Christian Media Discovers Hipsters

A friend of mine sent out a test on “How Millenial” are you?” in March. People pegged in various age categories were supposed to score like this:

  • “4″ for Silent Generation
  • “11″ for Baby Boomer
  • “33″ for Gen X-er
  • “73″ for Millenial

I got a 52, which is near my age, even though so-called millenials are teens and twentysomethings. Tags are better when they are a game.

He sent out the “Are you a Hipster Christian?” test in July that has been going around on Facebook lately. I got a 92 out of 120. I authenticated myself. That is until I say “balderdash!” or my usual “poppycock!” (Although I did just write that ironically).

I think these kinds of sociological games are fun but they mostly fall over the edge into poppycock. Unfortunately, they are also the rugby of intellectual games – people get hurt. The Pew people have a ton of money to keep people in their marketing niches. Brett McCracken had a cool idea and marketed it to his niche: the children of evangelicals – I think he is making it through the recession OK. But he is also getting a lot of airplay to cast aspersions.

The problem is, insecure Christians keep using these pseudo-scientific research projects to define reality. Call me a hipster, but I rebel against their rationalistic, term-paper approach to truth. I was a “hipster” Christian before there were hipsters. Francis of Assisi has been a hipster Christian since about 1202. I think one could make a very good case for Jesus calling a bunch of hipsters to be apostles. Actually living in one’s culture and having a mission to one’s generation should not be made to look suspicious in the eyes of some supposedly objective truth.

In the recent Christianity Today issue, McCracken had the lead article, complete with a shout out to our own, bonafide evangelical rebel-hipster, Shane Claiborne.  (How did he miss you, Joshua Grace?) McCracken says, “In order to be a hipster, one must be a rebel. Despite the fact that (ironically) hipster culture usually operates within and is sustained by the very structures it opposes, hipsterdom’s raison d’être is countercultural, boundary-pushing rebellion. As such, hipster existence is frequently rife with vices. If hipsters cannot completely overthrow the structures that bind them, they can at least destabilize them by engaging in hedonistic behavior: smoking, drinking, cursing, sexual experimentation, and so on. It’s about freedom, partying, and transgression—not in the Jersey Shore, frat-party sense (unless ironically), but in the “bourbon cask ales taste good and I don’t care if I get drunk” sense. Hipsters ridicule bourgeois concerns such as “cigarettes cause cancer” and “drinking should be done in moderation,” opting instead to recklessly embrace such vices with “why not?” abandon. If you aren’t willing to engage in at least some of this “subversive hedonism,” you will have a hard time maintaining any hipster credibility.”

This is generally true, especially if you are Pew people parsing statistics or millenial writers looking to make a name for themselves visiting notorious churches for an evening. I suppose Circle of Hope qualifies as a hipster church, if anyone does. But I meet most of the qualifications, too: I love Thrift Stores, I have a tattoo, I’ve been known to drink (but I won’t touch a cigarette and you should stop that!), I bike, I disdain big-box Christianity, I misappropriate primitive culture at times, I like Sufjan. But I don’t have little glasses and I am not 25. Reading McCraken’s article made me feel like I might be stepping in poppycock.

It is hard to be part of a movement of God’s Spirit in your generation when the sociologists want to trace the history of your “fad” and level you out into just another interesting, predictable development of their theory. Honestly, I think Gamaliel thought Christianity was a fad, but he had the sense to wait and see: “Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.” (Act 5:38-9).

We’ve been waiting and seeing for about 15 years, here. So far, we have definitely seen some people pass through faith like it was just another bit of fashion for them. Once they got into it, they needed to rebel against it, especially when uncool acquaintances adopted it. There are true former-Christian hipsters out there. Even more likely, they lost faith when they stopped being hipsters – like they bought a house and had children. Faith-as-rebellion is actually a lot easier to maintain than faith as something-I-am-building-a-life-with. But this is hardly a new phenomenon in Christianity. Jesus was weeding out wannabes long before his resurrection made it plain he was not just rebelling against the status quo. “What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” …From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:62-9) People who are rebels against the domination system are often just smart people who end up meeting the One who gives them the truth behind what they were rebelling about.

As you can see, I resent people who tag my property with their intellectual signatures. International foundations, national magazines who are just “reporting” are playing a rough game with real people of faith. We’re having our local struggle to be an authentic representation of Jesus in our here and now. I am a living example of how your tags don’t fit. I hope you are having your own life. I liked it better before you discovered how to investigate and make a buck off mine.

11 thoughts on “Christian Media Discovers Hipsters

  1. Thanx for responding to this, Rod. Although Circle has some of the qualities that make up “a hipster church,” these practices and ideals are concretely rooted in history and have been preserved throughout time (in spite of the fact that many may not have recognized or acknowledged them).

