Tag Archives: hipster christianity

Forms of Faith

hip worship

Recently I was asked by Converge Magazine to write a piece for their website reflecting on my book Hipster Christianity four years after its release. I took them up on the offer but rather than reflecting on how the phenomenon has changed or who the new hip pastors and churches are, I decided to offer a summary of one of the main point’s of the book–that forms of faith matter and that we must think critically about how medium and message interact.

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

Perhaps more than anything the book is an invitation to consider the way form matters in the Christian life. Indeed, a common response from those who feel implicated by the questions of Hipster goes something like this: “What we’re doing is simply putting the gospel in different packaging and updating the style of its delivery as to be relevant to a particular audience. The medium may be different and new, but the message remains the same.”

But is this really true? Are the medium and the message really so detached that, no matter how an idea is packaged or presented, its meaning remains the same? With Hipster I wanted to challenge this notion and show how form matters: that perhaps the way Christianity is understood and appropriated is different when packaged in Helvetica, skinny jeans, and small batch whisky than when it’s packaged in robes, pews, and pleated khakis. Not that one is necessarily preferable to the other, mind you; just that they are different. 

The article is similar in spirit to one I wrote on this blog in October 2010, entitled Medium: Cool (yes that is a reference to Haskell Wexler’s film)

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…

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?

What do you think? Is the medium of cool a neutral thing for our Christian gospel witness? And if form does indeed matter more than we think it does, how can we go about deciding which forms of faith are preferable over others?

Advertisements

Carl Lentz, CNN and Hipster Christianity

Earlier this week a segment aired on CNN about “hipster pastor” Carl Lentz, the heavily tattooed, dynamic personality who has helped make Hillsong Church in NYC the sort of place that piques mainstream journalists’ interest and occasionally draws paparazzi (celebrities sometimes attend). Back in March, CNN sent its correspondent, Poppy Harlow, to L.A. to interview me for the story. They filmed about 45 minutes of her interview with me, in which I spoke mostly about the general topic of “hipster Christianity” since I wrote the book on the subject. Only a few lines from my interview made it into the final segment. Watch it below (my part comes in about 5 minutes into the segment) and then I’ll share a few further reflections on the matter:

http://www.cnn.com/video/data/2.0/video/living/2014/06/02/ac-harlow-pastor-carl-lentz-long.cnn.html

photo-15

A few brief reflections:

  • I have nothing personal against Carl Lentz or Hillsong NYC. I’ve never met him and never attended his church. When CNN interviewed me for the story I made it clear to them that I was speaking about the broad trend of hipster Christianity and hipster pastors, but that I knew little if anything about Lentz specifically. Naturally the way the piece is edited it seems like I’m being pit against Lentz as a skeptic or critic, but really I’m just skeptical of the broad trends of churches trying so hard to be cool and pastors aspiring to be hip.
  • In general I am a fan of the Hillsong movement. Hillsong has planted thriving churches all over the globe and that is something I absolutely applaud. I’ve visited two Hillsong churches (London and Paris) and in Hipster Christianity I wrote very nice things about my experience at Hillsong Paris.
  • It’s interesting to me that the media is so fascinated by Lentz and Hillsong NYC, as if Lentz is the first hipster celebrity pastor and Hillsong NYC is the first megachurch to succeed in NYC. During my interview with Poppy Harlow I tried to emphasize that this was not a new trend, that hipster pastors are a dime a dozen and that “cool” has been the holy grail of American evangelicalism for quite some time now; Lentz is just the latest example. I suspect proximity has something to do with why Lentz is such a darling of the media (here’s a Details profile of him that also features quotes from me). The media is in NYC. So is Carl Lentz. But so are many other well-known pastors, many of whom are arguably more widely respected and influential (I’m looking at you Tim Keller). For the media, though, a bearded Bieber friend is a more compelling story than a balding Bible scholar.
  • In response to my comments in the CNN piece, some people tweeted things like “Don’t you see that it’s just a different medium? The message is what matters.” I would agree that the message is crucial, but I would also say the message cannot be divorced from the way it is communicated. Marshall McLuhan was on to something when he said the medium IS the message. The form matters. We can’t pretend that the gospel presented via tweet is the exact same thing as the gospel preached from a pulpit, or face to face around a dinner table. Likewise, we are foolish to think that a church that looks and feels like a nightclub, with a pastor who struts around like a runway model, in no way changes the “message” of what is being communicated about the gospel. Likewise, an Anglican church with pews and robes and hymns, with no screens or smoke machines, colors the message in a totally different (not necessarily better) way. The gospel is not just an ethereal set of words and ideas; it’s something incarnate, living, embodied. The look, feel, touch and sound of it is inextricably linked to (if not the substance of) its meaning. The message inheres in the medium. That is one of the biggest points I wanted to make in Hipster Christianity

Gray Matters: In Stores Now!

