Tuesday, August 23, 2005

AD: How to Brew a Christian Cup of Coffee

A group of Christian writers were recently trying to define the term, “Christian novel.” I suggested it might mean any novel written by a Christian who takes his or her faith seriously. I went on to suggest we could define almost anything else in the same way. A cup of coffee, for example, if made by a Christian who was striving to “work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men,” would therefore be a “Christian cup of coffee.” (Colossians 3:23) One of the authors replied, “But Athol, isn't there a distinction between the inherent quality of the coffee (which can't possibly be Christian or non-Christian in and of itself) and the way in which it's made or consumed, which would mean that the action is what is truly Christian or not?”
It’s an interesting question.

I agree there is a distinction between a cup of coffee’s "inherent quality" and "the way in which it's made or consumed." But while some might see that as a point of difference between a cup of coffee and a work of art, I think it applies in exactly the same way to both.

There's an old joke: A scientist insists we have progressed to the point where science could create Adam and Eve. God takes him up on it, and the two of them agree to a competition to see which of them can whip up a man and woman fastest. At the starting gun, the man looks around and says, "Wait a minute, I need some soil and a rib," and God replies, "Create your own."

The point is that everything we do is a rearrangement of God's original creation. We take beans and water and "create" a beverage. We take ink and paper and "create" a book. In both cases the raw materials required all come from God, and that includes our creative instinct.
Jesus, as "the craftsman at God's side" has imbued everything created with a certain "Jesus-ness" that cannot be denied. This is what theologians call “common grace,” which is described in the apostle Paul’s statement, "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities-his eternal power and divine nature-have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse." (Rom 1:20)

Surely "what has been made" includes both coffee beans and water. So by Paul's estimation a cup of coffee can indeed speak of God's eternal power and divine nature, and isn't that the most that we can ask from any novel?

But while the cup of coffee and the book can be looked at simply as objects reflecting the quality of God, with faith added in they can also be looked at as attempts to honor God through emulation. The primary difference between those two ways of looking is not a matter of the content of the cup or page, rather, it is in the mindset of the person doing the “creating”. Which is just a different way of saying again that I believe everything a Christian does or makes is (or should be), a Christ-like or “Christian” thing by definition.

There’s another way to think about this, and at first it may seem to contradict everything I just said, but it really doesn’t. If we say with Paul that all created things have an "inherent quality" of "Jesus-ness" by virtue of being a reflection of their creator, then we cannot really create a "Christian" cup of coffee after all, and neither can we create a "Christian" novel. The most we can do is keep things "Christian," by defending them from the profanity of mediocrity. So in a very literal way, we do not really create "Christian" things (because we have no soil or ribs). Instead, we rescue things from the corruption of a fallen world. We can see this in perhaps the most common Greek word translated as “obey” in the New Testament, tereo, which literally means to guard, detain or withhold. (Strong’s) So for Christians, striving for excellence in everything we do can be a loving act of obedience to God, and who are we to say our Father values a great story more highly than a perfect cup of French Roast?

Athol Dickson
Author of The Gospel According to Moses - What my Jewish friends taught me about Jesus. and of River Rising, a novel available in January, 2006.


At 8:52 AM, Blogger Mike Duran said...

Martin Luther said: "I'd rather be ruled by a competent turk, than an incompetent Christian." When it comes to coffee, I'd rather drink a cup brewed by a competent pagan, than one brewed by an incompetent believer. The unbeliever who takes care to prepare a good cup of coffee is closer to "christian principles" than a Christian who does not. I am not obligated to support a mediocre coffee house simply because it is "Christian owned and operated."

I agree with Athol: "The most we can do is keep things "Christian," by defending them from the profanity of mediocrity." Maybe we Christians should stop debating if coffee can be "christian," (or movies / music / art, etc.) and concentrate more on becoming competent "brewers."

At 9:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amen to both Athol and Mark!

At 12:03 PM, Blogger J. Mark Bertrand said...

Another great post. Wouldn't the relationship between the coffee and its brewer be more analagous to that between book and printer than novel and author? The book as object exemplifies the truth of God's creation in the same way that the coffee as substance does, so that the most unchristian book is the one with the remainder mark (can I get an amen?) -- but the novel itself bears content in a way that the coffee does not; or at least, it carries more content, on more levels. Is the only thing necessary to guard against the dechristianization of the novel a provision against mediocrity?

At 7:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the feedback, Mike and Lisa. And thanks, Mark, for your interesting question, "Is the only thing necessary to guard against the dechristianization of the novel a provision against mediocrity?" I think it is important to define "Christian" in this context. It can mean both "Christ-like" and "Christ-follower." Regarding the first definition, if "mediocrity" means the corruption of God's "very good" creation caused by the spread of original sin throughout the universe, then I do think excellence is enough to produce a novel that is Christian in the "Christ-like," or common grace sense. For example, it is not necessary for the authors of SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS or COLD MOUNTAIN to be Christians to allow a glimpse God’s face in the beauty of their work.

But as I mentioned in the blog, “with faith added in they [the coffee, the novel] can also be looked at as attempts to honor God through emulation,” and since that is something only a believer can fully understand or accomplish, it does take more than mere excellence to produce a Christian novel in the “Christ-follower” sense. Again, in terms of common grace, I believe God’s hand is in “every good and perfect gift,” be it a great novel or that perfect cup of coffee. But in every work a Christian does, there is also the possibility of an added dimension of “Jesus-ness” above and beyond mere excellence, which can only comes through the conscious submission to what God desires to accomplish in our work.

At 6:36 PM, Blogger J. Mark Bertrand said...

I have to say, that is probably the best articulation of the difference that I've come across. Thanks, Athol, for another fascinating post.


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