Review: Tim Schenck, Holy Grounds: The Surprising Connection between Coffee and Faith—From Dancing Goats to Satan’s Drink (Fortress Press, 2019. Pp. 230. $18.99)

Review by Christine Havens

Confession: I’ve long been an admirer of Tim Schenck. Anyone who can come up with Lent Madness (think March Madness, only with a bracket of saints), which he created with his “archnemesis” Scott Gunn, executive director of Forward Movement, has my unreserved admiration. His new book, Holy Grounds, has been on my radar since last summer, when he started tweeting about his sabbatical adventures researching the book, and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a review copy, which I quickly consumed and marked up. A young woman at a coffee shop said she liked the rainbow of Post-it flags sticking out of the pages. There were many places that stood out in one way or another.

From coffee creation stories (which is where the dancing goats come in) to church coffee hours, Holy Grounds is about how coffee and faith are berries on the same tree. Humorous, down-to-earth, and profound, this book is must reading for those who feel their coffee and spiritual lives are entwined. Schenck leads the reader on a pilgrimage at once personal and universal, setting out his passion for, and much of the world’s passion for and against, this drink. He draws not only on Christian interaction with coffee, but also stresses the Muslim and Judaic roles in raising the drink and its connections to God and creation.

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Schenck, the rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Hingham, Massachusetts, begins the book by relating his own road-to-Damascus experiences that converted the “late adopter” into a coffee connoisseur (okay, a snob), though he does acknowledge, in an “honest and vulnerable way,” that he began as a drinker of flavored coffee during his time as a curate in Baltimore, which now embarrasses him. Fortunately, Schenck discovered Coffee Labs Roasters in Tarrytown, New York, which led him to renounce poor coffee in favor of imbibing from independent roasters. This in turn drew him to serving as a witness to the connectivity of coffee both within his parish and outside it, too. He says at one point that

we joke about coffee being the eighth sacrament (or third if you’re Protestant), but truth abounds. If a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, coffee fits the description. It binds communities together in ways that books, even the most sacred books, sometimes fail to do, because coffee fosters relationship. And relationship—with the divine and one another—is the bedrock of a faith community. (p. 198)

In the early chapters, the reader learns about coffee culture, past and present, and the love/hate relationship the drink had within the Abrahamic faiths. All three have tried to forbid it, though to be fair, it’s largely been those in power who have felt threatened by those gathering in coffeehouses, who are often discussing radical ideas. Christianity’s relationship with coffee began in the Crusades, and up until recently was fraught with notes of anti-Islamic and anti-Semite sentiments. Several times, though, the author returns to the images of the Sufis, whose part in the popularization of coffee and its connection to spiritual life he is at pains to keep in the forefront of the journey. For example, dhikr, a meditative practice in which one repeats a line from the Qur’an or simply the name of Allah, is the ritual closely associated with coffee and its effects — “the perfect prayer partner for these mystics” (p. 47).

While I enjoyed the first chapters, the strong, flavorful material for me begins in chapter nine, “The Green Elephant in the Room.” The author addresses some justice issues in the chapter about origin tours (travels to coffee farms); more emerges as the pilgrimage reaches more difficult ground. The green elephant is Starbucks, and the chapter is a fairly balanced look at the effect Starbucks has made on coffee culture, and just culture, worldwide. Schenck finishes with a story of Compline at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, which affected him profoundly as he investigated all things Starbucks and coffee in Seattle.

The exploration of the green elephant then leads into a deeper conversation of coffeehouse culture, and from there into “coffee’s shadow side.” Schenck delves deeper into justice issues associated with growing the beans — not only fair wages but also the environment and climate change. I could wish for more details at times, such as Brazil’s “dirty list of companies” that subject workers to economic slavery (p. 165), but chapters 11, 12, and 13 awaken readers to the knowledge that “the wide world of coffee reminds us that our needs do not, in fact, stand at the center of the universe” (p. 42)

Holy Grounds culminates with Schenck’s reflections on the “mixed blessings” of church coffee — strong stuff mingled with the pastoral voice of an experienced parish priest. The best story, and the one that thoroughly illuminates the author’s premise, comes near the end as our guide describes his visit to St. Tikhon’s, an Orthodox monastery in Waymart, Pennsylvania, that roasts its own coffee. Schenck writes about a non-religious young woman who began visiting the monastery’s bookstore regularly, and who became intrigued by the monks. 

At St. Tikhon’s the monks have harnessed the potential power of coffee to break down barriers between people. They aren’t actively proselytizing when people wander in—visitors are handed coffee, not tracts. Perhaps this young woman has no interest in religion, and that’s fine. Yet the monks are a part of her world, and who knows what God might do with that relationship one day? (p. 208)

In writing Holy Grounds, Schenck tried assiduously to avoid writing a “cheesy devotional guide” (p. 43), yet this is definitely one of those books I would like to read aloud to a friend or quote short passages in any future sermons I write or in a blog post. There are one or two that would serve well on a coffee mug, come to think of it. This book is warm and intimate and ready to be used as a conversation starter for larger issues in the church. Holy Grounds would be great for Invite, Welcome, and Connect groups to read together, and I’m finding that the ideas are energizing me for work in missional communities. Coffee and faith belong out in the world; this book does, too.

Christine Havens is a poet and writer, and a graduate of the Seminary of the Southwest whose work has appeared in The Anglican Theological Review and Forward Movement’s Daily Devo family subscription series.

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