Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Forming Community Over Coffee: Devotion to Starbucks as Implicit Religion

In a bustling college town’s Starbucks fringing the edge of campus, pilgrims of all ages make the short trek to the frequently visited coffee shop, muttering nearly chant-like orders to the cashier—“Triple caramel macchiato!” or “Decaf white chocolate mocha!” –before awaiting expectantly before the altar-like counter for their caffeinated drink of life. For some, this is a nearly ritualistic experience, performed mindlessly on the way to class or before gathering with friends for an intimate conversation in the cafĂ©’s corner. In Quoting God, Crumm noted the cathedral-like design of the coffee shop chain, with its broad center aisles bordered by seating areas, all leading toward the high-altar of the counter, where the liturgical rite of ordering is to be performed (251).

This is no mere coincidence, for several books published on the business techniques of Starbucks’ founders reveal an acute attention to the creation of a communal environment, akin to that traditionally sought out in organized religious or church-like settings. As founder and CEO Howard Schultz reveals in his book, Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built A Company One Cup At A Time, he was aware that the coffee shop had come to “fill a void in people’s lives” (89) because they had addressed what was an “unexpressed demand for romance and community” (53). Indeed, on Starbucks’ official website, the company’s mission is stated simply as to “inspire and nurture the human spirit—one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time” and to “help make the world a little better.” Ironically, Christian living books like Leonard Sweet’s The Gospel According to Starbucks: Living with a Grande Passion note that practicing Christians can gain valuable lessons from observing Starbucks’ commitment to the ultimate authentic experience; he even jokingly refers to the chain as “St. Arbucks” for its extreme commitment to building community.

In The Starbucks Experience: Five Principles for Turning Ordinary into Extraordinary, Joseph Michelli writes of how the company’s “Everything Matters” approach and attention to detail—from the store design to the carefully monitored friendliness and hospitality of its employees—“results in powerful emotional connections with customers” and an “experience [of] Starbucks as warm, comfortable, and pleasurable” (55). As one barista quoted in Michelli's book explained, she wants to make sure the coffee shop looks inviting, such that people will come and stay for a while (56). A frequent customer equated the experience as a “minivacation,” where she could relax, “catch up with an old friend, or escape after a stressful day at work” (56). Such language nearly equates Starbucks with a temporary retreat from worldly troubles, where spiritual peace can be achieved one paper cup at a time.

Because Starbucks has successfully molded itself to be an entire community-centered experience, more so than a product-focused cookie cutter business, it can viewed as a form of implicit religion. As Lord explains in her article, implicit religion “provide[s] a framework for understanding a secularly-based or non-traditionally motivated search for meaning” (217). This isn’t to say anyone is about to bow down in worship of a mug of piping hot java, but it is at least for some, the regular—even daily—quest and familiar routine of purchasing that mug of java and enjoying it in the trademark Starbucks environment provides structure and meaning to hectic lives.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Creation of Spiritual Space on Social Networking Websites

While many aspects of the modern world appear to be continually excluding religion, this may not actually be true. Rather, as Roman Williams argues in his article “Space for God: Lived Religion at Work, Home, and Play*”, religion is manifesting itself in new, more subtle ways . Roman discusses how individuals form sacred spaces, such as the home, office, and outdoor areas, that portray their spirituality. This discussion of the creation of sacred physical spaces leads me to consider how this is done in a different kind of space: cyberspace.

Social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace are designed specifically for expressing identity, including spiritual or religious identity, whether explicitly or subtly. Along with efforts to reinforce their own sense of self, people “‘display symbols that have shared meanings to make statements to others about how they would like to be regarded . . . . By displaying such symbols . . . [people] may be intentionally communicating their attitudes and values to others.’” (Roman, p.17). Personal profiles on sites such as Facebook and MySpace provide countless opportunities for individuals to post symbols that reflect their religious or spiritual identity, from obvious ways such as claiming to belong to a particular religion in the “religion” field on the profile, to posting pictures with religious elements, to posting religious or spiritual comments or quotes. Roman gives one example of how a man posts religious symbols in his office to initiate religious conversation. He writes, “Andrew Hsu camouflages his Christianity in artistic renderings of Greek and Hebrew scripture verses that hang on his office wall. He cleverly employs his artwork as a legitimate means to introduce his faith to unsuspecting co-workers” (p. 210). Social networking sites provide vey similar opportunities. By posting interesting comments, pictures, and quotes, the creator of the profile may lead others viewing the profile to ask questions, allowing for an opportunity to spread religious beliefs. Even for individuals who do not closely align with a traditional religion, social network profiles portray spirituality in subtle ways. This too may be done through various symbols posted on the profile. As explicit forms of religion make their way out of everyday life, more subtle forms of spirituality are seeking a way in, not only into physical spaces such as the home, office, and places of recreation, but also into cyberspace and social networking websites in particular.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

