Monthly Archives: January 2011

New Starbucks Logo: The Spirit of a Company

Starbucks unveiled their new logo today.

Customer reviews on the Starbucks corporate website are mixed, with more customers expressing displeasure than praising the update.

Now, we know that logos are incredibly important to a company.  Just this year, Gap attempted unsuccessfully to change to a new logo, and public outcry was so strong that they reverted to the former one after only a week.

I’m really not sure what Gap was trying to do with their change.  The original is iconic and has come to represent what the Gap is, but the new one looks like something you’d see on an investment firm.  Starbucks, on the other hand, has made a perfectly reasonable move with their change.

As Naomi Klein has shown in No Logo, the most successful brands (Nike, Apple, Virgin, Google, Coke, Pepsi, Disney, Starbucks) thrive not by producing a specific product but by embodying a certain spirit.  Often the production of the goods these brands sell are subcontracted to other, invisible companies.  Brands don’t want to be associated with particular products, but with a spirit.

Nike, for instance, does not exist to sell shoes, but, according to one statement, to “enhance people’s lives through sports and fitness,” to keep “the magic of sports alive.”  Former company President Tom Clark explained that, “the inspiration of sports allows us to rebirth ourselves constantly.”

For his part, Starbucks CEO Howard Shultz has said, “Throughout the last four decades, the Siren has been there through it all.  Now, we’ve given her a small but meaningful update to ensure that the Starbucks brand continues to embrace our heritage and also ensure we remain relevant and poised for future growth.”  The change, of course, is to drop the name of the company altogether from the logo.  A name, it seems, just ties us down.

I read all of this in light of William T Cavanaugh’s theological assessment of the global market recession.  In most talk about the financial collapse, blame is assigned to either greed, recklessness or lack of governmental oversight.  Cavanaugh, working from Catholic social teaching, attributes it instead to divorcing the market from the doctrine of creation.  The market has become fantastical, mythical, based in commonly held fictions rather than in realistic terms of what constitutes wealth.

In other words, precisely what we need is to be tied down, anchored to the reality of what the earth, our pocketbooks, our communities and our global neighbors can really bear.  Starbucks, it seems to me, is moving us a little further in that spiritual, ungrounded direction.  After all, Starbucks isn’t a coffee shop, it’s our Third Place.

What do you think?  Do you like Starbucks’ new logo?  Am I reading too much into the changes?  How can Christians work to recover the reality behind brands and markets?

Synthetic Life, or, Why I Am A Conservative

Someone asked me recently what I think of the creation of a synthetic life form.  As The Guardian put it, “Scientists have created the world’s first synthetic life form in a landmark experiment that paves the way for designer organisms that are built rather than evolved.”

Here is more or less what I think, conveniently written a decade before the case emerged.

The journalists think it intellectually chic to stand open-mouthed before any wonder of science whatsoever. The media, cultivating their mediocrity, seem quite comfortably unaware that many of the calamities from which science is expected to save the world were caused in the first place by science – which meanwhile is busy propagating further calamities, hailed now as wonders, from which later it will undertake to save the world. Nobody, so far as I have heard, is attempting to figure out how much of the progress resulting from this enterprise is net. It is as if the whole population has been genetically deprived of the ability to subtract….

The only science we have or can have is human science; it has human limits and is involved always with human ignorance and human error. It is a fact that the solutions invented or discovered by science have tended to lead to new problems or to become problems themselves. Scientists discovered how to use nuclear energy to solve some problems, but any use of it is enormously dangerous to us all, and scientists have not discovered what to do with the waste. (They have not discovered what to do with old tires). The availability of antibiotics leads to the overuse of antibiotics. And so on. Our daily lives are a daily mockery of our scientific pretensions. We are learning to know precisely the location of our genes, but significant numbers of us don’t know the whereabouts of our children. Science does not seem to be lighting the way; we seem rather to be leapfrogging into the dark along series of scientific solutions, which become problems, which call for further solutions, which science is always eager to supply, and which it sometimes cannot supply…

It is dangerous to act… on the assumption that our knowledge will increase fast enough to outrace the bad consequences of the arrogant use of incomplete knowledge. To trust “progress” or our putative “genius” to solve all the problems that we cause is worse than bad science; it is bad religion.

– Wendell Berry, Life is a Miracle

 

Of course, G. K. Chesterton said it much more briefly nearly 100 years ago.  “Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up.”

