Leonard Sweet on Starbucks

The new Leonard Sweet book is so much fun, packed with so much interesting information—how does he find all these eccentric statistics and factoids, anyway? —and important cultural analysis that I really, really want to tell you all about it. I understand that for some who do very heavy postmodern studies (pro or con) his popular level books arenÕt exactly what you may need. Fine. But for most of us, these popular books are jam-packed with provocative sentences, winsome Christian insight, innovative connections between faith and culture, and a surprisingly fun reminder of core convictions of the Christian faith—-stuff like our passion for Jesus, GodÕs ability to use our broken lives, the goodness of creation, the importance of beauty, the way GodÕs Spirit calls us to participate in authentic community, how love can triumphÉbasic good stuff. Sweet stuff, if I might say so.
To tell you about his new book The Gospel According To Starbucks I have to make a disclaimer or two. In fact, I will write about my critical concerns at length, below, after my enthusiastic promotional overview here. I do, in fact, have some concerns, but the main reason I want to note them is so that you donÕt resist getting this book because you share these same concerns. Len once advised me, Ã’Byron, you can do ministry in the world weÕve got, or the world you wished we had.Ó Uh-huh. This doesnÕt mean, of course, that we shouldnÕt be discerningly critical, but that we should at least look at things the way they are. He wasnÕt trying to shut down my discernment of how best to engage the culture; he’s very interested in that questionÑin fact, he edited a great book with five different participants in conversation (from Orthodox writer Frederica Mathews-Green to Mosaic dream-caster, Erwin Raphael McManus; from Straight Arrow Calvinist Michael Horton to emergent guru Brian McLaren. In the middle of them all is the ever-thoughtful and exceptionally balanced Andy Crouch, who at the time edited the supercool and very substantive re:generation quarterly. It is called The Church in Emerging Culture: Five Views.) So Sweet isnÕt shallow or a one-note tune. And I suppose I think of that story now as my criticisms below are of that sort that authors find perplexing (Ã’Why did he complain about what I didnÕt sayÑor review the book I didnÕt writeÓ some authors understandably ask. Ã’If you wanted to say all that about the topic, why didnÕt you write such a book,Ó one author told me when I chided him for not doing the book I wished he had. Fair enough.) I am so enjoying this new Starbucks book that is so clever, passionate, and informative that I donÕt want anybody to dismiss it casually. It is worth reading, even if youÕve heard SweetÕs song(s) before. Or even if you donÕt like Starbucks.
The Gospel According To Starbucks: Living Life With a Grande Passion (Waterbrook; $13.99) is a fun and handsome paperback that basically uses Starbucks as an example of the postmodern shift to what Sweet has famously coined as EPIC. This stands for Experiential, Participatory, Image-Rich and Communal. And he makes the case pretty well, at least a superficial one, that Starbucks is a leading edge new business with an EPIC perspective, offering folks not so much a product, but an experience, not just an item you get, but one which becomes an inter-active experience, etc. This EPIC handle is really useful, and I think goes a long way in helping us appreciate very recent trends (like, say, Reality TV or E-bay.Or the legendary customer-loyality of Starbuck’s patrons.)
As IÕve implied, it doesnÕt really matter if you like Starbucks (more on that below) and it doesnÕt even matter if you enjoy coffee. The point is that this one cultural phenomenon, an unavoidable one, has been nicely studied and plumbed as a case-in-point of the postmodern way of being in the world. He uses it as a preacher does, as a springboard. So, to be clear, the book is less about Starbucks and more about our EPIC culture (and how, sometimes, the church is anything but.)
For instance, in a truly brilliant section he reports on the decline of standard athletics and the rise of participatory sports. (Ahh, with more snowboards being bought than ball gloves, what are we to think about the great American pastime? Remember that guyÑa huge Detroit baseball fanÑwho infamously leaned over the outfield wall and messed up an important play in a big play-off game for the Tigers? As only Sweet can and would, he makes this guy into an icon of participatory trends, saying that the writing is on the wall, so to speak. People donÕt go to games just to sit and watch them any more (think of how tailgating has become such a big deal, or, better, how about this trend of painting your body? Whew!) That more kids play video game baseball than watch it is very important. (Sweet observes that the computer game industry is much larger than, say, Hollywood, yet there is little Christian analysis of it.) That NASCAR has mics inside the racecars so fans can “be there” becomes a matter of great cultural importance in Sweet’s hands, and it is an important little section. If you donÕt quite see where he is going with all this, you have to get this book. If you like these kind of discernment exercises about Ã’readingÓ cultural texts (the decline of baseball and the rise of extreme sports, say) than you will just love this book, jam-packed as it is with episodes and examples of just such provocative stuff. Either way, I think it is a great little easy read, loaded with wit and insight.
Sweet is clearly on the pomo edge of things, as he has been for years, in part because he insists that Jesus Christ is not a proposition, but a Person, and our knowledgeÑyada, yada, yada, is the intimate Hebrew word of “knowing,” remember—is a relationship, not mere intellectual assent. That writers and theologians as diverse as John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards, or John Wesley and A.W. Tozer all said similar things may remind us that SweetÕs wholistic, post-Enlightenment epistemology isnÕt heresy. It just seems a bit Ã’out thereÓ when he unpacks some of the implications of taking a multi-sensory, non-reductionistic, various-ways-of-knowing, whole-life approach to Christian discipleship, explaining it not only in terms of Bible texts, but by way of cultural icons like American Idol or iPods, or our love for the frappachino.
Sweet is a coffee fanatic, and he does love Starbucks. He has some good reflections on their in-house lingo, their excellence in barista training, their dŽcor, their unorthodox marketing plans, and such. But, again, this book (it seems to me) isnÕt really saying that the local church should mimic the franchise and do ÒStarbucksÓ services. Come on, left-brain literalists, give him a bit of credit for his imagery hereÉwork with him, let the book tickle your fancy, your spiritual taste buds, your imagination. He isnÕt saying we should do away with ordinary church and classic worship and have Zen meetings down at the espresso bar. But he is saying that Starbucks, and other emerging, new businesses, are onto something. They both reflect and contribute to the cultural zeitgeist, and we would be wise, at least, to pay attention. And, if Sweet is even partway right, we have some learning to do.
It isnÕt the main point, hardly even a minor point. But I suppose it is all right to say it. At the very least, we can learn that a good quality coffee roast is important to many of us. Churches, fellowship groups and Christian retreat centers could serve up a better cup o’ java, couldn’t we? And that may, at least, be a start. Read this book and see what you think. As the subtitle puts it, he invites us to live with a grande passion. I love it!

