A Theology for Hipsters (Part 1)

As I type this I am sitting in a dimly lit coffeehouse sipping on my mocha, and praising Jesus for my iPad. I come here often because I enjoy the atmosphere. The owners like to play Sufjan Stevens, Mumford & Sons, and Bob Dylan over the sound system; I approve. And the shop is big on social justice. Their bulletin board is full of events going on in the community where average people can get involved and make a difference. Oh, and the coffee is good too; they’ve got the awards to prove it, but they don’t flaunt. You’d never even know that Donkey Coffee (in Athens, OH) is “the best coffee in Ohio.” You would, however, know that they are “coffee with a conscious.” That’s why all their beans are bought fair-trade. The spot is a major trendy hangout for hipsters, Bohemians, and the like. Most come from the nearby Ohio University, but some are just local townies from Athens proper. It’s the kind of place where you can smoke home-grown tobacco on the front porch, talk about Jean Paul-Sartre or Augustine in knitting circles in the front, or enjoy a local folk band in the stage room. It’s my kind of place and I guess this makes me one of them: a “hipster” or bohemian, or…whatever.

Of course to label these folks seem completely asinine. But that’s what we like to do. We like to create labels so we can categorize people. It helps us make decisions about them without having to get to know them. We stereo-type people for our own benefit because it makes life easier. Think about a show like The Real World. They’ve made their mark on entertainment by playing into these stereotypes with full intentionality. Chuck Klosterman is right, even if he writes with a bit of tongue-in-cheek, when he highlights that the show has categories[1]: Angry black man who thinks everything is about race; dumb, large breasted, blond; backwards Christian; jock; and crazy alcoholic. Of course that’s not a real picture of society, and of course the show is edited to present its picture, but that’s what we’ve come to embrace as real. Quarterbacks don’t sing in musicals (regardless of what Glee says), and people don’t like death metal and blue grass. The truth is, of course, that some people (most people) are very eclectic in their interests and tastes. Some people like playing Halo for Xbox and reading heavy theology at the park (In fact I know this guy). Some people enjoy playing pick up games and watching foreign films (another friend of mine). So the stereo-types aren’t really true, but we persist in using them. We group people together, label them with one big sweep of the brush and think we know individuals.[2] In recent years this has been the case among Christian critiques of the specific subculture called Christian “hipsters”.[3]

Christian “hipsters,” for lack of a better term, are being criticized to date for being too culturally obsessed, too progressive, and for contaminating the church. Over the course of this work I will address these criticisms in detail. There are certainly warnings to be heard in the criticisms and none of them is necessarily unfounded. The failure of the criticism, however, lies in their broad application and lack of distinction. This is most clearly seen in Brett McCracken’s 2010 release Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide.[4]

Hipster Christianity is at once one of the most interesting and most frustrating books I read last year. The concept for the book was incredibly attractive to me. A cultural analysis of a particular young Christian subculture today as it reacts to growing up in fundamentalist circles and suddenly discovering a larger world. The reviews of the book were a bit disappointing as they seemed to indicate McCracken was simply lambasting young people for contaminating the church and the gospel with the culture. But having read the book I am convinced that neither of those statements truly represents the book itself, which is perhaps why it’s so frustrating. It’s very hard to pinpoint exactly what McCracken is attempting to accomplish with this work. His definition of “Hipster” doesn’t seem to help either: fashionable young people. The definition is so broad and so soft that it may be more indicative of just how hard defining “hipster” really is. McCracken gives a nod to this reality but pushes on ahead anyways. For him “hipsters” are basically defined by their obsession with style, and for part two of the work he builds his case by analyzing every “form” of Christian hipster on display in the culture. His analysis consists of what they wear, what music they like, and what “vices” they indulge in. So you might be a Christian Hipster if…

You don’t like Pat Roberts, TBN, Joel Osteen, CCM, American flags in churches, phrases like “soul winning” and “nondenominational.” And if you prefer the term “Christ follower” over “Christian.”

You like left-wing politics, smoking, drinking, swearing, communion with real port and common cups, tattoos, piercings, skateboarding, social justice, art and buying organic.

Your role models include (but are not necessarily limited to): Sufjan Stevens (he is apparently Christian hip epitomized, according to McCracken), Shane Claiborne, Lauren Winner, Jay Bakker, Donald Miller, Mark Driscoll, and Rob Bell.

