Monthly Archives: October 2010

The Missing Middle

Today, a formidable crowd of well-dressed, sunglassed Americans attended the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert “Rally to Restore Sanity And/Or Fear” on the Washington Mall. I watched it on C-SPAN. A sort of variety show-meets-stand-up-meets-political-rally, the (mostly) satirical event featured Stewart/Colbert tag team banter, live performances (from the likes of Cat Stevens, Ozzy Osbourne, Kid Rock, Sheryl Crow and Tony Bennett), and the sort of hilarious video montages and comedy bits you’d find on an average episode of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report.

Stewart insisted that the event was non-partisan and merely a call for a more moderate, sensible political discourse. Reflecting his familiar brand of comedic/passionate/insightful media critique, Jon Stewart’s refreshingly sincere (and well-crafted) 12-minute closing address rightfully lambasted the media for perpetuating extremism and make our polarized political stalemate even worse by taking sides and riling up partisan audiences:

“We live now in hard times. Not end times. And we can have animus and not be enemies. But unfortunately one of our main tools in delineating the two broke. The country’s 24-hour politico pundit perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems. But its existence makes solving them that much harder. The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire and then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected, dangerous-flaming ant epidemic… If we amplify everything, we hear nothing… The press is our immune system. If it overreacts to everything, we actually get sicker.”

Elsewhere in the speech, Stewart made the case that the majority of American people aren’t nearly as extreme or partisan as the Glenn Becks and Rachel Maddows of the world might indicate. Rather, Stewart suggested, most Americans live their lives in moderate, bipartisan ways, working “across the aisle” even with those different from themselves. His “Rally to Restore Sanity” was supposedly geared toward this group–those fed up with extreme partisanship.

But how apolitical was this rally really? As great as Stewart’s general points were, and as amusing as the comedy routine was, I have to wonder: Did tens of thousands of people really travel to D.C. because they were “Moderate and proud of it!!” Did they stand up for hours on the national mall on the eave of a major national election, taking part in a satirical alternative to Glenn Beck’s political rally, because they wanted to be neutral and nonpartisan?

Writing for The Guardian, Michael Tomasky suggests that Stewart’s inistance on his audience’s neutral political status is a bit misleading:

This sober and earnest middle is not really Stewart’s audience. Stewart’s core audience is news-junkie liberals. As is Colbert’s. It’s people like National Public Radio host Terry Gross, who, in a recent live dialogue at Manhattan’s venerable 92nd Street Y, thanked Stewart for being the last thing she sees at night, which permits her to “go to bed with a sense that there is sanity someplace in the world.” It’s young urbanites and students. It’s the out-of-place blue fish swimming the waters of the vast, red, middle-American sea. The moderate married couple with a child or two who are too busy for politics – his ideal marcher – are for the most part probably also too busy for Stewart.

This points up one problem with the Stewart approach that liberals don’t talk about much, which is his occasional and to me very awkward attempt to make Republicans laugh too. I used to watch the show more devotedly in the Bush years, and I thought I began to notice that Monday nights (the Daily Show runs Monday to Thursday) were make-fun-of-Democrats nights. His audience tried gamely to laugh at routines about John Kerry, but they wanted Dick Cheney jokes. Stewart evidently felt (and still feels) the need to have something vaguely resembling balance. Well, it’s a noble impulse. But it always felt to me like he was straining for a neutrality that wasn’t there in his heart. He seems to be pitching the rally toward that same notion of neutrality. But I doubt that’s what will show up on Saturday, and that’s what worries me.

Indeed, a closer look at Stewart’s rally today indicates that, despite what Stewart and Colbert said or did on stage, the event was decidedly an event of and for the political left. Camera pans of the audience revealed that plenty of young students and LL Bean professionals proudly broke out their old Shepard Fairey Obama “Hope” t-shirts and paraphernalia for the occasion, holding up irreverent  signs saying things like “Support the Right to Arm Bears,” “God Hates Snuggies,” “Yes D.C., There Are Democrats in Texas,” “BP Was Framed by the Liberal Media,” and “Make Falafel Not War.”

Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee was openly organizing events in conjunction with the rally, and liberals like Arianna Huffington were funding  free bus rides from New York to D.C. for the rally. The presence of people like Sheryl Crow (who stumped for Obama in 08, has called Tea Partiers “uneducated” and this summer released “Say What You Want,” an anti-Sarah Palin song) and Mavis Staples (who played at the inaugurations of Presidents Clinton and Carter) further gave the event the feel of just another Democratic party rally.