    I found the article interesting but unimportant – what I do find important is Marquita’s concern about things that make it difficult for Blacks & Latinos (especially poor folks) to orient themselves and find some level of comfort in our community and meetings. I have often argued that the Circle often bases everyday practice on relatively “heady & sometimes abstract” ideals and practices that often require not only some level of attention / exposure to good education, but also a strong sense of dignity – that is often in short supply in poor urban neighborhoods. How can one read about St. Francis when they are overwhelmed by bills and constantly facing complicated choices (posting bail for family members, housing / helping folks who are going through difficult times, etc). I am expecting the good healthy parts of our Circle of Hope culture to endure and to positively impact all of the communities in Philadelphia (including poor communities). And I also expect my fellow covenant members to grow and mature into people who are focused on God’s will being done and working on any behaviors that might hinder this.

  2. I find Brett McCracken’s confusion between the mega-church culture and the hipster-Christians amusing (did he say hipsters were resource-draining? Jumbo screens?!) and how does a more bombastic Mark Driscoll very much resemble the simpler Shane or Rob Bell (especially since Mark emphatically denounces Rob’s brand of Christianity in a very name-specific fashion)?

    All in all, I find it interesting that we try to pigeon-hole movements–I am definitely guilty of this–so that we can understand them or, worse, keep far, far away from them (then, again, don’t I pigeon-hole fascists in quite the same way–so as not to become one?). It all creates a silly us-versus-them mentality that serves no real constructive purpose.

    And perhaps this is where we learn our lesson. It seems our dear Brett knows just enough about coolness to compile a list of mainstream and obscure hipster niceties (Ashley says the Helvetica reference was the one that caught him in the cookie jar). It makes me believe that Brett too could be considered a hipster by someone more distanced from this “subculture.”

    In the same way, am I not guilty of the very things I rebuke popular culture for being (do I not peruse Urban Outfitters for less than humble reasons)? Perhaps instead of trying to create these rigid lists of what make who a certain thing, and instead of distancing ourselves from those we don’t think we understand (though we actually resemble them a little), we can merely encourage each other on to great things.

  3. I’m not that clued in on Christian culture in terms of it being consumed in magazine form or as a sociological study, but it doesn’t surprise me that someone felt the need to write not just a magazine article, but an entire book in an attempt to give interested readers an explanation as to why some Christians look and act different than whatever is considered normative these days. After reading the article, I felt about the same as I do when I read the various headlines on a gossip rag in a check out line.

    Anyone who read that article and felt a tinge of guilt might need to ask herself from whom or what her identity is based upon.

    I enjoyed Marquita’s response. I was wary of CoH in the beginning but I stuck around long enough to find out that it wasn’t trying to be a cool dad

  4. This whole discussion of “Christian Hipsters” smacks of divvying up the body and is more evidence that even in Christ we apparently have no trouble finding East and West.

  5. I read the article first and then read your post. I could see where someone who is a member of a suspected “hipster” congregation may feel a little pinched at the accusation that it’s just some sort of fad to claim victory in the race against the mega-evangelicals to “win the next generation, rather than a true expression of how one chooses to live out faith in a community. The reference to another blog “Can hipster Christians reach non-hipster blacks and Latinos in urban areas?” would have been interesting to read also. This is something I think on fairly often since covenanting. Admittedly, I found COH a little hard to digest initially. However, it was the Spirit of God and the evidence of His presence that gave me comfort and encouraged me to stay, rather than the familiarity of people and “traditional” worship experiences. I believe that God has not diminished in His ability to remain “relevant” and the “main thing”, and evidence Himself as the true reason we choose to worship and live in a missional community context; and He is able to inspire and direct change, wherever its needed (either the individual or the community), in order for that community to reflect the rich diversity of His kingdom.

  6. Nice post, Rod. I appreciate your critique of McCracken and other socio-religious studies. It is quite frustrating how there is this phenomena now that proclaims anything that is predictable is therefore unauthentic. Being predictable is something that many ‘rebellious’ human beings fear; yet it is also the very hope of the Christian life! I tend to think that if God established a new covenant community founded upon Jesus then that community indeed requires characteristics and ways of being that, ultimately, ought to be predictable… in the best kind of way.

  7. Excellent essay, Rod. I am fascinated by Hipsterdom, in general. McCracken’s wrong about his definition, though, because in our postmodern world, the hipster definition changes as the status quo does. One day, joining the military, wearing a suit and tie, and moving to the suburbs will be the most ironic thing to do–and subsequently–most hipster thing to do. I joked to a friend recently that on the “Hipster Christianity” test, it would be ironic to score a “0,” so that’s the hippest thing to do.

    It’s a culture that, at best, is based on rebellion, and at worst, based on nothingness. I call it self-serving nihilism. It’s a paradox, wherein one thinks she is the center of the universe, while simultaneously thinking that there is no center at all. It’s a shame that much of a hipster’s most spiritual acts occur when she is rebelling against her parents’ faith–but when she becomes more balanced, she gets over her issues with Mom and Dad and also falls out of love with Jesus.

  8. Thanks for the tag, Rod! I’ll try to check out that Christianity Today article. I wish more hipsters (like you and me) would rebel against global capitalism, racism, and the war not just mom & dad (the evangelicals) oriented statements about sex, drugs, and rock & roll.

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