How Roasting Coffee Helped Me Understand Technology and Theology

Adventures in Coffee Roasting

Five or six years ago, I was a textbook Mountain-Dew-fueled web developer who didn’t really like coffee. But coffee was quickly turning into a social standard, and I realized needed to start developing a tolerance. So I drove over to Starbucks and ordered up a cup of regular coffee. Sadly, it tasted like burnt turtles.

I was disappointed, but I knew if I didn’t overcome this I would miss out on all the coolness that happens when people “get coffee.” So I kept trying coffees and eventually found something that I liked. Then I bought a small coffee maker and started making it at home. One day, a coffee snob friend told me that coffee tasted better when it is freshly ground. So I bought a grinder and some fresh whole beans, and gave that a whirl. It definitely tasted better, though maybe not quite as much better as he told me.

Then I heard about something really special. Not only can you grind beans at your house, you can roast them. Another friend said if I bought a popcorn popper from eBay and got some beans from a place like www.sweetmarias.com, I could have coffee as it was meant to be experienced – freshly roasted.

If you want to know how it works, below is a silly video I made a few years ago (with Window Movie Maker, yikes!).

Borgmann’s Device Paradigm

Before we get back to the coffee, I want to tell you about an idea called the “Device Paradigm” coined by philosopher Albert Borgmann. In his 1987 book, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, Borgmann observed a shift that happens in society as our tools and technology get smaller and smaller.

As technological development progresses, we take basic life processes like getting food, making heat, and communicating, and we compress those processes down into what Borgmann calls a “device.” A device is a technology that makes the end result of a process available at the press of a button. For example, the process of gathering wood, starting a fire, and tending to it is compressed down into a box which makes heat come out whenever we need it. The process of killing and skinning an animal, planting and harvesting vegetables, preparing and cooking a meal is compressed into a drive through window. The process of going to a concert is compressed into an iPod, and so on.

This is all great except that a sneaky thing begins to happen as devices get smaller and more complex – we can no longer see the processes they perform. Over time, since the processes are hidden from us we stop valuing those processes. Eventually, our values shift to where we only appreciate the end result, and we almost shudder at the thought of going back to the process.

Borgmann argues that to experience the fullness of life we sometimes need to restore what he calls “focal things and practices” – those things that take time and work, but offer a richness not available from a device. For him, the process itself gives meaning and significance to the consummation.

From iPods to Concerts

Creating the perfect playlist on an iPod is fun, but earbuds cannot compare to being at a concert with its unpredictability and spontaneity. Communion at a high church with its preparation and waiting feels more important than the prepacked variety at many efficient evangelical churches. Mom’s apple pie is good not just because of the pie itself, but because of the person from whom it comes.

In relationships, God designed the most intimate human physical encounter to come through a process of courtship, commitment, care, and finally consummation. Marital consummation is wonderful not only because of the encounter itself, but also because of the journey to get there. When this encounter is made available at the click of a mouse, it becomes inhuman and destructive.

Coffee as a Device

When I hear the word “coffee,” I usually picture a mug with black liquid in it like the image above. I don’t picture the orchard of coffee plants, the pickers in the field, the machines that process plants, or the roasting process. In other words, when I think of “coffee,” I only consider the end result (a cup of coffee).

Moving backward from the cup to brewing, then back to grinding, and back to roasting restores some of the processes that technological society and modern devices hide. Now, it would be terribly convenient if I could tell you that the home roasted coffee in the video above tastes like the nectar of the gods compared to what you’re drinking. But truthfully, while it’s really good coffee, it’s not that good.

Yet there is something special about roasting coffee that goes beyond the taste. After roasting the beans, letting them cool, grinding them, and brewing the coffee, the consummation event – actually tasting the coffee – is somehow given significance by the process. The coffee itself (the ends) might not be that much better, but the experience of drinking it is heightened by the work leading up to it (the process).

Redemption as Process

Probably every Christian has wondered why Jesus hasn’t yet returned to fix everythin – Why is he so slow, we wonder (2 Peter 3:9)? Theologians ponder why God would allow the Fall to happen in the first place – Why not just create us as we will be in the new heavens and new earth, free from sin and stupidity?

Perhaps the answer is that for God, the process of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration is as significant as the end itself. Of all beings, God himself could certainly have the push-button like experience of instantaneously taking us to the eschaton. But it appears that moving through time and space and doing work of the process of redemption is itself valuable to God. The final union of Christ and his bride is made significant because of the work Christ did leading up to the consummation of all things.

