Hipsters, Bohemians, and Jamie Smith

Jamie Smith, the author of the excellent book Desiring the Kingdom (my review is here), has penned a scathing review of Brett McCracken’s Hipster Christianity.

I don’t plan on writing about this topic forever, but the review hits a strand of critique that I think worth mentioning.  Here’s Smith:

To be blunt (because I’m not sure how else to put this), the Christian bohemians I’m describing are educated evangelicals. So when McCracken lists (not so tongue in cheek) “ten signs that a Christian college senior has officially become a Democrat” (159), I’m sorry but the list just looks like characteristics of an educated, thoughtful Christian (and believe me, I’m no Democrat). Or when McCracken, in a remarkably cynical flourish in the vein of “Stuff White People Like,” catalogs the authors that Christian hipsters like (Stanley Hauerwas, Ron Sider, Jim Wallis, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Wendell Berry, N. T. Wright, G. K. Chesterton, and others; 97), he does so as if people could only “like” such authors because it’s “cool” to do so. But perhaps they’re just good. McCracken seems unable to really accept what Paste magazine editor Josh Jackson emphasizes: “It’s not about what’s cool. It’s about what good” (92). And if that’s true, then it should be no surprise that Christian colleges and universities are shapers of Christian hipster culture: if McCracken is lamenting the fact that Christian colleges are producing alumni that are smart and discerning with good taste and deep passions about justice, then we’re happy to live with his ire. The fact that young evangelicals, when immersed in a thoughtful liberal arts education, turn out to value what really matters and look critically on the way of life that has been extolled to them in both mass media and mass Christian media—well, we’ll wear that as a badge of honor.

Look, clearly there’s something good about all the authors Brett mentions.  I would rather read them than Left Behind, and it’s not because I’m a self-loathing hipster who happens to think he’s found enlightenment.  But describing Brett’s tone as one of “ire” and suggesting that he “laments” the advancement of young evangelical tastes seems neither generous nor accurate.  I’ll quote from 101, just after he lists hipster Christian models:

“But so go the paradoxes of Christian hipsters like [Lauren] Winner.  They are torn between the very liberal, humanistic impulses of academia and progressive culture on the one hand, and the somewhat archaic, inescapably old-school values of Christianity on the other.  But increasing numbers of young Christians are gracefully embracing this paradox.”

Or later, from his chapter on social justice:

“A defining characteristic of the new generation of cool young Christians is that they are aggressively on the side of activism, of social justice, of getting their hands dirty to serve others and help the world (though they sometimes speak more about it than actually do it).  Maybe it’s trendy, and maybe it’s predictable.  But this trend toward serving the world can really only be a good thing.

If that’s ire, we need more of it.

But Smith’s point about the role education plays is worth noting.  He’s right that hipster Christians tend to be more educated than their parents.

But just because we all happen to have gone to college doesn’t mean that we’re free from the possibility that our beliefs are more influenced by trends than we might consciously realize.  As Smith knows, knowledge has a social dimension to it (or see here).  It is filtered to us by institutions, institutions which sometimes are as motivated by trendiness as they are by truth.  The academy is as littered with fads as the dumpsters behind malls are, but there seems to be a presumption in Smith’s critique and in many of the responses to Brett’s book that currently popular beliefs are exempt from this possibility.

And pointing the possibility out is apparently enough to get tarred as “someone who spent a youth-group-lifetime trying to be one of the cool kids.”

Smith is right to suggest that not everyone who believes in social justice is a poser.  But the question of whether and how much we are affected by trends is at least worth considering, and Brett’s book attempts to do that.  His attempt may be imperfect, but for every young evangelical who is willing to raise critiques of people our own age, there are a dozen who think we’re the hope of the world.

And why wouldn’t we?  It’s precisely what we’ve been told since kindergarten.


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  • http://notesfromasmallplace.wordpress.com Jake Meador

    Matt – I think a big part of the problem with things like Stuff Christians Like or Hipster Christianity is that, even if this isn’t their intent, the very nature of the titles suggests a cynical postmodern reading that attributes all these traits to situatedness – “Oh, you like Wendell Berry because you’re a Christian hipster,” etc.

