Hipster Christianity, Brett McCracken analyzes the hipster movement that quietly predominates on most Christian college campuses and in many churches. The book is written by a hipster, for hipsters, and so I was rsurprised to find that the book is objective and critical rather than a puff piece.
So what is a hipster? Well, McCracken is one, I am another, and so are most of my friends. But the funny thing is, most of us won’t admit it. The term is derogatory because it suggests that we’re trying to be hip, and nothing is hip if it tries to be. But McCracken’s definition of hipster (“fashionable, young, independent-minded contrarian”) seems to apply to most of my friends, and Urban Dictionary’s definition applies to pretty much all of them: “people in their teens and twenties who generally listen to indie rock, hang out in coffee ships, shop at the thrift store, and talk about things like books, music, films, and art.” So before a young Christian denies that he is a hipster, let him put that in his (manly, Doug Wilsonesque) pipe and smoke it: it’s a broad definition but I think it’s accurate. We’re all hipsters now.
The first two chapters of McCracken’s book are skippable riffs on the essence of cool, and the history of hip. These were interesting, but from Chapter 3 on McCracken brings out the red meat: a neat and incisive portrait of modern hipsters, and then Christian hipsters. McCracken’s five-point definition of hip helps him, and the reader, decide if hip is worthwhile.Undressing Hip:
- The desire to be cool develops wherever the values of freedom, liberty, and democracy are introduced. To bestow the individual with the powers of autonomy and self-sovereignty invites self-styled rebellion, subversion, and countercultural behavior.
- Hip is always a rebellion against someone or something, a performance of an alternative, presumably superior way of thinking and living. At its core, it is an existential mechanism whereby humans can frame themselves as better or more privileged than everyone else (or at least more “enlightened”).
- Hip is about image. It is informed by ideas—philosophies, politics, religion—but its dominant expression is always in the material realm: dress, hygiene, artwork, furniture, cars, things.
- The biggest enemy of hip is control—that is, being controlled, restricted, or imprisoned by some system of authority or power. Whether it is a titled aristocrat in eighteenth-century England, a government bureaucracy in 1968, or simply an oppressive system of rules and cultural decorum, “the man” is always the spark that ignites hip rebellion.
- Ironically, hip has become a crucial sustainer of contemporary capitalism. The marketplace has embraced cool as the primary symbol of consumerism and material desire, and the result is that true and mass-marketed hip are increasingly hard to distinguish from one another.
Christian Hipsters generally meet these criteria and are, in one way or another, dissatisfied with their parents’ churches. Many of them engaged in spiritual (and chemical) experimentation before settling down in a quirky non-denominational church with a name like “The Gathering at Beacon Hill,” or “Mosaic.” They read RELEVANT Magazine, for which McCracken writes, and listen to Sufjan Stevens. They read parodies of Left Behind and Don Miller books, and watch Terence Malick movies.
The book as a whole is McCracken’s build-up and answer to the question: is it good for Christians and Christian churches to be ‘hip?’ Along the way, he explores the history of Christian hip (from the Jesus People to dc Talk), and the modern manifestations of the movement (from Mark Driscoll to Rob Bell).
McCracken spends a chapter expressing and eventually critiquing the theses of the “Emerging Church” movement. Ultimately he thinks that people like Rob Bell and Brian McLaren seek to reinvent church simply because it feels outmoded, that they’re engaging in rebellion for the sake of rebellion (how very hip), and finally that they take their cues from culture rather than scripture.
If, as McCracken thinks, the Emergent movement is in decline (several of its leading proponents have abandoned ship), then the missional church is replacing it. Missional comes from the Latin term missio Dei, meaning “the sending of God,” and the movement begins with the mind-set that “the church is not primarily about us, but about God’s mission in the world.” (151) “Missional asserts that the church is and always has been an apostolic action first and an institution second, serving its function by extending itself in motion between the kingdom and the world…[and] the kingdom is not a place for the pleasure of Christians alone: it is a force of transformation and renewal for the world.” (152-153)
This seems to hinge on John 18:36, where Jesus’ words are often translated as, “My kingdom is not of this world.” But N.T. Wright points out that the preposition should make it, “My kingdom is not from this world.” That subtle difference means that the kingdom is “from somewhere else, but it’s for this world.”
