The Christian Hipster Revisited

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Two years ago today, I published an article on Relevantmagazine.com entitled “A New Kind of Hipster.” The article (the title of which is a play on Brian McLaren’s book, A New Kind of Christian) definitely struck a chord—to this day I still meet people who read it, remember discussing it, etc. The article basically examined the phenomenon of “hip Christianity,” a reactionary movement (corollary to, but not the same as “the emerging church”) that has strived to paint Christianity as cool and Christians as hip. Relevant is probably the most visible manifestation of this trend.

In some instances, hip Christianity has been an organic phenomenon (that is, it hasn’t consciously striven to adopt some trend or characteristic of cool from the larger culture, but rather it has been a “first generation” cool that sets the trends of the larger culture). Examples might be Daniel Smith (of the band Danielson Famile) or Sufjan Stevens—totally original artists who have embodied a certain strand of “indie/arthouse” style and subsequently launched many other talented, original Christian artists. I also think of people like Shane Claiborne, who—in efforts to live the humble life among the poor and downtrodden, Mother Theresa-style—has inadvertently framed Christianity in a “radical,” “progressive,” cool light.

But the majority of Christian hipsterdom is self-consciously so. This includes people who believe that in order to make a difference or be significant in culture, one must have wicked style. This includes the churches that have candles everywhere and serve micro-brewed beer and cognac at potlucks. These are the Christians who emphasize how God is all over things like The Sopranos, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and of course, U2. These are the Christians who like to speak of Jesus as a hippie countercultural activist who was a Che-esque revolutionary, and who probably would have smoked pot and listened to Radiohead were he on earth today. Essentially, this is a Christianity that bends over backward to be incredibly cool.

And so, two years later, the question is still on my mind: Is Christianity Cool? In some ways it’s the leading question of our time, as evangelicals desperately try to keep their faith relevant in a rapidly changing culture. And most probably this question isn’t being explicitly asked, because to ask if something is cool automatically negates its coolness. Everyone who is or has ever been hip knows that coolness isn’t ever analyzed or spoken of in any way by those who possess it. Coolness is understood. It is mystery. It is contagious. And that last word is the key for many—especially those looking to sell something—seeking to tap into hip potential. Bridled cool is an economic cashcow. Translated to Christianity, cool is the currency whereby we must dispense the Gospel.

But what is cool? If I had to succinctly define this incredibly complicated word without use of synonyms, it might be something like this: Cool: An attribute that is attractive because it embodies the existential efforts to be supremely independent, one-of-a-kind, and trailblazing.

It is enormously interesting to me that we are so attracted and desirous of this thing called “cool,” but what is more intriguing to me is how exactly the search and adoption of coolness affects our lives. Is our longing to be fashionable, hip, stylish, and “ahead” of our peers benign? Or, if not, how does it affect our personhood (and, by extension, our Christianity) for good or ill?

The relative goodness or badness in the nature of “cool” is of utmost importance. Being stylish/trendy is certainly our society’s highest value, so the question we must ask as Christians is this: can we sustain integrity and substance in a world so driven by packaging? Must every work, every person, every message that seeks mass acceptance be form-fitted to the hieroglyphics of hip? Are the purposes and/or effects of cool compatible with those of Christianity?

If it is true that our culture today is most effectively reached through the channels of cool, does this mean Christianity’s message must be styled as such? What does this look like, and are there any alternatives? How does the Christian navigate in this climate without reducing the faith to an easy-to-swallow, hip-friendly phenomenon? Is the church’s future helped or hindered by an assimilation to cultural whims and fads?

We can all agree that the ultimate purpose of the church on earth is, as C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity, “nothing else but to draw men into Christ.” But the challenging question is this: to what extent do we assume that men are drawn to Christ by the way in which He is presented to them? In other words, as the messengers of the gospel, are we to let the message speak for itself or must we adapt and package it for a specific context?

It is certainly appropriate that “packaging” is at the forefront of many church discussions today. In a world so obviously obsessed with style as a gateway to substance, we are right in viewing this as an important issue. But what are we losing when we start to sell Jesus as the ultimate in cool commodities?

As I noted at the beginning of this article, there are really two distinct categories of “hip” in today’s world: 1) The natural hip, and 2) The marketed hip. What I am speaking of above—about Christianity harnessing the horses of hip to help spread the message—is definitely the latter. If Christianity is naturally hip, then, well that’s a horse of a different color.

And that is the question we must wrestle with: is Christianity naturally cool? As in—are people attracted to it on it’s own accord? Or must it be cool in the marketed, presentation sense? Or perhaps there is a third option—a much more insidious, counter-cultural idea: perhaps Christianity is hopelessly un-hip; maybe even the anti-cool. What if it turns out that Christianity’s endurance comes from the fact that it has been and continues to be the antithesis and antidote to the intoxicating drive in our human nature for cool (for independence, for survival, for leadership, for hipness)?

What are Christian hipsters, then, except an unnatural, paradoxical embodiment of the faith?

