Archive for the Sociology and Class Category

I’ve been reading God in a Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee, a pretty recent book by Michaele Weissman. It’s a travelogue and history of the most recent (2000 – present) rise in the specialty coffee industry. She spends a lot of time interviewing the roasters and barristas at ultra-hip joints such as Stumptown, Intelligentsia, and Counter Culture. She also spends quite a bit of time following them around in Central American and Africa as they visit the poor coffee growers face to face. It’s been a good read, though a little slow at times.

Anyway, these specialty folks really want to get their hands on better coffee. They have invested a lot of time and money into training the farmers in modern pruning, picking, and drying techniques to achieve a better product. Another way they’ve promoted quality is by holding contests in the countries of origin. A farmer whose beans place high are rewarded a premium at the following auction. This encourages competition and is an incentive to do a better job in the fields.

The largest of these yearly contest is called the Cup of Excellence. Remember, these farmers and their families live in tiny huts and make just a few cents an hour. They are some of the poorest folks in the world. The author had this to say about some of the contest winners:

It’s hard to imagine what $20,000 or $60,000 can mean to a impoverished coffee farmer. One year the top winner in Honduras was so poor that he couldn’t afford a bus ticket. He had to hitch a ride to the auction is Cup of Excellence earnings enabled him to get out of debt, purchase another small plot of land, and buy drying racks to prevent his coffee from rotting on the ground. In 2005 one of the top winners in Nicaragua, a small, spirited woman, used half her earnings to build a guest house; now her coffee plantation is an ecotourism destination, and she has diversified revenue stream. Not all the growers “get it,” of course. One bought a Hummer. Another gave all her winnings to her church. (p.49)

There is the heart of secular capitalism right there. The lady who gave all the money to her church just doesn’t “get it”.

And He sat down opposite the treasury, and began observing how the people were putting money into the treasury; and many rich people were putting in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which amount to a cent. Calling His disciples to Him, He said to them, “Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the contributors to the treasury; for they all put in out of their surplus, but she, out of her poverty, put in all she owned, all she had to live on.”

– Mark 12:41-44

Now I applaud the farmers who got out of debt and invested in their future. That was a very wise thing to do with the money. That’s probably what I would have done! By upgrading his farm, he might now make thousands of dollars a year instead of a few hundred.

Oh, and a guest house for ecotourism. What a great idea! (Says the white Prius-driving, Berkley-educated English prof.) I’m booking a stay this summer!

The guy who bought the Hummer is obviously an idiot. It will take 3-months wages to fill it up with gas. Oops.

But the lady who gave all the money to her church just doesn’t get it. No she doesn’t. But she may “get it” more than anyone can imagine. The world is not worthy of her.

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I find myself right in between two movements in Christianity right now: The so-called “emerging church” and the new resurgent Calvinists. They overlap in so many areas, it’s rather fascinating how they can be so opposed to each other at times. They both are moving AWAY from the deadness of “classical” American evangelicism, disillusioned with it’s mega-churches, worn-out revivalism, cheesy Left Behind eschatology, political culture war, CCM, and shallowness. They travel THROUGH largely opposing philosophies, but then surprisingly, arrive BACK at many of the same conclusions.

Both are often intellectual, focus on church planting, desire to return to older liturgies in worship, and spend much more time and money on charity and humanitarian aid then our parents and grandparents ever did. It’s just that the reasoning behind these conclusions come from very different corners. The “Emergents” travel through a mix of postmodern philosophy, the experience of hands-on philanthropy, liberalism, mysticism, and rediscovery of the ancient church. The “Resurgents” get there through renewed academic fervor, systematic theology (and the desire to really apply it), appreciation of the arts (acknowledging the beauty of creation), and more theology. Of course, I’m painting with broad strokes here, but I think these are useful descriptions nonetheless.

Unfortunately, because of their differences, these folks do end up fighting a lot. I don’t think the actual people on the ground fight much, but they certainly do so on the internet and in their rhetoric. A few days ago, Michael Spencer posed a question at the Boar’s Head Tavern about why the new Calvinists spend so much energy trying to squash the emergents. What follows I think offers some brilliant insight into the situation. I just had to repost (edited) snippits of the conversation:

Michael Spencer: Why are the Together for the Gospel Calvinists obsessed with the emerging church? I mean, it’s a never-ending obsession. Why? What’s the connection? Why isn’t it progressives? Lutherans? Atheists? Liberals? Not Really Reformed Calvinists? Baptist Fundamentalists? Why the angst over the EC and especially McLaren?