August 1, 2013, is a day that for over a year I have looked forward to: the slated release date for my new book, Gray Matters (Baker Books). When you write a book–something that consumes immense amounts of energy, time and yes, draws a fair share of blood, sweat and tears–the release date is something filled with emotion. For the first time, the words and ideas you mulled over, jotted down and then refined over and over and over again, are out there.  Sparking discussion, provoking thought and action, inviting critique. It’s a weird and wonderful feeling. And now it’s here. I’m humbled and grateful for this opportunity.

Gray Matters is the culmination of ideas I’ve long contemplated–perhaps dating back to high school when I first starting really getting into movies and “secular” music. How and why should Christians enjoy art and culture? Is our consumption of culture simply a “diversion” with no meaningful bearing on our faith? Or should our faith inform, deepen, and open up new layers of enjoyment in our consumption of culture? And how does a Christian evaluate and interact with the thornier areas of culture? Is it better to just flee from anything potentially hazardous and consume only the safe, sanitized or “Christian” cultural items? Or does Christian liberty (e.g. Romans 14) make it possible for us to consume anything and everything as it pleases us, without worrying about it?

Those are a lot of questions. And most of them have been asked before. Gray Matters is a book that continues asking these questions, offering not definitive answers but principles and a toolbox to help us think through the issues. Rather than pontificating on these age-old questions from my own relatively shallow well of wisdom, I draw upon all sorts of other thinkers, including Abraham Kuyper, C.S. Lewis, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Miroslav Volf, Hans Rookmaaker, Philip Ryken, Kevin Vanhoozer, N.T. Wright, Ben Witherington, Tom Schreiner, Tom Beaudoin, Lisa McMinn, Megan Neff, Charlie Peacock, Chuck Colson, Nigel Goodwin, Kevin DeYoung, John Piper, Nancy Pearcey, Scot McKnight, Mark Noll, Clement of Alexandria, Jamie Smith, Mako Fujimura, among others.

I wrote Gray Matters to continue the conversation about Christianity and culture with special focus on some of the particular challenge areas for my generation. But it’s a book with principles and discussion points for everyone. I wrote it with the idea in mind that it would be discussed in small groups, amongst friends, wrestled with in classrooms or around the dinner table.

If the book sounds at all interesting to you (if you’re still reading, that is), please consider purchasing a copy on Amazon, or at your local Barnes & Noble (find it in the “Christian Living” section).

Download a free sample from the first few chapters of the book here.

If you purchase a copy of the book and post a review of it on the Amazon page, leave a comment here linking to it and I will personally mail you a copy of my first book, Hipster Christianity

You can also help spread the word by sharing about the book on social media, or just recommending it to friends, pastors, parents, kids, cousins, professors, etc.

If you are reading this, you are both the reason I’ve been able to write this book, and the means by which it will be a success. Thank you in advance for your support.

And if you’re in the Orange County area on Aug. 25, come to the book release party!

Coming Soon: Gray Matters

In my first book, Hipster Christianity, I attempted to explore the relationship between Christianity and popular culture by examining the phenomenon of “cool Christianity” and how the realities of trendiness and the notion of “cultural relevance” have been interpreted and enacted by contemporary evangelicals. Among the several motivations for writing that book was a perception I had that many of my contemporaries (Millennial Christians) had mistook relevance for rebellion/edginess and had replaced a pursuit of holiness with a pursuit of “authenticity.” While it is true that in many cases the hyper-legalistic, Christ-against-culture approach of our parents was off the mark and needed to be moved away from, my concern was that the pendulum had swung (as it so often does) too far in the other extreme, replacing conservative legalism with a distorted form of “liberty” that essentially becomes legalism in the opposite direction.

Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty (coming out on August 1, 2013) is my attempt to address this “pendulum” problem head on and present an approach to cultural engagement that thoughtfully resides in the vast and glorious terrain between the extremes to which we are so prone to default. Christians have a hard time with nuance. Gray areas are not our strong suit. It’s way easier to just say “yes” or “no” to things, rather than “well, maybe, depending. . . .” But there are many areas where it’s not that black and white. God gives us minds with the capacity for critical thinking so that we might navigate the complexity of these less- straightforward areas of existence.

