Culture At Large

Starbucks and the necessity of liturgy

Nathan Bierma

You don't need to know about Starbucks in churches or imagine Starbucks acting like a church in order to think about Starbucks and liturgy. A recent campaign of in-store signs at Starbucks does nothing less than extol the virtues of liturgy in life. "Take Comfort in Rituals," the signs soothingly say. The morning stop for joe isn't just a fuel stop, it's a ritual that forms and shapes our lives. That's what my broadest definition of liturgy is: a public ritual that brings order and transcendent meaning to life. ("Transcendent" might be pushing it in Starbucks' case. Then again, the sacrament I partake there often brings about noticeable personal transformation, at least for the morning.)

The modern individual dreamed of liberating her enlightened self from superstitious tribal rites. Reason, not ritual, should govern human behavior and human conception of the meaning and purpose of life. (Kant said the essence of the Enlightenment was "man's release from his ... inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another.") That extended to commerce, especially free market economics. The dream of the free market is that the rational individual — free from tribal influence and government coercion — will rationally assess the market and award deserving products by purchasing them at a deserving price. That's right: shopping is supposed to be rational! In reality, our most frequent purchases happen out of habit, convenience and imitating others — not analysis. (Besides, what rational individual would ever conclude that four bucks is a fair price for a fancy coffee?)

The truth is that our rituals play a crucial and necessary role in forming our behavior and our perception of importance and meaning in life, and so they need discernment. As Jamie Smith writes in "Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation:"
Because our hearts are oriented primarily by desire, by what we love, and because those desires are shaped and molded by the habit-forming practices in which we participate, it is the rituals and practices of the mall — the liturgies of mall and market — that shape our imaginations and how we orient ourselves to the world. That is, the visions of the good life embedded in these practices become surreptitiously embedded in us through our participation in the rituals and rhythms of these institutions. These quasi-liturgies effect an education of desire, a pedagogy of the heart.
It's a lesson Smith says Augustine knew well and we — led astray by the Enlightenment — need to re-learn. And one of the best ways to learn it, he says, is in worship, which he says is "fundamentally a matter of formation, a task of shaping and creating a certain kind of people" — through ritual.

And now Starbucks seems to concede the point, forsaking the Enlightenment rebuke of ritual and using formative habit as a selling point. It turns out, when you look around our culture (especially after reading Smith's book!), you can see rituals everywhere — at the movie theater, the football stadium, the airport, on Facebook — all forming our behavior, shaping our desires and calling us to live according to competing opinions about what's important in life.  What rituals have you participated in today and what are they forming you to be or do?

Topics: Culture At Large, News & Politics, Social Trends