To which one of the Lutherans quips:

John Halton: I for one am deeply disappointed that Calvinists spend so little time these days attacking Lutherans. C’mon, guys! We believe the most ghastly stuff! Unbelievers get to eat Jesus, babies spring out of the font fully regenerated, Christ paid for all sins of all people… Good grief, all the emergents have done is grow goatees, wear heavy-rimmed glasses and use lower-case for the names of their churches!

Hmm, maybe I could meet in the middle and have a reformed gathering called something like “infusion” or “the storeHaus”.

And then, the nail is hit on the head:

Richard: Because they are both keenly interested in “reaching” the same demographic, viz. white, 20-30 years old, educated, culture-shaper types. That’s why we have a Calvinist book by two guys who“should be emergent but aren’t”. The crowds at Together for the Gospel and a typical Brian McLaren meeting don’t look very different, do they? Lots of young, white faces. The people at the Reformed meeting are a bit better dressed and groomed but they all grew up in the same suburbs, went to the same schools and graduated in the same classes.

Spike: I’m with Richard. As the new reformies see it, they and the emergents are the only two groups in the church that really count because they’re competing over the young male intellectuals. It’s a zero-sum game; any young male intellectual who starts quoting Doug Pagitt could have, should have been quoting John Piper. There aren’t enough resources in the denominational ecology for both of them to thrive.

That’s it. Demographics. I’ve said this before, though I have yet to develop the idea fully. Arguing about theology is often just a front for something else, even if the people talking theology don’t realize it.

Jason Blair: That’s an interesting observation, Spike. But if true, it would expose a flaw in their thinking. All they have to do to win the numbers game is encourage their team to have more babies than the other team. (kidding – kind of).

Kidding, kind of. Actually, I think this is true, though just one of many factors. On this front, the Calvinists probably have an upper hand since they are generally friendly to large families and the liberal-leaning emergents will have fewer goombas.

And on a different note…

Adam Omelianchuk: I’ve thought a lot about the ongoing debate between Emergents and Resurgents (my terminology) and have come to see it as a competition between two paradigms that are battling for the hearts and minds of the younger generation of evangelicals. In the wake of the soft and highly replaceable seeker-sensitive evangelism of the Willow Creek/Rick Warren era, the receding unifying figurehead of Billy Graham, and the disillusion caused by the Religious Right, a void has emerged that cries out for radical change in ministerial innovations, doctrinal education, and cultural engagement.

The Emergents seek to meet these problems with a wholesale rejection of whatever it deems “modern” (read: conservative, rationalistic, propositional, or whatever) and turns towards an Ancient/Future dichotomy that seeks the understanding of a Christian experience that ministers to the challenges presented by the postmodern ethos. The figureheads of the movement, such as Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, and Rob Bell, seek a convention that buys into the idea that culture in an inescapable ingredient in theological formation and therefore should be embraced, albeit critically to varying degrees.

The Resurgents see this as nothing short of heresy and believe it is simply the repetition of the previous errors of Protestant Liberals who accommodated the faith to the tenets of modernity. They too see the unsatisfactory conditions left by the previous generation of evangelicals but stand in disbelief at the proposed solutions of the Emergents largely because they believe they are simply propounding the same philosophies that got the previous generation into trouble in the first place (starting with people’s “felt needs”) and extending them to approaches that can only lead to heresy (as observed historically with the liberals). Thus the need for something fixed, transcendent, confessional, and historically rooted, i.e. Calvinism.

Both groups flourish by way of the same means: conferences, websites, blogs, podcasts, and published books from a “cult of personality” leadership structure. Therefore, when they inevitably intersect we get lots of book reviews, conferences with speakers addressing one or the other, discussions over politics and theology and various answers to the question “What is the gospel?” that are utterly divergent.

In short, what we see today between the Emergents and Resurgents is an echo of an earlier era when Fundamentalism and Modernism clashed.