Obviously missional has a transparent social requirement: to meet people’s needs, to bless them. McCracken is hopeful about the missional movement, but says that the social gospel cannot override the soul gospel, as it has in earlier times and in modern liberal Christianity.
Ultimately McCracken concludes that real Christianity and “cool” as it is commonly construed are two goals that cannot both be sought faithfully (kind of like God and money, then). He shows seven chasms between cool and Christianity, which I’ll leave you to find on your own, but ends with “the reduction of our identities to the visual.” Everyone knows that clothes are a big part of cool, and most people admit that clothes matter. Our appearance is part of our identity, whether we like it or not. So does that make the hipster obsession with “peacock people” (my phrase) all right for Christians? No, because although Christians should be set apart by our clothes, it’s not part of a relentless, silent struggle to stand out in the crowded cities that secular urban hipsters engage in. Rather, Peter tells us to scorn external adornment in favor of adorning the “hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.” So in other words, when someone looks at a Christian, he should say, “He looks good. He clearly cares about his appearance. But I notice that although everything he is wearing is polished and put-together, it doesn’t look like he spent forty minutes getting his cowlick right, or spends most of his budget on shoes. He cares about something more than clothes. I better look at his eyes. Hmm, they’re full of purpose. Who is this man?”
To Christian churches seeking to be hip, or relevant to seekers, McCracken cautions: “Tread carefully. The message cannot be divorced from its presentation.” We should be careful then, that our churches don’t soil the very gospel we want to spread throughout the world with hip but soulless appurtenances.
McCracken seasons his critique of hipsters a little but pointing out that they have good taste; it’s one of their trademarks. That, at least, Christians can wholeheartedly embrace. We need more C.S. Lewises and Sufjan Stevenses, and fewer Thomas Kinkades. As long as our worship is centered on God, we should be marveling at the great and good and beautiful things He placed in this world, sacred and secular. So Christians should enjoy hipster staples like an Animal Collective album or a Terence Malick film because they’ good, even though we’ll be perceived as “hip” if like them.
Here McCracken begins to define a positive “Christian hip,” one that we should embrace. It’s well worth reading yourselves, so I won’t sum it up tidily. But it begins, as Tullian Tchividjian argues in Unfashionable, with Christians understanding how and why we are different from the world. This is where seeker-friendly evangelicalism gets foggy: how is a polished, hip suburban congregation really that different from a group of its secular neighbors?
McCracken: If we’re going to be relevant to the world, it won’t be by aping them. We’ll have to be non-conformists.
Christian non-conformists might very well be Christian hipsters. But Christian hipsters (and it’s not a bad thing to be, if we accept McCracken’s caveats) will look different from the rest of them. For a start, we’re members of THE CHURCH.
What then is the church?
C.S. Lewis: “The structural position in the church which the humblest Christian occupies is eternal and even cosmic. The church will outlive the universe; in it the individual person will outlive the universe. Everything that is joined to the immortal Head will share his immortality…As mere biological entities, each with its separate will to live and to expand, we are apparently of no account; we are cross-fodder. But as organs in the Body of Christ, as stones and pillars in the temple, we are assured of our eternal self-identity and shall live to remember the galaxies as an old tale.”
Wannabe churches don’t understand how the church should present itself, so they compromise. They try to make the gospel seeker-friendly instead of trying to make people gospel-friendly. We don’t need to pander to unbelievers by looking like them or sounding like them or remaking our churches in their image. We need to shake and shock and love them out of the ditches they’ve fallen into and through the church doors into the cosmic congregation of saints where they can lay their sins and sufferings at the cross and join us as we hymn a three-in-one God.
We are different—we’re Christians. We belong to a cosmic body called the church. We don’t pursue the idol of cool, we are cool because we have the right answer, the gospel, that was given once for all time for everyone. McCracken’s book is an able critique of hipster Christianity and its sins of loving the world for it’s own sake, and He’s right that loving the world is something we should do for Christ’s sake, because it’s His.
Rating: read it.