Christians Outside of Government

There is a post running on Revelife right now about Christian anarchism.  (In the interest of full-disclosure, I didn’t really read the post.)  In the comment section a conversation broke out about whether Christians are called to be involved in the government.  One commenter said:

Jesus told us to be ‘salt and light’ in our world. How can we be in the governmental world if Christians don’t go into politics? Some of the greatest reformers in the UK – like Wilberforce and Shaftsbury – were effective because they were politicians. That doesn’t mean everyone is called to do that but we should support those who are and are trying to make a difference to our world. To opt out is to give the world to the atheists and unbelievers which I cannot think is the will of God…. I cannot see how on earth we as Christians can effect government and politics except by some of us being involved in some way. As I said not every Christian will be a politician  but every Christian should be responsible and do the simple things. Like voting. 

 

Though I think that’s a questionable move in the beginning – is the government really a separate world? – the force of the comment is clear enough.  How can Christians makes sure the world comes out right, if they are outside of politics?

The first answer to that is that I’m not at all certain the task of the church is to make sure the world comes out right.  As Hauerwas says at the drop of a hat, “The first task of the church is not to make the world a better place, but to make the world the world.  Without the church acting as the church, how could the world ever realize that it is the world?”  I think that’s more or less right.

At the same time, I don’t think a qualified refusal to support or join the government leaves Christians in a position of irrelevance.  I think Dorothy Day is a good example of a Christian who refused to be directly involved in politics, but affected government and politics.  I think the actions of the Peace Problems Committee following WWI and during WWII in setting up alternative services for draftees was significant as well.

For that matter, the Christian Peacemaker Teams is a brilliant program run by the Mennonite General Committee where individuals sign up for two years of missionary work, where they go into the most violent areas in the world (very often Jerusalem) and continue the long work of one-to-one reconciliation by actually getting to know individuals of the two conflicting sides and bringing them together in friendship.  I think every Christian should be encouraged to do a stint on the Christian Peacemaker Teams.

Then there is the long witness of the Quakers as mediators in international disputes.  It was the Quakers who brokered the first diplomatic contacts between the U.S. and the Soviet Union fifty years ago, and they have also had significant impact on the debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and very practical, real-world options for nuclear disarmament.  Because the Quakers stand as a distinctive, univocal group, apart from party lines, and also because their work is characterized by hard data and research, and respectable scholarship, they are a Christian group whose voice stands out in peacemaking.

The Quakers even have an office at the United Nations, despite their refusal to compromise their distinctive witness to engage in secular politcs.  Being a pacifist, sectarian church isn’t the same as being ineffectual.  This paper, called Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence, was written by American Friends Service Committee precisely on the point of how Christians can directly affect the political process while remaining distinctively Christian and nonviolent.

And though Catholics aren’t by any means hesitant to get involved in politics, the global Catholic church has modeled what a unified global church might do if it worked outside of nationalist political structures.  See my recent post Wikileaks and the Catholic Church for details.

All that said, I’m not a Christian anarchist, but I’m not a Niebuhrian, either.  I definitely believe there is room for Christians to engage with those elements of the secular government that cohere with the mission and identity of the church.  As Augustine put it so long ago,

The heavenly City, so long as it is wayfaring on earth, not only makes use of earthly peace but fosters and actively pursues along with other humans beings a common platform in regard to all that concerns our purely human life and does not interfere with faith and worship.

Hopefully this gives you a few resources to begin looking into on the matter of whether Christians have to join the government to keep from being politically irrelevant.

The Encroachment of the Market

I’ve taken a break from my major reading projects to focus on a little book I got for Christmas called Calculated Futures: Theology, Ethics and Economics.  In Calculated Futures, theology professor D. Stephen Long and economics professor Nancy Ruth Fox engage in an extended dialog about the interplay of their two fields.

Naturally, this is right up my alley.

In the opening chapter, Fox observes that theologians feel that the market is aggressive, even encroaching on traditionally non-economic areas.  Long takes this critique of the market to its fullest limits, arguing that the global market has become a counter-church: the global agency to which individuals look for salvation, albeit a salvation redefined along economic lines.

At one point, Fox points out that this claim is baffling to her.  Long responds:

At a general level we would all agree that family life should not be thought of primarily in terms of its monetary value.  But when we move  from the general to the particular, economists and theologians soon part company. For instance, should the distribution of health, sex, body organs, and infants be conceded a value that allows them to be efficiently exchanged through a market mechanism?  We find neoclassical [that is, neoliberal or libertarian] economists who argue in favor of commodifying all four of these goods.  But are not these goods precisely related to family life?  If the economic facts suggest that a more efficient method of distributing body organs, sex, health, and unwanted infants is through the market, then are not those theologians (such as myself) who fear the encroachment of the market in all aspects of life justified? 