The Gospel According to Starbucks: Living Life With a Grande Passion
Leonard Sweet (Waterbrook) $13.99

Okay, here are my concerns. I have already indicated that I donÕt think this book is really about Starbucks, as such. It merely uses this popular business and itÕs unique vibe as a springboard for his EPIC spiel, which I like. So whether or not you like Starbucks is really beside the point. One doesnÕt really have to be married, you know, to appreciate a book on the Òbride of ChristÓ imagery from the New Testament. One need not be a card-caring pacifist to study a good book on the Biblical principles of peacemaking, perhaps learning from contemporary examples of those who have worked for reconciliation. It doesnÕt matter much whether one likes U2, say, or 24 or Tolkein. The books that have explored the spiritual themes in these works are fabulous and can be appreciated in their own right. And, if you donÕt know much about those cultural artifacts, maybe that is all the more reason to read about them. So, again, I commend this book with vigor whether you like coffee or Starbucks or not.
But, Sweet does say some pretty positive things about the Starbucks corporation, their founder and their shops. He does hold up their coffee shops in an exemplary manner, indicating that we should celebrate their successes and affirm their insights and emulate their practices. And so I want to get on record a few quick (Light) Notes. (Sorry, little in-house Starbucks joke, there.)
First, while I do not boycott Starbucks myself, I appreciate that some think that we should only support independent shops. [Just today, I drove past a Starbucks while out of town to buy from an overpriced indie shop, as a matter of principle, and had a righteous, if sub-standard brew.] As one who waxes angrily eloquent at the mere mention of Amazon, and has testified in public hearings about the expansion of a local Wal-Mart, I understand deeply the concern about the invasion of out-of-town chains that may hurt smaller, local businesses. (YouÕve seen
YouÕve Got Mail havenÕt you?!) Big box stores are nearly iconic of modernist applications, though, with mass-marketed Ã’productÓ selected by somebody somewhere else, based more on “numbers” than quality, displayed in slick, big, ways, with little earnest charm and sometimes, not even much knowledge or care. (Barnes and McNoble may have sophisticated literary selections, but I have had some very frustrating conversations with staff who, to say it nicely, donÕt seem to be passionate about books or bookselling.) I am not sure that Starbucks is the same as Amazon (a faceless, mostly un-normative business, I think) or the big box retailers, since they do nurture a local touch, are passionate about their product, and, as Sweet observes, attempt to nurture participatory community in each locale. Still, I am very concerned that Sweet does not mention this concern, and wonder how I would feel about the book if I owned an indie coffee shop. Or, if he wrote a book about the (imagined) glories of Borders. IÕd be irked. Again, The Gospel According to Starbucks is a call to rich and sensory and communally experienced faith, using the never-ending wit of SweetÕs over-caffeinated brain, by way of a quickie look at the cultural zeitgeist that the commercial success of a place like Starbucks signifies. It isnÕt a study of the economics, stewardship, justice or appropriateness of national chain franchises entering local economies. So IÕm willing to cut him a break on this and am happy to promote the book, as a way to reflect on that which the book is actually about—postmodern sensibilities, EPIC discipleship, full-on Christian passion and purpose. I think it is nonetheless an oversight that he did not at least approach this matter, and he should have at least broached the subject.
Secondly and closely related, is the whole movement that some have called the search for Òthird places.Ó I will blog, eventually, on the
