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Thursday, October 1, 2015

"Jesus, Bread, and Chocolate" (John J. Thompson)

TITLE: Jesus, Bread, and Chocolate: Crafting a Handmade Faith in a Mass-Market World
AUTHOR: John J. Thompson
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015, (272 pages).

Are we content to feed on pre-packaged food? What about instant religion or ready-made faith? Probably, if you are like me, you would be giving such things a pass. You would prefer something more natural, more organic, deeper authenticity, and more carefully crafted work or lovingly prepared food. A veteran in the music world, John Thompson is Creative Director at Capitol CMG Publishing who is a music critic, publisher, manager of gospel songwriters, band member at a pub, as well as a pastor of Warehouse Church in Aurora, Illinois. He blogs at www.ThinkChristian.net and lives in East Nashville, Tennessee with his wife and four children.

We are living in a "undernourished and overfed" culture. In the words of John Thompson, our proclamation of the gospel has lost its "twang." The pre-packaged religion do not cut it. Mass-produced spirituality don't satisfy. Neither is canned types of faith. Maybe, if we can start all over and to go back to the basics of life instead of gorging on copious amounts of manufactured religious stuff. Maybe, as we retreat to the pace of "hand-made faith" or taking things more naturally and slowly, we can re-discover the twang that we all need so desperately. Thus begins a journey of spiritual search for meaning and significance in this interestingly titled book. In this book, Thompson goes all the way back to his younger years, living with an abusive father. After an amazing conversion, the father even became a pastor of a small church. Unfortunately, the changes wear off quickly and soon the abuses came back and the family had to flee. As a Generation Xer, Thompson is all too familiar with all things consumerism, pop culture, and technology. Passionate with all things Jesus, by a tender age of 15, Thompson was ready to rock the world with music, and to create a "culturally relevant community." Not only that, he is ready to go back to the roots of it all, including roasting his own coffee beans. One of his driving themes is his belief about life and people.

"Life is about people, and we increasingly have little time for anything that fails to bring us closer to the people God places in our life." (37)

He makes several observations about surrounding culture.
  • Though church attendances are declining, interest in communal and handcrafted kinds of faith are increasing;
  • People are not easily satisfied with the Starbucks, the Hersheys, or the pre-packaged food we get from big box stores. They are increasingly hungering after home-made food and personally crafted handiworks.
  • The "sacraments of progress" (consistency, customization, measurability, efficiency, progress, guaranteed satusfaction) are no longer as palatable for the soul. People are seeking the values BEHIND these things.
  • The culture rejects Christianity because it looks like Wonder Bread with its "manufactured, pre-sliced, plastic-wrapped, self-help spirituality."

Bread is a common food in the Bible. From the bread of heaven to the Bread in Jesus, we see bread as a gift from God. It magnifies God's love for mankind through His faithful providence. While most of us is accepting of a God who meets our immediate needs, we tend to forget that the Bread of Life has been broken for us. It comes with a huge cost to God. How can we even dare to commercialize, to package, or to process this great spiritual food so mechanically? Bread is an opportunity to go down deep and personal, all the way to the kitchen. Good stuff deserves tender loving care of baking and cooking.

What has chocolate got to do with Jesus? Here is where it gets really crazy especially with chocolate lovers. How can we comprehend streets laid out with chocolate? How do we appreciate such food called divine, made by hands that love chocolates? Even the story of how the cocoa bean was first discovered, processed, and made into candies is an amazing narrative in itself! He laments at how such a wonderful food too can be commercialized into mass production, leading to a loss of wonder due to the proliferation of cheap chocolates.  He makes a good observation in asking why God let chocolate be eaten in its raw state. He concludes that God wants man to participate with Him in the creative process us to enjoy both the making, the baking, and the eating. If you don't know anything at all about chocolates, apart from eating, Thompson certainly has a way to work out our appetite for more.