 

I find this point very compelling.

For my part, I can see the market encroaching on my own family life and my mother’s medical experience.  My mother is undergoing her third round of chemotherapy right now, for her second of two unrelated cancers (first lung and then breast).  Chemotherapy is very effective in treating certain cancers, like leukemia.  But in the treatment of multiple myeloma, soft-tissue sarcoma, melanoma of the skin and cancers of the pancreas, uterus, prostate, bladder and kidney, chemotherapy has no measurable effect.

In treating non-small-cell lung cancer (which my mother had), a chemotherapy regime costs around $40,000 and is shown to extend life by an average of two months (src).

Why would an oncologist prescribe such a ravaging, painful treatment for such dismal final results?  Well, there are a couple of reasons.  Firs,t these statistics aren’t the ones that oncologists hand out.  But even with hard numbers like these, cancer patients want to survive, even if it’s a long shot, even if those last two months are unbearably painful.

But the main reason is that over 50% of oncologists annual income is paid for referrals to chemotherapy.  They make money if they convince a patient to undergo chemo, and they don’t make money if they don’t.  The incentives are misaligned, and the chemotherapy companies are only marketable if they keep those incentives misaligned.  In the same way, they are only marketable if they lobby legislators to subsidize them, generally in the name of a “war on cancer.”

Naomi Klein, in her breakout first book No Logo, highlighted many further encroachments of the market, especially into public schools and universities.  Just one of dozens of examples she cites is the case of Mike Cameron, a student who jokingly wore a Pepsi shirt to school on Coke Day (the school’s bid to win a $10,000 prize awarded by Coca-Cola) and was suspended for it.

And again, in my own life, I conducted an experiment recently to see if I could go a full week without advertising for any company.  It’s easy enough to cut the labels off my water bottles.  I can even duct tape over the brand name on my shoes, but if I want to use a cell phone, or post on Xanga, or drive a car, things become more complicated.  Our lives, it seems, are sponsored whether we like it or not.

Most frightening of all, I believe, is the way the church has picked up this marketing logic, advertising itself on billboards, imitating the corporate strategies of Starbucks and Wal-Mart, learning the lessons of leadership from powerful CEOs.  Church Marketing was even a required class for my pastoral ministry degree.

What do think?  Does all of this represent the encroachment of the market into all aspects of our lives?  If so, is it a bad thing, a good thing, or simply neutral?  Are there any alternatives?

Five Political Statements

When it comes to politics, a little goes a long way.

1. Right-wing versus left-wing is just smoke and mirrors.  What matters is oligarchy versus non-oligarchy.

2. If a police officer requires probable cause or a search warrant to look in my glove box, the TSA needs better grounds than, “He wants to board an airplane,” to look under my clothing.

3. Free markets aren’t as important as free people.

4. The more locally a decision is made, the better for everyone involved.

5. “He who breaks a thing in order to discover how it works has left the path of wisdom.”

What It Means To Be Conservative

I’ve tried (again and again) to bring attention to what “liberal” actually means in posts like this one.  I have criticized so-called neocons like George Bush and Sarah Palin for in fact being “conservative liberals.”  And I have tried to lay out some basic tenets of my own conservative politics.  But I’m not sure I’ve ever made it clear what I think it actually means to “be conservative.”

Without attempting to be comprehensive, here are some thoughts.

I. To be conservative means to express some basic doubts about the ability of any one group of people to perfect society.  At various times and in various places religious leaders, sociologists, scientists, dictators and economists have been held up as authorities who could impose a perfected system on society.

II. To be conservative means to love something particular.  There must be some thing that is worth conserving.

III. To be conservative means to get back behind the concepts of “left” and “right,” which are really both version of liberalism.  I say get “behind,” because the left and the right are really inventions of the French Revolution.  In the accepted narrative, everything before modernity was “right-wing.”  But as John Milbank has elucidated, “Pre-nominalist modernity was neither left nor right, neither ‘progressivist’ nor ‘reactionary’—it was simply ‘other’ to most of our assumed sociopolitical categories.”

