The title may seem odd, but stay with me on this one. This summer, I was in an online intercultural communication class for my major at Winona State. Every week we wrote artifact critiques. Its purpose was take a contemporary cultural phenomenon, observe it, analyze and dissect it, and give our opinions on the matter. As inferred by the last post, I enjoy heavy metal. I also work as a cook. Burgers and metal are a good combo in my book. My first critique was about a restaurant in Chicago that cooked up controversy with a specialty burger in homage to a Swedish metal band that invoked a firey religious debate on social media and national news sites. The main concepts I had to cover in this paper were the bases of values, beliefs, morals, and what is called ethnocentrism – the assumption that one’s culture is superior to another. The issue really got me thinking about those things from a Christian perspective and wanted to share my thoughts with you all.
In the heart of Chicago’s northwest Avondale neighborhood lies Kuma’s Corner – a burger joint that boasts a reputation for creative gourmet burgers, local brew, and an avid love for heavy metal. There you will find menu items named after iconic heavy metal bands such as Pantera, Metallica, and Plague Bringer. If you look closer at the menu, these items are modeled after particular elements of these bands that represent their image, style, and message. In October of 2013, Kuma’s pulled a particular stunt with one such burger. It setup a cultural discussion about superiority, freedom of expression, and a clashing of cultures.
Notorious Swedish metal band, Ghost, came to the United States on a North American tour last fall promoting their new record Infestessumam. Considered a throwback to metal’s origins in lineage of bands like Black Sabbath, Ghost has been considered a breath of fresh air in the scene, but has a much darker element that compromises for their lack of sonic tenacity. Throughout the band’s career, they have garnered both a strong following of loyal fans and have drawn controversy from their explicitly lyrical and physical satanic undertones. As fans of the band, the owners of Kuma’s concocted a burger of the month special in their honor. The item was a goat shoulder in a red wine reduction between two buns, topped with an unconsecrated communion wafer.
The end result was mixed. The burger won over the customer base and metal fans alike, but angered Christians – primarily Catholics, many of whom were calling it unapologetically tasteless and offensive. Through the businesses Facebook and Twitter there was a lot of heated conversation, it caught local and national headlines, and was the catalyst for a conversation about who is in the right and wrong here.
Like I said, Catholics found this to be a shot below the belt. Communion wafers are something sacred in Christianity as a whole, because the practice of communion itself is an act of remembrance to the body and blood of Jesus at the time of his crucifixion. Specifically, in Catholicism, a wafer goes through the process of consecration when a priest blesses it. It certainly does not beat around the bush and when you consider what/who the owners of Kuma’s were paying homage to with this burger. Christians in general would cringe at the idea, however, there is a Biblical teaching that says to turn the other cheek, take your licks, and press on (Matthew 5:39). That whole passage is a reminder to Christians that the world is not going to agree with you and that’s okay. Consequently, when you look at the dialogue that exists between these two groups, it’s curious why there’s so much heated discussion.
Looking at this from Kuma’s perspective, it can be said that they are a private business serving a particular customer base that is exclusive and Christians are not a part of that. The owner of Kuma’s said in an interview that this was not meant to offend anyone. It was all in good fun. He specifically said that if his customers see the purpose in it, then he has basically done his job. It does however speak volumes about business ethics. It can be said that these are two owners who are exercising a basic right to conduct their business the way that they want to – without the dictation of an institution (or in this case) a church. If that’s so, then it begs the question, where is the line drawn between provocative and offensive?
The freedom of expression is part of a foundation our ancestors built in blood. Our country was founded on the principles of individual freedoms as such in order to suppress government tyranny and promote sincerity. Part of that definition of expression is a deliberate diversity of values and ethics among people. You will find those who agree and disagree with you from everything such as your musical tastes, favorite foods, to your political beliefs, and religious convictions. Conceptually, this whole debate puts the definitions of ideologies and values under the microscope.
The influence that the first amendment has had in legislative policy, social expectations, and even family dynamics has profoundly affected the trajectory of culture and the formation of sub cultures. An example would be the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925 where a biology professor was arrested in Tennessee for violating a state law banning the teaching of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Eventually, Professor Scopes was acquitted. Additionally in 1949, the Supreme Court upheld a Jehovah’s Witnesses right to publicly solicit religious material, and then you even look at the influence that the Nation of Islam had with prominent members like Malcolm X and Mohammed Ali.
That kind of influence has a cascade effect on what kind of counter cultures rise out of it. In fact, this whole situation is in of itself a debate between two cultures. By all virtue, their core beliefs are antithetical of each other. They’re almost symbiotic, because in tradition, metal was built on the bases of anti-establishment, anti-authority, and anti-religion (particularly anti- Christianity) in the name of rebellion, whereas religion is supposed to teach adherence to a kind of authority and experience transformation. These are two different groups with their own sets of values, their own beliefs about what they see as right and wrong, and look at the world from two very different lenses. I think something else to note, more specifically in the Scopes trial is ethnocentrism – the assumption that one’s culture is superior to another. I’m not making any accusations of religious people being ethnocentric, but if there has been a track record of it in this country’s history of religion (institutionally) being oppressive, then that is an impression that people will stick to and run with, no matter what good intentions are made.
Here is my opinion on the matter. Keep in mind that this is coming from someone who is a Christian and likes heavy music. With everything that I’ve said about these groups’ specific values and historic roots, it’s not surprising that there is tension between the two. There are few points of reconciliation, and I’m not trying to make these two agree with each other. I think that under the first amendment, Kuma’s has the constitutional right to run their business the way that they want it to. It is American free enterprise, and they are trying to reach an exclusive customer base with a particular set of values. Perhaps they feel as if being religiously provocative is their explicit expression of their feelings about religion’s influence in America. However, I think that Kuma’s should be more upfront. I honestly think that the owner saying that this is in the name of good fun and business is a way to save face. If you’re going to do something offensive, then own it. Now, as a Christian, Does it offend me? No. Do I think the act itself is offensive? Yes. Will I support the business? No. There’s the point I want to drive home. I think that Christians (myself included) need to disengage from this. I see a lot of comments underneath the businesses Facebook that just feel unnecessary. If you don’t agree with it, don’t support the business. Plain and simple. It’s an unwinnable battle.
Here’s what I want you all to take away from this. People are going to disagree with each other over trivial things as well as the bigger ones which have more gravity. Ultimately, it’s a matter of how we handle those differences. I think that if we can learn to coexist with each other and see past those differences, cultures can converge and begin to understand each other better. Will it always happen? No. But it’s the act that matters. Additionally, I want you to think about freedom of expression. Is it something that gives us permission to say what we want at the potential expense of someone else’s toes being stepped on, or is there a line of propriety that needs to be adhered to?