Ever try to explain an idea only to end up flabbergasted at your own inability to communicate what you consider a basic concept? Or worse, are you one of those people who, after failing to communicate said concept, suggest to the poor listener that they simply need to read 300+ pages of “so-and-so’s” book and it will all make sense? (hint: your inability to communicate is probably not a good selling point for the book!) Enter Ed Cyzewski’s Coffeehouse Theology. While it does not attempt to be the end-all resource for theological inquisitors, it nevertheless excels at making particularly difficult theological concepts easy to understand.
Coffee & Theology
Like theology, coffee comes in a lot of varieties. On one end there is the ever popular french vanilla skim latte, sprinkled with cinnamon and topped with a dollop of whip cream. Though we are assured it is a coffee-based drink, the presence of any cocoa based substance is virtually indiscernible thanks to the array of sugary substances added to make the drink attractive to the masses. On the other extreme is pure bona-fide espresso. Initially offensive, but with studious attention one begins to perceive a broad diversity of flavors and nuances as well as an appreciation for the care and effort by which it was crafted. Within this spectrum I believe Coffeehouse Theology is best accompanied by the standard latte. While nothing is sugar-coated or masked in the interest of commercialization, neither does it reveal the complexity and depth of, say, the writings of the Niebuhr brothers. What it does do, and does quite well, is present complicated theological topics like contextuality, historiography, post-foundationalism, and literary-theory in a manner that is unintimidating and largely uncontroversial, or in other words, palatable.
Strengths & Weaknesses
From my perspective the lack of controversy is both the book’s greatest strength as well as its weakness. Rare is the ability to present divisive arguments in easy to understand terms. Rarer still is the ability to do so without stepping on anyone’s toes. Cyzewski has succeeded in doing both. At the same time, I feel that the book goes too far in some respects. Key to learning a concept is being able to internalize the idea, and for me, part of that process involves wrestling with gaps, inconsistencies, and other frictions, many of which are passed over in Coffeehouse Theology.
I have a few acquiantences that are, theologically speaking, a bit touchy. You know, like the folks that are always leaving 2,000 word rants on Tony Jones’ blog and who go into panic mode at the slightest whiff of anything that might seem “postmodern.” I suspect that these folks form a large segment of the audience Cyzewski had in mind for this book. Yet beyond cynics, this book offers promise to anyone who has not had the opportunity to think critically about the practice of theology in the 21st century. In particular, students in the fields of science and business may find significant profit from this book as, in my experience, they represent categories least likely to be exposed to the modern->postmodern paradigm shift and therefore have the most to gain in becoming aware of their own theology’s contextuality.
Yet I think this book also holds promise to the seminarian. I’ll be honest and say that I did not experience any lighting-bolt eye-opening theological insight while reading Coffeehouse Theology. In fact, thanks to this guy, the importance of recognizing that theology is contextual (or post-foundationalist) was already covered during undergrad. Where I found insight, however, is through Cyzewski’s ability to articulate these ideas in a way that is presentable to those outside the walls of academia. One of my biggest critiques of academia, Christian academia in particular, is that the dissemination of knowledge is usually a trickle where it should be an overflow. Simply because of its ability to present theological ideas clearly, I feel Coffeehouse Theology is worthy to rest prominently on any seminarian’s bookshelf.
If you’re a casual reader who wants to understand what all the postmodern hubbub is about and what it means for the practice of Christian faith, or if you’re a sensitive reader prone to quickly rejecting ideas that don’t meet your narrow litmus test, or if you’re an emergent who’s “conversations” frequently result in either puzzled looks or willful rejection, then allow me to officially recommend to you Coffeehouse Theology.