November 2, 2010 / Perspective
Today, as I write this, the world is learning about the death of Ronnie James …
October 4, 2010
Brett McCracken. Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010. 255 pages. $10.87 paperback (Amazon). Click here or on the image below to purchase Hipster Christianity from Amazon.com and help support The Other Journal.
When I was a teenager, I was religiously devoted to freestyle BMX: flatland, street, vert, all of it. It was my first real experience of something like a spiritual discipline. Every spare moment was spent on my bike; even in long Canadian winters, I carved out a space in our basement to keep riding. I custom-built a bike from select components, studied all the magazines, constructed my own quarter-pipe in the backyard, even published a zine for the emerging community of riders in my town. In my senior yearbook, my photo was accompanied by a cheesy maxim lifted from a Harley-Davidson ad: “I live to ride. For those who understand, no explanation is necessary. For those who don’t, no explanation is possible.”
For the small tribe of religiously devoted BMX freestylers, for whom riding was a way of life, there was nothing more grating or irritating than an even larger tribe that grew up around us: the tribe of posers—that band of kids who were taken more with the accessories than the experience. The posers were the group of rich kids who had all the best equipment, wore the latest shoes, sported the latest styles, and then generally spent their time sitting on the sidelines while the rest of us actually rode our bikes. They would scramble their bikes to the top of the ramp, but never actually drop in for a round. They’d be using all the right lingo on the deck of the pool, but never inch over the coping. They’d mull around the parking lot talking a big game, but never actually ride. They didn’t really want to ride; they were just after a look, an identity by association.
I invoke this scene because 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.
The general upshot of McCracken’s book seems to be remarkably similar to Tullian Tchividjian’s Unfashionable—namely, that Christians should be wary of trying to be au courant lest the desire to be “with it” trump the peculiarity and strangeness of the gospel.1 In short, being cool is dangerous because, in the process, the peculiar people of God become assimilated to the status quo. In this respect, the conclusion to Hipster Christianity reads like a gentler rendition of the more strident rants we’ve heard from people like D. A. Carson and David Wells (who is generously cited in the last three chapters of the book). The only difference is the target: whereas Wells and Carson (rightly, I should add) criticized the therapeutic, seeker-sensitive Willow Creeks and Saddlebacks of the boomer generation, McCracken sets his sights on his own generation: hip millennials who are taken with incense, hemp clothing, Wendell Berry, and Amnesty International. McCracken is worried that this is just the next generation of cultural assimilation in the name of relevance.
But 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.
I would think McCracken is too young to be this cynical. So I suggest something else is at work here: what we have in Hipster Christianity is a jaded ethnography written by someone who spent a youth-group-lifetime trying to be one of the cool kids. As such, it seems he can only imagine someone adopting a hipster lifestyle in order to strike a pose. This is confirmed by a crucial turn in the book: McCracken identifies the “birth of the Christian hipster” in 2003, “when the first issue of Relevant magazine was released” (88). Well, this explains quite a lot. Did I mention that McCracken was also a longtime contributor to Relevant magazine? If Relevant magazine is the epitome and embodiment of Christian hipsterdom, then pretty much everything McCracken says makes sense. Relevant magazine is simply the latest in a long line of evangelical subcultural production: derivative, secondary, reactionary, and dependent on wider cultural trends, all with the hopes of showing that following Jesus doesn’t really require one to be a loser. Indeed, the magazine’s very title is a signal that this is just the continuation of the seeker-sensitive project of the megachurch. Its edgy rendition of evangelical faith doesn’t really displace the fundamental, core values of a constituency still comfortable with the status quo of bourgeois American individualism, consumerism, nationalism, and militarism. In other words, being a Relevant-hipster is the sort of thing you can add to your life without really disrupting the rest of it. It’s a style, not a way of life.
But let me be very clear now: Relevant-magazine hipsters are really just posers. Like all the posers hanging around the half-pipes of my youth, these are people looking for cool by association, with a slight thrill of rebellion as a side-effect. And while McCracken’s analysis perhaps pertains to a bunch of suburban kids who have adopted hipster as a style—just as they might have adopted “urban” as a style—his analysis doesn’t even touch those students I know who, from Christian convictions, have intentionally pursued a lifestyle that rejects the bourgeois consumerism of mass, commercialized culture. They shop at Goodwill and Salvation Army because they have concerns about the injustice of the mass-market clothing industry, because they believe recycling is good stewardship of God’s creation, and frankly, because they’re relatively poor. They’re relatively poor because they’re pursuing work that is meaningful and just and creative and won’t eat them alive, and such work, although not lucrative, gives them time to spend on the things that really matter: community, friendship, service, and creative collaboration. And despite McCracken’s misguided claims about autonomy and independence (192-193), the Christian hipsters I know are actually willing to sacrifice the American sacred cow of privacy and independence, living in intentional communities as families and singles, working through all the difficulties and blessings of “life together” as Bonhoeffer describes it.2 In short, the lives of the Christian hipsters I know are a gazillion miles away from being worried about image or trendiness; they live the way they do because they are pursuing the good life characterized by well-ordered culture-making that is just and conducive to flourishing—and this requires resisting the mass-produced, mass-marketed, and mass-consumed banalities of the corporate ladder, the suburban veneer of so-called success, as well as the irresponsibility of perpetual adolescence that characterizes so many twentysomethings who imagine life as one big frat house.