You went to a Christian college (especially Calvin College), studied abroad (especially Oxford), or did missions work in Zambia post graduation.

You wear skinny jeans, Jesus kitsch tees, vintage, thrift, or retro clothes, or Kenneth Cole apparel.

My contention with all of this is that it is so broad, and takes so little consideration of major distinguishing features, that it seems little more than humorous, and that’s how most of the book feels. McCracken is witty and sarcastic, even sardonic, at times. I laughed out loud, even when I hated feeling like he had pegged me in one of his categories. But the reality is that he has pegged just about everyone I know in one of his categories. If you like ancient religious practices with a bent towards Eastern Orthodox worship you’re a hipster. If you like high technological usage, like tweeting during the sermon, then you’re a hipster…and seemingly everything in between. If you’re a yuppie or a starving artist you’re a hipster. If you’re a Calvinist or an Emergent you’re a hipster. And this all just seems like nonsense after a while.[5] McCracken offers some good warnings and cautions to young Christian hipsters, but that in and of itself is not new. Others, with more authority, have given those same warnings.[6] What McCracken has done, however, is to lump all young 20 something Christians together and to accuse them of being obsessed with being cool and stylish. It’s quite an unfair and ridiculous bias.

Dr. James K.A. Smith has offered a great critique, if a bit biting, of McCracken’s work. He writes:

I think poser is a relevant, important term missing from Brett McCracken’s lexicon in Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. And in very important ways, McCracken’s project is lexical. He spends several preparatory chapters amassing a catalog of terms that will be regularly used in the book: cool, hip, trendy, fashionable, relevant, savvy, stylish, even “supercool.” But because this lexicon doesn’t include poser, McCracken’s analysis ends up being reductionistic: he thinks anyone who looks like a “hipster” is really just trying to be “cool.” This, I think, tells us more about Mr. McCracken than it does about so-called hipster Christianity.

…his analysis only works if, in fact, all hipsters are really just posers. That is, McCracken effectively reduces all hipsters to posers precisely because he can only imagine someone adopting such a lifestyle in order to be cool. Let me say it again: this tells us more about McCracken than it does about those young Christians who are spurning conservative, bourgeois values.[7]

In all fairness it does seem that McCracken is simply picking up on the popular stereo-types and using them in his work. Others before him have made the same assumptions about “hipsters” and determined that “cool” is all that really matters to them.[8]

It is precisely this type of bias and stereotype that necessitates a more thoughtful and honest evaluation. I of course have my biases, there’s no escaping that. But even if my evaluation and analysis is simply from the other side it has its place in balancing the scales. It will be my goal to give more thoughtful examinations of Christian hipsters and their role in the culture and the church today. I believe that this subculture has much to offer the church and will be a great force for years to come. With that being, said, I should add that I am not as convinced as others that hipsters are the salvation of the church. As with all extremes there are two poles and it is necessary that I turn my attention momentarily to the other one.

[1] Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto.  New York: Scribner, 2004.

[2] Facebook has not helped us in this regard. If you want to know who a person is you can click on their profile, which amusingly consists of what music they like, movies they watch, and books they read. This does not knowledge of a person make. For more on this particular subject I highly recommend Alan Noble, “Your Life In 12 Words Or Less: The Dehumanizing Effect of Facebook Profiles, Personal Ads, and Eulogies.” Christ and Pop Culturehttp://www.christandpopculture.com/television/your-life-in-12-words-or-less-the-dehumanizing-effect-of-facebook-profiles-personal-ads-and-eulogies/

[3] I will continue to use “hipster” at various points throughout this work because it is the word that critics and other analysts are using. It is not my choice word, however, because originally it was (and largely still is) used in a derogatory fashion.

[4] Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010.

[5] Much of this section was pulled from my article “Hipster Christianity: Did You Know That You’re A Hipster?” Christ and Pop Culture. http://www.christandpopculture.com/featured/hipster-christianity-did-you-know-that-youre-a-hipster/

[6] See D.A. Carson, Becoming Conversant With the Emergent Church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005. David F. Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.

[7] James K.A. Smith, “Poser Christianity: A Review of Brett McCracken’s Hipster Christianity.”  The Other Journal.com http://www.theotherjournal.com/article.php?id=1034

[8] Robert Lanham, The Hipster Handbook. Garden City: Anchor, 2003.  Joe Mande, Look At This F*cking Hipster. New York: St. Peter’sGriffin, 2010.

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