17 responses to “The Christian Hipster Revisited

  1. you raise a lot of questions worth asking. It seems like a lot of christians are really trying to push and market “christianity” as the IT thing. Or they’ve figured out how to make christianity fit into a “cool” context. What bothers me is how they try so hard to make it so. And to use your word, it’s so unnatural.

    If people need a “cool” context to make their spiritual quest attractive, then to me, that deflates everything I would ever hope spiritual journeying is all about. The minute it becomes “cool” to go against the grain, you lose all “cool”ness. Denying yourself and re-adjusting your life towards your Creator’s is not attractive, no matter how many lattés you sip during intermission, or how much fellowship you have in a pub, or how much you church not-on-Sunday-morning.

    I think what’s so attractive about Jesus is nothing that our earthly bodies and minds can even relate to. Following Jesus becomes attractive when on a deeper, spiritual level, something clicks, something becomes right, and we decide to lose it all to pursue this – and this includes losing our incessant search for coolness.

    I do see the importance, though, of having cultural relevance as a christian. But just in the way that I try to avoid falling into the typical religious lifestyle, I’ve newly been trying to avoid falling into the typical “emergent” christian culture. I love sufjan, I read and watched all of Rob Bell’s stuff, I’m churching at home and in parks and around bonfires, I’m even churching on the internet! Yikes. But if all my efforts are around trying to avoid being something, then I think I’m way off with this Christ journey thing…

  2. What the church needs to be is ‘in touch’ with the world around it, and more significantly, ‘authentic.’ As pointed out in The Cluetrain Manifesto, corporate marketing is ceasing to have the influence it once did, and with the diversity of voices out there, people are more and more likely to sense when a message isn’t authentic. Life can’t be turned into a nice, neat package, and neither can the Gospel. And I have to wonder how many non-Christians are turned off by Christian formulas and packages. With relevance, if we love our neighbors, we shouldn’t TRY to be relevant, rather, we should BE relevant, BE in touch, and BE involved, and BE real. Further, even the coolest church will only last so long if they don’t have a solid foundation.

  3. Great article on Relevant 850–nice job!

  4. i like the questions raised in this post.

    it makes me wonder if people sign up for christianity because of someone else’s influence as they would purchase some stylish prada glasses that they saw someone wearing earlier?

    i think when people start following god because “their cool friend does it” right a way messes up the whole thing.

  5. The last line of your article for Relevant.com really hit me, because for over a year I have been trying to pitch the idea of a reality tv show where celebrities and non-celebrities pair up to “do good” by doing different tasks like re-building homes after hurricane damage, working in refugee camps . ..you name it. But the fun of watching would be that there would be teams competing to get projects accompished. I have it all written out on a word document, and really only one small “in” in Hollywood, but if you would have any interest in this idea or how to take it further, I have my ideas on a few pages that I could send to you!

  6. Thanks for writing; I just found your blog today, and me thinks me likey your thinkings.

    I just want to jump in on the conversation, because I’m new to the blogging thing, and this is fun. What I say is this: getting to know Jesus necessitates getting to know the darkness in our own hearts and choosing to exchange coolness for authenticity and humility. If authenticity and humility become valued qualities (i.e.; “cool”) among a group of people, then hallelujah, right? Isn’t that a good thing? Those are values that I understand to be key to a lot of the so-called hipsters. Of course, once appearances start driving the train, even the appearance of authenticity, then that’s no good.

  7. I just read your 850 article. It was fantastic. On a similar note, I was watching an episdoe of “My Super Sweet 16” where a guy dropped forty thousand+ on a birthday party … all the while acting like a two year old when the animal he wanted to ride into the venue wasn’t going to work out. It’s one thing when media pushes you to think, or even just to laugh and be entertained. It’s sad when the faux-glamour of a bunch of wealthy teenagers makes you believe love is wrapped in the same sleezy package of acceptance. It was good for me to read and I also forwarded it to the students I work with. Keep up the great work!

  8. Brett — Lots of great thoughts. I’ve enjoyed your writing and thoughtful reviews, so it’s good to see you jump (even grudgingly) into the blogosphere.

    I appreciate your nuanced take on “cool.” In particular, your distinction between the natural and marketed hip is important. It is troubling when Christians worry more about grooming their ironic moustaches (marketed hip) than actually following Jesus around (natural hip, perhaps).

    If we use your definition of cool, then I think it there is an inherent cool to following Christ — not as independent entities apart from God, but as people who are completely and utterly freed to live with love, joy and passion (traits that, from my experience, genuinely cool people embody).

    Paul Grant, as I’m sure you’re aware, recently wrote a book called “Blessed Are The Uncool” that takes on some of these issues. Not sure of its contents (because I haven’t read it!) but just thought I’d relay another writer who is considering similar issues.

  9. GREAT QUESTIONS!

    I wish we could have a more in depth discussion on this. You ask several questions in the post, and then kind-of give a quick answer at the end.

    Christianity has a SEVERE image problem. That is, Christians are known for being hateful, rather than loving, for being judgemental, unkind, and basically un-Christian.

    We’re also known for being weird, outdated, uncool, the anti-cool.

