Steve Hayes said...

I've never been to Starbucks -- they haven't reached South Africa yet, so the book's title wouldn't make any impact there. But we do have Seattle Coffee Shops attached to a chain of bookshops, and a Christian group called TGIF meets there on Friday -- they bhave a talk on some topic or other. I've been to a couple -- one on new monasticism, another on Toklien -- but most of the others didn't interest me. And I can't stand the coffee -- it's overroasted expresso, which tastes horribly bitter to me. I prefer my coffee medium roast, and made in a pot, like tea. Maybe you can get that at Starbucks.