“Hipster” “Christianity”: a “review”

First they came for the Jesus People, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jesus Person.

Then they came for the seeker-sensitive church, and I did not speak out—because I was seeker-insensitive.

Then they came for the emergents…or emerging, or whatever you call them, and I did not speak out—because I was not emergent/ing.

Then they came for the Hipster Christians and I was all “AW HELL NO BEEYATCHS!” in the most ironic tone possible.

________________

SO, it has become impossible to ignore the phenomenon of “Hipster Christianity” that is sweeping through evangelicalism these days (blazing from the cover of my newest Christianity Today).  Or should I say the COMMENTARY on “Hipster Christianity” (I’m going to keep using those ironic quote marks because I think it is such a ridiculous term, I don’t want to give it the pleasure of legitimacy in the realm of English idioms).

The LEAST hip illustration you could use...look up "trucker hat WWJD" for the best.

A while back, an acquaintance sent me a Facebook invite to become a “fan” of a page that “he thought I’d like”:  “Hipster Christianity.”  I was like, wha?  I checked it out.  There was a link therein to a “quiz” that would tell you if you were a “Christian Hipster.”  I clicked on said link, visited linked website which included these photo shoots of types of “Christian Hipsters” and questions about which kind of books or films I liked, then saw that this was all a quasi-interactive marketing scheme for a book called “Hipster Christianity” and I got THE HELL out of there.

What kind of queer (in the classical sense, my dear gay friends) Christian publishing house marketing person came up with this idea?  “See if you’re ‘hip’—ironically laugh at the stereotypes—ponder the connection between faith and culture in your own disaffected and detached way—now go buy the effing book you little shit.”  If anyone had the slightest inclination to consider themselves “hip” wouldn’t they know that aligning yourself with something that identifies you as such (using a word that has scarcely BEEN “hip” since 1965) is the first sign that you have lost all possibility of truly being that very thing?  So basically they are trying to appeal to people who are either poseurs or those who cannot stand “Christian hipsters”?  I can only assume it was the former…(Which, of course, is not the reason which I MYSELF left the website—I simply cannot stand Christian marketing…of anything.)

So I did not become a fan of aforementioned FB page or aforereferenced book.  My reasoning was that I thought the book was playing to the movement of those who would want to become known as “Christian Hipsters.”  However, I later came across the book & decided to scan over the beginning, just to see how ridiculous it was.  Turns out, the book is kind of a CRITIQUE of this movement (is it really a movement?  Maybe a style, a flavor, an expression of some part of a movement?).  Anywho, a central question in the “introduction” (lower case “i” in the book) was “whether or not Christianity can be, should be, or is, in fact, cool.”  The author claims that his book is “not an advertisement or rallying cry for ‘hip Christianity’ (my quotes, not his), nor is it an outright chastisement.  It’s a critical analysis.  It’s about the contradictions inherent in the phenomenon of Christian cool and the questions Christians should be asking of themselves if they find themselves within this milieu.”

Before I rip a hole in this idea of “contradictions” between “Christian” and “cool,” we need to zero in on one little word, not central to his claim, but which undoes any credibility to his forthcoming argument:  “milieu.”  WHO USES THIS WORD outside of a grad-school thesis?  I mean, I read that and I’m thinking “Ahem, is the milieu you mention au courant vis-a-vis the locus of a bête-noire or an enfant terrible?”  Oops, I missed one pretentious term, but he picks it up a few lines later:  “it’s en vogue for Christians to hate on Christianity in all of its mainstream forms.”  (I’m sorry, is it outre to hate on the use of ostentatious language?)  Maybe that’s the way he talks, maybe it just popped out from Thesaurus.com the day he was writing (at “a table,” he somberly notes, “in the dining room of the Kilns—the home of C.S. Lewis.”  This is relevant…apropos of what?).  I’m sorry, but all of this is adding up to a sorry picture of our tour guide through the world of “Hipster Christianity.”  And this “authorial tone” is part of the thing that cuts the legs off of the central argument I see here against Christians who are “cool” (though I must say I AM glad he is not advocating the sense I first got from his book’s website).

