As evangelicalism has grown increasingly fragmented in recent years (or at least, as more articles get written saying it is), the labels to organize the different types of evangelicals have grown accordingly. We have emerging evangelicals, social justice evangelicals, the “young, restless, Reformed,” and just the “younger evangelicals.”
Brett McCracken has single-handedly added a new category to wrestle with: hipster Christians. It is a credit to his work that he has generated as much conversation that he has, but there has been more heat than light in the responses to his now (in?)famous Wall Street Journal piece on the subject.
With that in mind, I invited Brett to answer a few questions about what precisely hipster Christianity is, and whether anything from it is worth keeping around. His book, which I blurbed, is worth reading in full, as it is more nuanced and balanced than some have presented it.
Me: The fact that “hipster” is somewhat of a technical term seems to get lost on a lot of people. What does it mean to be a hipster?
“Hipster” is such a loaded, contested term, and indeed very confusing to a lot of people. Volumes could be written on the word’s meaning (or lack thereof). My definition of a hipster in the book is “fashionable, young, independent-minded contrarian,” which is admittedly vague and broad, but I think that’s appropriate given how vague and broad the term actually is in our culture today.
Essentially to be a hipster is to value that which is not mainstream, to go against the grain, to be interested in new expressions of fashion, art, culture, politics, etc., in a young/rebellious/countercultural sort of way. “Hipster” is just a more specific way of saying “the people who are cool.” But “cool” is even more vague and broad. At least with “hipster” we get specific images that pop into our mind (somewhat ostentatious-looking kids with beards, sunglasses, tattoos, vintage-looking clothes and a usually listless countenance). Whatever else it might mean (and it means a lot of things to people), “hipster” is a way of appearing and carrying oneself in the world.
Me: How compatible is being a “hipster” with Christianity?
This is, of course, one of the central questions of the book. And it’s not a simple yes-or-no type question. Some people have assumed that my book is a wholesale attack on all things hipster, but that’s absolutely not the case. There are a lot of good things about hipster culture that I think have little or no tension with Christianity, and which might even enhance it. The hipster affinity for art, culture, and both personal and corporate aesthetic expression seems to me to be a valuable and woefully under-cultivated sensibility within Christianity. The hipster inclination toward activism and social justice is also something that works well with the outward, mission-oriented nature of Christianity.
On the other hand, there seem to be qualities within the very nature of “hip/cool” that are incompatible with Christianity. To be a hipster, for example, is to loudly proclaim oneself as an individual, with individual/unique taste and personal aesthetic expression. Being a hipster also often requires a heightened sense of self-consciousness that can lead to pride/vanity. Within this there is an implicit elitism that says “I have better taste than the masses,” which I think is often quite alienating and off-putting. Christianity seems to call us away from these sorts of things, away from any sense of elitism or vanity and into a humble, other-focused state where we don’t think of ourselves more highly than we ought.
Me: I think there’s a perception in certain corners of evangelicalism that being hip is synonymous with being technologically sophisticated. How strong is the correlation?
I don’t think the correlation is very strong. Certainly there are types of hipsters that are very technologically sophisticated and have every Apple gadget imaginable. But I think many hipsters today are actually pretty skeptical of technology and tend to prefer real-life, material existence more than digital alternatives (though they DO wholeheartedly embrace music-downloading). When I think about who in culture is most technologically sophisticated–the people avidly using Twitter, apps, Kindles, etc–I almost think it is the slightly older, non-hipster crowd. The Christians who get most excited about having tech-savvy worship services with all the latest bells and whistles are usually NOT the hipsters. In fact, too much technological razzle dazzle in a worship context can often be Kryptonite for hipsters. That’s why I think we are seeing many hipsters opting to worship in more traditional church cathedrals or otherwise low-fi settings that are not outfitted with much in the way of technology. They connect with the ancient, transcdent aspects of Christianity and don’t necessarily need it to feel futuristic or like “Christianity 2.0.”
Me: You suggest in your book that being a hipster is simply one more lifestyle option to choose off the rack. Is consumerism with respect to our identity at all avoidable in our late modern world?
That’s a very good question. I’m not sure it is avoidable. Consumerism has become so crucial in how we define ourselves — I mean just look at our Facebook pages where identity is defined in terms of what products, groups, bands, movies we “like.” And even the most radical of hipsters has a hard time escaping it. They are defining themselves by their opposition to consumerism and attempts to subvert it by shopping at thrift stores or dumpster diving, freegan-style. But such things are still identity-markers bound up within a consumerist framework. To be “anti-consumerism” depends on a thriving consumerism. At the end of the day, it’s still all about defining ourselves by what we like and don’t like (I think the Facebook “like” button is a startling summation of our late modern world), and we have a very hard time articulating who we are outside of those terms.
That said, it’s not always a terrible thing to define oneself through the lens of consumerism. After all, we can truly like certain things in culture–music, movies, food, etc–that indeed cost us money, but nevertheless are things we are passionate about and can build community around. It can become problematic, however, when we define ourselves too much in these terms–to the point that we are unable to relate to people who don’t share our tastes or consumer preferences. In church, for example, I think we have to be careful that we have a community where all sorts of people can relate to one another on the level of sharing identity in Christ, rather than sharing “likes” such as trendy fashion, indie music, or (in the case of older folks) organ hymns and Fox News. Church should not be a place where you come and feel inferior or out-of-place because everyone else looks like an Urban Outfitters model. If our identities are deeper than our fashion and our “likes,” however, it will be easier to be a truly diverse, one-in-Christ Jesus body.
Me: Our friends over at Patrol critiqued you for presenting the Christian hipster phenomenon as “shallow.” How serious a movement is this, or is it simply posturing?
I think it’s natural for younger, idealistic Christian thinkers/writers to want to give our generation more credit than it is perhaps due. Every generation thinks it will correct the ills of the former generation and reform things, etc. Of course I hold some of this same hope, and am encouraged by much that I see when I look around at my young Christian peers. But I also see some things that deserve critique. Did Patrol expect my book to be a wholly affirming, “we’ve got it all right!” generational pat on the back?
In the book I try to portray “Christian hipsters” as having both positive and negative attributes, as with any subculture. There are definitely serious and meaty/beneficial things about hipster Christianity, as I describe in the chapters on, for example, social justice/missional and the Christian hipster appreciation of art. I don’t understand how someone could read those chapters as a trivializing dismissal of those perspectives, unless they assume the whole book is a trivializing dismissal of all things hipster. But that would be a misreading of the book.
Me: You took some heat for your WSJ article, particularly from John Wilson at Books and Culture. Obviously, you fill in the outline you gave there in your book quite a bit more. But you frame that piece around the exodus of young evangelicals from the organized church. How much of hipster Christianity has been shaped by the perpetual hand-wringing about this problem?
The part that is shaped by the “exodus of young evangelicals” problem is the institutional, church-level segment. At this level, the pursuit of “cool church” is most definitely influenced by an awareness of young people leaving church and a subsequent desire to make church more appealing and “cool” to those demographics. In my book, this is covered most specifically in chapter 10, “Wannabe Hip Churches” (the chapter which spawned the WSJ article). “Hipster Christianity” in it’s more organic, bottom up incarnation (e.g. communities of young people who are just trying to live out their faith in authentic ways) is not as influenced by these “exodus” concerns. In both the top-down and bottom-up manifestations of “cool Christianity” there is shared sense of concern over the image and position of Christianity in the world.
FCC Disclosure: I received a free copy of Hipster Christianity, but would have been delighted to endorse it anyway. It really is a fun read.