This is lamentable for several reasons, most of which are related to a false choice between extremes being presented to many young people. Any moderate voice coming from classical Arminians, Postconservatives, young Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, Anabaptists, or those that authored the Evangelical Manifesto are met with an alien and confused look on the face.

The final comment by Adam is good. The refusal of people in both movements to hear the words of wise people still attached to the old institutions is a weakness of both movements. Christians of all flavours still have much to offer.

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There’s always some fool who loses. So if you look around the table and you don’t see him, you’re the fool.

-Coy, The Nautical Chart, Arturo Perez-Reverte

I thought of this quote recently when I heard a similar comment during an interview with actor Steve Carell by NPR’s Terry Gross. Steve plays a character in The Office, which if you haven’t seen it, is a TV sitcom about office culture. Think live-action Dilbert. Michael Scott is the name of the clueless (but not evil) boss character in the show.

…that’s basically what Michael is up against. He thinks people think he’s cool. He thinks people like him and think he’s funny and charming but he’s really none of those things. And incidentally, when you say everyone knows a Michael Scott…I guess the rule of thumb…Ricky told me this in regards to the character he plays, David Brent, in the BBC version of The Office, that if you don’t know Michael Scott, then you ARE Michael Scott. So better that you actually have a frame of reference for him!

We ask how much a man has done, but from what degree of virtuous principle he acts, is not so studiously considered.We inquire whether he be courageous, rich, handsom, skillful, a good writer, a good singer, or a good laborer; but how poor he is in spirit, how patient and meek, how devout and spiritual, is seldom spoken of.

-Thomas A Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, Book III, Chapter 31

I often ask this myself. Both of men and peers in church and in the world. I have admired the courageous. I have certainly been jealous of the rich. Cynical of the handsome, especially when riches seem to come to them as a result. I know I have some fine skills. I wish I had others too. I could be a good writer if I wasn’t so slow. I could have been a good singer had I invested more time into it. My labors are a mixed bag: some good examples, some lousy.

“Man looks on the outside, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Too bad that outside success still holds such social capital, even within the church community. Even largely in my own heart.

Davis Wilson was a classmate of mine in music school a few years back. Now he’s studying law in NYC.
He’s written a brilliant and funny piece on what being cool is all about.
I usually don’t post links here because it causes my wife to accuse me of being a lame-o blogger.
I thought this one was too good to pass up though!

http://lincolndavis.blogspot.com/2007/07/study-on-cool.html

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I’ve just started ready The Tempest by William Shakespeare. In the intro to the edition I have, editor Louis B. Wright goes on a rant about the historians who like to insist that Shakespeare couldn’t possible have written so many good plays; that he must have stolen other people’s material:

Most anti-Shakespeareans are naive and betray and obvious snobbery. The author of their favorite plays, they imply, must have had a college diploma framed and hung on his study wall like the one in their dentist’s office, and obviously so great a writer must have had a title or some equally significant evidence of exalted social background. They forget that genius has a way of cropping up in unexpected places and that none of the great creative writers of the world got his inspiration in a college or university course.

Living and working an academia for the past seven years, I’ve certainly seen the “my vita is longer than yours” contest and the “my degree is from a more prestigious institution than yours” game played pretty regularly. It’s funny though, Dan Bukvich, the professor in our music department with by far the most creative output and renown for pedagogical excellence only has a Master’s from a place nobody has heard of. Einstein didn’t have a degree worth mentioning at all, just enough to get his foot in the door as a bookkeeper while he pondered physics at night. I didn’t realize Shakespeare was another example of this.

I think I like stories like this because they fly in the face of snobbery. I think deep down I wish I WAS in the snob class with a degree from Juliard or MIT, working a “respectable” post. But I don’t have those things and never will. I wasn’t born into enough money. Stories like this give me hope that I can “be somebody” even though I haven’t been seemingly dealt the best hand. Now, all of this may be just trying to stoke up my own pride when I should just accept being humbled, but I think there is more to it than that. I want to “be somebody” just as much as the next guy. The drive for excellence is implanted in many of us. It can be twisted toward the ego, but I think the Lord put it there in the first place.