God, Glee, and Grilled Cheesus

A few weeks ago, the popular television show Glee tackled the issue of religion in the episode "Grilled Cheesus." Among representations of traditional religion, Finn's character was depicted as following a sort of unconventional lived religion. One day while making a grilled cheese sandwich, he believed he saw the image of Jesus in the toast's burn marks (images and episode synopsis can be found here) and thus set aside the "sacred" meal with an authoritative "DO NOT EAT" note and continued to pray to the "Grilled Cheesus" throughout the rest of the episode. While Finn was giving authority to a traditional Christian depiction of Christ, he was reshaping it to fit his personal, postmodern understanding of the divine (it should be noted that among his prayers was a desire to be high school quarterback again, in order to selfishly regain his former popularity). Finn's seemingly kooky understanding of religion was a clear parody of such real-life phenomena. In 2004, a similar sandwich supposedly depicting the image of the Virgin Mary was auctioned off for a whopping $28,000 on eBay.

As Elizondo (2005) argues in his analysis of "The Virgin of Guadalupe as Cultural Icon" in
Quoting God, religious symbols--a form of "popular" religion--are not rejected over time, but rather reinterpreted as a means for a new understanding between the faith of the people and "faith in Christ, which appears to be the religion of the intellectual elite" (p. 201). As Our Lady of Guadalupe came to be a symbol of a new era and power granted to the oppressed for St. Juan Diego and thousands of Mexican Roman Catholics, so too, does the Grilled Cheesus grant liberation to Finn's interpretation of religion. For him, the holy sandwich is a sort of hotline to heaven, an indication to him that God reaches out in contemporary times to ordinary people in simple ways.

However, as Ammerman states in her introduction to
Everyday Religion, "individuals' definition of their own experiences may or may not be recognized as religious--either by the culture around them or by the scholars who study them" (p. 14). Fittingly, Emma, the school's guidance counselor, informs Finn that "God works in mysterious ways. But I'm pretty sure he doesn't spend a lot of time trying to speak to us through sandwiches," shattering Finn's newfound faith, as highlighted by his performance of REM's "Losing My Religion." But is his faith in Christ as revealed by the Grilled Cheesus a less authentic version of religion than, say, his girlfriend Rachel's more traditional participation in the Jewish faith?

Ammerman would argue no, that "the study of religion...is a much more complicated (or interesting) manner than simply measuring a given set of ideas or counting places of worship and members" (p. 14). Contrastingly, in the book Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture, Miller states that when religious symbols are "abstracted from their traditional contexts and engaged as free-floating signifiers, put to decorative uses far removed from their original references and connections with other beliefs and practices...it is less likely that they will impact the concrete practice of life" (p. 32). Accordingly, Finn's confession that he has "found and accepted Christ" does not affect his lifestyle. He continues to aspire for popularity and further sexual intimacy with his girlfriend, values in direct contradiction to traditional Christian morals of humility and purity. Just as the Grilled Cheesus conveniently appeared to him as a sign of God's existence, so does it become "
a decorative function of providing private meaning to fill in the voids left by the structures of everyday life" (p. 91). The sandwich allows Finn to make sense of things in his life that simply don't otherwise--Rachel's refusal of his sexual advances, his demotion from quarterback, and later, Mr. Hummel's troubling post-heart attack condition. Through his faith in the Grilled Cheesus, he is able to navigate each of these challenges.

Although he does eventually abandon his faith, symbolized by his consumption of the once-revered sandwich, for the brief period in which he recognizes the sandwich as "set apart" and designates private prayer time in devotion to it, he is practicing a very much authentic form of "lived religion."

