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Hipsters, Faith, and Truth

2010 August 20

So Brett McCracken has been getting a lot of press recently for his book criticizing and making fun of so-called hipster Christians. And yes, here I go giving him more press by adding my “Seriously? You’ve got to be kidding, right?” thoughts into the fray (which is a typical response I’ve been hearing to his stuff, which Daniel Kirk gave best of here and here). And just to clarify (since I know people will say it), it’s not that I think “hipsters,” or culture or the emerging church (which btw, McCracken, is still very alive and well) or discussions about sex or social networking or whatever are above critique. On the contrary, I think any discerning person will constantly be engaged in a critique of the world around them. We are by nature unceasingly in dialogue with our culture – a culture which is not inherently good or bad, but must be assessed and measured as we swim through its waters. Popular culture is not a construct that we can escape; it is a reflection of our collective conscious (for good or for ill). Outright acceptance or rejection of such culture simply because it is popular demonstrates a severe lack of understanding of how we as social creatures even construct reality (although it may sell books). So this isn’t a defensive response to critique, it is a call for informed dialogue.

For full disclosure, I haven’t fully read Hipster Christianity yet – just extended excerpts (thank you Amazon “look inside”), summaries and reviews and articles and blog posts McCracken has written. I don’t know McCracken, but I do have to say that discovering recently on his blog that he was a fellow Wheaton College grad who lived in Traber dorm (a stereotype that only fellow Wheaties will understand) helped clarify his cultural influences for me as well as explain his obsession with C.S. Lewis (who at Wheaton was referred to as St. Jack or “the fourth member of the Trinity). But I did take his “are you a Christian hipster?” quiz, which of course told me I was a hipster. From what I could tell anyone who isn’t fundamentalist or Amish and has a pulse in the 21st century would be labeled “hipster” according to the quiz – including McCracken himself who seems far cooler than I will ever be. As I’ve mentioned numerous times before, I am the definition of uncool. I have no sense of style, I don’t know how to do my hair, I don’t listen to music, I am not artistic, I’m a freaking stay-at-home (mostly) mom for crying out loud. But apparently (according to McCracken) since I read non-male/white/Western theologians, think the church should discuss something as important as sex, attend a church that meets in a warehouse and uses candles, like Stephen Colbert and Lady Gaga, believe we can learn truth from literature and film (I got the same Wheaton College English degree as McCracken after all), desire to steward God’s creation, and think oppression, human trafficking, and modern day slavery are wrong I am a self-centered hipster and therefore in danger of compromising my faith for the sake of being cool.

And so once again I state, “Seriously? You’ve got to be kidding, right?” The logic there is so horrible I don’t even know where to begin. I’m struggling to tell if he is just another one of those Christians who lashes out at anyone who has a different faith journey than him (and I’m sure he would poke fun of me using the term “faith journey”), or if he is truly ignorant of how deeply rooted in faith much of the stuff he criticizes actually is (or if this is a disguised theological attack that chooses not to use theology). I just don’t know. I don’t deny that the people he describes exist, or that there are people who desperately just try to be cool. But why he feels this obsessive need to label and therefore dismiss entire sections of the church who are simply trying to faithfully follow Jesus is beyond me.

Why is the conversion of the girl who had her perspective changed by the art history prof in college who now creates non-Thomas Kinkade Christian art as part of worship more suspect as being inauthentic or not truly Christian than the drug dealer who read a Chick-tract and now works in a soup kitchen? Is God not working for transformation in her life too? Or why is believing that Kwok Pui-lan, or Musa Dube, or Richard Twiss, or Gustavo Gutierrez might have something to teach us any different than believing we can learn from C.S. Lewis, or Francis Schaeffer, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Or why is the guy who wears thrift store or fairly made clothes more in danger of having caring too much about his appearance interfere with his spirituality than the youth pastor who spends hours describing to his group (in great detail) the exact sorts of bathing suits or the exact width of shoulder straps the pretty young high school girls are allowed to wear during summer camp? Or for that matter than the middle-aged women who have self-appointed themselves the modesty police or even Richard Foster who devotes a large section of Celebration of Discipline to the clothes Christians should wear? Why is it okay for their ideas about appearance to be faith-based and biblically-sound, but not the so-called hipster’s? Why are emerging forms of spirituality automatically suspect as being more culturally influenced and therefore harmful to Christianity than those that emerged twenty or thirty years ago?

