A few weeks ago, I jumped on the “Pummel Brett McCracken for a crappy article in the WSJ” bandwagon (Part 1, Part 2). I’ve now had an opportunity to read his longer, and somewhat more responsible, article from this month’s Christianity Today. Both of these articles are summaries of his book, Hipster Christianity (full disclosure: I have not read the book).
As I said, I found the CT article to be more responsible than the WSJ article. What I mean by this is that it more accurately represents “hipster” as a particular sub-culture. Whereas the WSJ article showed no clear understanding that being a “hipster” is different from tying to be “hip” or “cool,” the CT article gives some indication that McCracken does in fact know what the word hipster means. If you don’t know, here’s the photo essay I compiled to help you along (and the comments there are helpful too).
Having said that, however, I am still not convinced that McCracken has either a viable working definition of “hipster Christianity”, or a realistic understanding of how tied we all are to the cultures in which we live.
On the problematic of what qualifies as “hipster Christianity,” any church that is not simply a reflection of 50′s or 60′s Americana seems to be damned if it does, damned if it doesn’t. On the one hand, you’re hipster if you strive to throw off the culture of church and embrace the cool culture of the ironic urbanites. On the other hand, you’re hipster if you sing old hymns with simple guitar accompaniment.
I’m not sure if McCracken or the CT editors created the inset “Stuff Christian Hipsters Like,” but the upshot of the list is this: You’re a hipster if you read certain new writers, if you read certain old ones; you’re a hipster if you think theology or philosophy or spiritual classics or Jewish philosphers or modern popular writers are worth reading.
Seriously. The “stuff hipsters like” list is populated by Plato, Augustine, Tim Keller, N T Wright, Karl Barth, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Paul Tillich, Marilynne Robinson.
It seems that the only thing that holds together McCracken’s hipster Christians is that he so labels them.
And this brings us up against the continuing problem that besets his work: he shows no indication that he is aware of the culturally embedded nature of all Christian practice. It’s one thing to imply that current Christians are being trendy because they like singer-songwriter type music.
18th Century Hipster
I’m eager to read the chapter that chastises Handel for mindlessly mimicking the style of early 18th centuryGerman and Italian opera, Luther for mimicking early 16th century nationalism, and Calvin for over-applying 16th century jurisprudence. Egad!
After that, I’ll flip back in search of an appendix that chastises Jesus for using terms that so clearly derived from militaristic Jewish expectations of God’s coming, conquering kingdom, and that chastises Paul for setting up churches that looked so much like ancient cults and guilds and other associations.
The muddiness of the article comes in this: there is no distinction made between those who might learn from the traditions of the past while engaging the present (people who would read Augustine, Barth, and Wright) from whatever this nebulous, nefarious “hipster” thing might be.
McCracken does say “hipster” is ok so long as it’s growing up in a “hipster” context. But then, apparently, if the “hipster” church has learned that the church should be talking about sex trafficking as injustice, homosexuality as a pressing moral issue, or AIDS as something demanding our attention, the rest of the Christian world isn’t allowed to follow suit. These are “shock value” topics, apparently, not the things that staid, upstanding suburbanites talk about in church.
What’s McCracken’s alternative? Returning to the stereotyped moralism of yesteryear. He mourns for the days when not drinking, not smoking, and not cussing were the defining marks of the church.
As we return to this “attractional”, fortress-mentality model (“missional”, after all, is a hipster Christian buzzword), McCracken hopes we will be freed from the theological ideas about new creation, justice, and holistic transformation that define the Christian hipster world.
21st Century Hipster (Is that a PBR?!)
A final word of warning that McCracken speaks is worth attending to. He warns that Hipster Christianity is the theology of the white, urban elite. I found this critique “interesting” inasmuch as it was juxtaposed with the photograph of Shane Claibourne’s bible study in North Philly. This group illustrates the vacuousness of “hipster Christianity” for lower-class Latinos and Blacks by only having a half dozen African Americans in among the dozen persons pictured. Can there be anything in such a movement for the non-white urbanite?! Hmm….
In all, I find the thinking muddy. McCracken has some good points to raise, but does not have the mental clarity at this point to present them in such a way that they helpfully critique one set of practices. The only common thread that runs through the article is that “Hipster Christianity” is not identical to what came before us in the good ol’ 50s and 60s (before the cultural revolution of the latter decade). But to recognize difference from what came before, or cultural influence on current practice, is not the same as demonstrating why there is something amiss. The article depends too much on innuendo and suggestion of vacuousness by its categorization of things as “new”, “cool”, “shocking”, and “urban”.
Is the answer to the present trend really to critique everything that has happened not only in culture but also biblical studies, theology, and awareness of the larger world in which we live? I don’t think so. Leaving the article, I’m still not convinced there’s any such thing as “Hipster Christianity.” But if there is–may it thrive.