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.

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23 responses to “Medium: Cool

  1. well done

  2. Well said. It seems when some to try to stand-out by the way they dress, do their hair, or the music they listen to..they always risk not just standing out but putting others out.

  3. Yep – what the others have said: well done.

    Makes me miss my days at Taylor U…but I’m glad that you were there to bless and challenge the current students.

  4. So. Brett.

    But what’s the alternative? Consumerism has infiltrated our very marrow – in fact, to consciously not dress stylishly is, in its own way, a support of a certain bland, inexpensive, widely available, proliferated big-brand cause. So you wear the off-brand tshirt and the baggy jeans that you picked up for a song at Kohls or JCPenney? Congratulations, you’re still swimming with the rest in the stream of consumerism. You’re still making a statement, taking a stand – just because it’s a statement that more of the ‘middle’ or mainstream makes doesn’t make it any less of a statement. The lack of thought and consideration into what we consume – the aesthetics of it, the design, its function versus its quality, etc. – are what stock the shelves of a place like Thrift Mart USA – that cramped graveyard for 90’s-era consumerism. Taupe plastic and cheap knits sheathed in a layer of dust and neglect. Sure, it’s offbrand. Sure, it was inexpensive. Sure it was functional if not blatantly anti-aesthetic, but it was also made with shoddy craftsmanship, manufactured in China, its sole purpose being to feed the need of a society bent on spending their hard earned dollars on the basest, most available product they can find.

    Putting thought into ones’ appearance doesn’t always indicate a rotting of the soul, but rather, indicates a triumph in that any thought was put into it at all. The fact of the matter is, we’re a visual and judgmental society, so to argue that coming across as ‘too hip’ is detrimental to the cause of Christ obliquely skirts the issue at hand: No matter what you look like or how you dress, someone is going to take issue with it. To spend so much time fussily asking oneself if that hat is too on trend or if that shirt is off-putting is time wasted. Wear what you want to wear. Whether it’s seen as trendy or not. The issue should simply be taken off the table.

    Choosing to dress in a certain style or listen to certain music or watch certain movies will put you in a niche, whether you like it or not. And when you stake those claims and stand by them – ‘I have this opinion about this particular type of music,’ for example – there will always be someone on the other side of the spectrum who feels you’re wrong, or elitist, or snobby, or angling for superiority. Because insecurity runs a helluva lot more rampantly than does confidence and conviction.

    So rather than worrying about the media we consume or the clothes we wear and what that must be communicating to the oft-feared ‘someone else,’ we should be examining our convictions – what are we willing to stand for? To fight for? To say that dressing in a certain style makes one look ‘self-focused [and] vain,’ reeks of personal prejudice. A shirt does not make one vain. A scarf does not make one self-focused. We need to transcend not the consumerist-minded ideals of our culture but the connotations it purports. Rather than worrying about how we dress, we should be more worried about how our culture tells us that this is who we are as a result. And your assessment proves that you’re not above the fray, as it were.

    If we’re truly focusing on our inner selves as opposed to what we look like on the outside, then guess what? That doesn’t mean that all of Western humanity stops giving two hoots about what they look like. It means we start to look at others with a bit more compassion. Because like it or not, everyone’s gotta get dressed in the morning. Music and visual art is part of our society but it’s also part of our core being. So to suggest, as you have, that people who dresses fashionably or embody a certain ‘hipster’ style must be doing so out of a vain and insecure motive to prove their own superiority is a narrowly false idea. It’s not Us V. Them. And the sooner we stop thinking of each other that way, the better.

    • “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.”

  5. I strongly recommend “Why Johnny Can’t Dissent” part of “Commodify Your Dissent” edited by Thomas Frank.

    The unstoppable hipster juggernaut is nothing more that the latest marketing tool of a capitalistic and materialistic society the sells “dissent”, “rebellion” and “authenticity” to people who actually believe that you can buy your way out of conformity, uniformity and consumerism. The sad part is that they’ve allowed one of the few truly authentic, radical and grace filled paths to be co-opted out of an ego based desire to be cool.
    There’s no one way to do it. –Levi’s
    This is different. Different is good. –Arby’s
    Sometimes You Gotta Break the Rules –Burger King
    These aren’t your grandma’s Christians–Christian Hipsters

  6. Brett,

    So glad you had the opportunity to speak at Taylor. This excerpt encapsulates the consumption-as-identity issues we all struggle with. And it uses two of my current favorite words: bricolage and pastiche. I look forward to continuing the conversation!

    -Anna

  7. I just read a ridiculous review of HC in The Other Journal, then came here and read this. Suffice it to say that your perspective and thoughtfulness is a tonic after the strangely reactionary and defensive piece of work that was — thank you.

  8. Is it time to move on Brett? I think you may have sung all the verses of HC.

  9. Imagine you are a visitor to a church, and you walk in to find that nearly everyone around you is a well-dressed, fashionable, “professional”-looking thirty-something with suits, dresses, 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 business professionals and you are clearly not as well-dressed, you feel uncomfortable. You can’t help but feel that way.

    And so on and so forth.

    Here’s the problem. Your entire critique of hipsters can apply to anybody. Your key paragraph – which I totally agree with – is:

    “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?”