    I think if Acuff and McCracken were more thoughtful in their choice of titles a lot of these problems could be avoided because, as you note, their actual writing is not as cynical as their titles. Of course, it’s possible that a different title wouldn’t sell as well as those two more provocative options. But that simply raises a further question of what guides our decisions as writers, publishers, and readers. Are we looking for a provocative title that will generate sales – even if it’s a bit dishonest as a statement of the book’s argument? (IE Horton’s Christless Christianity) Or are we making accuracy our first concern and letting the cleverness and provocation fall into place as matters of secondary importance?

  • Alissa

    I suspect we can thank the publishers for the titling …

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  • http://mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Lee Anderson

    Jake,

    Alissa is doubtlessly right about the titling. Controversy sells books, and that’s what they are in it for. It’s a hard temptation to avoid. I mean, call something “vocation” and everyone smiles and nods. Call it “faithful presences” and the world comes knocking because you’ve said something new. : )

    Matt

  • Russ

    If Smith’s review is “scathing,” then let’s have more of it. It’s simply a direct argument exposing what he views as the books inadequacies. This is considered normal in most book reviews, but exceedingly rare in evangelical circles, where every book, regardless of quality, is loaded down with endorsements and rave reviews (John Wilson is, of course, an exception, and it’s worth noting that he was more harsh than Smith).

    Nor am I convinced that Smith’s use of “ire” is inaccurate, since all the “Anatomy of a Christian Hipster” stuff used to promote the book strikes me as snarky and mean-spirited.

  • http://mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Lee Anderson

    Russ,

    I have no problem with harsh and direct words about books that aren’t good. I have often written those sorts of reviews myself.

    But Smith’s review actually goes beyond the book toward psychoanalyzing Brett himself, which I think is problematic for any review.

    But look, if you have to point to promotional material to defend Smith’s use of “ire,” then I don’t know what to tell you. It was a book review, and you have to let the book stand on its own merits. Part of the problem with the book is that everyone came to it with expectations that it was going to be dismissive, so that’s what they see.

    Besides, hipsters adore snark. They brought the word back into common discourse. Except, apparently, when it is turned against them. Then they just get mad.

    • http://www.xristopher.com Chris

      Are you suggesting that Dr. Smith is a hipster? I think the differences between you and he are deeper: he is a reformed, presbyterian, Dooyeweerdian philosopher, and you are a Baptist, no?

      • http://mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Lee Anderson

        I don’t think I’m claiming he’s a hipster. I mean, I think some hipsters might be bohemians, so he may be. I don’t know. Does it matter?

        And no, I’m not Baptist actually.

        • http://www.xristopher.com Chris

          Apologies. Being a graduate of Biola and sitting on the editorial board of the City, one would assume…

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  • Doc B

    Smith is certainly a master of the ad hominem without saying much about the content of the argument.

  • http://www.xristopher.com Chris

    Books like the one under discussion never really point to any moral or doctrinal failure specifically. They are written based on assumptions about law and ethics that fall outside the sphere of classical, reformed Christianity- the pietism of American Fundamentalism.

    And, if you read the Scriptures closely, you will find Ad Hominem attacks used quite frequently, by the prophets, by the Lord. A spade is a spade. McCracken’s book is just a distraction away from robust Biblicism.

    • http://mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Lee Anderson

      Chris, have you read it yet? You might be surprised at how NOT critical it is.

      At any rate, is writing a book like this the sort of moral evil that requires the type of ad hominen we see in Scripture, or are you basing that claim on “assumptions about law and ethics that fall outside the sphere of classical, reformed Christianity?” :)

      matt

      • http://www.xristopher.com Chris

        No, but I have spent some time at his site on the book. He mocks and cajoles, even as he seems to want to be somehow inside the very thing he attacks. The whole promotional aspect of the book is set up to stereotype the people he writes about. It is patronizing while being strangely conflicted. I would be categorized as “The Artistic Searcher”, but the description is so insulting it is difficult not to respond in kind to McCracken.