As admirable as Stewart’s ambitions are, and as much as I agree with his media criticisms, I have to wonder about the possibility of an enthusiastic middle. In this day and age,  is a sizable moderate population really even possible? In the Internet age, where there’s a fanpage or Facebook group or blog community to reinforce any and all perspectives and further isolate ideas from one another (ironically, in a medium based on linkage), how realistic is it to expect that humanity is going to cultivate a more mature, nuanced, complexity-friendly discourse?

I don’t want to sound defeatist. I just sometimes despair when I look around and find such a dearth of nuance and moderation–even, lamentably, in a rally  purportedly all about moderation. Instead of rallying for more productive bipartisan dialogue, the rally-goers today seemed more interested in having a condescending laugh at the expense of “the unthinking masses” who apparently can do nothing other than believe everything they see on TV.  The rally-goers certainly seemed unified more by their belief that Tea Partiers are brainwashed buffoons than they did by their bipartistan belief that Keith Olberman and Bill O’Reilly are equally egregious in their political punditry.

Moderation and nuance are not easy. But in today’s world, they will be revolutionary. I agree with Andrew Bird when he sings, in “Lull”: I’m all for moderation but sometimes it seems / moderation itself can be a kind of extreme.

Indeed, in a world increasingly defined by an ambiance of divisiveness, moderation is kind of extreme. But moderation is not something we can merely pay lip service to, or hold up as a rallying cry, even as we deride the “fringe” populations as uneducated dolts or misguided zealots. The definition of moderation is not that we purge ourselves of passionate debate or dismiss any notion of ideological difference. Rather, it is that we seek to value understanding and disagreement within the context of charity. It means we must lay aside our irony and condescension for the sake of dialogue, even if it seems like the other side is unwilling to listen.

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Turn on the Lights

The first episode of the 5th (and sadly final) season of TV’s best show, Friday Night Lights, aired last night. It’s absolutely tragic that only 9 more episodes remain in what TV history will surely document as one of the sharpest highlights of the waning days of the network era. NBC’s creative arrangement with DirecTV to co-finance Lights and air the show twice (I’m watching it on DirecTV now… but it will air on NBC sometime in 2011) is a fittingly transitional model for a show that thrives on the tension between old and new, nostalgia and moving on.

That tension was especially thick on last night’s episode, which among other things showed two beloved characters (Julie and Landry) departing Dillon to go off to college. I love that Lights dwells in a reality that acknowledges transience… letting its characters grow up and move on, as new ones come in to have their own growth spurts and struggles. The show reflects so gracefully the human constancy of change–that we are all constantly “moving on” and that few relationships, communities, and dynamics are ever as stable as we want them to be.

I’m going to wait until this season (and series) is over before I write a long form, reflective essay on Lights, synthesizing my many thoughts and feelings about it from over the years. But in the meantime, here’s an excerpt from a piece I recently wrote for Relevant magazine’s Sept/Oct cover story (“5 Shows Saving TV“):

Lights is a show about contemporary life. Small town, Texas life. Drenched in nostalgia, adolescent angst, and Midwestern truisms (Dairy Queen, sports radio, Applebees), the show bursts forth with quotidian drama. The Emmy-nominated, Peabody Award-winning show is elegant, mature American art, at once a soft spoken tone poem–recalling the literary Frontier of Willa Cather, Horton Foote or The Last Picture Show–and a tumultuous tableaux of soap opera with the kinetic Americana of Thomas Hart Benton or Aaron Copland.

But it’s much less high-falutin than that sounds. It’s really just a show about everyday life: family, friends, community–all deeply enmeshed in a culture of Christian values and red state conservatism (Bud Light keggers, church potlucks, and teen pregnancy included). …

Throughout the series, moral dilemmas are the centerpiece of conflict: Should we sleep together? Are steroids ok to use? What does it mean to love one’s neighbor? The show wrestles with thorny topics (issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, vocation, etc) with uncommon grace, but almost never with a didactic “nice tidy lesson” wrap-up. It’s a show that gives reality its messy, unromantic due, even while it almost always tips its hat in the direction of hope.