Great Good Place book, and my friend Larry Bourgeois, a renowned coffee Master himself, who has written about his coffee-house/meeting place in the sequel, Celebrating the Great Good Place, and on the need for real social places, safe havens that truly foster community and hold the possibility of cultural restoration. Sweet himself has written nicely about his vision of a Ã’Soul CafŽÓ in his book with that title, and understands the need for retail places that promote conviviality, community, local responsibility. He used to run a retail shop that only sold products that had a “story” and were made by real folks, with some connection to somewhere particular. To the extent that Starbucks promotes their take-out attitude, paper cups and drive-through windows (!) it is a stretch to imagine that they are deepening real care, celebrating local culture or even helping people meet each other. Although SweetÕs call to connectedness and community in his EPIC acronym is right on, the reality is that Starbucks may be deconstructing local neighborhoods, dumbing down the practices of serious latte culture, and foisting on us an overpriced experience of haste, hurry, consumerism and disposability.
Thirdly, the fair-trade movement is one that Sweet has promoted, and he brings it up here. Earlier books addressed these fundamental justice concerns, even his great, older book on the Holy Spirit. His groundbreaking
Soul Tsunami had excellent chapters on the green movement and global justice issues. However, there is some debate about how Òfair-tradeÓ Starbucks really is. They claim they pay above the industry average, and I have no reason to disbelieve them. They have in recent months increased some of their publicity (at least around here) about how they support bio-regions, and they do a bit of geographic teaching in some of their lovely brochures. Still, those that know me know that IÕve embarrassed myself and my baristas more than once with my complaint that we ought not to have to choose between helping the workers or helping the Earth. To have to choose between a bag of the earth-friendly shade grown, or a bag of the organic (good for consumer and farmer) or a bag of their fair-trade just isnÕt right. Being such a large, lucrative, and influential staple of the worldwide coffee culture, they should be leading the way towards being entirely certified fair trade. We should be grateful that Sweet talks about all of this in the book, affirms StarbuckÕs policy efforts and chides them (in more than one particularly pointed sentence) about not promoting the idea of fairly traded goods.
My favorite coffee bean company, by the way, is Peace Coffee, which we buy at the local FarmerÕs Market. They specialize in dark roasts, and are all shade-grown, all organic and all certifiably fair trade. And they have that nifty, Biblical name. There are others, and we are grateful for missionaries, justice activists and denominational church offices that make fully fair trade certified blends available. Before you jump too fully on the Starbucks train, check out other local, vibrant, indigenous shops, working with them to offer fairly-traded products to your locale.
For one friendÕs story of starting up a coffee shop (in Beaver Falls, PA) that has struggled admirably to attend to these matters, see ÒWorking With BeansÓ in
One of the best brief articles, with helpful resources on the agricultural impact of coffee growing, see this from our friends at
Catapult, ÒFair-Trade Coffee Is For the BirdsÓ
So, having hopefully Òhead off at the passÓ any closed-minded bias against my suggestion that you should read a book with Starbucks in the title, duly noting these important concerns, we invite you to think more deeply about your own economic patterns and purchasing choices, and buy
The Gospel According to Starbucks from some independently owned, personally-caring booksellers you may happen to know. We think it will be a fun book for small groups or book clubs and will help you not only deepen your cultural awareness, but may help you embrace an EPIC faith in the One who is the Living Truth. Which is LenÕs biggest passion, giving folks a taste of the goodness of the gospel of the Kingdom of God.