From Reaching for the Invisible God:

…People vary in beauty, family background, athletic skill, intelligence, health, and wealth, and anyone who expects perfect fairness in this world will end up bitterly disappointed. Likewise, a Christian who expects God to solve all family problems, heal all diseases, and thwart baldness, graying, wrinkling, presbyopia, osteoporosis, senility, and the other effects of aging is pursuing childish magic, not mature religion.

The prosperity gospel in it’s brazen and loud form does not hold much temptation to me. I’ve always been taught (and thought independently) that it was unreasonable. But I’ve often fallen for being discontent about the world not being fair. Wishing I was smarter, wishing I had more money, and so on. It’s frustrating that following Christ doesn’t get you that stuff. But following Christ has made me more content with what I DO have. More importantly, it has made me stop and realize the beauty of what is around me instead of wallowing in a despair of unreachable goals and thinking about all the beauty that was NOT around me. Oh well!

So I’ve learned to be happy with my career as a developer/coder/database monkey. I no longer have to bang my head against the wall to get into the Eastman School of Music or find a paying guitar job. I’m settled with music being a hobby. In the past year he broke me of my quest to find a “real house” for my family. Our fixed-up trailer will do just fine. I don’t think I made a real hard attempt to be content with these things. I doubt that would have produced any real change. I think he worked in my heart produce peace. I’ll try my best with the hand I’ve been dealt.

P.S. I just hope the other hand has a dang good cup of coffee in it. Doh!

In the last couple years, I’ve been leaning toward, being attracted to, a higher church liturgy. Oh, it would be nice to say, “The spirit is leading me in this direction”, which is something I CAN say about some things in my life. However, in this area I must say it’s probably just a matter of personal taste. Without a doubt it’s partially a backlash against church services centered around personalities and rock band worship. Now, I don’t have any problem with rock bands, or even rock band worship per se, I think I’m just grown tired of hearing them.

My wife has also felt the pull of higher church liturgy. However, she’s very wary of “stuffed shirt” religious types, and not without good reason. We’re both small-town country folk. Now we have university degrees with honors, but that doesn’t make us high society. Not even close in fact. The social ladder is unavoidable in and out of church. I would prefer that it would pollute worship as little as possible.

A comment today from Doug Wilson sheds some light on the subject I think:

Over the course of our nation’s history, what denominations have attracted the doctors, lawyers, bankers, and so on? Right — the more liturgical, staid, and formal churches. What churches have attracted the loggers, cops, and contractors? Right — the more informal, lively, and anti-liturgical. We are currently living through a period of cultural churn, where no one exactly knows what is up. Megachurches have breezy, multi-media worship, and they have plenty of doctors and lawyers trying to clap along with the songs. My argument is that this kind of thing is an anomaly. Over time, it will have to go one way or the other.A couple of possible objections, and I am done. Someone might point out that the Roman Catholic church has plenty of “blue collar” parishioners, which is quite true. But they do this by reproducing the entire range of socio-economic strata within the church. In other words, they have plenty of such worshippers, but they do not constitute the leadership of the church. If you were to find a church with blue collar leadership, and they had that leadership over the course of a generation or more, I would be willing to bet good money that the liturgy would be quite low.

Another objection is that this analysis seems to give “doctors and lawyers” too much credit in authenticating what the Church is supposed to be doing. Yes, this is quite a danger, one that James pointed out in his epistle. When the rich guys start showing up for church, it is time to guard your hearts against evil motives. This problem has happened plenty in the history of the Church. But remember, I am not applauding anything here. I am just watching. I am not arguing for high liturgy at all; I am simply pointing out that in history high liturgy has tended toward a particular effect. Having a high view of liturgy (which I do have) is not the same thing as having a high view of high liturgy (which I don’t have). But for those brethren who do have a high view of high liturgy, this is an observation or caution that can be used in either direction. “If we crank the liturgy up another notch, we might get some more big tithers from the medical field!” Or . . . “We need to watch our step here. This stuff is banker bait.”

I’ve had a lot of frustrations and disappointments running through my head lately. They have to do with real estate, the American Dream, how that relates to my family, my job, and what I’m on this planet for.