He says that this whole phenomenon “boils down to one simple desire: the desire to make Christianity cool.”  But his definition of “cool” seems to reveal more about his own social experience of cool than what anyone else may take the term to mean:  he writes, “Cool = an attractive attribute that embodies the existential strains to be independent, enviable, one-of-a-kind, and trailblazing.”  Hmm, except for the words “attractive” and “enviable” this definition could fit the Unabomber.  These two words then reveal that it’s all about what other people think.  The whole enterprise of “Hipster Christianity,” from this book’s perspective, feels like it’s about those who are trying to “one up” other people, to be in on something before anyone else is, to have people notice you, etc. and making their faith “cool” is part of this process.  Bro, these are SCENESTERS!  They’re followers of whatever is elusive (wearing a t-shirt that says, “I’m so indie, I’m into music even I haven’t heard of yet.”).  He even comes out and says that “cool is basically a perception of others—it can’t exist as anything intrinsic or detached from public perception.”  SAYS YOU!

I would argue that coolness is something like a combination of good taste, non-conformity and self-possession—it doesn’t matter if people think you have good taste or not (do YOU know why you like it?), or whether you are not-conforming to something which the majority of people reject or approve (you’re simply not willing to follow a trend just because others are—you think for yourself), and you don’t get flustered by others judgments or assessments of you (e.g. “I still like Coldplay…I don’t care if you think they’re corporate label Radiohead rip-offs”).  Was Jesus cool in this sense?  Absolutely.  Can Christians be cool?  Yeppers.  So can atheists, Sufi Muslims, Trekkies, sportos and motor heads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, and dickheads.

The metaphors for “cool” this book uses feel so off to me as to be referencing the opposite of what it claims–those who are so caught up in TRYING to be cool that there’s no way they could actually BE COOL:  “ahead of the pack,” “the road less travelled,” “survival of the hippest,” “the pursuit of individuality,” “affirmation through attention.”  In the author’s mind (and perhaps, experience), cool is a social phenomenon.  You’re not cool unless other people think you are cool and you have to struggle somehow to maintain cool or you could possibly become uncool.  And this is one of his central objections to “Hipster Christianity,” that somehow Christians are going to try so hard to be cool that they are going to eventually align Christianity with the pursuit of cool or get stuck in some old “trend” (“HIP” PASTOR:  “Hey micro-brewery night on Sunday!” POST-“HIPSTER CHRISTIAN”: “Micro-brews are so 2 months ago, I’m bailing on this whole Christianity thing”).

Man, if we need a book called “Hipster Christianity” then we also need some social analysis and critique of “Dork Christianity” or “Lemming Christianity” or “Sentimental Christianity” or any other number of phenomena that you can see in the church today.  Turning the microscope on guys with lumberjack beards isn’t really that insightful if they are just cut from the same old imitative cloth that every other era of Christianity has had—just write about people who have no internal sense of the good, the true, and the beautiful.  But it’s making my boy Elijah and I and people whom we truly consider “cool” look bad cause we DO like Sufjan and N.T. Wright and Wes Anderson and all of the things associated with these trend-stalking scenesters.  To be honest, I want to make a t-shirt that says, “If you have to write a book, you wouldn’t understand.”

All this to say, I suppose, that while this author’s critique may fit some bills, I’d prefer if he didn’t label my friends and I according to his little scheme, photo shoots & quizzes.

One last thing:  I remembered seeing an association of “hipster” with “Christian” in the liner notes of a Belle & Sebastian album from 2000 (a tell-tale sign of my “hipness”)…I reproduce it here as a more positive association of these terms:

Update:

"Awesome Christianity"

Another update:  My friend, Matt Barber, pointed me to a review of “Hipster Christianity” by philosopher James K.A. Smith that is along the lines of what I’ve pointed out above, except that it is a well-formed argument, written by a prolific published author, and doesn’t sound quite as bitchy.

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22 responses to ““Hipster” “Christianity”: a “review””

  1. Joel Garman says :

    So if I’m reading the review right the book should be called “Scenester Christianity” or “Lemming Christianity”. Which I would generally support a critique of. From all the stuff I’ve read about the book its billed not simply as a critique of “hipster Christianity” but of Christians who follow trends for the sake of being cool. This I would also support and is something that needs to be said. Form my limited perspective I see Christians following too many trends and becoming what I would judge as “caught up in culture”. I would especially say its something that my generation is far too guilty of. I don’t see healthy thought concerning “the flow” but rather a lemming mentality. There are those who truly express themselves and end up being trended or pigeon-holed and then there are those who “brand” themselves because of the external cultural stimulus it provides.

    Does the author take this macro view or simply keep the scope on “hipsters”? If the scope is simply “hipsters” that’s unhealthy, non-charitable, and probably mean at times.