        My response is visceral, not because he has nailed me (which he doesn’t at all), but because of the very nature of stereotyping that is so prevalent in Protestant America. He comes across as an arrogant and ignorant ass.

        Smith’s assessment— the psychological take — is spot on in this regard. McCracken appears to be what was once called a wannabe, and is quite frustrated at his own failures to enter in. But hey, he got on CNN so that is one thing he has done well.

  • http://www.patrolmag.com Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

    Matt,

    I have two responses to your comments here. The first has to do with the mistake that I think you and others who have discussed Smith’s review are making. You noted in your post and further in the comments that “Smith’s review actually goes beyond the book toward psychoanalyzing Brett himself, which I think is problematic for any review.” While you are certainly right that this generally should raise a flag when reading a book review (and for a moment while reading Smith’s piece I felt the same sense of alarm) Smith is not actually saying anything that McCracken himself hasn’t said. Early in the book he admits to being the kind of youth group kid that Smith identifies. What Smith did is made a connection that McCracken himself didn’t, which is that the book was an exercise in putting himself at the epicenter of hip.

    My second point won’t surprise you, we’ve discussed this before, but I can’t see why even in a case that is so universally agreed upon as this one, your argument falls on the side opposite your peers. It seems like you look for any excuse to join those in the older generation who look down their nose at the rest of us and say we do what we do, and believe what we believe, because we want to be cool. I thought for sure that when writers as respected in evangelical circles as Wilson and Smith were able to point out this flaw in McCracken’s reasoning you would be able to see the light. But here you are still defending him and his view that any young evangelical who comes to different conclusions than prior generations is on a desperate quest for hipness.

    On the contrary, this is how progress happens. We identify where those who came before us erred and we try to move beyond it. At times this progression may align itself with the progression of the culture at large, but to chalk it up to peer pressure or rebellion or any of the other things that myself, writers at Patrol, and scores of other young believers are accused of is missing the point in a big way.

    You’re one of us Matt, millenial for better or worse. Own it!

    • http://mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Lee Anderson

      Jonathan,

      Couple thoughts in reply: “What Smith did is made a connection that McCracken himself didn’t, which is that the book was an exercise in putting himself at the epicenter of hip.”

      Okay, and how he knows that is anyone’s guess. It’s the sort of deconstructive reading of a text that’s just not charitable to the author.

      “My second point won’t surprise you, we’ve discussed this before, but I can’t see why even in a case that is so universally agreed upon as this one, your argument falls on the side opposite your peers. It seems like you look for any excuse to join those in the older generation who look down their nose at the rest of us and say we do what we do, and believe what we believe, because we want to be cool. I thought for sure that when writers as respected in evangelical circles as Wilson and Smith were able to point out this flaw in McCracken’s reasoning you would be able to see the light. But here you are still defending him and his view that any young evangelical who comes to different conclusions than prior generations is on a desperate quest for hipness.”

      With all due respect, I didn’t get the memo that the interpretation of the book offered by Patrol and Jamie Smith had reached the status of “universally agreed upon,” or that trying to be appropriately critical of our own generation meant that I am “trying to find any excuse to join those in the older generation.” I’d point out that I actually offered *textual reasons* why I think Smith’s interpretation of the book is wrong. Yet that is really tantamount to lobbying for a spot on the CT masthead? Perhaps dismissing me is easier than re-evaluating your interpretation of the book to see if it is accurate.

      But I’ll say a bit more. When you say, “You’re one of us Matt, millenial for better or worse. Own it!” it seems like you’re suggesting that in order to be a “millenial” we have to walk the Patrol party line, which (hyperbolically) seems to amount to this: traditional evangelicals have screwed everything up and we millenials are going to fix it all. Is there room for dissenting opinion within the millenial generation? Is it possible to suggest that as a strategy of cultural criticism we should apply Jesus’ command of attempting to see the plank in our own eyes before we pluck the speck from our parents’? Self-criticism is a sign of health in any movement, and if that’s not possible within the realm of younger (post)evangelicalism, then the movement is in trouble before it even starts.