IV. As a corollary to III, to be conservative means to resist the imposition of the ideology Alasdair MacIntyre calls “The Enlightenment project.”  What is the Enlightenment project, and what is its relevance to conservative thought?  I don’t know how to sum it up any better than Craig Carter has here:

The Enlightenment project is about remaking the world according to the dictates of technological reason and individual choice in order to establish a utopian mass culture by overcoming the restrictions on individual choice created by tradition (especially religious tradition) and local conditions (including geography, history and heredity). When the evils of modernity are pointed out, such as environmental destruction, the breakdown of the family, the decline of mass culture to a lowest common denominator and increasing state tyranny, the reply of liberal defenders of modernity amounts essentially to a bribe and a threat. The bribe is longer life and better health because of medical breakthroughs, more and more consumer goods, ease of travel, luxuries etc. The threat is that if you criticize the goose that lays the golden egg (technological reason) you make yourself an enemy of the people and expose yourself to being marginalized or worse. (src

 

V. Finally (for now), to be conservative means to work against one concrete problem at a time.  Because conservatism by definition cannot be an ideology or strategy to perfect society, it has no particular program to institute.  Rather, conservatives must work to conserve specific goods that are endangered by aggressive, totalizing ideologies.

Christians and Cities

In a post not long ago I mentioned that Christians have an especial calling to tend their cities.  I see this taking many forms, such as using their chapels, land and homes for community centers, and patronizing the arts and their libraries, but also taking the form of serving on town councils and working in urban planning.

Why?  Fundamentally, because the church is called to be a counterculture that serves the common good.  But why cities and urban planning?  Here are a few reasons  I see that emphasis as central.

First, cities are central to the scriptural narrative.  There is an overall movement from a paradise built in a garden (Gen 1) to a paradise built around a megalopolis, a city descended from the sky with gates that are always open for trade; a city that never sleeps (Rev 21).  At the center of this movement is the earthly city of Jerusalem, the city where God said to David, “Would you build me a house?”  But it is significant that in the “New Jerusalem” of Revelation, there is no temple.  The city is altogether a place for worship.

Even when God’s people find themselves as strangers in strange cities, scripture instructs them to

Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper. (src)

 

So cities are essential to the shape of the people of God and to their calling.  Many of the church fathers picked up on this theme, but none so centrally as Augustine of Hippo, whose masterpiece is entitled Civitas Dei – The City of God.  Augustine didn’t take up specifics on urban planning, though, and always remained a theopolitical voice.  Aquinas, however, addressed urban planning specifically, viewing the city as a place where individuals come together so that they can live better lives than they could singly.

His goals in urban planning, which he offered as “advice to the king,” were to provide the urban context in which virtuous living is facilitated.  The king, according to Aquinas, must provide for the community a city that guarantees a place

  1. Suitable to the preservation of the health of the inhabitants. Aquinas mentions specific geographical conditions and building facing in the best direction for air circulation and balance of sunlight and shade, since “the social life is related to the natural life.”  This makes sense when we consider that it is plumbing and air circulation that have done the most to lengthen lives in the west, rather than the sixteen percent of the GDP spent on crisis-care medicine.
  2. Fertile enough to provide them with sufficient food.
  3. Pleasant enough “to give them enjoyment.”
  4. Defended enough to afford them protection and security.
  5. Finally, there must be “places suitable to worship, for the final end of the multitude united in society.”

So we have Aquinas proscribing physical conditions to satisfy physical, existential and aesthetic needs for those who live there.  He bases this on an Aristotelian, common anthropology, where all people were created to be happy and can only find happiness in living well together.  For Aquinas, the city becomes a moral landscape, shaping groups and individuals.

Embracing this view, Christians can see a great deal of potential and danger in the city.  Christians can take part in shaping it toward human-centered ends of happiness together (at least) and worship of God (at best), and resist the shaping of cities that promotes atomism and alienation from one another and from God.  Some specific issues for Christians to bear in mind in urban culture:

  • The increasing prevalence of gated communities
  • The increasing prevalence of ghettos
  • The increasing prevalence of homeless in our cities and the dispersal of “homeless communities”
  • The increasing prevalence of public surveillance
  • The disappearance of public, non-commercialized space
  • Segregation by race and by class

While none of these are overtly theological issues, I believe they press on Christians and urge us to add urban planning to our already long list of active stewardship.

What do you think?  Are cities especially important for Christian involvement?  What issues would you add or change on the list?  What involvement have you seen churches engage in with cities?