    BTW I tried to keep the “ironic quotes” going…

  2. Greg says :

    Joel,
    Perfectly put, with none of my vitriol. I am with you on your points…and I’m not quite sure where the book goes cause I only looked at the intro & first chapter (which would have been good to make more clear). And “thank you.”

    I was trying to figure out why I felt so irate at this whole thing & I think your point about feeling pigeon-holed hits the mark. There’s this sidebar in the CT article where it lists out writers, filmmakers, & musicians that “Hipster Christians” like and it’s pretty spot on with my tastes. But I wouldn’t consider myself part of the movement he describes, so it feels like someone is trying to label me unfairly.

    Like if I said, “If you wear large sunglasses, a RVCA shirt, or a flat-billed cap, you are part of ‘Bro Christianity,’ which supports binge-drinking, rap-rock, and date-rape.” You’d be like, hold on there one second li’l guy!

    Thanks for your insightful comment, Joel. Do you blog somewhere? I’d love to read your stuff if you do…
    Cheers,
    Greg

  3. Elijah says :

    I talked with Belle & Sebastian about Jesus and the Bible in Glasgow…

    • Greg says :

      Elijah, you epitomize my theory of cool.

      PS did you change my “trekkers” to “trekkies”? Didn’t think I’d catch it eh? I was trying to be sensitive to the non-weird obsessive Star Trek fans, ala Josh McBride. I’ve heard they prefer Trekkers. Still I do appreciate all the little editorial niceties you do around LITC. Your OCD comes in quite handy here!

      • Elijah says :

        As far as ‘Trekkers’ vs ‘Trekkies’ go, I figured you wanted to express the extreme Star Trek fans. Feel free to change it back.

        I also corrected ‘bailing’ from ‘baling’. Though baling could probably refer to making bales of hay…

  4. jason says :

    Both your ‘before & after’ skimming-over-the-pages reviews were right on the $. All self promotion, when it comes to creating new Christian dogma, just bugs. To be honest…the only peeps I seriously want to write a book are the ones who don’t really want to bother w/ writing a book. And thx for the Ferris Bueller shout out.

    I wouldn’t read the book b/c I took that stupid quiz. It felt like I was being forced to buy into the crap my youth pastor said was “edgie….and….cool”.
    Cool is ‘The Fonz’ and then weezer was cool b/c they had that ‘Happy Days’ video w/ the fonz in it. The author should’ve done more research. Or just stopped hanging out with the Christians who shop @ hot topic…

    • Greg says :

      This comment contains brilliance.

      DEATH TO HIPSTER CHRISTIANITY! All those who are jumping on board this bandwagon need to realise that this bandwagon jumped the shark a decade ago.

  5. Amber says :

    Hi Greg,
    I haven’t read much of your stuff, but I followed a link from CT to this blog.

    I don’t understand why you are hating on this book so much. The author of Hipster Christianity didn’t write the book for *you*, he wrote it for all the people who are trying to understand you. (And if you try to say you aren’t hip, perhaps you should take ‘Greg shares the same birthday with one Sufjan Stevens’ off the ‘interesting facts’ description about yourself.)

    People like my in-laws are really trying to understand exactly how it can be that so-called Christians voted for Obama and smoke and drink. They need to read a book like this in order to understand their worship leader. They need to read a book like this to understand their grand-kids.

    Hipsters always complain about being put in a box as if all of us are so unique that nothing but an Amber-shaped box can describe me! Yes, it’s annoying, because we hate to see that we aren’t as original as we think we are. It would be best for everyone if we could just say, “Hey, I like all the bands that CT is calling ‘hip!’ Huh. Who knew?” and move on. (And perhaps buy the book for our grandparents for Christmas.)

    Just my two cents.

    • Greg says :

      Amber,
      Thanks for your thoughts! We here at LITC totally welcome disagreement…

      First of all, what was the link from CT? I wondered why the traffic had been going up, but I didn’t see any incoming links…

      Second, my review is REALLY harsh & it’s only based on the Intro/1st chapter, so I know I’m not being fair. However, just reading those parts, seeing the website, etc. elicited a pretty strong response. I probably was not as clear as I could have been in my post, but I don’t consider myself a “Christian Hipster” because I think that these people he is describing are not truly cool, they are people who are trying desperately to be cool. I got a mix from a girl once and it felt like such an obvious attempt to put together the most obscure indie bands possible…the problem was, most of the music was shit. She succeeded in being the first to be “into” a number of bands, but the thing was, they weren’t worth being into.