      If you want to think that I am selling out my generation so that I can receive praise from the evangelical establishment, so be it. I’d argue the evidence suggests otherwise. I’d bring forth the facts of the case, but given your response to my bringing up the textual facts regarding HC, I suspect it won’t make much of a difference. Once the narrative is set, it’s apparently tough to change.

      “But here you are still defending him and his view that any young evangelical who comes to different conclusions than prior generations is on a desperate quest for hipness.”

      That is not my view. Additionally, I think a careful reading of Brett’s book indicates that it is not his view either.

      Look, there was lots I agreed with in Jamie’s review. But frankly, I’d rather spend our time debating the book on its merits, using textual evidence to make the case. Jamie offers his review. I offer textual evidence to say that he’s wrong. Maybe he comes back with a counter-argument or an explanation of that evidence. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. To modify how you put it, “We identify where those [interpretations] before us erred and we try to move beyond [them].” That’s all I’m trying to do, is bring clarity to what Brett has and has not said. I’m open to hearing textual arguments for why you think I’m wrong that the book doesn’t deserve the sort of hostile language Jamie imports to it. Then maybe we can all move beyond our current state in our attempt to find understanding.

      Best regards,

      Matt

      • http://www.patrolmag.com Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

        Matt,

        Thanks for responding. I, of course, agree that any movement must be self-critical. Thus, I enjoy it when you challenge those of us who land to the left of you on several issues. Your critique of the work of Patrol has always been welcome, and you know that. To be honest, I’m really not interested in talking about HC anymore. Sessions and I offered our two cents, others gave similar opinions and, as far as I’m concerned, enough has been said. I respect that you disagree with my and others’ reading, but it seems to me that if so many people come to the same conclusions the fault may lie in the text, and not in the readers.

        I think its a bit harsh to say you’re selling out your generation for praise from the evangelical establishment. Those aren’t my words and I’d never put it so strongly. I know that you sincerely have more conservative views, I just don’t understand why. That is why we will continue to debate, God willing, for years to come.

  • Eric

    “But the question of whether and how much we are affected by trends is at least worth considering, and Brett’s book attempts to do that. ”

    You seem to be making the same mistake that Smith claims Brett is making – assuming that people who buy into some of these trends don’t consider whether or how we are affected by them, when in fact many do.

    I’m also curious why you think that Smith presumes that current popular beliefs are exempt from critique. On the contrary, he basically defines a poser who uncritically accepts whatever is cool and a bohemian is somebody who actually thinks about these trends and adopts them if they are in line “with the picture of flourishing sketched in the biblical visions of the coming kingdom.”

  • Keith Miller

    “You might be surprised at how NOT critical it is.”

    Exactly!

    I came away from the Jamie Smith review thinking that he had read an entirely different book. From my reading, McCracken is *very* sympathetic to the Christian Hipsters he documents, and whatever “ire” the book contains is not targeted at Smith’s students at Calvin, but at wannabe-hip pastors eager to appropriate the latest aesthetic trend.

    Keep up the good work, Mr. Anderson.

  • http://thechristianleader.blogspot.com Zack Skrip

    “this is how progress happens. ” – Jonathan F.

    To some extent I would agree with you. In the “My daddy beat my brother until he rebelled and started using drugs, therefore I’m not going to beat my kids the way my daddy did” – kinda way. Otherwise, the modernistic idea of progress is totally antithetical to biblical anthropology. Anthropologically we are not progressing.

    George Whitfield had slaves and the largest constituent of planned parenthood in the area of my (Christian, Evangelical) Alma Mater was girls from my school. The blindspots may change, but the people don’t. Don’t delude yourself into thinking you’re better than the previous generation.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/returntorome/ Francis Beckwith

    Here’s a real hipster:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jej5d2kYjuQ

    For the record, putting Jim Wallis in the same sentence with G. K. Chesterton is like having Miley Cyrus open up for Bob Dylan.

    I have a new label for the sorts of reviews Smith publishes: pacifist aggressive. (Use it, but give me credit).

  • nathan

    all of the above being said, Smith is dead on when it comes to anyone thinking “hipster” is embodied in Relevant magazine, etc.