9 thoughts on “Leonard Sweet on Starbucks

  1. Matthew,

    Good question. I went there because I wanted to support an indie place while (as I said) I was out traveling. The Starbucks, whose taste I always like, was on the turnpike, so the place has no charm, overprices stuff; the local place was in a small town, on the square, and I thought I’d try ’em. I liked the uniqueness of the place, the fact that their meager profits go to support, probably, the schooling of the owners kids, or their tithe to their local congregation, and the ambiance of a downtown of a small town that wasn’t dead.

    I appreciate your input, and to some extent agree. Still, as a small business owner myself, who complains about the unfair prices that my publishers extend to amazon and the huge parking lot that Wal-Mart has, I guess my sense is your a bit harsh. There is more to an economic exchange than the product itself, and much more than the price itself. I’d pay more for the goodness of an indie charm, a real family being honestly supported, a local economy remaining healthy, all things being nearly equal.

    That cuppa joe was so bad, though, that I don’t know if I’ll ever go back. And least they didn’t try to make me call their sizes Latin names.

    Thanks for the discussion!

  2. Thanks for the fun description of this book! I can tell how much you enjoyed it.

    Experiential, Participatory, Image-Rich and Communal– My first thought is, holy cow, it might be the first time I have ever been ahead of my time! I’ve been looking for those features all along, in workplaces and churches and neighborhoods.

    And having said that, how strange that liturgical traditions meet those criteria, though in a particularly formatted way.

    My nearest Starbucks is the coffee shop closest to Gordon-Conwell and Gordon College, so it’s a bit skewed from the norm. It’s never unusual to find folks holding a Bible study or talking through sermon prep. So it’s half “evangelical homecoming” and half simply a living room I don’t have to clean. I shamelessly hog the cushy chair for a three-hour stretch, in exchange for two cheap mugs of decaf.

    For moms, Starbucks is a godsend– a cheap place to escape. My local coffee shops can’t afford to staff those late hours after kid bedtime.

    The amazing thing to me? The pair of married friends who left seminary to manage Starbucks (long story) were visiting from out-of-town, and I ran into them relaxing with a cup of coffee AT STARBUCKS. If off-duty barristers go to Starbucks to relax… well, that says something. They are sane people! They like and respect their company, which speaks volumes to me.

    My joke from my last trip to NYC: what do you call a clean public bathroom in New York? Starbucks, of course!