      I know so many people who “do” fit into what the author would describe as “Christian Hipsters” but I think they are truly followers who have no internal sense of cool–so in some sense I’m glad he’s critiquing them. But then when he says, “Here are the things that they like in their pursuit of being cool Christians” I get offended because the things he’s writing about are just good, but now he’s tainting them. So now if I play a Sufjan song at church, I’m a “Christian Hipster.” If I quote from NT Wright or reference a Wim Wenders film, I am lumped in with these other culture vampires. Do you see what I mean?

      You’re right that those from the previous generations need a book about a new era of believers. I just don’t think this is it. I found “Body Piercing Saved My Life” (Andrew Beaujon, 2006) to be much more insightful, written from a “non-Christian” perspective, and much more objective and with less need to “critique” the authentic movement of thoughtful and indeed COOL Christians in the arts…

      While I may have a tremendous amount of fondness for Sufjan, I also love artists like Richard Thompson and Led Zepplin, who I am pretty sure are not hip, as well as bands whose “hipness” expiration date has come and gone: Snow Patrol, Bloc Party, Fiona Apple. Am I suddenly uncool? No, I know what I like and have a fairly thoughtful reason for it. Hardly anyone is “original” in their music tastes–we all hear about some group from somewhere. The deciding factor is whether you like something because it’s “hip” to like it, or whether you can take it or leave it based on your own sense of what’s cool.

      Thank you though, so much, for putting your thoughts out here. I will continue to consider the point you’ve made, but I feel like I can safely say, my offense not comes from being the subject of this book, but rather seeing things I love associated with such d-baggery.

      Cheers,
      Greg

  6. Amber says :

    Hi Greg,
    Thanks for writing back and for your patience with my slow reply. It’s been a busy week!

    In regards to the CT link, I was just reading the comments underneath and someone posted the link to your review. You might be interested:
    http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/comments/allreviews.html?id=89350&type=article

    I suppose I should be upfront and let you know that I am a personal friend of Brett’s, and, therefore, offended most by the tone of your review (not necessarily the content, but I do have some thoughts there). Having read your description about yourself, I think you’re probably a pretty cool guy, and I bet that if life brought us together, our families could enjoy a pint together on a Saturday afternoon. See, I think you’d really like Brett too. He’s the kind of guy that’s great to have in a discussion about life, theology, film, books, music, etc… All the stuff that I think you like.

    Your review polarized yourself from Brett, though. It seems that you forgot that he is a real person. (I know that people who put things in print need to be prepared for criticism, but I’ve read so many blog comments lately that are downright rude – stuff people would never say in person!) Now, if you are ever in the same room with him, you may find yourself on the offensive, thinking “What’s the next “thesaurus-based word that he’s gonna use that I can make fun of him for on my blog?” instead of engaging and challenging what he says from a “How can we be true Christian brothers?” perspective. I *do* understand that you felt pigeon-holed by him into a box you don’t want to live in, but doing the same thing in response wasn’t the answer.

    Now for the meat:
    I totally see your point in being irritated with Brett’s penchant to overgeneralize, i.e. “Anyone who likes Over the Rhine, N.T. Wright and Helvetica must be a Christian Hipster.” The funny thing is that our reaction is “I’m not a poser! I’m not a poser!” rather than, “Yeah, I like those things. You do too?” Is the heart of the matter wanting to somehow prove that you have legit taste and make up your mind for yourself rather than following the “trends?” If so, I’ll just say that I believe you! You seem like an educated, culture-savy-ish kind of guy who likes music and film because you actually like it, not because someone told you too. I have a artsy-fartsy friend who took my husband and me to an art gallery once and refused to tell us what the ‘critic’s’ said about anything. He kept saying, ‘If you like it, that’s all that matters.” I appreciate that. I didn’t feel that I had to live up to standards I didn’t know or make up some sort of dumb-ass thing to say when, as a musician, I should have known better. Perhaps if we just gave each other some sort of slack, we’d feel better.

    And that brings me back to my original point. I’d love for you to cut Brett some slack and at least read the end of the book. Because you never know, you could end up in the same room someday (both of you being So Cal-ers), and it’d be great if you could have a friendly discussion.

    Thanks again for your time,
    Amber

    P.S. Thanks for mentioning that book. It really sounds interesting.

  7. Greg says :

    Amber,
    Thank you for your follow-up & the link.