I know I am not a creature independent of my culture. No one is. Anyone who claims otherwise needs some serious re-education. But to claim that we so-called hipster Christians are the way we are simply because we are self-centered “all about me” folks who are trying to be cool and relevant utterly misses the point. I attend a church of broken misfits who are desperately trying to live faithfully. I don’t attend my church because we are so cool that we meet in a warehouse and sit on couches, I attend it for the community that has formed around each other in that particular environment. Sure the environment influences who we are, but it isn’t the sum of who we are – just like gathering by a river or in the catacombs or sitting in pews or a cathedral influences but doesn’t not ultimately define other churches. I don’t read postcolonial voices because that makes me relevant; I read them because I believe the body of Christ cannot survive without all its parts. I don’t buy fair trade because it’s trendy; I buy it because the Bible tells me to care for the poor and to not cheat a worker of his wages. I don’t fight human trafficking because it makes me feel good, I do it because it is wrong that six year old girls are kidnapped and forced into prostitution where they are repeatedly raped by men who have a sick and twisted view of women and sex (two topics that churches apparently should avoid discussing because they are just trendy shock-gimmicks). (And by the way, when we’ve reached the point in the conversation where people are questioning opposing the enslaving of children as sex toys because it might be too trendy and relevant of a topic then I’m done with that conversation – God is nowhere in it).

I am a cultural creation, I freely admit that. But don’t for one minute project your disapproval of my culture trappings onto me and assume that I have uncritically allowed such things to put the “realness” of my faith in peril. If you want to criticize such things or suggest another type of popular culture that you think is more appropriate for Christians to embrace (cuz, we all embrace something) then do that. Let’s disagree, but for the sake of respectful and truthful dialogue please don’t naively dismiss my lived faith as merely an attempt to be cool when nothing could be further from the truth.

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33 Responses leave one →
  1. August 20, 2010

    agreed. the last thing we need is more divisiveness and infighting among ourselves.
    the book i’m about to publish does explore the differences between the conservative and progressive forms of the faith, but it doesn’t seek to attack fellow christians who happen to embrace conservative theologies. although i’m a tad snarky in the introduction, i make a point to honor their perspective and by the end of the book, i seek to focus on common ground and mutual love and appreciation.

  2. August 20, 2010

    Wow. Freakin’ excellent Julie, thank you putting to words what I’ve been feeling lately!

  3. August 20, 2010

    Great post – especially appreciated the questions raised in the fourth paragraph.
    I blogged on this too and felt very similar. Didn’t realize that Daniel Kirk posted on it too – I’ll have to check it out.

    For what it’s worth, I’m told that the WSJO post is not an accurate reflection of the book (which in some sense bothers me more), but did make me consider reading it at some point.

  4. August 20, 2010

    Good words, Julie. I sure hope the book is better than the article. But I don’t have high hopes, sadly.

  5. August 20, 2010

    well said! i could literally sense the crescendo of passion in your response, particularly as it relates to the “trendy” topic of opposing human trafficking. i couldn’t agree more, and have had multiple online and face to face conversations dealing with the same faulty reasoning and assumptions.

  6. August 20, 2010

    I’m currently reading “Hipster Christianity,” and I don’t think McCracken is making fun of Christian hipsters. He’s actually taking a serious look at the scene. He’s pointing out what makes one an authentic hipster instead of a poser.

  7. August 20, 2010

    i tried to take the quiz, but too many of the questions did not give me an option that fits my way of thinking – the assumption i found embeded in the quiz is that you needed to be raised in a christian home, by cristian parents and have a deep rooted understanding of the christian church – and i fall into none of those areas :)

  8. August 20, 2010

    I also blogged on Hipster Christianity | Khanya. Perhaps we need a synchroblog on it.

    Among other things, I said I thought the quiz was anything but hip and decidedly uncool. It reeked of American Protestant cultural chauvinism, and was so narrow-minded that the authors could have looked with both eyes through the proverbial keyhole. It was full of name-dropping, and mostly names I had never heard of, and my answer to most of the questions would have been “none of the above” if that had been an option. It certainly killed any temptation I might have had to read the book.