Little things like moving from buying coffee to grinding it and from grinding it to roasting it are small ways of restoring processes that can both offer intangible benefits and remind us of the journey on which God is taking us. Coffee is of course just an example, you’ll have to find your own places where you can treasure the process as much or more than the ends. If you’ve got an idea, I’d love to hear it.

Published by

John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

31 thoughts on “How Roasting Coffee Helped Me Understand Technology and Theology”

  1. First, overall a great post. There does seem to be a tendency by some Christians to treat Christ as a device that gives us the commodity of salvation. “Are you saved? No? Well, then just say this prayer …”

    Second, a bit of a nit-pick … Is it really a matter of things getting smaller and smaller? Don’t airplanes act as a device? We step on the plane in one location and when we get done sipping our cranberry juice we step off of it in another location. Airplanes turn travel into a commodity.

    Third, some push back. Aren’t there quite a few technologies that we should be grateful for precisely because they hide the process? And aren’t there a many technologies that we should be ambivalent towards? I can see why the process of preparing and sharing a meal with family or friends is something that we should value, but I can’t see why the process of cutting wood, starting a fire, and tending to it should be valued. Or in the case of a CD player, what if I live in an area where there are no community orchestras, wouldn’t a CD player – instead of acting as a device – allow me to engage with music I otherwise wouldn’t? Or what about processes that are hidden for safety concerns (e.g., going back to the fireplace example – the chances of burning down my house increase greatly by having open flames in my house).

    Also, I tend to agree with the following paragraph:

    “Yet there is something special about roasting coffee that goes beyond the taste. After roasting the beans, letting them cool, grinding them, and brewing the coffee, the consummation event – actually tasting the coffee – is somehow given significance by the process.”

    However, I’m curious what that “something special” is and what that “somehow” is that I’ve italicized. It can’t be merely the fact that it is a process since some processes are mind-numbing or dull or dangerous or any number of things that we shouldn’t value. Similarly, when you say:

    “The final union of Christ and his bride is made significant because of the work Christ did leading up to the consummation of all things.”

    I don’t disagree, it leaves me asking “How is it made significant?”

    1. Is it really a matter of things getting smaller and smaller?
      Good question. Of course, I’m vastly simplifying years of Borgmann’s thoughts, but I would say his point is not just that devices get smaller or more complex, but that in doing so they tend to make processes more and more hidden.

      Aren’t there quite a few technologies that we should be grateful for precisely because they hide the process?
      No doubt! I don’t think Borgmann wants to paint all technology as inherently bad or good, but to think carefully about the tradeoffs that various technologies bring.

      I don’t disagree, it leaves me asking “How is it made significant?”
      Another good question, my friend!

    2. That something special you’re looking for is appreciation. The processes that have taken place gives you a sense of accomplishment, however small it may be, will cause you to rather enjoy than give a larger chance to take it for granted.

      The somehow is merely the same thing, you finished all of the work creating said “product” why wouldn’t it now be significant to you since you put the work in to use it. It’s the appreciation.

  2. As always, great stuff John! Always good food for thought.

    In attempt to piggyback with Eric here. I think experiential knowledge trumps direct/factual knowledge for this.

    I’m a dad, and all the talk/books/advice about parenting was good, but it wasn’t until I actually went through the process myself that the knowledge gained from it seemed complete.

    As much as we want the “matrix injection” of kung-fu, I think it isn’t the best for us.

    As for treasuring the process (outside of coffee 8^D), I’m quite partial to grilling. While I’m not out hunting, preparing the rub and bbq sauce, getting the grill to the right temperature, slowly letting the meat cook and checking on it, makes it all the most delicious when I finally get to eat it. 8^D

    1. I can totally relate on parenting!

      Borgmann spends a lot of time talking about the centrality of “the table” so I’m sure he’d appreciate your grilling :)

  3. John,

    Great post…I know we have had this conversation a lot, so I’m thankful you have put it into a blog post. There is a lot to ponder here.

    Thanks man,

    Rhett

  4. When I saw on twitter that this was the must read blog post from someone that I follow I thought, well, maybe its good- I’ll take a look. Wow, really enjoyed this. So thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  5. I echo the accolades.

    This post was in mind when I watched this video on Jacque Ellul. http://anklebiter.net/log/?p=1256 I can see how he’s influenced your thought.

    One question. One challenge.

