How Roasting Coffee Helped Me Understand the Process of Redemption

March 16, 2011


What does the process of making coffee have to teach about the process of redemption? (cc image courtesy of jronaldlee via Flickr)

By John Dyer

[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly reflections, called Deep Down Things, published on Wednesdays.]

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, 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 such as 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 and making a fire 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.

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 contemporary 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 that it took to get there. 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 everything. Why is he so slow, we wonder (2 Peter 3:9)? Theologians have always pondered 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 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.

But it appears that moving through time and space and doing work of the process of redemption is itself valuable to God.

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.

John Dyer (ThM) has been a web developer for more than 10 years, building tools for Apple, Microsoft, Harley Davidson, and Anheuser-Busch. He currently serves as the director of web development of Dallas Theological Seminary, and writes on technology and faith. His book, From the Garden to the City is due out August 1, 2011

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