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Hipster Christianity: A Review

November 2, 2010

A review of Hipster Christianity by Brett McCracken (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2010)

Brett McCracken’s exploration of ‘Hipster Christianity’ has been the subject of much discussion in recent months.  In September, my blog co-contributor Greg Stump published a post criticising McCracken’s entire project after McCracken was featured in Christianity Today.  Prominent Radical Orthodox theologian James K. A. Smith echoes Greg’s criticisms in his review of McCracken’s book Hipster Christianity, ultimately determining that McCracken is making a case against posers and not hipsters (authentically ‘cool’ people) per se.  This case might be further supported by n+1 co-founder Mark Greif’s recent New York magazine article, ‘What Was the Hipster?’, in which Greif determines that ‘hipsters’ are dead and what we see now are posers fuelled by consumerism and absolute pretension.  While I agree with these criticisms, I still believe Hipster Christianity has more to offer.

The concept of the ‘hipster’ is very complex (in a pretentious and inexplicable way, which is very fitting for those it represents) and may be entirely unfamiliar to some of the readers of this blog.  I suppose it is not customary to get personal in a book review, but a little bit about myself might actually help in analysing this book.  I was asked by a colleague to review this book because I am something of an insider to its content for several reasons, perhaps the most obvious of which has to do with my ‘style’.  Much like a cartoon character, I wear virtually the same thing every day: a tartan-laid western-style shirt (preferably one with snap buttons), all-black Converse All-Stars, and my skinny jeans (to accent the sexy Scottish legs with which I have been blessed).  My appearance mixed with my interest in the arts seems to make me a prime candidate for the title ‘hipster’.  I am also a Christian, so it appears that I am a ‘Christian hipster’, the subject of McCracken’s book.  It also helps that McCracken and I have frequented similar artistic/academic/ecclesiastical/social circles over the last few years (I spot the names of two of my good friends in the acknowledgments for Hipster Christianity and I know most of the models scattered throughout McCracken’s ‘Hipster Christianity’ website).  It is with this insider’s lens I will assess this book.

In his introduction, McCracken explains that his book ‘explores the whole concept of “cool” as it pertains to Christianity.’ (12)  He writes, ‘It’s about the contradictions inherent in the phenomenon of Christian cool and the questions Christians should be asking of themselves if they find themselves within this milieu.’ (13)  McCracken groups himself with the hipsters he defines in the third, fourth and fifth chapters of the book and makes clear that it is not his intention to write ‘some sort of how-to instructional or classification manual about whether someone is or isn’t a hipster.’ (14)  He writes,

‘Whatever categories and taxonomies of hipster that I might use in this book are not meant to be definitive introductions to some new type of people group; rather, they are meant to serve as examples of the large questions at stake—the questions of what happens when Christianity becomes cool and whether or not a fashionable, edgy, countercultural Christianity is a good thing for the church.’ (14)

McCracken uses the first of three sections of his book to explore ‘The History and Collision of Cool and Christianity’.  Here he sets out to provide a context for hipster Christianity and provides a great many definitions and labels (hipsters hate labels [but love irony]) in order to navigate through the maze of hipsterdom.   For those thirsting for a definition of hipster, McCracken provides his own: ‘Fashionable, young, independent-minded contrarian.’ (22)  Hipsters are ahead of their peers with regard to ‘coolness’ (‘cool’ being defined by McCracken as ‘[an] attractive attribute that embodies the existential strains to be independent, enviable, one-of-a-kind, and trailblazing’ [22]) in a quest for individuality and attention.

Throughout the book McCracken continues to label and define extensively, which leads to perhaps both Hipster Christianity’s greatest strength and most debilitating weakness: caricatures.

These caricatures are weak because they present images of Christian hipsters that are neither ‘Christian’ nor ‘hip’.  To borrow from James K. A. Smith, they are ‘posers’.  McCracken also reduces many of the thinkers, churches and movements to uncomfortable caricatures.  Early on in part two (‘Hipster Christianity in Practice’), McCracken explores ‘Christian Hipster Churches’ and asks, ‘Does the pastor frequently use words like kingdom, authenticity, justice, and N. T. Wright in sermons?’ (117)  This characterisation is troubling as a critique considering that these words (with the exception of N. T. Wright) sound a lot like the language used by Christ in the Gospels.

But here we discover the strength of McCracken’s caricatures: they serve as mirrors to expose that which is within us and is inevitably neither Christian nor cool.  We cringe when he takes things that we love—whether it is Paul Tillich or Tom Wright, Bob Dylan or Sufjan Stevens, American Beauty or Amélie—and associates them with these labels.  As an ‘insider’, my cringes are probably even more acute.  But beyond the great discomfort caused by the mere mentioning of these things we genuinely appreciate, things we would appreciate even if there was no one to look cool for, we are challenged to ask ourselves if the image we convey is actually reflective of being ‘Christians’ and being ‘hip’ or if we are merely posers.

Ultimately I think that McCracken has found something that sells and is running with it.  Even so, as he mentions in his introduction, very little attention has been given to studying hipsters (let alone Christian hipsters) and therefore he has done a brave and novel thing in Hipster Christianity.

But should we fear this so-called ‘hipster Christianity movement’?  I do not think so.  But while I side with the criticisms of Hipster Christianity that were mentioned earlier, I believe that McCracken’s ultimate aim is an invaluable one.  ‘Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities!  All is vanity.’  Is there anything new under the sun?  No.  The pretentiousness that characterises these ‘hipsters’—Christian and non-Christian—is a cancer.  But on a personal note, I wish that my pretences consisted exclusively of a ‘hipster’ image.  Instead, my pretences find their way into more serious parts of my character, damaging my relationship with God and my relationships with others; damages that should be obliterated if I truly lived in the reality of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We should not fear hipster Christianity, we should fear the self-deception that blinds us to God’s desires.

