Christians and coffee have a long and storied history, from the Reformation to the church basement coffee hour. Wherever two or more are gathered in the name of God, you can usually also find an urn of mediocre brew and a stack of Styrofoam cups.
The trajectory of coffee drinking in America, from a shared and slow activity to a personal and quick transaction, mirrors the trajectory of evangelical Christianity. Lent is almost over, and many Christians will rejoice that they can once again get their regular coffee fix. But most of us would never give it up in the first place.
Coffee fuels many of us—54 percent of American adults drink it on a daily basis. It gets us through the worst days, gives us a reason to get out of bed and restores us to the angels of our better nature. If that sounds a little religious, it’s no coincidence.
Coffee is an acceptable vice. Unlike alcohol, which many evangelicals either abstain from or approach warily, coffee has been enthusiastically embraced.
On other hand, some Christians give yoga the stink eye because of its Hindu origins. Coffee, whose first widespread religious use was as an aid to keep Muslim Sufis awake for midnight prayer, has faced no such exclusion.
In fact, during his tenure, Pope Clement VIII is reported to have said, “Why, this Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall fool Satan by baptizing it and making it a truly Christian beverage.”
Thus the Christian marriage to coffee was born, and remade several times over throughout history—from the late 17th century, when the clergy observed that coffee consumption was having a sobering effect on the normally beer-swilling Brits, to the current-day evangelical love affair with the beans.
Drinking bouts in 17th-century Europe usually ended only when participants blacked out, according to Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s “Tastes of Paradise.” Caffeine is chemically addictive like alcohol, but its rewards are much more productive and beneficial.
Coffee makes a man more reasonable, better able to concentrate and hardworking. No wonder people might see it going hand in hand with the Protestant work ethic.
Although craft beer has become a bit more acceptable in evangelical circles, it would still be regarded with surprise if someone were to say they loved “wine and Jesus” in the same way people talk about coffee and Jesus. It might feel a bit naughty for evangelicals to talk about any addictions, but if they flip that idea on its head and talk about being “addicted” to Jesus, then anything addictive and non-harmful can be cast in a positive light. Jars of Clay, the popular Christian rock band, wrote an ode to coffee on their 1997 album “Much Afraid:” “I have this craving/Justifies behaving/I really need some of that/Ooo, good coffee/Strong coffee.”
Coffee was—and still is, in many parts of the world—a communal ritual, something that brought people together while beans roasted over the fire, while someone ground the roasted beans with a mortar and pestle, while the boiling water was poured over the ground beans once, the cup drained, once more, three times in total.
You can get pourover coffee now in almost any city in America, but what you’re getting is one cup, maybe some morning chatter, and an invitation to step out of line while you wait. It’s kind of like evangelicalism—there is a gospel (coffee or Jesus, choose your poison), a decision to move forward, and sometimes-shallow conversation. Plus, you mostly go through it on your own.
Coffee and religion has also been the subject of adoration on social media. If you search for the phrase “coffee and Jesus” on Twitter, you will get a whole lot (mostly white) of people sharing pictures of their Bible and their morning cup of joe.
The reliance on coffee in social media gives evangelicals a common touchpoint with their secular friends and followers. “You may not love Jesus, but almost everyone loves coffee,” the logic goes, and, indeed, that sentiment is responsible for scores of Christian coffee houses across America.
Places like Red Rock Cafe in Mountain View, Calif., whose motto–“Caffeine, Culture, and Community”–reveals its Christian roots. The cafe was started by a local church and functions as a non-profit, but you’d be hard-pressed to know any of that unless you dug deep into its Web site.
Nonbelievers may not be likely to step into a sanctuary on Sunday mornings, but who doesn’t want to go to a coffee shop? And Red Rock isn’t handing tracts out with your latte; it’s just a place that serves good coffee and gives some of their money back to the community. Red Rock serves as one of the places where coffee culture and Christian culture meet in a way that does no harm.
The most immediate thing that a Christian sharing her love of coffee and Jesus wants to communicate, though, is that she is talking with a personal God in much the same way she would talk with a friend. Intimacy is the assertion behind every tweet about a quiet time: It’s just me and my pal Jesus, sitting together at my kitchen table, connecting over what we want the day to look like.
To evangelicals, posting a picture of their Bible and a cup of coffee isn’t too different from Instagramming a photo of them out to dinner with their best friend. It’s the way life is shared from one party to another.
Posting a coffee “gram” does the nice work of placing something very concrete (a cup of hot coffee) with something pretty abstract (the second person of the Trinity whose life, death, and resurrection two millennia ago still somehow mysteriously shapes our lives). We may not be able to hear from Jesus in the way that his disciples could, but we can still begin our days behaving as if he is right next to us, the reasoning goes.
Coffee has seen Christianity through a Reformation, modernity and postmodernity, through boring Sunday sermons and lively evening revivals. Now it takes its place on the kitchen table, next to the Bible—close enough to be in the same frame.
Laura Turner is a writer and editor living in San Francisco.
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