    I think this drive to be cool comes from at least a few areas:
    1) desire to be palatable to non-Christians. To remove the unnecessary cheesiness, so folks will come to church and get saved

    2) desire to be “New”. Or different from the Christian stereotype. When Christians do something out of the box (xxxchurch.com) or “cool”, that gets noticed, and I think lots of Christians and churches are trying to be “cool” to show Non-Christians that we’re not those fuddy-duddy’s they think we are. Maybe also to get media attention (which works b/c we’re traditionally fuddy-duddy — so it’s news when a church does something way cool/different).

    3) trying to “engage” the culture by being cool like our culture. Being culturally hip to have some kind of voice, cultural capital, to speak to non-Christians about something.

    4) Desire to just be cool. A natural, sinful, desire to be liked by our peers, to fit-in, to be super liked and envied

    I think the first 3 are/were the initial justification for this trend toward cool. The 4th is probably why lots of people (myself included) are still trying to be uber-cool, culturally savvy, Christians.

    I thnk those first three start from some truth. We do have a horrible image. We need to fix this. I think part of this is becoming at least a little more culturally savvy, to make it easier for non-C’s to fit in. I think a larger part is becoming real Christians, who LOVE God and LOVE people.

    Some… I have to get back to work. what do you think?

  10. Glad to see these ideas getting out into the world. I suppose there’s a few points I could quarrel with–e.g. Sufjan Stevens is a fine craftsman, but can’t fairly be described as a “totally original” artist and would almost certainly reject that designation himself. One of the lamest aspects of “hip christianity” is the tendency to buy into rock-star hero-worship mythology (because it sells magazines!) rather than understanding art and music-making as a populist endeavor, one component of a praxis of liberation. And, the word “hipster” itself, is, as John Darnielle points out, a fairly useless descriptor–most often deployed as a way for someone saying “my peer group” as a pejorative.
    Nice work nonetheless. I like that you identify conspicuous but moderate alcohol consumption as one of the signifiers used–such a curious phenomenon! And that the products usually used to demonstrate Christian cool are actually mainstream corporate entertainment!

  11. Pingback: Types of Hipsters: Part One « The Search

  12. I think you hit the nail on the head: ” perhaps Christianity is hopelessly un-hip.”

    I’ve been part of cool church: a church in a storefront, and on staff at a rather unself-consciously postmodern campus ministry.

    And now, I go to a church where the staff are goofballs who only have a vague clue about cool, or even tactful, but are loving and authentic.

    Goofball Church is a nice relief.

  13. I ‘ve just read the relevant article, which I really enjoyed the thought behind, and since found out that you are a friend of a friend (Becky P). Small world.

    Ok, so this is my two cents. IF we are supposed to be “in the world and not of the world” and because we are to be “the salt of the earth” THEN I would conclude that we are definitely supposed to be bringing out the natural flavor ( or beauty) of the world which is a drastic contrast to what the naked eye might see (as cool).

    As a disciple of christ I have to look at these things and see how they line up to infalable truth.

    That said, I think that WE are the cool. by that I mean that we are the packaging. God uses His people as a vessel and what is cool about that is that we are all culturally relevant to something in varying degrees. If a person ever thinks that his plan or his coolness or relevance is what brings people to Christ then he mistaken.

    Emergent, baptist, non-denom… none of those are the perfect formula. The important thing is that, as individuals, we are humbled before God and allow the Holy Spirit to use us to facilitate His ‘cool’.

    In my opinion.. do what you love, be yourself, and for the love of God (and I mean that literally) do what you love because he put that in you. Focus on being Christ-like and make that the priority instead of sitting around thinking about how to get people to church. Take church to the people in the form of your lifestyle. bring out the natural flavor in the way that God gave you as a unique creation. Don’t pattern yourself or your community or art or thoughts after something else. That’s what makes cool… a total disinterest to be cool and just being real.

    of course I’m saying “you” but I mean me and we.

    Thanks for the thoughts.

    Ryan

  14. It’s interesting to me that you frame this discussion in terms of marketing. But what about authentically Christian hipsters? In other words, people like me, who converted to Christianity as a grad student hipster, people who embrace indie rock because they love the sound of musical innovation, not just the image and the idea of indie rock; who love the raw food mov’t because they find the lifestyle sensible; who love Sauconys and chucks and big glasses and skinny jeans because they honestly love the aesthetic?

    Shouldn’t we raise the possibility some Christian hipsters are just joying in material creation, in Gods great good gifts of music and color and vibrancy? That Christian hipster-ism is good in the way that any culture is good, because the Incarnation blesses art and style and lifestyle? That being a Christian hipster is good as long as one doesn’t look down one’s nose at other cultures / lifestyles?

  15. Pingback: In my best behavior, I am really just like him « center & periphery

  16. “In other words, hipsters like me” definitely sounds sketchy and un-self-critical – my main point is that there are other important ways of looking at this question. For example, it might be helpful to frame the issue in terms of the larger question of how culture & faith (should) interact, and the question of what Incarnation might have to say about the relationship between culture & faith. The ethics of cultural expression should be the same for the Christian hipster as for the Christian Yuppie, the Christian boho, the Christian in Uganda and the Christian in England.

  17. Pingback: Cool and Christianity | listen to...

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