    I’ve read the book, the blog posts, etc. etc. To me, the author merely succeeded in describing the sub-cultural ghetto that is consumer evangelicalism, in particular…and maybe “humans” in general when it comes to the attitudes, etc.

    Smith may have been harsh in places, but he’s generally right and his taxonomy of poser vs. hipster is a penetrating corrective the mushy broad brush of McCracken.

    At the end to the day, only evangelicals have the luxury of problematizing the shallow fashion choices of educated urbanists as somehow indicative of their ‘character’ and hearts…

    it’s rings as hollow as the silly discussions about if Jesus would drive an expensive car or the fundies at pensacola banning “cargo style” pants because they were…gasp!…fashionable…and therefore worldly.

    McCracken’s book is a waste precisely because he drills down on the “hipster” label…

    but it is kind of nice that he was able to do some of his writing at some cool, musty UK university library…i mean, that totally adds cred to his work.

    and no..i’m not a hipster by any stretch. I just see hooey.

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/returntorome/ Francis Beckwith

      When do the grown-ups return home and take back Evangelicalism?

      • Nathan

        What would that (i.e. “grownups” and grownups taking it back) look like to you?

  • nathan

    one last thing…

    can you imagine how bent out of shape people would be if someone wrote a book impugning the character and motives of middle class Christians who have chosen the relative safety and social respectability of suburbia? (where I happen to live.)

    This whole “feeling” something is an issue and then making claims about the interior life of others is a bad practice in evangelicalism.

    • http://mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Lee Anderson

      “can you imagine how bent out of shape people would be if someone wrote a book impugning the character and motives of middle class Christians who have chosen the relative safety and social respectability of suburbia? (where I happen to live.)”

      Actually, yes. I suspect most evangelicals would eat it up. I haven’t read it, but I gather that the premise of David Platt’s Radical is something close to this…and it’s a best-seller. Self-loathing runs deep in our movement.

      • nathan

        actually, you have a point…to me McCracken’s book, in light of Smith’s taxonomy, might simply be an exercise in said self-loathing.

        • http://mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Lee Anderson

          Perhaps. Have you read it? Can you point me to passages that make you think it is?

          • nathan

            my bad, in my hurry i meant to pose the statement more as a question…

            but, yes, I have read it…the “self-loathing” idea would need to percolate for me since I really had settled in on the idea that the book has struck me as the flip side of ‘self-loathing’: namely, problematizing “the surface” and making broad sweeping claims about “trends”…

            what do you think? Obviously, you’re a little more sympathetic than I am to the work…

  • Christopher Benson

    Against McCracken and Smith, I wrote my own blog post on the topic: “Hipster Christian: Signified without a Signifier.”

    http://bensonian.org/2010/10/09/hipster-christian-signified-without-a-signifier.

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  • http://www.calvin.edu/~jks4 James K.A. Smith

    Matthew,

    I’m late to the dance here, and haven’t generally been responding to blog traffic about my review, but you and I share some common concerns, so I hope you don’t mind just one interjection from me. Of course, we don’t have to agree on these issues, but perhaps I could clarify a couple of things:

    1) First, I would note that any careful reader of my review will find that I do agree with McCracken on some points, even a very basic point–viz., that evangelical concern for “relevance” is an idol that primes us for assimilation. Further, I also agree that his book is, to some extent, a just critique of what I call “posers.” So it’s not like my review some sort of scorched earth rejection. This is also why it’s just false of you to suggest that I somehow think contemporary ideas/trends get a “free pass.” No one who has read my work could suggest that, and I know you’ve read at least some. So that puzzled me. More to the point, there’s not a jot or tittle in the review that suggests what you claim in the end of your post.

    2) If I’m guilty of ad hominem, then McCracken’s book is ad hominem from beginning to end. You seem to suggest I’m guilty of ad hominem for my little bit of “psychoanalyzing.” (A lot of people seem to think that any critique which is strident must be ad hominem, but that’s clearly false.) But as one commenter already noted, in fact I was basing this on clues within the book, and also trying to account for McCracken’s cynical voice. Furthermore, if my conjecture is ad homimem, then Hipster Christianity is one long train of the same, since McCracken seems to think he knows the interior motivations of his peers. In short, he does his own psychoanalyzing.