    But everybody needs to do this, not just hipsters. People who shop at Old Navy and drink Mountain Dew need to ask these questions. What’s more, in this paragraph you seem to be assuming that Christian hipsters haven’t “thought more” about these things already. No doubt some haven’t but (and this is where Jamie Smith is spot on) many already have thought through these things and that is why they wear/listen to/do the things they do.

    The real group of people you are after is not the hipsters but any Christian who acts without any sense of what it means to, as you say, “embody the call of Christ in our lives.” Your critique applies equally as well to people who wear skinny jeans and drink Pabst as to those who wear khaki shorts and drink Budweiser.

    • Well said, Anon. I have walked in to churches full of hipsters and churches full of people wearing prairie dresses and experienced the exact same level of discomfort.

  10. Brett, I appreciate your words and incite into this matter. I have felt exactly what you described in your first paragraph. It seems to me that any movement motivated purely by a discontentment with something old ends up rightly identifying the old modes failings but never comes to a positive solution. Hipster Christians, and in a broader sense the post-Evangelical Conservative Christian, have identified many of the legalism and exclusivity (not Gospel-driven exclusiveness but works-driven exclusiveness) of the old guard, but have only replaced with a different brand of the same thing.

    You’re exactly right, if the motivation of the younger Christian culture is a passionate love for Christ and a desire to be like him, then the issues you identified will cease being issues and a true reform will actually happen. Thanks for the post.

  11. Brett,
    Until you start dealing in Biblical-ethics, and pointing out very clear moral failures [in particular individuals – not groups], you will only continue to alienate people. Like David said, “What have I done now?!” to his critical brothers. Although you would like to be set apart from the past, or from those who seem to be fundamentalist, you seem to be stuck in the same sort of pietism that is a mark of American Evangelicalism. Biblical law will cure you of this, and allows people to just be themselves even if it rubs you wrong personally. The Ten Words are sufficient for ethics.

    Your categories embrace many different kinds of people—perhaps inadvertently—, but the pejorative stereotypes you create are generalizations that will not hold for everyone you want to attack, or correct. I suggest reading SI Hayakawa’s excellent book, “Language in Thought and Action”, as a tonic against the kind of stereotyping you are doing here (and I would assume you do in your book).

    The strange thing is, you seem committed to the very way of life that you want to attack. This is where Dr. Smith’s review is spot on — you seem like a very conflicted person. Rightly or wrongly, you go after what you perceive as failures, but you do so while pursuing the lifestyle. Odd. It is like Rousseau in bed with the prostitute, trying to reform her. Either get out and continue your needles crusade, or stop preaching. Or, get a new ethical perspective that allows you to receive others who may just be cooler than you, actually. Love doesn’t care about cool- especially when others are more cool than you.

    So maybe the problem is just you, Brett.

    PS- Francis Schaeffer was a hipster.

    • It’s interesting that you point to the Ten Commandments as sufficient for ethics, even though Jesus doesn’t claim any of them when he proclaims the greatest commandment. Also, to point out the contradiction that seems inherent in Brett’s life is to miss the point of his critique. He is not dismissing this new cool as holistically wrong and then living that way anyway, he is living a mode of life that is his choice and using his critical eye to help sway his niche toward a more Christ centered, meaningful life. The problem is all of us, so let’s not be too quick to judge.

  12. Cody,
    The Ten Words are the key to Love, and Jesus knew this when He was quoting from Leviticus 19:18 -“love your neighbor”. Read the Torah more closely and pay attention to the literary structure. The Ten Words were sufficient for the Lord. Why are they not enough for us?

    Brett takes it upon himself to judge the invisible motivations of others. This is the problem.

    Love your neighbor.

    Chris

    • Yes, it is true that if you pay attention to the literary structure of the Ten Words that Jesus is using Leviticus to summarize. But it is not merely a summary. Jesus is both summarizing the Law and highlighting the means by which the Law should be accomplished, with love. So I would correct your above statement. The Ten Words are not the key to love, but rather love is the key to the Ten Words, which is the application I take away from Jesus’ response.

      All that said, it seems ironic to be judging Brett’s invisible motivations for doing what he does on this blog…

  13. I think this is perfectly said. I attend a church that looks so much like what you are describing, and I think there is a very missing acknowledgement of how problematic it can be. I don’t think it is even in the consciousness of our leaders. I appreciate your analysis and will be passing it on as food for thought.

  14. Hmmm..I’m torn, I totally agree with McCracken…but, I also get “Anonymous” too. Whether it be in So Cal or the South you’re going to find a group that is deemed the “in crowd”. However, I think you bulls eyed the whole matter with this statement “Isn’t our identity more than our consumer preferences?” I quoted you on the Rewrite Beautiful facebook. I think every sould on earth wants to be more than their consumer preferences, they just don’t feel that that alone is good enough…now that’s a blog topic!

  15. I recognize and agree with your concern, but I’m sort of in the opposite situation. My church is in a small rural community, and there is NO ONE like my wife and I, interested in indie bands and good movies and unique clothing and the like. We understand that those aren’t what “really matters”, but still…it would be nice to feel some solidarity of taste with the people we’re worshipping with.

  16. Sounds like a church that suffers (like most churches) from a lack of generational, racial, and economic diversity.

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