We got married, we bought a trailer so we could “build equity” (unfortunately the scare quotes ARE necessary). So, we did this so we weren’t throwing money away in rent. Then we bought ANOTHER trailer so we could be closer to church and friends, then we bought the cheapest house we could afford (except it turns out that we couldn’t really afford even that) so we could get out of the tin-can trailer world and into a “real house”. Now we are back in the same trailer we started in and about the same amount of cash in the bank. Four years and the circle is complete. So what the heck am I shooting for? Time to reexamine it.

All around us, just one mile away is a new subdivision that wasn’t there last year. It’s full of big, beautiful houses that would be sooo nice to live in, right? Really? Oh, so we can save up for a few more years, I’ll probably get a raise at work, maybe my wife’s parents will inherit some money and if everything comes together, we could maybe live in one of these cool places soon instead of crammed with all our kids into a tin can. Wait! Stop the tape!

So is THAT what I’m working for? The culmination of all my hopes and dreams?

Oddly enough, this was really driven home to me lately by watching Over the Hedge with my daughter. The film pokes fun at suburban living, and nothing so much as the song during the closing credits. I guess it’s a rehash of a Ben Folds song that originally made fun of rap-core.

Here are some excerpts:

We drive our cars everyday
To and from work both ways
So we make just enough to pay
To drive our cars to work each day
(MW: I have seriously spent the last year doing exactly that.)We’re rocking the suburbs
Around the block just one more time
We’re rocking the suburbs
Cause I can’t tell which house is mine
We’re rocking the suburbs
We part the shades and face facts
They got better looking Fescue
Right across the cul de sac
(MW: I actually know real live people who are thinking like this now. People who used to be interesting in college. People with hopes and dreams, reduced to rats in the consumer race. And I’m RIGHT behind them! Ahhh! I just don’t have quite as much money yet.)

Hotwheels take rising stars
Get rich quick seminars
Soap opera magazines
40,000 watt nativity scenes
Don’t freak about the smoke alarm
Mom left the TV dinner on
(MW: OK. I don’t really relate to this stuff (thank God), I just think that part about the nativity scene is pretty funny!)

We’re rocking the suburbs
Feed the dog and mow the lawn
Watching mommy balance the checks
While daddy juggles credit cards
(MW: Somebody shoot me.)

We’re rocking the suburbs
You’ll never know when we are gone
Because the timer lights come on
And turn the cricket noises on…
(MW: I think this happens a little bit further down the road, when you start to worry about someone stealing your stuff. Like maybe the neighbor you’ve never met, even though you’ve lived next door for 3 years.)

At the same time, I get this sick feeling in my stomach when I read Michael Spencer blogging about John Piper’s “Don’t Waster Your Life”. Now, much of the book boils down to how you aren’t really a cool Christian unless you do foreign missions. I have serious beef with that (and so does Michael), but I won’t go into it here. Isn’t it obvious though? Actually, Piper doesn’t believe that either. He’s a sharp guy. That’s just the feeling you get reading his book in this case. Ron Hutchcraft’s “Called to Greatness” has the same halo. Actually, there is great stuff in both these books…I digress though. I get a sick feeling when I just see the little image that Michael is using for these blog posts:

I feel sick because I think, “Oh my God, that’s me!”.

Anyway, the idea of living in one of these suburban dream homes, filling it with cheap plastic crap, and non-so-cheap furniture, is starting to REALLY lose it’s appeal. I used to be jealous of my friends and colleges who have this life. Now I’m not so sure.

The image above actually comes from the Buy Nothing Day campaign where you boycott the consumerism the day after thanksgiving by not spending any money that day. I really have no interest in secular reactionary movements against American consumerism. I’m worried about my SOUL. How did it become so weighed down with all this junk? I find myself walking right down this road that I scorn. It must have happened slowly. Maybe even while I was paying attention to important, legitimate things (like taking care of my kids). Anyway, it’s crept into my psyche, and has established itself in a place that used to be full of thoughts about the Gospel and the beautiful created things in the world. It has displaced things of wonder, music, and charity. How sad.

I don’t have a direction to go from here, except that I have a very strong desire to TURN FROM the road I am taking my family down. It’s likely I’d have to start with the latte I’m drinking as a write this…

“You have been down there, Neo. You know that road. You know exactly where it ends. And I know that’s not where you want to be.” – Trinity, The Matrix