Coffee, Lutheranism, and a Paradox of Christian Consumption
Holy Grounds: The Surprising Connection Between Coffee and Faith—From Dancing Goats to Satan’s Drink, by Tim Schenck. Fortress Press, 2019. 214 pages plus notes.
Tim Schenck is an impressive guy. In addition to serving as pastor of an Episcopal parish, Father Tim was a political consultant for four years and served as an Army Reserve Public Affairs Officer. His written work includes a syndicated monthly column and five books. Tim also created “Lent Madness,” which pits Christian saints against each other in a March Madness–style bracketed tournament.
A quick review of Tim’s column, blog entries, etc., reveals an important gift: to research thoroughly and write lucidly about fun, sub-serious topics. His new book, Holy Grounds, is an exemplar of this talent.
Holy Grounds is well-researched and deeply considered. To write it, Tim conducted countless interviews, traveled nationally and internationally, and took a four-month sabbatical to fine-tune his work. The net effect is an exceptionally thorough review of every fathomable connection between faith and coffee. In a word, this pastor is serious about his coffee.
But this seriousness is delivered in crisp, light prose, with ample pun infusion and church-basement humor. His writing is breezy and readable. This juxtaposition makes Tim seem like the sort of guy who takes his work seriously without taking himself seriously.
I wonder whether some orthodox Lutherans, particularly in the Missouri Synod, could take a lesson from this attitude. Our serious, German-rooted demeanor is well-suited to theology and doctrine, not to playfulness or, as it were, sub-serious topics.
This isn’t the only thing we could stand to learn from Tim. While much of Holy Grounds is perfectly benign (e.g., the first six chapters’ recitation of historical connections between faith and coffee), some of it is a little edgier. For example, Tim writes at length about the coffee trade’s environmental impact and often-horrifying working conditions. The furthest Tim gets toward a normative thesis, I think, is his suggestion that churches ought to serve better coffee, grown sustainably and procured through free-trade routes.
Here, many of us LCMS Lutherans may be tempted to roll our eyes.
It doesn’t stop there. Still more of the book describes the intricacies of finding, procuring, growing, preparing, and consuming fine coffee. This contrasts with what Tim describes as “the dumbing down of the American coffee consumer,” brought about by sugar-heavy soda and the transition from rich Arabica production to the cheaper, less flavorful Robusta bean, producing burnt-tire coffee with too much caffeine.
Another eye roll, right? We LCMS-ers don’t care for frilly fineries like French presses and single-origin pour overs. Our disenchantment with fine, costly things is reflected in our church architecture, our vestments, sometimes even our liturgy (with occasional, God-given exceptions for all three). We are not a people concerned with aesthetics. Because of this, I suspect many orthodox Lutheran readers will disregard Tim’s pursuit of fine coffee.
They will be wrong to do so.
God created our earth and all its inhabitants. He gave it over to our care and requires us to be good stewards of it. In His creation are wondrous order and beauty. We all know this. But if you’re like me, when you think about the earth’s beauty, you think of glowing sunsets or majestic mountain peaks. You may not realize that the beauty of God’s creation is also found in the animals and plants He created to sustain us. Grapes that produce fine wines, wheat ground and baked into fortifying bread, a well-bred cow butchered and cut to a tender, smooth filet. And yes, a wiry, old tree with red fruit, its bitter seeds roasted, ground, and brewed into a cup of coffee.
As to coffee’s environmental and workforce impacts, I confess that parts of Holy Grounds, especially in chapters 11 and 12, are a bit “woke” for me. For instance, Tim often invokes the phrase “economic justice.” I can’t say I fully understand what it means.
But even here, we cannot simply ignore Tim’s prescriptions. Is it God-pleasing to purchase products you know came to you through slave labor? What about foods whose growth deprives the earth of fortitude and fertility?
More to my point, given an alternative, should you choose foods stripped of their natural taste and nutrition and infused with salt and corn syrup? Does this honor the creation the Lord your God gave you to work and keep and over which He gave you dominion? When you eat and drink, do you preserve and love the bountiful land into which God brought you to enjoy its fruits and good things? Or do you defile it?
If the latter, why do you get a pass? Is it because these concerns are raised by people for whom you don’t care? Because these are “liberal” problems where you are concerned with “conservative” ones?
I will be the first to confess that I haven’t been a perfect steward of God’s creation. For one, I am not always aware of what I consume. I don’t know whether the sugar in my pantry was harvested “sustainably.” I’ve eaten a lot of low-quality food when better food was available, harming my health and enabling the production of more low-quality food. I haven’t glorified God with what I consume.
I will also be the first to confess another sin: the worship of the finer material things God gives me. My appreciation for God’s gifts often, even daily, sours into idolatry of those gifts. Matt. 6:19–21. This is no better than disregarding what I consume.
Here, there is a paradox. God gave us the earth to sustain us, to facilitate the production, appreciation, and consumption of good things. At the same time, He requires us not to put our trust in those same good things.
But these two commands are in fact deeply consistent. They both point to a simple fact: it is God and no other who sustains us. When we over-consume, we are like the Israelites who hoarded manna in the desert, not trusting God to feed them the next day. Like theirs, our greed, our desire to consume more, is idolatrous and destructive. We must instead trust God to give us each day our daily bread, from the bounty of His creation.
Thus, though Tim doesn’t mean it to (as far as I know), the sub-serious Holy Grounds reveals a deadly-serious problem with American cuisine, which, to paraphrase a famous chef, is characterized by not-very-good food consumed in elephantine quantities. Blessed with extraordinary material wealth, we over-consume and waste. We gorge ourselves thoughtlessly and throw away mountains of food.
Of course, neither Tim nor I will argue that it is incumbent on every church to buy a thousand-dollar espresso machine and stock $22-per-bag whole-bean Arabica. Another of God’s gifts to us is time; maybe we could use it better than to figure out where our coffee is sourced. Another still is money; churches’—or individuals’—limited resources may be better used elsewhere than on high-end coffee.
Likewise, we cannot improve our architecture or vestments at the expense of our first mission: to proclaim the Gospel of Christ and administer His sacraments faithfully. We rightly criticize megachurch culture for putting glitz and glamour before Christ’s Great Commission.
But if your only excuse for bad architecture, bad liturgy, or bad food—including bad coffee—is inertia or ignorance, you should pray. Here, Tim puts it best: “For me, much of this has to do with simple awareness when having my morning coffee.”
I join Tim in asking pastors and parishioners to prayerfully consider buying and serving better coffee. It may seem frivolous, but it also may be a small, easy way to promote beauty in our church basements and to make believers meditate on the glory of creation.
If the attitude I’ve described is yours, it is all the more important that you buy and read Holy Grounds. Before you read, pray that the Holy Spirit renew in you an appreciation—and sense of responsibility—for God’s creation. Pray that you may seek, find, and consume the many beautiful things of His earth, to the glory of His name.