Saturday, August 7, 2010

From the Ground up. Part III. Coffee is a symbol.

Apart from viewing coffee as an object, and as an experience metered by intention, coffee also exists albeit perhaps more poetically, as a social icon, a construct of meaning, a contextual symbol. That is to say that when I ask someone to catch up for a coffee (given my historical-social-economic context), the concept of what it means to have or get or share coffee doesn’t really hinge on coffee as a product or as a theophanic exercise. Its meaning is altogether more ethereal.

Coffee as a concept is foremost about communing with one another. Coffee is often more about the experience of being with the other person than it is about experiencing the coffee. Therefore the cultural contextual conceptual properties of coffee, infers a meaning which overflows that of the actual physical properties.

To intend to have coffee with a person is to intend to engage with them on an interpersonal level which is somehow outside of or different than the norm – it is an event. To intend to have coffee is to anticipate the interpersonal being-with-ness of the activity. To ask you to join with me in the activity of drinking coffee, either at church or home or lunch or a date is to invite human communing - to invite fellowship together. The anticipation or the event-ness is not culturally centred on seeking God or on sucking the marrow out of life with each glorious sip, but is simply on this moment which happens, this very earthy and tactile experience of being more with than normal.

It is interesting, then, that somehow this watery brown substance has gone from being the ‘end goal’ to being the means to the end – that I don’t really want the coffee, I want to be with you. (isn't that nice)

Maybe coffee is an easier way of ‘being’ with people and not be caught up in the fineries of the activity itself, not really having to do anything. A facet, then, of the beauty of coffee lies not in its grandiose nature, but in its apparent lack of significance and complexity – that coffee become an empty vessel which I fill with intentional fellowship. I can take a room which is otherwise empty and add coffee, but I’m not really adding coffee, I’m adding communion. Coffee carves out a space and a time for me to be with someone. If I want to have a coffee with you, then I’m making time for you, I’m making a space for you, I’m demonstrating a desire to give of my self into the vacuum of noise and sight and sound in order to enjoy you and who you are. Perhaps this is the basis for the social acceptance, reliance, occurrence, occasion, incidence of taking a space and putting the activity of ‘coffee’ into that space - it makes the space more interpersonal, warm, engaging, inviting, and accepting than it would be otherwise.

Coffee is, therefore, a considerably significant bearer of cultural meaning and impetus. But are there other objects or substances which could be put into a space, or around which a space is created which would have the communal-fellowship imbuing properties of coffee? Additionally, when someone comes into what is culturally a ‘coffee space’ is there a social implication of not desiring a coffee? Or of turning down an invite to coffee? Or of feeling either a negative external pressure or the inner positive desire to replace coffee with another substance which still allows for this rather specific form of social engagement? Perhaps it is significant in that as far reaching and broad a base of people as coffee engages with, it remains limited - coffee doesn’t actually fit everyone.

Coffee as a cultural icon still only carries the meaning which is socially attributed to it. Coffee is therefore, not the universal be-all and end-all of communal beverages. In terms of cultural implication and significance, then perhaps this too can serve communion and fellowship but as more of a safeguard. That is to say that if coffee becomes more than simply a culturally contextually specific means by which to aid communion and fellowship – if coffee becomes the primary and/or necessary basis on which communion and fellowship rest, let alone the measure by which a person’s fellowship and being are measured, then a safeguard for defending against such a legalistic enforcement of coffee oriented interaction is surely the constant recognition that it is a preference not crucial to all. I preserve fellowship by not forcing coffee upon you. I recognise the limits of coffee as an icon, by offering you a tea or hot chocolate instead.

As much social meaning as coffee may have, if I go beyond using its socially iconographic status as a means by which to enter into healthy communing with you, and move in the direction of demanding its presence or involvement, then at some point I have surely departed from a Christlike, person oriented, utilisation of coffee as a culturally and contextually relevant means to have relationship. I have turned the tool into an unhealthy and legalistic tradition which no longer serves the ministering of the Grace of Christ, but now overrides it. If I fail to remember that coffee is limited, that it is a context specific means, then I run the risk of plucking coffee (and all that it means) out of its context and enforcing it on others for whom it may well be meaningless and actually work against the goal of real communing and fellowship. To commune appropriately is impingent upon my cultural interpretation of it. Coffee, like any well loved activity of cultural significance should surely, then, be as subject to the sharp analysis and critique as the most apparently nonsensical and far-removed activities which we come into contact with from every culture and subculture. Culture is subject to Christ and His intention, rather than forcing Christ’s intention to be subject to culture.

Coffee is by Him and for Him.

All because coffee means something to me, and is useful and purposeful and wonderful and works in this context, does not mean that someone else can be expected to operate within this cultural paradigm. In a more Christianity specific sense, if there is recognition of the cultural impetus and limitations of a practice or tradition, then surely the practice, like coffee should be viewed as a culturally contextually relevant tool, and be utilised accordingly. Therefore, as a tool for encouraging unity in the body, for encouraging fellowship and communing, let the principle which the activity serves be held to and not simply a singular contextually embedded appropriation of it.


God made coffee. God is redeeming coffee. I think that's worth remembering.

Drink coffee if your intention is good. Ask and trust God to increasingly sanctify the way you resource and implement coffee in this world. Seek to find the natural revelation of God in the very existence of coffee. Ask God to meet with you in the experience of coffee – for His glory and your edification. Use coffee wisely and appropriately. And above all, pray for the soon coming complete and eschatological redemption of coffee… and everything else. :j

A Prayer:
Lord, I want to buy you a coffee
Maybe sometime Friday after work
I understand that my week has probably not been as full-on as yours.
But I'de love to catch up. For us to just have a few minutes to chat in the back of some cafe somewhere. I'll even go you halves in a caramel slice.
It seems like so long since we just hung out.
I'll make sure I try not to talk the whole time.
Let me know when's good for you. You know I'm not great with planning ahead.
And i can't recall if you've ever told me what you drink...

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