Though the show’s cast of characters includes an array of teenagers–football players, nerds, cheerleaders, outcasts–the heart of Lights is its centerpiece family: the Taylors. Coach Eric and Principal Tami Taylor (Emmy nominees Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton) and their daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden) are as good as TV families get. They are the show’s rock. They are a good, loving, shockingly functional American family–not without their faults, but always tender and utterly believable. It’s something of a miracle that a contemporary network television show could so vividly remind us of what is wonderful about families who stay together, struggle together, and grow together. We so often only get the struggle.

What makes Lights so special is that it gives us goodness–in the form of families that rally around each other, communities that still believe in small town heroes, and teenagers who make bad decisions but ultimately strive to do what’s right (as opposed to, say, the amoral adolescents of Gossip Girl type shows).

On an average episode of Lights, Eric and Tami Taylor will have a moment where they sit down together on the couch, or in bed after a long stressful day. They’ll talk about their days, their struggles, their needs. Sometimes they’ll just look at each other and laugh. Sometimes they’ll fight or flirt. It’s a picture of marriage as a partnership and a balm, soothing the struggles of everyday life through companionship.

It’s a metaphor for how life is meant to be lived–in tandem, together, as a team. In football, and in everything else.

Thoughts on China

I just returned from 10 days in China (Shanghai and Beijing), which definitely isn’t near enough time to get any sort of grasp on this astoundingly large, complicated country. But over the course of my time there I definitely observed certain things, which I’ll summarize below in the form of somewhat fragmentary,  just-me-and-my-initial-thoughts bullet points:

Scale: The most consistent theme of my experience in China was immensity. Everything was on such a huge scale. The crowds I experienced at the Shanghai World Expo (I just so happened to be there on the record-setting 1 million+ visitors day) redefined my paradigm for crowds. But it wasn’t the exception. On every subway ride, street corner, mall, market or museum, the reality of vast humanity (1.3 billion+ in China, and growing) was ever-present. But mind-boggling scale also showed itself in the country’s infrastructure and jaw-dropping architecture–both old (the Great Wall) and new (the CCTV Tower, Birds Nest, China Pavilion, etc.) Some of it is really impressive… Puts American skyscrapers to shame.

Red or Green? It’s hard to fathom the extent of China’s industrial boom and economic expansion over the past few decades, but the effects of it (more wealth, more consumption, crazy building boom and exploding cities) is wreaking havoc on the environment, as my smog-choked lungs can attest to. I didn’t see blue sky the entire time I was in China, nor the sun (except for as a faint orange fluorescent orb occasionally), and most of this was not because of cloudy weather. Meanwhile, most of the country pavilions at the World Expo ironically emphasized the importance of green development, and the U.S. Pavilion was almost entirely green-themed. The message from these countries to China seemed to be “get green or get left behind.” a hard case  to make to an country that is poised to soon be the world’s biggest economy, green or  not. Will China be convinced of the long-term importance of eco-friendly development? I hope so.Their growth, let alone the world’s health, will not be sustainable otherwise.

Appearances: China cares about how the world perceives it. This was made glaringly obvious in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, for which China spent untold billions (the  published amount is $44 billion) in order to wow the world. China wants to present a western, democracy-friendly, open version of itself to world. Its why they spend $58 billion to host an extravagant, 21st century version of the World’s Fair which celebrates a utopian vision of the global future. Its why they enlist hordes of custodians to immediately pick up any visible trash in all tourist areas. Its why homeless people are whisked away to sight unseen, conspicuously absent from the streets of major urban areas. Its why during the Olympics, the government outlawed car use on certain days to  reduce pollution and give visitors a falsely pleasant experience of air quality. But what China should realize is that presenting misleading appearances can sometimes do more PR harm than good, as in the case of the 2008 gymnastics cheating scandal, which confirmed many suspicions that China’s government was an ends-justify-means, cheating-is-necessary-for-success sort of body.

Capitalism and Conformity: Capitalism is alive and well in China. Street vendors sell fake watches at twice the price they bought them for. Outside my hotel in Shanghai, China’s nouveau riche shop at Hermes, Tom Ford, and Karl Lagerfeld stores. China has some of the biggest malls in the world, swarming with shoppers eager to adopt the latest trendy western fashions. Yet meanwhile, Facebook and Twitter are banned. The press is controlled. And the government has the ability to do whatever it wants to whoever it wishes, without any recourse or protection from the law. In China, you have the right to buy almost anything. You have the right to get extremely rich. Indeed, these “rights” are encouraged, because they serve the larger goals of a stronger China. What you don’t have is the right to dissent, at least not really. Freedom of expression, even of the politically subversive variety, is allowed in small measure. China recognizes the economic value in the “dissent” market, and thus there are art gallery districts and hipster neighborhoods where rebellion gets a controlled pressure release and high-end fashion and lucrative arts merchandise is birthed. But anything resembling real counterculture or antiestablishment revolution, more ideological than profit seeking, is frowned upon. So even while the Chinese people adopt the individualistic, rebellious fashions of Prada and Diesel, they largely avoid–or perhaps aren’t interested in–truly asserting individualistic identity against the grain of collectivist PRC national identity, where conformity is one of the highest virtues.

