A Theology for Hipsters (Part 8): The Evolution of Cool (Part 4)

In our own 21st century many of these same hippie themes (which we talked about last week) have persisted. Individualism rules the American conscience so that all things in our daily life are about self-expression and personal identity. It is this concept which so frustrates and frightens Brett McCracken and others. There is a real danger in individualism which McCracken explains as follows:

At its core, hip is an individual pursuit. It highlights me and seeks to determine how I can set myself apart, how I can advance my standing in the world, turn heads towards me, be noticed, be envied, and so on…In terms of Christianity, this self-centeredness is a problem. Evangelicalism already suffers under the effects of individualism, which permeates so much of the Western context of the post-Reformation Christian tradition. We’ve drifted away from the corporate tradition of Christianity and adopted a more malleable spirituality that traffics in phrases like do-it-yourself, self-help, and your best life now! We have moved from a collective Christianity to one of personal preference. As a result, individualism no longer seems to Christians like the cancer it is. We’ve gotten so used to the idea of individualism that something so wholeheartedly individualistic and self-serving as hip has become commonplace and even virtuous. But I’m convinced that it is actually a hindrance.[1]

He is right, of course. Christians are suppose to be “other focused” and not self-focused. And he is right to point out that the modern Christian culture is very much self-focused. Dr. David Platt has written extensively on the subject of the modern church’s self-indulgence. One relevant example that he speaks of in his book Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From The American Dream illustrates this plainly. Dr. Platt writes about a Christian newspaper he picked up which contained two strikingly distinct headlines:

On the left one headline read, “First Baptist Church celebrates New $23 Million Building.” A lengthy article followed, celebrating the church’s expensive new sanctuary. The exquisite marble, intricate design, and beautiful stained glass were all described in vivid detail. On the right was a much smaller article. The headline for it read, “Baptist Relief Helps Sudanese Refugees.” Knowing I was about to go to Sudan, my attention was drawn. The article described how 350,000 refugees in western Sudan were dying of malnutrition and might not live to the end of the year. It briefly explained their plight and sufferings. The last sentence said that Baptists had sent money to help relieve the suffering of the Sudanese. I was excited until I got to the amount. Now, remember what was on the left: “First Baptist Church Celebrates New $23 Million Building.” On the right the article said, “Baptists have raised $5,000 to send to refugees in western Sudan.” Five thousand dollars. That is not enough to get a plane into Sudan, much less one drop of water to people who need it. Twenty-three million dollars for an elaborate sanctuary and five thousand dollars for hundreds of thousands of starving men, women, and children, most of whom were dying apart from faith in Christ. Where have we gone wrong?[2]

The modern church’s obsession with self-indulgence, with individualism, with “cool” is not a hall mark of the Christian tradition found in the New Testament. Paul writes, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). This is the Christian way, yet the modern church seems to have lost sight of this principle. Nonetheless, I am not as convinced as McCracken is that this is the responsibility or the symptom of hipsterdome in particular, more likely it is a sin of Western Christianity.

In fact while I will concede, readily, the dangers of individualism there is also an important warning to be made regarding conformity. The assumption, which seems to lie behind McCracken’s words, that participation or inclusion into a community removes individuality, is a mistake, and a dangerous one at that. It is, in fact, this very assumption which has led numerous churches and missionaries into forms of legalism throughout church history. When pursuits of self-expression are automatically determined to be pursuits of sinful selfishness we are in danger of distorting the gospel and the community we are part of. A gospel community is not made up of people who all dress the same, act the same, have the same interests and hobbies, and come from the same background. A gospel community takes these people from various backgrounds, etc., and makes them one in Christ, but they do not lose their original differences. “There is neither Jew nor Greek,” fair enough, but in the new heaven and new earth God will have one people from “every tribe, tongue, and nation.” They do not cease to be from their various tribes, tongues, and nations when they get to heaven, rather these differences are incorporated into the joint identity of the family of God. This debate around the issue of individualism in the church was recently captured when Pastor John MacArthur criticized the work of a young trendy church planter Darrin Patrick.

[1] McCracken.

[2] David Platt, Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From The American Dream. Colorado Springs: Multnoma, 2010. 15-16.

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