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Peet's and The Prince

Week of Monday, September 3, 2001

My domestic duties this week included a trek to Peet's, a Starbuck rival with a cult-like following, to replenish our coffee supply. Is anything worse than waking up in the morning only to discover you are out of coffee? Since my favorite bean (Panama) was out of stock, I ordered a pound of Costa Rica.

“May I entice you to try the Ethiopian Fancy? It's remarkable, fantastic. Really.”

“Sure, why not? Tell me about it.” It cost a dollar more per pound, but I like to think of myself as a man of adventure. Plus, I always enjoy the human dimension of commercial conversations like this; they add to the otherwise mere economic nature of the transaction. The clerk did not disappoint.

“Ethiopian Fancy is my favorite, and you'll love it. It has overtones of baking chocolate, semi-sweet, in the overtaste, and in the undertaste hints of tangerine.” With her description she made two swooping, crescent gestures with her hands. “I just love turning people on to new tastes!”

I am pretty good in most social situations, but I do admit this friendly clerk caught me off guard. But I did not laugh in her face. When she handed me my purchase I wanted to confirm what I thought she had said. Could it really be? “So, I'm looking for hints of baking chocolate—not too sweet but not too bitter—and then tangerines?”

“Exactly, chocolate in the overtaste and tangerines in the undertaste.”

As I left Peet's my mind flashed back to a similar culinary epiphany. On our vacation this summer we took the self-guided tour of Prince Michel's vineyard in Virginia. I don't know much about wine, but I enjoy touring local wineries in different geographic regions and bringing home a bottle of the local vintage. Three things stand out in my memory of the vineyard at Prince Michel De Virginia. First, the clerk gave us one glass for all six tastings. I'm no wine snob so I kept my mouth shut, but did I look that ignorant? Second, when I asked about their cabernet, she allowed that it contained 20% grapes from California. Well, OK, it's a global market.

Third, when we got to the car, we read the label of the cabernet I had purchased. I have a bottle in front of me as I write. “The elegance, structure, and charm of this Cabernet Sauvignon are foremost among the many qualities of this outstanding red grape variety. The classical bouquet of Cabernet is well integrated with subtle oak tones, while the palate is rich and round with deep fruit in the middle.” If you have read many wine labels, you know this is standard jargon.

Clearly, there is good coffee and bad coffee; that is why I buy Peet's and not a tin can of Yuban. The Gospel confirms there is cheap wine and choice wine, and that Jesus Himself appreciated the difference (John 2:10), which is why I don't drink Boone's Farm. Further, it must be possible to describe good wine or coffee. If you want to read a fascinating article on wine-tasting read “The Million-Dollar Nose” by William Langewiesche, which reviews the uncanny skill and the unnerving influence of wine-critic Robert Parker.

But something more than mere appraisal is going on here. If you have been reading carefully, you will have noticed that for Peet's coffee, the tastes are over (chocolate) and under (tangerines), whereas for the Prince's wine, the deep fruit taste resides in the middle. Say what? What is happening here?

Of course, this is advertising hype, pure and simple. But the joke is not on Peet or the Prince. It is on you and me, the Volvo-driving, wine-sipping, latte-loving, NPR-listening crowd, in short, those of us rich enough to pay $10 for a pound of coffee. People like us keep Peet and the Prince in business.

The commercial hype of Peet's and the Prince is only one example of the many commonplaces our culture promotes. A commonplace is a cliche or truism, something we take for granted, something so “given” that it is hardly ever articulated and certainly never questioned. It is easy to think of any number of powerful cultural commonplaces: sexual pleasure should be unlimited, politics is the most important news, poverty (not wealth) is the worst thing that could ever happen to a person, a risky investment is considered a “security”, physical health is my right, whatever is technologically possible is scientifically imperative, and so on. These many cultural commonplaces function as a sort of propaganda (I'm told the Italian word for “advertisement” is “propaganda”).

In his book Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes (1962) the French sociologist Jacques Ellul (1912–1994) studied the immense power of propaganda. Regardless of its content or origin (communist or capitalist, Soviet or American, etc.) all propaganda functions in the same way to accomplish two goals: to integrate people into a certain worldview and then to move them to act in conformity with that worldview. Ellul reverses the common notion that the intelligentsia are immune from the power of propaganda. Instead, he argues that intellectuals are the most vulnerable to propaganda for three reasons. We always feel compelled to have an informed opinion about important issues, we consequently consume the most (unverifiable) information, and we think we are too smart to be duped—we can judge for ourselves. In short, we are a marketing department's dream.

The challenge for the Christian is twofold: we must resist both assimilation to and separation from the world. We should attain a sufficient degree of critical awareness about ourselves and our culture to realize that we are “strangers and aliens” in this world (1 Peter 1:1, 17; 2:11). God has called us to some sort of “transformed-non-conformity” (Romans 12:1-2) as we relate to our culture. But it is a very short step from there to separationism that construes the world as irredeemably evil. Our world, though tragically fallen, is still fundamentally “very good” (Genesis 1:31).

At the risk of over-generalizing, liberal Christians have forgotten that the world is fallen and so have often conformed to and been assimilated by culture. Fundamentalists have forgotten that the world is ultimately good and so have separated from and condemned culture. We want to steer a middle course between these two extremes, to embrace and engage the world without separating ourselves from it or allowing ourselves to be uncritically integrated into it.

So, enjoy your coffee and sip your wine. “Everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.” After all, God “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Timothy 4:4, 6:17). But the surrounding hype? Don't believe it for a minute.

The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2001 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.

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