    So I haven’t read the book, and am not likely to.

    But it all depends on your definition of “cool”.

  9. August 20, 2010

    Travis – I read that part of the book. But even in defining authentic hipster he still characterized such people as being self-centered individualists if they strayed from a certain evangelical box of his defining. He defines following Jesus according to one narrow definition and then claims that anything new or progressive in the church is abandoning Jesus instead of rightfully saying that they are just moving beyond a certain definition of evangelical culture. Either he isn’t very culturally astute, or he actually believes that 1980’s conservative evangelicalism is the only appropriate culture for Christians to belong to.

    But what bugged me most was his utterly shallow characterization of the emerging church and social justice. He mocks the EC as trying to be hip when we say that emerging cannot be defined, did he ever stop to think that maybe we were just telling the truth?

  10. August 20, 2010

    So… I have been a lurker on your blog for a long time; big fan. I also tend to agree with this blog post, but is it ok to maybe suspend judgment until the entire book has been read? A few pages of text can really help contextualize things, and I know that without reading a complete text, I have rushed to conclusions before that have ended up being a little less than wise once I finished the book. I think we at least owe it to him out of charity?

  11. August 21, 2010

    To Julie: what would respectful and truthful dialogue between evangelicals and the EC look like? Are there any evangelical writers you might say have been trying to do that? And finally, I guess the definition of a conservative evangelical would be that they have a certain set of beliefs. Not or many would be able, for example, referencing what you wrote in a previous post, to embrace the beliefs of Unitarians under the umbrella of Christianity, even though they may respect their beliefs. So how do the two sides move from what you as a former evangelical see as narrowmindedness and what they see as taking the cheese and beef patty out of a cheeseburger?
    I’ve read many of your posts where you too assign motives to evangelicals on a frequent basis. Yes- ‘the other side does it too’ is NEVER a good argument. I have never for one second doubted the veracity of what you have encountered in evangelicals based on your own experience. And I tell myself, ” She isn’t talking about my conservative evangelical parents or relatives, who, theologically naive or not, see living out their faith as being incredibly kind and generous to everyone. She’s just talking about the evangelicals she’s encountered as a collective culture who fit that bill.” Perhaps Brett McCracken is merely doing the same? Perhaps he’s not dismissing your beliefs and convictions as merely an exercise in being ‘hip’, but just those he’s encountered in his own experience who would seem to do so?
    We ALL see through a glass darkly.

  12. August 21, 2010

    Great piece, Julie! I’m a wheatie myself and remember the near worship of C.S. Lewis, so that gave me a chuckle. Having lived cross culturally just about all my life, I’d say if people don’t agree with orthodox evangelical theology in suburban American culture are labeled as “hipster”, then there are literally hundreds of thousands hipster Christians all around the world. Thankfully.

  13. August 21, 2010

    Interesting. When I have a chance I’ll have to see if the library has the book. I considered the quiz, but for a number of the questions but had to abandon it half-way through. If I retreated into my former-Moody days I could probably pick the “right” answers out a bit easier. As it was I fit very few of the assumptions necessary to complete it.

  14. August 21, 2010

    Julie:

    You’re right, he did make it sound like the Emerging Church was just a temporary fad. Although he did make one good point. I can’t speak for my fellow Emergents, but personally I sometimes am more influenced by culture than Christ. Jesus said the world will know us by our love, not our Macbooks (although I am a proud owner of a Macbook).

    I also disagree with him on missional living being a fad as well. At least I sure hope it’s not a fad! It might be a fad for people who just want to be cool, and not really care about what’s going on in the world.