Popular culture, and what we consume or abstain from within culture, is one such gray area. There aren’t easy answers in the Bible about whether this or that HBO show is OK to watch. Scripture contains no comprehensive list of acceptable films, books, or websites. Contrary to what some Christians maintain, the Bible neither endorses nor forbids all sorts of things it could have been clearer about.

But scriptural silence about the particularities of 21st century media habits is no reason to just throw up one’s hands and indulge in an “anything goes” free-for-all. Rather, it’s an invitation to think about the gray areas more deeply, to wrestle with them based on what Scripture does say and what we’ve come to know about the calling of Christians in this world. The gray areas matter.

I wrote Gray Matters to give Christians tools to better wrestle with a few of the gray areas that have sometimes proven divisive for evangelicals. More broadly, I hope it helps us to take more seriously our habits of cultural consumption–considering how they enrich, corrode or conflict with our Christian identity. Even if we aren’t tempted to be legalists or libertines, many of us are simply apathetic about the things we consume and the manner in which we consume them. Some of us are downright gnostic in the way that we divorce our media/entertainment habits from the faith we purportedly practice.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but I believe that following Christ and appreciating the goodness, truth and beauty of culture are not mutually exclusive endeavors. Reasonable integration, rather than convenient compartmentalization, should define our engagements with culture as Christians. We must go about it thoughtfully, with moderation, and in community. We must do it well because the world is watching; a reckless posture toward culture can impair our witness. More importantly, a healthy consumption of culture can bring glory to God.

I’ll be sharing more about Gray Matters in the coming months (pre-order if you’d like!), but for now I’ll leave you with the endorsements the book has received thus far.

“Brett McCracken is one of this generation’s leading thinkers on the intersection of faith and culture. In Gray Matters, he explores Christianity’s natural extremes with his feet firmly planted in Scripture. He charges headfirst into controversial questions and leaves no stone unturned. The result is a truly spectacular book that carves a path between an oppressive, rules-based religion and a powerless, free-for-all ‘faith.’ If you start reading it, beware—you won’t be able to put it down.”

—Jonathan Merritt, faith and culture writer; author, A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars

“Idealism is all the rage among bright young evangelicals today, but Brett McCracken brings something all too rare to the table: he holds his earnest idealism in tension with lucid good sense and winsome moderation. May his tribe increase!”

—John Wilson, editor, Books & Culture

“Martin Luther said the world was like a drunken man, first falling off one side of the horse and then the other. With a fresh and thoughtful look at challenges such as food, music, film, and alcohol, Brett McCracken has offered a new generation a way to stay on the horse.”

—Roberta Green Ahmanson, writer and speaker

“In Gray Matters, Brett McCracken does something quite refreshing—he serves as a wise and discerning guide to the consuming of culture. Many books condemn ‘secular’ culture, just as many books advocate (consciously or unconsciously) accommodating ourselves to culture. Brett has written something much different: a biblically informed and culturally savvy approach to consuming culture in a God-honoring, community-building, and mission-advancing way.”

—Mike Erre, pastor; author, The Jesus of Suburbia: Have We Tamed the Son of God to Fit Our Lifestyle?

“Brett McCracken has long been my favorite reviewer of both music and movies, so it’s no surprise to me that he has written this needed book on consuming culture. A number of wonderful books have been written encouraging readers to create culture, but Brett takes the reader into the everyday world of consuming culture. Brett is an incredibly capable writer, thinker, and connoisseur, and all of this shines through in his work—bringing back into focus that how we engage the world around us matters deeply.”

—Tyler Braun, worship pastor; writer; author, Why Holiness Matters: We’ve Lost Our Way—But We Can Find It Again

“This book is not only clear and engaging, but also careful and wise. Gray Matters is a helpful, critical, reflective exploration of how we should consume culture as Christians that is neither reactionary nor defensive, triumphalistic or despairing.  Few younger Christians have navigated these turbulent waters with as much even-handed clarity as this book does, which makes it an important read.”

—Matthew Lee Anderson, MereOrthodoxy.com; author of Earthen Vessels: Why our Bodies Matter for our Faith

Marketing a Noncommercial Message

The church today has a weakness for numbers. We are infatuated with measurements and quantified data: statistics, opinion polls, market research, attendance figures, bestseller lists, budgets, and so on. We want specific numbers so we can keep tabs on things like market saturation, return on investment, and consumer satisfaction. We want to monitor what the masses are buying, where the people are flocking, and what is hot right now, so that perhaps our warehouse churches will overflow with seeker-consumers. In other words, the church today operates like a corporation, with a product to sell and a market to conquer.