The Fragile Toleration of Christianity: The number of Christians in China continues to grow rapidly, despite or perhaps because of the illegal, forced underground nature of it. But even though the church is “underground” in China, it is certainly not unknown to the government. They are fully aware of almost everything that goes on, have extensive files on missionaries, etc. The question for the government is not whether this is happening as much as how it should be regulated. Should this vast, growing force of subversion be freely tolerated? Or should it be persecuted? Would the latter tactic cause Christianity to grow even more? Right now the relationship is tenuous. At any moment, the government could shut down churches or expel foreign missionaries, and Christians would have no recourse of action to fight it. Such was the recent unfortunate case of the government deciding at the last minute to not let the Chinese delegation attend the Lausanne conference in Cape Town. Such actions are the government saying, “We know what you’re up to, and we can stop you at any moment.” It’ll be interesting to see how the government will proceed with respect to Christianity; though ultimately it doesn’t seem like any official government policy will be able to halt the advance of the faith–a faith which has a history of thriving both inside and outside realms of approval.

Gaga-Speak

I recently read Camille Paglia’s fascinating deconstruction of Lady Gaga from The London Times in September. The piece is utterly surprising and amusingly scathing–surprising because Paglia, a prominent American intellectual and social critic, once called Madonna “the future of feminism”; scathing because, well, Paglia describes Gaga as a “plasticized android” and “laminated piece of ersatz rococo furniture” who “represents the exhausted end of the sexual revolution.”

But the really fascinating part of Paglia’s critique was, for me, where she tied in Gaga’s over-the-top one dimensionality with the current generation’s inability to understand nuance, connected dots, and nonverbal communication in the age of disembodied Twitter culture.

Paglia argues that the Internet has “fragmented and dispersed personal expression, draining energy from the performing arts, with their dynamic physicality,” which she ties in to Lady’s Gaga’s woefully inexpressive human physical presence, characterized by “blank, lugubrious face” and a “limited range of facial expressions.

Paglia suggests that:

“Generation Gaga doesn’t identify with powerful vocal styles because their own voices have atrophied: they communicate mutely via a constant stream of atomised, telegraphic text messages. Gaga’s flat affect doesn’t bother them because they’re not attuned to facial expressions. They don’t notice her awkwardness because they’ve abandoned body language in daily interactions. They’re not repelled by the choppy cutting of her videos (in febrile one-second bursts) because that’s how they process reality — as a cluttered, de-centred environment of floating bits… Gaga’s fans are marooned in a global technocracy of fancy gadgets but emotional poverty. Everything is refracted for them through the media.”

This observation is disturbing to me, because I think it’s true. Are younger generations beginning to lose the ability to notice the nuances of facial expression, body language, and physical communication as they live more and more of their relational lives via keypads and computer screens?

I recently interviewed psychologist Doreen Dodgen-Magee, who specializes on the neurological, relational and intrapersonal impact of technology usage on young people. In our conversation, one of the things Dodgen-Magee said she observed was that young people today are increasingly awkward in physical, face-to-face conversation, because their natural environment of communication is textual: e-mail, Facebook, text, etc.

Have you noticed this with the Gen Y digital natives that you know? What do you think about the idea that our highly mediated, short-burst, status update tech culture will render us less and less capable of picking up on the complicated dynamics of in-person, physical communication?

I’m not sure Lady Gaga is quite the harbinger of doom Paglia makes her out to be, but I do think there’s something to the idea that Gaga–what with her perpetual trunk show of freakish Kermit/raw meat costumes signifying nothing other than fetishized pop-kitch fabulousness–is a symbol of the culture’s eroding ability to decipher semiotic meaning.