  15. August 21, 2010

    A –
    Good dialogue doesn’t rely solely on stereotypes and I am seeing very little of that happening. McCracken uses stereotypes of one stream of the emerging church from 5-6 years ago. He assumes that since certain guys (who do travel in hipster circles) have now moved onto the next big thing then emergent is dead. He calls his book a deep journalistic look into the church today, but this is poor research. He ignores all but one group of guys, ignores the past 5 years of emerging, mocks the idea that there is more than one way to be emergent (and so rejects that reality), and completely ignores the presence of women (which is actually something he does through the whole book). I see this over and over when people write on the emerging church. A stereotype gets presented by a magazine, and then authors that criticize EC then do so based on that stereotype without bothering to look at what is actually happening. D.A. Carson, Kevin DeYoung and the like are great at this – it is hard to find any trace of reality in their portrayals of the EC. Others like Soong Chan-Rah speak from one somewhat bad experience they had with emergent and so project that one experience onto the whole. I don’t deny them that experience, but wish they would have the integrity to find out more. Then others like Jim Belcher perhaps come close to an intelligent critique, but even he when confronted with falsehoods in his early manuscript refused to change them because that would hurt his thesis. These critiques are polemics not actual critiques – they attack emergent because it is different but don’t actually engage with a respectful and intelligent dialogue with the EC itself. Unlike many who critique evangelicalism or catholicism from a perspective of living withing their folds for decades, often the critiques of emergent are based on a very limited encounter with the ec. I don’t deny anyone the right to make first impressions, but I do expect people who write books to take the time to be a tad more through (even if getting to know emergents might destroy their “emergent is evil” thesis). We do all have our own experiences and hold to what we believe to be true, critiquing what we have experienced is natural. Perhaps McCracken has simply had a very limited experience (then why write a book???), but from his blog especially he presents fairly comprehensive images of differing people, but simply mocks them as hipster instead of seeing that perhaps they are just a different sort of christian than him. If he disagrees with what they believe, then I wish he would say that instead of mocking them for being different. There is a big difference between the two.

  16. Ryan permalink
    August 21, 2010

    You lost me at “For full disclosure, I haven’t fully read Hipster Christianity yet…” Seriously, agree or disagree with your position, you have NO credibility with a statement like that. I’m guessing you also enjoy posting book reviews on Amazon.com based solely on what you’ve heard (or excerpts you’ve read) about the book or its author.

  17. August 21, 2010

    sigh. Speaking of projection…
    I’ve read about 75% of the book. more than most official reviewers and far more than people who write copy for the book or endorse it. I just thought honesty and admitting that I do not have a physical copy of the book in my possession would be best. But it’s interesting to see that used as the excuse to not engage ideas or address the questions raised.

  18. August 21, 2010

    I can’t speak for my fellow Emergents, but personally I sometimes am more influenced by culture than Christ. Jesus said the world will know us by our love, not our Macbooks (although I am a proud owner of a Macbook).

    Man, I’ve got two small children and have been in the ministry and/or grad school for the past 10-years… I haven’t had the time or the money to keep up with cultural fads. :)

  19. August 21, 2010

    great entry, julie.

    sorry for the people who take the time to insult you.
    bummer, cause great article.

    =)

  20. Elizabeth permalink
    August 21, 2010

    Julie, this is an excellent and insightful review of Hipster Christianity. I am a pretty liberal Christian, but I received a 50/120 on the ridiculous quiz he has and was (incorrectly) labeled a “Hawaiian-shirt-wearing-Christian” who is “sensitive to challenges against Christian orthodoxy,” and I am assuming that I received this score and incorrect label because I don’t know two-thirds of the cultural references in his quiz and I enjoy traditional churches, with pews, hymns, and choirs. But you will find me to be the first one to stand up for equality, in the church, at the voting booth, and in my community. I guess, since I don’t buy into the right consumerist idea of what is “hip,” that makes me a crusty, 31-year-old, un-hip, liberal Christian. That is the most dangerous part of Hipster Christianity… instead of blowing the oppressing labels up, Brett McCracken simply reinforces them. There are tables for every “type” of Christian, just the high school cliques in the lunch room. The hipsters over there… the kurmudgeons over there… as a person that never quite fit in during my high school years, I know this question applies to a good number of Christians: where do the “other” Christians go that don’t belong at any of those tables? Instead of asking, “what movie would Jesus like to watch?” or “which table would Jesus sit at?” why not ask, “what would Jesus do if he walked into a Christian lunchroom divided in such a way?” Do you think he would like it? Or would he be troubled by the arbitrary and meaningless ways that Christians keep walls up between each other, simply because differences in the kind of music they like… or the clothes they are wearing… or the political party they vote for. Hipster Christianity sounds like an exercise of Christian narcissism.