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Visiting the Cyber-Temple: Ongoing Hindu Negotiations with Virtual Puja

In an increasingly fast-paced world, followers of different faiths are turning to technology to facilitate otherwise “inconvenient” aspects of their faith. One such instance of this is the development of Hindu puja-purchasing websites, such as EParthana.com. Puja (or pooja, as it is sometimes referred to) is an important Hindu ritual in which devotees present offerings such as water, flowers, or food, to a specific deity in order to receive their blessing. Parthana, as the website is named after, refers to the Sanskirt hymn sung at the end of a daily sakha. The website offers remote Hindu followers the possibility to purchase an archana (blessing) to be performed at a specific temple by an EParthana employee, who will then mail the prasadam (blessed offering) to the customer. Additionally, website visitors can perform virtual puja, in which a graphic depiction of a specific Hindu deity is displayed, accompanied by an appropriate musical mantra, and with which users can interact--offering digital flowers, incense, bells, and food to the image in a virtual act of puja. In fact, the site encourages users to use this multimedia experience as a means to practice their daily puja.

Such new media variations of traditional worships have received mixed critiques by scholars. In his article "Internet Threats to Hindu Authority," Heinz Scheifinger argues that such puja-ordering sites pose a threat to the authorities of traditional temple priests and administration. On the contrary, in another article entitled "Hinduism and Cyberspace," he states that he does not find acts of online puja to be problematic or sacreligious because "by virtue of the very fact that the puja ritual (like any other ritual) is a symbolic act, its performance only requires signifiers to represent the actual props conventionally used because these props are themselves symbolic signifiers." His only suggestion is that "the practitioner approaches worship sincerely and in the right frame of mind." In this sense, new technology is negotiated not so much in terms of physical space or issues, but in terms of mental approach. Worship is considered valid so long as it is approached with an honest heart; physicality is no longer essential to access the divine. In the book Cyberhenge: Modern Pagans on the Internet (a rather unfortunate book title), Douglas Cowan compares the online-puja movement to virtual Catholic mass in its inferiority--the sensuousness of the traditional ritual is gone, and certain critical ritualistic elements such as cleaning the deities cannot be authentically replicated online.

In my research, I struggled to find any arguments by Hindus (or at least, not any in English) in support of these virtual worship acts. It is unclear how popular such websites are and what tends to be the attitude of Hindus toward these sites. Clearly the communication used by Hindus to defend or refute the sanctity of such acts--and the importance of traditional authority within the faith--will determine whether this becomes an acceptable religious use of technology or a condemned one.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Fundamentalism and Reality Television

In her article “A Framework for Understanding Fundamentalism,” (from Quoting God) Rebecca Moore discusses how fundamentalists, while often assumed to be “antitechnological or antimodern,” actually embrace technology and communication media in many ways. Moore defines fundamentalism as a way to classify a range of movements that oppose the beliefs and principles of the contemporary world. The cable network TLC provides an excellent example of a fundamentalist group with its new series “Sister Wives.” The show features a fundamentalist Mormon family, the Browns. TLC’s website provides a short summary of the new series: “Sister Wives introduces you to Kody Brown — along with his three wives: Meri, Janelle and Christine and their combined 13 children — and takes a look at how they attempt to navigate life as a "normal" family in a society that shuns their lifestyle. Sister Wives gives you an open look into a man trying to juggle three wives while trying to keep it a secret from the rest of the world.” The Browns are a perfect example of a group who is embracing modernity in attempt to introduce their beliefs to the rest of the world. They are, as Moore writes, “using mass media and the latest technologies in order to realize their vision of a future based on God-given truths.” The Browns certainly devote significant effort to explaining how well their “lifestyle” works. Kody Brown makes sure to spread the message that his love for a new wife does not replace the love for an old wife, making statements such as “love should be multiplied, not divided.” In spite of the Brown’s brave effort to shed light on polygamy, the show has recently caused a Utah investigation. This raises several interesting questions about the relationship between fundamentalism and the media. As this case illustrates, fundamentalists must weigh the benefits of using media to shed light on their beliefs against the risks of exposing too much to a world that for the most part does not understand. This show also raises questions about religious coverage in the age of reality television. Unlike news articles or even television news reports, reality television has the ability to follow the story line of one small group of people, in this case the Browns, who can explain their viewpoints thoroughly and whose daily lives are captured in a more personal setting. Perhaps most importantly, reality television allows viewers to develop deeper understanding of its characters. “Sister Wives” has the potential to unveil a plethora of new questions about the relationship between media and fundamentalism. The Browns have already demonstrated their want to embrace mass media, but now the question is whether this method will work for them.