  3. Byron,I loved the book. But I hang out at Starbucks everyday to meet people and engage in spiritual conversations. Nice Blog.

  4. You write: stuff like our passion for Jesus, GodÕs ability to use our broken lives, the goodness of creation, the…Reply: This is exactly the problem with Leonard Sweet and his lumbering brand of Christianity, it focues on “our passion for Jesus” rather than His passion (read: suffering and death)for us. Rev. Dean Kavourasdean.kavouras@gmail.com

  5. Greetings, Byron!I just finished reading Len’s book, which I’m reviewing for FaithfulReader.com. Until my review posts, I can’t comment on the book itself, but I wanted to let you know that I love your post about it. Your blog is terrific–so glad I found it! I’m adding a link on my blogsite. ~~Marcia (author of God Between the Covers–remember me?)

  6. Thank you Byron for your very challenging comments and report of the book. I actually just bought this book from you when visiting with Taylor University. Though the coffee kick is very fadish at the moment, I have to agree it’s not about the coffee, it’s about the experience. It’s about the people sharing life together. As I think of the Acts 2 church in Scripture, I wonder if our coffee crazed generation is trying to recreate an aspect of fellowship from the early church. They shared meals together and prayed with one another, we share Starbucks with one another. Actually Byron, do you have any suggestions on books that would be beneficial to a paper on the fellowship of the early church, specifically, the Acts 2 church? If you could let me know that would be great… Thanks!!- Heidi Oliver heidi_oliver@tayloru.edu

  7. Thanks for the link to that great Comment article!

    Byron, a question provoked by Mr. Sweet’s book: A group of us are on the brink of the beginnings of a new church in our city – our churchplanting movement has called a churchplanting pastor, most of the start-up money is raised, and the churchplanting pastor and his family have bought a house and are ready to move cities in a couple of months – and I was wondering if there was not a small, wise, encouraging book that such a seedling group could read about being a new church in an old city? Ours is a somewhat peculiar situation, in that our city is a mix of industrial rustbelt and knowledge economy (research university, lots of health care institutions and research), kind of a poor man’s Pittsburgh, but somewhat outside of the current paradigms – not really “postmodern” (if I can allow myself to use that term!) enough for the emerging church models to apply, not really global enough for the Tim Keller-style hurrahs to resound (other than somewhat hollowly), but certainly not a village, allowing us to go with a Wendell Berry-style small church in a small place. Any books on new churches in places like ours?! And if not that specific, just any little ol’ book on being a new church will be fine – your suggestions are always great.

  8. byron- sounds great. i have a love-hate relationship with starbucks- love their coffee- wish they’d get a little more on the fair trade wagon. anyway- sounds like a great book to use w/ students… i’m emailing Billy about it right away, but my sense is our new student group won’t quite be ready for this…. maybe i’ll make it in to the store some day to check it out…

    becki laird

  9. I don’t get it– why do you bypass a Starbucks for a sub-standard brew? Supporting indie coffee shops for the sake of their indieness doesn’t make sense to me.

    I’m happy to say that there is an indie coffee shop here in Nashville (Fido) that I love to go to, but they have a competitive advantage over Starbucks– they have great food, alongside their quality coffee. When I catch wind of a small business who is whining because they are getting beaten by the big guys, I avoid them like the plague. Why? Because it’s an indication of the “it’s not fair” attitude, instead of being proud of what they do and striving to innovate and offer better products and service than the big guys. (Coffee shops particularly have no excuse, as price competition hasn’t been what has put the crunch on them, as it has so many industries. Starbucks is expensive.)

    All that to say– maybe your local indie coffee shop should go out of business. And if they do, they’ll be sure to blame Starbucks, instead of their own inability to serve up an above-the-standard (rather than sub-standard) cup, and their own unwillingness to create a remarkable experience. Hopefully someone will come along and open up an indie shop in your area that offers something uniquely better than Starbucks, a place where you can go for coffee not out of principle, but out of the sheer delight of enjoying what they have to offer.

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