From cocoa and chocolates, Thompson moves on to apply the same observations for coffee. Gradually, he developed not just a taste for coffee but for roasting his own coffee beans and brewing some handmade specialty he could be proud of. He gives readers a brief historical tour of coffee. From the Ethiopian shepherd boy's observation of energetic goats after the animals chewed coffee beans; to how Pope Clement sanctioned coffee in 1600; and eventually the commercialization of coffee in the 20th Century and its innovations. He teaches us a few tricks about learning the different kinds of coffee, especially the part about having the greatest variety of tastes with lighter roasts. Good coffee does not need condiments which mask the true flavours of coffee. He teaches us to connect not just with the coffee but with the producers down to the farmer's level. He shows us the relationships that are possible that are beyond free trade. He reminds us about caring for the environment too. We ought to care for our coffee pots by not washing them with soap!

He remembers his earlier abstinence from alcohol, where conquering it seems to be a mark of achievement in itself. With his admiration and fascination with all things handcrafted, he starts to appreciate beer too. He marvels at stories of how nuns during the Reformation were hidden in beer barrels flowing down the river. According to legend, Martin Luther's wife, Katherine was one of these runaway nuns. Discernment is needed as one works at moderation in everything. Drinking is not the main thing. Savouring is a big part of it. Discernment includes the ability to say yes as well as no. He talks about gardening and how it is related to farming and growing. He relates to music and believes that there is no such thing as a secular-sacred music. Music is for all. It is human for humans.

In all of these, the various pursuits in this book are special simply because it has to do with people; with creativity; and the need to keep an eye on our co-creating ability with the Divine.  It comes back to three basic fundamentals of life. First, life is very much a story. From cocoa beans to beer production; music to how coffee beans are roasted; everything created have a story waiting to be told. Thompson leaves no stones unturned as he describes the history for our convenience. At the same time, he tells of how he finds himself in the stories. He boasts of how his own roasted coffee beans taste better than any commercial shops in his neighbourhood. He shares of his own musical journey believing that there is no such thing as secular music, only good or bad music. Why call something beautiful as secular? As a musician himself, he identifies himself intimately with music. In telling their stories, we may find our own stories embedded within them. Second, we should not settle for the superficial, the pre-packaged, or the conveniently prepared stuff of life. The commodities that we have become so familiar with are just shallow offerings of the real deal. For that we need time and attentiveness for the raw, the real, and the reality of life. As we trace our steps back to the origins, we can appreciate the products, the processes, and the people who made it all happen. True appreciation comes about when we have personally experienced the whole sequence of events. Third, as we trace the story and the narrative of the everyday products, eventually, we come face to face with the Creator. Everything points to something more, something personal, and something divine. Without God we can do nothing. More importantly, as we get involved with the process and the production of common foods, we become more appreciative of what God had done. If Jesus can use everyday language, tools, and objects to do the will of God, we too can do the same. In the process, we can find ourselves being participants in the transformation of our neighbourhoods as we let God guide us in focusing more and more on handcrafted beauty and less and less on manufactured stuff. The former thrusts us into a state of wonder. The latter keeps us locked into an endless cycle of consumerism.

Thompson reminds me of the beauty of creation and the significance of everyday stuff that most people consider commodities. Spirituality heightens our appreciation of the ordinary. It enables us to enjoy the beauty of creation and how we can continue to be creative as we participate with God in making this world an even more beautiful place to live in. Without that attentiveness to the ordinary, chances are, we would cast the commodities away like a disposable cup, or devalue our expectations to plastic stuff from dollar stores. In doing so, we too readily give room for artificiality when we can pursue the real thing. If we do this often enough, we may simply settle for the superficial and miss the opportunity to dig deeper for better quality and authenticity. Thankfully, this book pauses our pursuit of such mass produced goods, turns our attention around, that we can begin to long for better things. In the process, we can begin our appreciation of the Wonder of wonders, the Creator of all creation, and the Lord of lords.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Zondervan and SpeakEasy in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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