A Starbucks Theology

Every couple of weeks Facebook is bombarded by a new campaign headed by a charismatic figure who easily gets millions of people to buy into their ideology; Rachel Mcadams, “I am a Christian but…”, countless Relevant Magazine articles and most recently, Joshua Feuerstein. Feuerstein, creator and advocate of the #merrychristmasstarbucks campaign, is no stranger to Facebook stardom. His first video, “Dear Mr. Atheist”, went viral in just a short three weeks time. His webpage can be viewed here http://www.joshuafeuerstein.com. Personalities such as Feuerstein easily draw a crowd and get our attention. Buzzfeed has even posted a recent article documenting the recent campaign and sarcastically includes others ‘participation’ in the campaign, such as saying your name is Satan at Starbucks. This now has everyone questioning if Starbucks hates Christmas.

In short, no, Starbucks does not hate Christmas. I think this is clear from the fact that they still sell Christmas specific decorations, they have a Christmas blend coffee and, most importantly, they have significantly reduced hours on Christmas day for the majority of their stores. The question then raised is; why does Feuerstein and millions of others insist on creating a campaign against a major company such as Starbucks simply because now their Peppermint Mocha cup is only red instead of red with a snowman on it? To explore this, an understanding of Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture is necessary.

To begin, Niebuhr’s book explores if Christ and Culture are either compatible, set against one another, or necessary for the others existence. Niebuhr’s book, originally published in 1951, still remains a cornerstone in the sociological understanding of how Christianity and Civilization interact with one another. He begins with defending Civilization as “man-made.” Peter Berger, author of Sacred Canopy, does this as well. Both defend Civilization, or culture, as man-made aspects of our lives that we each play a major role in. We see the things around us, think and process those things, and create other things based on the two processes before. What is building already amongst many evangelicals such a Feuerstein is the presupposition that culture; ““the total process of human activity” and its result; it refers to the ‘secondary environment’, which man superimposes on the natural” (32), is created and shaped by the biblical Jesus. Or, at least, the way we think Jesus would command our culture to look like.

Niebuhr interacts with five views; Christ against culture, Christ of Culture, Christ above Culture, Christ and Culture paradox and finally, Christ transforms culture. Each view is described in its negatives and positives. For the purposes here, I will only be examining one view, Christ and Culture in paradox. Many whom are a part of Reformation Church’s hold this view, the majority being Lutheran Christians. This view has historically been a part of the reformation tradition, along with Christ as transformer of Culture, dating back to Augustine. Augustine’s City of God discusses the dichotomy between the “Heavenly City” and the “Earthly City.” This paves the way for theologians such as Luther and Calvin to create their way of viewing Christianity and Culture. If there is a distinct difference between heaven and earth, which Augustine defends, than there is a distinct difference between how the two function and therefore, interact with one another.

The fundamental failure of many evangelicals is that they see Christ as the creator of culture, or in Niebuhr’s understanding Christ as the transformer of culture, but they take it to a new extreme. They do not read Christ through the lens of culture, nor culture through Christ but impose, because of their presupposition about Christ and culture, onto the society around them. Let me give you an example;

Jason, a recent homeowner, moves into a new neighborhood. He is unfamiliar with the way in which the parking situation goes, when trash day is and when it is appropriate to play loud music and when not too. He is a nice guy who wants to do his best to be a welcoming neighbor but often finds crude notes on his car and police coming to his door because of his lack of familiarity. He does not understand what he is doing wrong or why these ‘persecutions’ keep coming his way. Finally, one day he sees one of his neighbors outside working on his car. Jason walks over to the man and tells him about the persecutions he has been facing and is wondering why people are out to get him. His neighbor kindly replies “you don’t act like you live here and it is clear you have no consideration for the rest of us who do live here.” Confused, Jason asks how this can be so. His neighbor responds “you put the trash out on the wrong day and move every one else’s trash back on their drive ways so it doesn’t get picked up, you park in front of whoever’s house you want and even in our driveways even though you have your own spot and you play music as loud as you want all night long.” To Jason’s dismay he is being a bad neighbor. He imposed rules about his way of living onto his new neighbors without anyone else’s consent and without thinking about how it would affect them. He has seen himself as the dictator of his new neighborhood’s culture based on what only he desires and thinks.

This illustration along with a short understanding of Niebuhr shows the failure due to a basic misunderstanding by evangelicals like Feuerstein. They are being bad neighbors due to the fact that they don’t actually see themselves as neighbors. It never crossed Jason’s mind that maybe what he was doing was ok in some neighborhoods, but not where he currently lived. They see themselves as victims in a world that is out to get them. This type of mindset leads to missed opportunities and negative outcomes. The vocation of the Christian is to be a good neighbor. There are few things more important than to be a good neighbor when it comes to Christian living. I would argue that Starbucks has a better understanding of what it means to be a good neighbor than Feuerstein and his campaign. All Starbucks did was take off a design in order to include others. If someone invited me to a Hanukah celebration I would go, because that is what good neighbors do. They take each opportunity and fulfill their vocation as neighbor, friend and ambassador of the Gospel to share the love of Christ. Essentially what Feuerstein has done is been invited to a neighborhood ‘Holiday Party’ and sat outside and picketed the party because they “hate Christmas.”

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