    3) Your post seems to ignore the core critique in my review, namely McCracken’s lingering individualism and his naive (or lack of) theology of culture.

    FWIW. Yours in hopes for close and careful readings, Jamie.

    • http://mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Lee Anderson

      Professor Smith,

      Thanks for the reply, which is MOST welcome. In fact, in the interest of fairness, I’m going to put it on Mere-O’s front page. Let me say just a couple quick things in reply, then you can have the final word (if you want it).

      “This is also why it’s just false of you to suggest that I somehow think contemporary ideas/trends get a “free pass.” No one who has read my work could suggest that, and I know you’ve read at least some. So that puzzled me. More to the point, there’s not a jot or tittle in the review that suggests what you claim in the end of your post.”

      Yeah, I tried to hedge my critique a bit by saying “there seems to be a presumption…” I am happy to know that you are critical of contemporary trends/ideas. I think my worry is that (for all of us) there is a temptation to be only critical of those ideas which we see in others, and not in ourselves.

      As for my final line, I confess I didn’t actually have your review directly in mind, but rather the general tenor of the responses to Brett’s book. I’m terrible at concluding sentences, and doubtlessly missed the mark on that one.

      “But as one commenter already noted, in fact I was basing this on clues within the book, and also trying to account for McCracken’s cynical voice. Furthermore, if my conjecture is ad homimem, then Hipster Christianity is one long train of the same, since McCracken seems to think he knows the interior motivations of his peers. In short, he does his own psychoanalyzing.”

      Well, I think we heard different things in the book. I don’t think Brett is cynical. I think he’s snarky, but then he’s a hipster and we should expect that. And I tried to find passages (there are others) that disprove that he is a cynic. As for the psychoanalyzing claim, I’ll have to think more about that. I read Brett as much more corporately oriented. I won’t speak for him, but I suspect he might say something like, “People arrive at these positions for all sorts of reasons. Here’s one bad one by which some people arrive at them (namely, being cool).” That’s a different argument, though, than something like “X arrived at these conclusions because of attempting to work out his personal angst.”

      3) “Your post seems to ignore the core critique in my review, namely McCracken’s lingering individualism and his naive (or lack of) theology of culture.”

      Apologies. I left it alone because I don’t know whether I agree with it or not. Brett does mention at least one cultural theorist (if Adorno counts), and I suspect there are others. I don’t know whether that counts for a naive theology of culture or not, though. And as for individualism, I am probably more sympathetic to it (if we can reform and rehabilitate it) than you are. As a point of theological method, I’ll likely go with O’Donovan on this point, rather than Hauerwas. : )

      Thanks for taking the time to reply. I appreciate it enormously, and your voice and thoughts are among those which I have the highest respect for.

      Best,

      Matt

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  • http://www.patheos.com/community/returntorome Francis Beckwith

    “What would that (i.e. `grownups’ and grownups taking it back) look like to you?”

    If you have to ask, then you never knew them. Before you denounce your patrimony, you should check your paternity.

    • nathan

      Dr. Beckwith,

      ouch.

      I was genuinely asking because I think your insight would be of value…

      fwiw, i am aware of my “spiritual paternity”…all too aware, and it took “godless apostate liberals and catholics” , in the parlance of my classic paternity, to remind me of the positive resources of my evangelical heritage. those supposedly “off the rails” folk are the ones who, in grad school, gently challenged me to better understand and appreciate where I came from. (At the same time decimating the stereotypes that I had been handed.)

      I don’t say this to be hostile or argumentative. I only signal this to try to communicate with you that there is, at least what I hope is, an ever growing, realistic, and fair minded grasp of where I came from.

      It’s an inescapable part of my theological identity and one that informs the work I do now and the work I did in grad school.

      again, I was sincerely asking for your thoughts.

      I’m sorry that I must have come off as otherwise…

      Hoping you’ll reply to my original inquiry.

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