    Ellul mentions Esau’s trade for stew. He likens this to the trade-offs we make with technology. So, my question was, Do you think Esau used Jacob as a sort of “device”? Was Esau valuing efficiency above all? Why couldn’t he have made his own stew? Okay, that’s 3 questions.

    My challenge regards efficiency. I think Christians, myself included, equate efficiency with good stewardship. I’m not sure how to make an argument for divorcing these two things. Perhaps it’s a matter of “reframing” the discussion by reprioritizing values. Some will argue, and have here in the comments, that using devices is good stewardship, allowing us to *accomplish more for Jesus* (a value stmt). When does the process trump efficiency? Or, when is the means more important than the end?

    Okay, my challenge has evolved into more questions. I’ll let them stand. (But it’s so open-ended! Where’s the closure?

    1. Wow, great thoughts as always Adam.

      It does seem like Esau gave up something significant for something insignificant and speed might have played a role. This isn’t direcly related, but it does seem that technology and desire are deeply connected.

      Regarding “accomplishing more,” I think Postman liked to point out that the first numerical grade in school was give somewhere around 1800. Before that, schooling was not evaluated by pure numbers, but now there is no way of thinking about “more” without referring to numbers. “Ends” and “means” questions are qualitative, not quantitative and that’s what makes them so hard for us to answer.

      1. Technology and desire. That’s something I’m trying to explore more. It gets quickly complicated. The hypothesis I’m exploring at the moment: The more advanced the technology, the clearer the reflection of human values. (Narcissus and the pool’s reflection.)

        For example, Facebook has found a way to quantify relational connections (“friends”). But it also reflects a devaluing of friendships by quantifying them into something we can boast about.

        It’s muddy water for me at the moment. I’m sure you have clearer thoughts on this.

  6. Prepackaged meat at the store is another example. If we had to kill the cow or pig and cut it up ourselves, I’ll bet we would be far more reflective about eating meat..

    Theology and religion are much the same way. Institutional mandates take much of the mystery and depth of spiritual process out of the “salvation” equation. Say the words, do certain tasks — you’re in — which engenders a binary notion of those who are “out” as well. Lack of reflection can set up artificial (even unhealthy) proxies, which seems to be Borgmann’s premise.

    John, I’m guessing you would love Jaron’s new book “You are not a gadget.”

    and I don’t want to know what burnt turtle tastes like..

  7. Coming from a guy who drinks a lot of coffee this is a great post and reminder.
    Insta coffee is gross, much like insta faith…the redeeming process is something that is tough but like you were saying can take time and effort but means so much more.

  8. A few years back I was in Ethiopia and was able to participate in their coffee ceremony in a friends home. The lady of the house dressed herself in ceremonial garb, roasted the beans, smashed them by hand, then made coffee for us…quite a far cry from the drive-thru Ethiopian Sidamo…I’ve come to believe that the process is MORE important than the product. How we get their in relationship is what the incarnation of Jesus is all about.

  9. Great article.

    I like coffee, I love Jesus, am a tech, and have recently been considering the distance between humans and creation in the food industry.

    I watched the documentary Food Inc. a couple of weeks ago. I have some mixed feelings about some things in the documentary, but one thing stood out to me. An independent farmer spoke with wisdom when he described what I could only interpret as the “de-creationizing” of food. I am not sure of his disposition on God, but when he was killing chickens and slaughtering animals out in the open air, while he looked out over the other animals grazing across his open fields, there was a sense of the worth of life. Both the humans, the animals, and the plants that fed them formed a system of life that made sense to this man in overalls. He pointed to the cows and said that they even fertilize for him, and said that the technology in the food industry has segmented layers of problems that they keep trying to address with another man-made technology, instead of asking whether there is a more fundamental problem when they broke the system as it was intended. Cows are eating corn instead of grass, and packed into factory-like confined spaces, and their answer to the resultant (?) increase in e-coli and other bacteria is to expose the meat to ammonia in the factory before going out to market. Because of the complex set of technology driven processes (a chain of black boxes), no one questions the machine as a whole anymore.

    Your article about the cost and esteemed value that comes through understanding that a whole lot went into the bean in your cup, reminded me of this recent reflection of mine… as a geek who is indoors far too often, and in a city that is pretty distant from the source of what I eat.

    The analogy of God’s glory (and our appreciation of that glory) increasing because of His acts of redemption in time and our process of sanctification leading to a timeless end is a great one.

    peace in Christ
    James Janssen

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