But what happens to our faith when we turn it into a product to sell? What does it mean to package Christianity in a methodical manner so as to make it salient to as wide an audience as possible? What does Christianity lose when it becomes just one piece of a consumer transaction? These are questions that the brand managers of “cool Christianity” would do well to consider. …

Let’s think for a minute about what Christianity is and why it doesn’t make a good “product.” For one thing, products must be subject to markets, yet God is not subject to the consumer needs or wants of any market. God only and ever deals on his own terms. … Another reason why Christianity doesn’t make a good product is that it doesn’t lend itself to an easy commercial sale. Sure, there are appealing things about it, but there are also not-so-appealing things about it (um… taking up one’s cross, avoiding sin and worldliness, etc.). And although the Gospel is wonderfully simple in the sense that even a child can recognize its truth, it is also mind-blowingly complex in a way that doesn’t lend itself to thirty-second jingles. Marketing requires simplifying, cutting out all friction and obstacles to a sale, and focusing solely on the beneficial, feel-good aspects of a product. To market something is to empty it of all potentially controversial or difficult elements, which is maybe not the best method of communicating the gospel…

Read the rest of this excerpt (from Chap. 13, “Reversing the Ripple Effect,” of Hipster Christianity) over at Q Ideas Blog.

Key Dates in the Formation of Hipster Christianity

How did today’s Christian hipster come to be? Here are some key dates in the formation of hipster Christianity:

June 5, 1955: Francis Schaeffer opens L’Abri.

1967: The Living Room coffeehouse opens in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district; origins of Jesus People movement.

1969: Larry Norman’s Upon This Rock (Capitol Records) is released; major release of a “Christian rock” record.

June 21, 1971: The Jesus Movement is profiled in Time magazine article, “The New Rebel Cry: Jesus Is Coming!”

1971: First issue of the Wittenburg Door (or The Door) is published by San Diego youth worker Mike Yaconelli.

1971: First issue of Sojourners is published.

June 17, 1972: “Christian Woodstock.” During the Expo ’72 evangelistic conference sponsored by Campus Crusade and held in Dallas, a day long Christian music festival draws a crowd somewhere between 100,000-200,000 and features the music of Love Song, Larry Norman, Randy Matthews, The Archers, Children of the Day, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson.

1977: Ron Sider publishes Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, which will become a classic among later generations of Christian hipsters.

June 18-20, 1984: JPUSA holds the first Cornerstone Music Festival in Grayslake, Illinois.

1984: Thomas Howard publishes Evangelical is Not Enough, charting his pilgrimage from evangelicalism to liturgical Christianity.

July 21, 1984: Christian metal band Stryper releases its first EP, The Yellow and Black Attack, launching a successful career which included one Platinum and two Gold records.

1984: Degarmo & Key’s video “Six Six Six” is the first Christian music video selected for rotation on MTV, and almost as quickly banned for excessive violence and disturbing images.

March 9, 1987: U2 releases The Joshua Tree, cementing their status as the world’s most epic pseudo-Christian rock band.

1988: DC Talk, a trio of students from Liberty University, signs a recording contract with Forefront Records.

November 1993: Brandon Ebel founds Tooth & Nail Records.

October 1995: Mark Noll publishes The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.

April 1997: Pedro the Lion releases first EP, Whole.

January 2003: Christian satirical website Lark News is launched.

March 1, 2003: Relevant publishes its first issue.

2005: Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois is named the best album of 2005 by Pitchfork and countless other secular music critics.

February 2006: Shane Claiborne publishes Irresistible Revolution.

February 18, 2006: Icelandic post-rock darlings Sigur Ros perform a sold out concert at Calvin College.

(Excerpt from Chapter 4, “The History of Hip Christianity,” of Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide)

Note: This post is part of “Know Your Christian Hipster History” week… Throughout the week, if you re-post a FB item from Hipster Christianity (tag Hipster Christianity in your post) or tweet a link to a Hipster Christianity post (tag @brettmccracken on Twitter), you’ll be entered in a drawing for a free autographed copy of the book. 5 books will be given away on Friday!