What does Lady Gaga mean? What does she stand for? Very little, argues Camille Paglia. But that’s precisely the sort of cultural icon this generation relates to. Gaga=flashy lights, bright colors, pleasing sounds, funky beats, shocking vaudeville clips, “what is she wearing?” hyperlink viral fodder, and bits and pieces of politics thrown in for good measure. In short, Gaga is a million little pieces of random amusements that clutter our feeds, walls, channels, apps and inboxes in this gleefully Google-Gaga world.

The Social Network

The Social Network is a film that fires on every cinematic cylinder in an age when we’re lucky if a film fires on just one or two. From the opening scene to the closing shot, this is a film that packs so much into every moment. It has a razor-sharp script by the ever clever/chatty Aaron Sorkin, a stellar ensemble of young actors who are destined for Awards season accolades, a gorgeously dark score by Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, and all sorts of other goods that make it, in my view, the best film of the year so far.

The Social Network is first and foremost a David Fincher film. His distinctive mark is on every meticulously detailed, stylish frame. On the heels of the elegant/genteel/literary Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and the obsessive/creepy/methodical Zodiac, Fincher’s latest reflects the worlds and styles of both of those films, as well as their thematic concerns: obsession, ambition, the tension between human intimacy and time/efficiency/work.

But The Social Network is more than just a Fincher film. It’s a time-capsule for our time–a document of a curious revolution in social communication, economics, and the shifting notion of “status” in a world where roots, tradition, and familial privilege are less important than the ability to navigate media and manipulate tech-enabled perceptions of one’s digital self.

It’s also a frenetic, words-as-action thriller that underscores just how much language and communication are changing in the age of texting and Twitterspeak.

Take the opening scene in the bar between Mark (Jesse Eisenberg) and his date (Rooney Mara). It’s as fast-paced and all-over-the-map as any dialogue scene you’ve ever seen. Within the first minute, the discussion covers everything from SAT scores, a Capella groups, rowing crew, final clubs, Teddy Roosevelt, oil futures, and yet it’s all really just a discussion about status and how one is set apart or above from the pack (It’s not money, Mark points out. It’s about exclusivity). This scene sets the discursive tone and pace for the rest of the film, which is back-and-forth chatty and very much devoid of long soliloquies or introspective monologues. This is not a film about the private, inner worlds of America’s young people. It’s about the ping-pong chatter of steady-stream public posturing, in the vein of, well, Facebook.

It’s also a film about power, and the changing of the guard from old notions of power/distinction to newer, upstart conceptions of it. This is, of course, best seen in the characters of the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer), Ivy League aristocrats and trophy-winning crew stars, ambitious entrepreneurs in the manner they were brought up to be. They are comfortable in the accoutrements of wealth, and confident that they’ll attain it. They also value hard work, loyalty (it’s the “Harvard way”), and the ethos of well-heeled inner circles.

For the Winkelvosses, Mark Zuckerberg represents the upstart, punk, two-timing cheater who comes from the relative outside and redefines the terms of “in vs. out.” He’s new money. But worse, he’s the prophet of a new system in which money is no longer king.  In perhaps the film’s best sequence–and indeed, one of the best scenes of any movie this year–we see the Winkelvoss boys in a rowing competition, desperately trying to catch up with the leader and finish the crossing line first, as they are so accustomed to doing in life. But it’s not to be. This is a new age. And it’s less elegant, less honorable, and much more unpredictable than they’re used to.

In this new age, punk geniuses like Mark Zuckerberg come out on top because they’ve learned how to use technology to break down the previously impenetrable boundaries of class and power. They’ve learned how to take the aristocrat’s most prized possession–networking, exclusive connections–and make it an accessible, populist pastime for the masses. Facebook is a revolution because it harnesses the universal human longing to know and be known, while slowly eroding the old guard’s stratified systems of cultural hierarchy and power. Facebook is about leveling. Ironically, anyone can be a part of it, even while it feeds on our desire for exclusive membership and the performance/proclamation of unique identity. The paradox of this is why 600 million people are on Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg is the world’s youngest billionaire.

And it’s one of the reasons why The Social Network is such a fascinating, important document of our time.

Autumn Playlist

It’s a surprisingly cool, rainy day in Los Angeles, and fall is in the air. Which means it’s time for my annual autumn playlist–a collection of songs that have been receiving heavy play on my iTunes library this season. The following are songs that are quiet, longing, nostalgic, and unsettled. That is, they are songs that feel appropriate for fall. What are your picks for autumn?