    As far as the offense caused by my tone, I do apologize because he is your friend but I want to explain my purpose. I was trying not to conceptualize my criticism here as directed toward “Brett” but rather “the author of the book.” I don’t know Brett, in fact, I wrote originally that I had “seen him around Biola” but when I looked up a picture of him online, I had mistaken the editor of the Biola “magazine” for Brett & I don’t actually remember having any sense of who Brett was in person (I wrote him an email once welcoming him to Biola cause I recognized his name from CT film reviews). I wish him personally no ill will–I am attacking the authorial presence in the book as if it were written anonymously. It’s just about this author’s presentation of his argument (kind of like how we might write vicious papers in English Lit classes about Nietzsche, Eliot, or Melville, but it has truly nothing to do with them personally–only their authorial persona).

    It was my intent to suggest that we should not trust this book, due to the fact that I felt it was more opportunistic sensationalism for a culture hungry for “the next thing” and a failed attempt to analyze the phenomena of “cool Christianity” which instead simply identified another generation of late-blooming cultural posers. I suppose my ire came from the fact that I wished this book had authentically documented what I think is a real dilemma: how is it that the source of all that is good, true, and beautiful (i.e. God) be associated with such awkward cheesiness, simple-minded sentimentality, and overall dorkiness (i.e. the majority of the evangelical church).

    Brett is a published author–I’m simply a blogger. Hopefully, this little ripple of backlash won’t impact his own sense of self-worth! But it is a good reminder to me to consider the tone of my attack and to make sure its connected to ideas and not so much a person. Elijah is much better at this than me, so I do have a ways to go…

    In peace,
    Greg

  8. Grant Morgan says :

    Greg-
    You’ve said in electronic format what I’ve been trying to formulate in my mind ever since I heard about this book coming out. I’ve wondered what the book was about, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to read it. The author apparently works for the Biola magazine. I’ve thought about looking him up and starting a dialogue about whether or not his book is helpful. Perhaps it is helpful in the way Amber has suggested, to help older generations(but that is a generalization as well, I know many young people who don’t understand why a Christian would vote for Obama, and/or have a cigarette or a beer). I would suggest open dialogue between the two parties as the best option for any kind of understanding to be made.
    I do like the “quiz” on the website though. I just think its fun to see what kinds of answers we all can choose, however general they are. 🙂 Thanks for drawing my attention to your blog. I just need to come here regularly.(I’m clicking the box to get email notifications)
    Also, I saw you driving the other day, but I didn’t want to honk my horn and make a scene. “Greg! Greg! I’m over here!” ha. Next time maybe I will.

  9. Greg says :

    Grant,
    Thanks for checking the link out. I felt a bit presumptuous just posting the link, but then I figured you would understand my intent.

    You are one of the truly “cool” ones…you made Battlestar Galactica “hip.”
    Greg

  10. Eric says :

    Hi Greg,

    I’ve really appreciated reading your thoughts on the book, or rather the apparent concept (since appears you and I have skimmed the same sections). Now, Brett and I overlapped at Wheaton by three years. I didn’t know him personally, but I’ve known *of* him for about eight years now and we have many friends in common. For that reason, I’ve tried to keep my criticism of the book to a minimum for fear that people would misinterpret my distaste for the concept as a personal gripe with the author.

    My experience with the book has been a constant barrage of hot and cold. I was first directed to the website and quiz where I was put off by the concept but pleased with my low Hipster Quotient (72, I think). Then, after reading a piece Brett had written in the Wall Street Journal, I became quite enthusiastic about the book, but it was sold out. But after reading the much longer CT article, I was again put off and thankful I’d been unable to buy a copy.

    Like you, after reading the CT article, the first thing I did (after posting a link on Facebook with one or two complaints) was go rifling through my Belle & Sebastian CDs, looking for the bit about the hipsters in Glasgow. I’ll tell you one thing. The more I read about Hipster Christianity, the more I admire Stuart Murdoch.

    • Greg says :

      Eric,
      Thanks for the thoughts. I had a bit of ambivalence at first in posting, but after reading the comments section on the CT website, I am glad I did! However, my response is pretty acidic, so I have felt a bit petty and mean in my “review”; however I have also heard from those who are glad there is a critical perspective around on the concept.

      That’s hilarious that you thought of the B & S liner notes! Sometimes you feel like something is so obscure that no one else would make the connection, but then you find yourself in good company, like in this case!

      Thanks again & if you do end up getting it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!
      Greg

  11. Ingrid says :

    Hey Greg,

    Thanks for the thoughts. 🙂 Good to chat Sunday.

    Ingrid

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