This is why I think McCracken needs to revitalize another term in his lexicon: bohemian (he mentions it early on, confusing it with dandyism). Although he generically talks about Christian hipsters, there is a qualitative difference between a Shane Claiborne and the latest rendition of the megachurch youth pastor who slums it by buying a few things at Goodwill (to accessorize his jeans from the Buckle) and who presses his kids to donate to the ONE Campaign. Those who really deserve to be described as Christian hipsters might be better described as Christian bohemians who have intentionally resisted the siren call of the status quo, upward mobility, and the American way in order to pursue lives that are just, meaningful, communal, and peaceable. The Christian hipsters I know are pursuing a way of life that they (rightly) believe better jives with the picture of flourishing sketched in the biblical visions of the coming kingdom. They have simply discovered a bigger gospel: they have come to appreciate that the good news is an announcement with implications not only for individual souls but also for the very shape of social institutions and creational flourishing. They have come to appreciate the fact that God is renewing all things and is calling us to ways of life that are conducive to social, economic, and cultural flourishing as pictured in the eschatological glimpses we see in Scripture. They resonate with all of this, not because it’s cool, but because it’s true.
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.
In contrast to the Christian bohemian commitment to a good life that reflects the shape of kingdom flourishing, McCracken’s concluding chapters read like a naive, slightly whiny appeal to protect Jesus-in-your-heart evangelical pieties—which, of course, can sit perfectly well with the systemic injustice that characterize “normal” American life. While McCracken is focused on what he takes to be the hipster fixation on appearance (do we really need any more confirmation that McCracken doesn’t get it?), he calls us to remember “what really counts: our inner person” (203). This is the beginning of pages of tired evangelical clichés (“People should look at us and want what we have” ) that culminates in his individualist account of “being a Christian” which means “being transformed,” et cetera. So “how can we go on living like we did before once we have become Christians? And how can we possibly live like everyone else in the world when something so radical and transformative has happened in our lives?” (212) Yes, Mr. McCracken, that is indeed the question. And that’s exactly why my Christian bohemian friends refuse to live like all of those American evangelicals who have just appended a domesticated Jesus to the status quo of the so-called American Dream. Whereas it turns out you’re just worried that young Christians might be (gasp!) smoking and drinking a bit too much and have not sufficiently considered injunctions about dress in 1 Peter 3. Well, yes, indeed: those do seem like quite pressing matters for Christian witness in our postsecular world. By all means, let’s get our personal pieties in line. For as McCracken sums it up, “the Christian hipster lifestyle has become far too accommodating and accepting of sin” (200)—and by this, he means a pretty standard litany of evangelical taboos (did I mention sex?). It’s funny: my Christian hipster friends think conservative evangelicals have also become too accommodating and accepting of sin, but they tend to have a different inventory in mind—things like the Christian endorsement of torture and wars of aggression, evangelical energies devoted to policies of fiscal selfishness, and lifestyles of persistent, banal greed.
I think the reason these concerns don’t show up in Hipster Christianity is because McCracken lacks a theology of culture, and because of that, he has a tin ear for the issues of systemic (in)justice that really define the bohemian lifestyle of what we might call authentic hipsters. Indeed, while he tries to berate Christian hipsters for being individualists, McCracken’s understanding of Christianity is almost hopelessly individualist, fixated on matters of personal piety and individual salvation. Within that frame, authentic Christian hipsters don’t make much sense; such a life could only be a style, a pose. But precisely because McCracken lacks a sufficient theology of culture, and hence lacks any attention to systematic (in)justice, most of the Christian hipsters I know will never read this book; but all of the posers will.
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1. See Tullian Tchividjian, Unfashionable: Making a Difference in the World by Being Different (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books, 2009).
2. See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1954).
James K. A. Smith
James K. A. Smith is an associate professor of philosophy and an adjunct professor of congregational and ministry studies at Calvin College. He is also the executive director of the Society of Christain Philosophers and and a notable figure working at the intersection of Christian faith and postmodernism. He also is editor of the Church and Postmodern Culture book series published by Baker Academic. Smith is the author of Desiring the Kingdom, The Devil Reads Derrida, and several other books.