Belle & Sebastian – “I Want the World to Stop”
Animal Collective – “On a Highway”
Ryan Adams – “Please Do Not Let Me Go”
Joanna Newsom – “On a Good Day”
The Radio Dept. – “The Time Around”
Mindy Smith – “Tennessee”
Nick Drake – “From the Morning”
Rilo Kiley – “Silver Lining”
The Walkmen – “Stranded”
Audra Mae – “The River”
Mumford & Sons – “Timshel”
Susan Enan – “Moonlight”
Claire Holley – “Innisfree”
Over the Rhine – “Lucy”
Hem – “Strays”
The Wailin’ Jennies – “Heaven When We’re Home”
Ride – “Vapour Trail”
R.E.M. – “Airportman”
Yo La Tengo – “I Feel Like Going Home”
Jonsi – “Hengilas”

Medium: Cool

The following is an excerpt from the lecture I delivered at Taylor University this week (“Medium Cool: A Formal Analysis of the Christian Hipster”). Enjoy!

Imagine you are a visitor to a church, and you walk in to find that nearly everyone around you is a well-dressed, fashionable, “indie”-looking twentysomething with skinny jeans, stylish hair, and a clear sense of cutting-edge fashion. You look at yourself, and you don’t fit in. You feel self-consciously excluded, unfashionable and awkward. We all know what this feels like. Whenever you’re around a bunch of hipsters and you are clearly not as hip, you feel uncomfortable. You can’t help but feel that way.

Now, it may well be that the hipsters in this hypothetical church are very genuine, authentically cool people. They could be very friendly and not at all elitist or snobby. But nevertheless, they have that hipster “look,” and on first impression, it isn’t the most inviting thing to outsiders. More often than not, the impression “cool” gives is alienating, off-putting, and exclusionary. It implies a hierarchy, an “in-the-know” vs. “out-of-touch” dichotomy, an atmosphere of divineness and discomfort. But is this the sort of atmosphere you should find in a church?

Here is one of the problems for Christian hipsters. Whatever they might mean by the clothes they wear or hairstyle they sport, however authentically they are expressing themselves, the fact is that the medium of “cool” communicates certain connotations, and some of those connotations might not fit so well with what Christ in us should convey.

Many Christian hipsters would like to believe that their faith has mostly to do with their beliefs and their actions, but that it doesn’t have much at all to do with how they look. But I think we have to consider that our “look” does matter, because—for good or ill—it does communicate things.

Christian hipsters may be driven by legitimate motivations, by honest aesthetic interests and by an understandable desire to want to distance themselves from the old-guard evangelical culture that connotes so many bad things for so many people.

But in the process of trying to create new associations of what Christian identity is and how it is enacted in the world, many Christian hipsters are simply falling neatly in line with an already established and increasingly proliferate industry of “hipster” identity. We are rebelling against the consumer-minded excesses of mainstream evangelism by identifying ourselves with the consumer-minded practices of hipster culture. Our alternative is simply consuming different sorts of things. Instead of McGee and Me, we’re watching Mad Men. Instead of Audio Adrenaline we’re listening to Animal Collective. Isn’t our identity more than our consumer preferences?

Unfortunately our culture—built around consumerism and advertising—has for years reinforced that identity is in fact about what you consume. We are told that buying certain things will make you attractive or “cool.” Liking certain things will give you a unique flavor and will make you “different.” In short, consumption makes you who you are, and gives you the power to set yourself apart from the pack. The medium of “cool” has been perfected by the culture industry, and its message—exclusivity, elitism, edgy rebellion—is collateral damage in just another economic exchange.

Consumerism has become crucial in how we define ourselves. Just look at our Facebook pages where identity is defined in terms of what products, groups, bands, movies we “like.” And hipsters are as susceptible to it as anyone else. They are defining themselves by their opposition to consumerism and attempts to subvert it by shopping at thrift stores or dumpster diving, freegan-style. But such things are still identity-markers bound up within a consumerist framework. To be “anti-consumerism” depends on a thriving consumerism. At the end of the day, it’s still all about defining ourselves by what we like and don’t like, and we have a very hard time articulating who we are outside of those terms.