Hipster Church Tour: Resurrection Presbyterian

Church Name: Resurrection Presbyterian

Location: Brooklyn, NY

Head Pastor: Vito Aiuto

Summary: Resurrection Presbyterian is a noteworthy hipster church for a number of reasons. Launched in 2004 as a plant of the Redeemer planting network, Resurrection is situated smack dab in the heart of worldwide hipster culture: Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Not only that, but the church is pastored by Vito Aiuto, a full-blooded Christian hipster who is a reverend by day and indie musician by night. He and his wife Monique moonlight as The Welcome Wagon and released their Sufjan Stevens-produced debut album on Asthmatic Kitty in late 2008. The church itself bears many of the typical marks of a vibrant hipster Christian community: liturgy, pews, communion out of a common cup (with real port!), and a strongly infused mission-mindedness that includes local social justice work, HIV/AIDS ministry in Africa, and a leadership development/church-planting initiative known as the Brooklyn Church Project. I attended Resurrection on a steamy, stormy May evening in 2009.

Building: The church meets at St. Paul’s Lutheran church in Williamsburg. St. Paul’s meets in the morning, and Resurrection Presbyterian meets in the evenings. It’s a beautiful old building, with stained glass, organ, and dark wood pews. It’s a creaky, humid structure that fits well with the liturgy, read prayers and quirky renditions of ancient hymns that make up a typical Resurrection service.

Congregation: There were about 100 people in worship on the Sunday I attended (granted, it was Memorial Day weekend), and the crowd seemed to be mostly twentysomething singles and a few young families, with a smattering of older folks here and there. Naturally, there were a LOT of hipsters in attendance, with tattoos, scruffy beards and skinny jeans galore.

Music: The music reflects the style of The Welcome Wagon: pared down, acoustic, vintage, thoroughly hipster but totally reverent. On the day I attended, there appeared to be only two musicians in the worship ensemble—a woman who sang and man who alternated playing guitar, piano, and a number of other instruments. The worship songs were entirely old hymns, including “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise,” and “Fairest Lord Jesus.” There were also a number of purely instrumental songs—a tenor sax prelude, a jazzy ragtime-sounding piano solo during offertory and communion, etc. The music was quiet and worshipful and fit the building well. It was about the farthest thing you could get from your typical megachurch rock band or praise team.

Arts: Many artists and aesthetically-minded people attend the church, and the fact that the pastor is an acclaimed indie rock artist indicates that this is a congregation quite naturally and organically “artsy.”

Technology: Almost nill. There are no overhead projectors of any kind, and the music has no bells and whistles whatsoever. It’s a slap in the face to technophile churches everywhere.

Neighborhood: Williamsburg: the epicenter of hip. Though increasingly gentrified, the neighborhood still has its rough edges, ethnic diversity and pockets of poverty, which makes it even more appealing to hipsters. This area of Brooklyn—bordered by Greenpoint, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Bushwick—is packed with trendy bars, concert venues, vegan restaurants, record stores, vintage clothiers and used bookstores, especially along Bedford Avenue. The arts and indie music community in this area of New York is particularly strong, with new Pitchfork-heralded bands emerging seemingly weekly from the lofts and dingy flats of the Brooklyn scene.

Preaching: Vito Aiuto speaks mosts Sundays, though on the day I attended he was absent and associate pastor Chris Hildebrand spoke on the topic of Christ’s ascension (the last part of the “He is Risen Indeed! Stories of Resurrection Life” series). Hildebrand’s sermon, which incorporated quotes from N.T. Wright and references to Google Maps, focused on Christ’s kingly authority and the implications of the ascension on our lives—that Jesus calls us to both humility and hope. In subsequent weeks I also listened to sermons online that Vito preached on a Farmer’s market-inspired sermon series about the fruits of the spirit: “Organic, Local and Beautiful: Bearing the Fruits of God’s Spirit.” It was a fascinating series of sermons because it seemed entirely appropriate and directed toward the hipster Christian audience, and yet thoroughly Biblical as well.

Quote from pulpit: “We don’t want to be the man. We want to be as far away from that as possible. We know what we don’t want to be. But the question is: what do you want to give your life to? What will this church look like? We have a pretty good idea about what church we don’t want to belong to, but what kind of church are we going to be?” (5/31/09)

Quote from website: “A look at our liturgy—the pattern of our worship together—shows that worship begins with God’s gracious movement towards us: God calls us to worship; he tells us of the forgiveness of our sins; he speaks his word of comfort, rebuke, and encouragement; he feeds us at Holy Communion.”