  21. john van sloten permalink
    August 22, 2010

    Hey Julie,

    Here’s another way of engaging culture (which has nothing to do with attempts to be cool or relevant)… What if God is speaking directly throught pop culture? http://bit.ly/8ZFwaN

    john van sloten

  22. TJF permalink
    August 22, 2010

    Thank you so much for your refreshing response to McCraken.

  23. August 23, 2010

    Like Julie and McCracken, I have an English degree from Wheaton, and I appreciate the insight that he lived at Traber. He was probably the one who always Traber-honked the Fisher U and disturbed my evenings spent innocently listening to Over the Rhine, unaware of the suspicious, book-deal-worthy things this said about me.

    Elizabeth’s comment above about taking the quiz is illuminating: McCracken, like so many before, insists on using the word “Christian” where he means “evangelical.” So if you get above a certain score, then you’ve left the true faith behind for something cooler or whatever. But if you don’t even understand what the questions are getting at, then you were never a REAL Christian in the first place…

  24. August 23, 2010

    Steve – lol. I had almost forgotten about that. Seriously every freaking night the Traber boys would dress in boxers, ride around the Fisher U on “stolen” kids bikes, blast airhorns, and scream “Destinos.” I know it’s college, but, it got old really fast (since I lived on 1W right at ground level). I guess that’s what you do at a college where you can’t drink (although the Traber beer/porn/drug parties were common knowledge all over campus).

  25. August 23, 2010

    Mike Clawson : Hahaha! Consider yourself lucky!

  26. August 24, 2010

    Now that I finished “Hipster Christianity,” here’s what I thought about it.

    It’s not a bad book, per say. Brett makes a good point about churches that are trying too hard to be hip and cool (like putting Jesus in a skateboard). However, the book isn’t without flaws. For example, when I first heard about this book and took the tongue-in-cheek hipster Christian quiz, I thought the book was going to be tongue-in-cheek. But it’s actually a pretty serious look, and I think it’s serious makes the book kinda silly. Let’s face it, skinny jeans and ironic mustaches are gonna be out of style in the next couple of years, so why focus on just this era of hipsterdom? Fads come and go. Authenticity lasts forever.

    Then there’s the now-infamous chapter on the emerging church. He got some things right about it (binaries and modernism do suck), but he made it sound like it’s just another fad to make the church look cool. I’m pretty new to the emerging conversation, but I don’t think the emerging church is just about being cool; it’s about rethinking what it means to be a follower of Christ. Now as I mentioned earlier, I personally get too wrapped up in culture and not enough in Scripture. But that could be any Christian, not just emerging Christians.

    “Hipster Christianity” isn’t a total waste of trees, but I would have enjoyed it better if it was either 1). more tongue-in-cheek and less serious or 2). more about culture in general rather than just the current indie rock hipster scene.

  27. michelle permalink
    August 26, 2010

    crap, that stupid quiz says i’m a christian hipster to “some degree”… :)
    oh, and i love the article julie!

    p.s.
    can i say “crap” here? 😉

  28. August 26, 2010

    i don’t even go to church (due to some stuff that happened nearly 15 years ago, and the social aspects of church, and some other complex stuff). i’m grateful for having found sojourners and related blogs (which i guess is a representation of the emerging church? i am not even sure what that is, but i gather something like that) that showed me that i can have a fundamental shift in … politics? (basically, towards tolerance and social justice) and still be a christian. i’m having a crisis of everything, lately, since my family (which went through many beliefs in 30 yrs, all the way from new-age, to jesus freaks, through mainstream evangelical, ending up in strict conservative calvinism) disintegrated and with them some of the ideas i got from them. … so i am left with ‘only’ my husband (actually a spiritual leader to me although he refused that ‘job’ officially) and trying to think for myself about what i believe in my gut instincts of conscience.
    and i’m not doing any of this to be cool. i don’t want to follow things i was taught that don’t make sense anymore, but i don’t want to lose my faith because i don’t want to be lost from God.