In all honesty, the coolest people I know, the people I am most challenged by and the people I most deeply desire to imitate, are those who love and serve others with the greatest humility.  It’s easy to be a ‘hipster’.  It’s difficult to be a Christian.

Elijah Wade Smith is a musician and visual artist pursuing his PhD at the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts at St Mary’s College, the University of St Andrews, as well as ordination as a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Church of Scotland.  He contributes to the blog Lost in the Cloud.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim permalink*
    November 2, 2010 9:56 am

    Elijah, thanks for this really insightful review!

    • November 2, 2010 10:29 am

      I’m glad that you were able to glean something from it. Thank you for your ever-encouraging words.

  2. November 2, 2010 11:28 am

    Well put.

  3. November 2, 2010 1:35 pm

    Elijah, i really appreciate the way in which you did incorporate your point of view as an ‘insider.’ But more than that, i think your punchline was well made, and important. What do you think this book offers to ‘outsiders’ within the church who want to love their neighbour but struggle to see beyond those things they don’t understand culturally? or who might altogether agree too much with McCracken’s critique of ‘Hipster Christianity”?

    • November 2, 2010 5:30 pm

      Anna,

      Thanks for the comment. My ‘insiderness’ doesn’t offer much more insight except that I think the issue is better diagnosed as a small product of a larger problem. Even if one adopts all of McCracken’s critique they will still come out with the same conclusion, so I am not really sure how it is different. In other words, a ‘hipster’ or ‘Christian hipster’ is still very much a person and has the same needs that any person might. Perhaps it is our job as Christians to constantly assure people that God loves them and therefore we love them, because of their worth – worth based entirely upon God’s grace and not upon their image, style, cleverness, etc. I think that is the real challenge. And when we keep sharing God’s love with others maybe we too will become convinced more thoroughly of God’s love for us.

      • Anna permalink
        November 3, 2010 2:13 pm

        Thanks for the clarification and the encouragement!

        I think this was the part of your comment that made me pause and reflect:

        “I think that is the real challenge. And when we keep sharing God’s love with others maybe we too will become convinced more thoroughly of God’s love for us.”

        Thanks for providing something helpful to meditate upon.

  4. Steve permalink
    November 2, 2010 9:10 pm

    It is sometimes said that fashions come and go, but especially go. I have not read the book(s) in question, but I suppose that Christianity always runs the risk of becoming fashionable, just as it always runs the risk of being unfashionable. In any given era, certain facets of Christianity will be attractive and culturally acceptable, while others will not, and so it will always attract its share of fashion-chasers so long as adherence is not actively persecuted by the culture at large.

    What is a serious, thoughtful Christian to do, then, when one finds oneself enjoying books that have suddenly become “cool”? Or making lifestyle choices that are currently trendy? One can become self-conscious about the fact that one is now a “trend-setter,” an “early adopter,” and decide to pursue still more fashionable material. In other words, one can succumb to the temptation to remain fashionable. Or, one can shrug one’s shoulders and continue to do what one thinks good, regardless of changing fashions. Rest assured, if N. T. Wright or Paul Tillich is fashionable this year, they will not be fashionable 20 years hence. But if you really enjoy them now, because you think them good and true and not because they are fashionable, then you will still learn from them when they have become unfashionable.

    This year, my own “hipster” credentials may be solid: graduate degree in liberal arts (check), fan Chesterton, O’Connor, and Berry (check), tends garden and composts yard waste (check), packs lunch in reusable containers (check), one-vehicle family (check)… In five years, ten years, who knows? I’d like to think that I enjoy such things regardless of whether they are fashionable, and that I will continue to enjoy them when they have become decidedly unfashionable. But we won’t know that for quite some time.

    • November 2, 2010 10:55 pm

      Steve,

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I’m with you (as are Greg and James, whose articles are linked in the first paragraph of this review).

  5. November 3, 2010 2:47 am

    Bring on the hipster Christians!!…Too many Christians and Christian ministers are out-of-touch, reactionary, anti-youth culture, archaic renditions of a past era and time. They are the kind of people that are no longer engaged with contemporary culture or its forms and expressions. Thus, it wouldn’t matter how much they banged on about ‘the kingdom’ or ‘justice’ or ‘righteousness’, the young and not so young of today wouldn’t pause to listen to them. Christianity must become more profane, urbane, mundane, and humane. Profane: outside the temple and in the marketplace. Urbane: more related to modern ways of living, rather than retreating into a nostalgic, medieval enclave. Mundane: more down to earth and street wise, and less worthy of the description “so heavenly minded they are of no earthly use.” Humane: more embracing of people’s humanity and human foibles…a bit like Jesus really….and less judgmental and expecting people to adhere to impossible and unrealistic moral maxims of their own making. More hipster really!!

    • November 3, 2010 11:28 am

      Chris,

      I appreciate and agree with your thoughts in part, but I would like to say that the ‘hipster’ you are encouraging is not the ‘hipster’ presented in Hipster Christianity. I would encourage you to read the book to see what Brett McCracken is getting at – pretentiousness. We can’t have pretentiousness encouraged in the Church. Authentically cool people, yes, pretentiousness, no.

      You offer this series of things that the Church must be ‘more’ like: profane, urbane, mundane, and humane. I find this interesting because it seems like McCracken has some words specifically for this sort of programme in his second section.

  6. November 8, 2010 10:52 pm

    Thanks…you have intrigued me enough to want to read it!

  7. November 27, 2010 7:00 am

    insightful, challenging words to chew on, perhaps more in the responses than article…thanks!

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