In her recent Christianity Today article “Culture in an Age of Consumption,” Anna Littauer Carrington talks about the way that consuming cultural artifacts establishes personal identity in today’s world. She notes that even for young evangelicals, “Consumption-as-identity has moved beyond establishing social status by flaunting wealth; in fact, one’s relative wealth may be less important than it once was. What matters now is the ability to cobble together a unique blend of thrift store clothing, just-out-of-the-mainstream iPod tracks, and vintage posters. The blend of consumed artifacts—or bricolage—is what sets you apart. Curating a personal style isn’t wrong, but trying to be “original” for its own sake can easily foster both pride and insecurity.”

Carrington believes, as I do, that while it is a positive thing to embrace music and other cultural artifacts simply because they are excellent, we have to be careful that we don’t use our consumer habits as a power to set ourselves apart from others and above them on some scale of good taste.

“Embracing “cool,” writes Carrington, “can easily become a way to assert social power over someone else, and can easily lead to individualism, competition, vanity, and rebellion for its own sake… Our ability to consume is a form of power. Will Christians use that power to portray the image of Christ to a broken world? Or will we strive to be cool individuals attending cool churches?”

The temptation of identifying ourselves through what we consume is a very real temptation for our generation, because the idea is so ingrained in our culture. Want to be unique or different? Simply buy music or wear clothes that no one else is buying or wearing. But as soon as we succumb to this simplistic notion of “difference,” we begin to lose a sense of what really constitutes identity.

In an October 2008 article for PopMatters, Erik Hinton points to the hipster as a symbol of the broader culture’s faltering sense of otherness and alterity—of being able to recognize something or someone as meaningfully different from oneself beyond superficial assessment of appearance. Hinton points out, quite correctly, that the hipster’s tendency to collapse and collect bits and pieces of all culture and boil it up in one “totally unique” personal stew, ultimately creates a void of meaning wherein cultural distinction and difference is lost. As hipsters become more and more identified by the styles and tastes they accumulate, they lose their own sense of identity. “Who am I?” gets lost in the more pressing hipster question: “what bands, brands, and quirky styles do I like?”

Hinton writes:

Our lists of particulars become the whole of our personalities. This is why we see that kid at parties dressed like Hunter S. Thompson and break-dancing with gold chains around his neck, the girl reading Byron, wearing a Siouxsie T-shirt and hanging out at the bike shop. . . . The hipster is no more than a conscious manipulation of the freedom to live these piecemeal identities, comfortable in the awareness that identity can be constructed out of any bands, clothing, cheap, regionally esoteric beer, and inane micro-fiction that pleases. The hipster is a pastiche of old and new culture, free from the limits of meaning or the constraints of authentic identity.

Within contemporary hipsterdom, unique identity is ironically lost in the all-consuming desire to fashion a unique, rebellious identity. Hipsters seeking difference get lost in style and subversion and forget that skinny jeans and Parliament cigarettes can only go so far in setting them apart. Throwing all his eggs into the superficial basket of style, the hipster might gain a small measure of cultural power over those who aren’t in the “trendy loop.” But in the process he often loses any sort of profound sense of self that transcends the constantly passing fads of culture.

Christian hipsters must be very careful that they don’t fall in this trap. They must examine their Christian identity and embodiment and ask questions like: Am I mostly rebelling against the Christianity I was raised in? Am I enlisting my progressive, artsy consumer choices as a power-play against those Christians who are cultural and intellectual philistines? Do I take any pride in not being “one of those Christians”?

Now, I am not suggesting that you stop buying indie music or consuming media or dressing fashionably. All those things are fine, and if you are truly moved by them and seeking them because they are good, true, or beautiful, then that’s great.

What I’m suggesting is that we need to think more about what it means to be a Christian on both the form and content level. What does it mean to truly embody the call of Christ in our lives? Can we embody that selfless, humble, transcendent Gospel of Christ when we look the part of a self-focused, vain, trendy hipster?

I think we need to deal with this dissonance, and confront the implications of cool head on. I think we need to redefine cool in terms that aren’t as much about consuming the right sorts of things or having privileged knowledge of what is or isn’t fashionable, as much as about the things that are truly attractive and appealing about our faith.

The coolness of Christianity comes not from how fashionable or trendy Christians are, but rather from how well we embody the humility and charity and love of Christ in our lives.

In a world that constantly reinforces our own hubris and obsession with self, true revolution is that which points us outward. And this is my hope for the Christian hipster. That in the midst of this business of creating new perceptions and correcting some of the skewed priorities of evangelicalism, the focus should always be on Christ and his kingdom, rather than on ourselves, our skinny jeans, and our strategically overgrown mountain man beards.