  29. August 27, 2010

    Thank you! Talk about a book o’stereotypes. And this phrase “hipster Christianity” somehow became the Overused Phrase of the Year in less than a week. If I hear it one more time, I may barf on my shoes.

  30. August 30, 2010

    Julie,

    I too was a bit taken aback at the “outing” energy resident in this book. Although his read on culture and the impact of a counter cultural enclaves had on the birth of cool hunting were well researched and written, once again, his critique is delivered via an evangelical conduit (Baker) making his “in conclusion here is the answer section” severely over simplified and historically under researched. Point? Although semiotics and communications theory are necessary to “interpret” the symbols of cool and the seeming capitulation of these groups to a commoditized production of reality (sorry for the Comm. Theory jargon but that is his lexiconical preference) he, as you mentioned, greatly diminished an entire group of people, authors & taste cultures like a “Marxist Deconstructionist on Acid.” All our petty bourgeois purchases are made shallow and the authors and music we love made superficial. He was, in his defense, trying to throw himself under the bus but it came off like an aging alcoholic stuck on step 4, outing all his drinking buddies as if he were in total recovery. Come on now. Are all the cultural accouterments of self all so shallow that this weekend you will do nothing…nothing at all.Julie,

    I too was a bit taken aback at the “outing” energy resident in this book. Although his read on culture and the impact counter cultural enclaves had on the birth of cool hunting were well researched and written, once again, his critique is delivered via an evangelical conduit (Baker) making his “in conclusion here is the answer section” severely over simplified and historically under researched. Point? Although semiotics and communications theory are necessary to “interpret” the symbols of cool and the seeming capitulation of these groups to a commoditized production of reality (sorry for the Comm. Theory jargon but that is his lexiconical preference) he, as you mentioned, greatly diminished an entire group of people, authors & taste cultures like a “Marxist Deconstructionist on Acid.” All our petty bourgeois purchases are made shallow and the authors and music we love made superficial. He was, in his defense, trying to throw himself under the bus but it came off like an aging alcoholic stuck on Step 4 of 12, outing all his drinking buddies as if he were in total recovery. Come on now. Are all the cultural accouterments of self all shallow that this weekend you will do nothing…nothing at all. Now that you have dissed them all what will even taste good anymore?

    Books are always contextual not only their interpretations of time, history, and culture but in terms of the spiritual saga of the one writing the book (his own inner journey). Here is where I can share McCracken’s angst but am not likely to buy into the Neo-Calvinist offerings made almost in a “by the way” manner. Why can’t we say much like Reno in “The Church in Ruins” that we are in dark times where Christians are equally as confused as how to live a life of faith as non believers are in understanding and seeking transcendence? Why must we round up all the disparate strings that should be forming the sweater and just clip them off rather than bemoan just how unwearable the whole thing looks and feels at this moment in Church History? Sorry for my metaphoric jumps here but I grieve along with many (McCracken included )at the state of our world and thus the Church. I was digging his perspective, even laughing at myself but got lost when we went to such a personalized inner moral inventory as to how and why society, culture and believers, for that fact, act the way they do. Consciousness, world view, sense of self, spiritual reality… these are all pithy energies and spectors and topics to embrace and filter into some kind of belief system.
    I feel like I got his Master Thesis in Cultural Studies but his Friday night 2 AM Facebook entry on his theological suggestions and potential solutions. But…all that beings said..I think the book is a good read and well written. I give it s 7. Ha!

  31. August 31, 2010

    I came over from Emerging Mummy…and I’m so glad that I did. I always appreciate reading articulate and passionate posts by people who THINK. This post delivered in all three categories.

    I haven’t read McCracken’s book, but I have read a few excerpts in the press. From those small glimpses, I will say that he does appear to raise some important questions about the church in the 21st century.

    That said, I think it is imperative that Christ-followers are unified in these times – when people are hurting and hungry and helpless. It certainly isn’t beneficial to point fingers at each other – whether we’re on the hip spectrum or not.

    P.S. I have no idea if I’m “hip” or not…(so I’m probably not?). 😉

  32. Bradm permalink
    October 4, 2010

    Julie,

    I thought you might enjoy James K.A. Smith’s review of Hipster Christianity.

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