This review first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 33, number 04 (2010). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org
That which has been is what will be,
That which is done is what will be done,
And there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which it may be said, “See, this is new”?
It has already been in ancient times before us.
There is no remembrance of former things,
Nor will there be any remembrance of things that are to come
By those who will come after.
King Solomon’s words in Ecclesiastes 1:9–11 (NKJV) echo through the generations. There is no new thing; we only forget what has come before. For instance, we are born rebels, yet each youthful generation that rebels believes its insurrection is novel. Seeking to set ourselves apart from the majority, to impress the world with our unique style and way of living, is part of our nature. We want to stand apart from the larger group but seek acceptance from a more insular group.
Brett McCracken, a twenty-something journalist, examines these and other tensions in Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. The self-described Christian hipster surveys his own “cool Christianity” subculture, questions whether these Christians are obsessed with being different for its own sake, and discusses the impact the quest for cool has on our faith.
The History of “Hip.” McCracken defines the hipster as a young, fashionable, and “independent-minded contrarian.” He embarks on a well-researched exploration that tracks the evolution of hip, from as far back as the Enlightenment to America’s founding to the post-World War II hipster era to 1960s hippiedom to the present-day incarnation of “a commitment to total freedom from labels, norms, and imposed constraints of any kind” (p. 52).
The seeds of Christian hipsterdom were sown in the 1960s, when teenage Baby Boomers became a cultural force. As the culture goes, so goes the Christian church. Youth ministries sprang up, but churches still faced an important question. Given the church’s square and oppressive image, and youth’s countercultural rebellion, how was the church to reach them? McCracken is critical of the church, which at times has bowed to the culture to reach young Christians. Cool, as defined by mainstream culture, collided with the church’s values.
From this flowed the unexpected rise of hipster Christianity in the form of the Jesus People and Christian rock music. Next came the cultural co-option of Christianity as a sort of retail brand. The current form of Christian hipsterism mocks and rebels against this branding. Christian hipsters typically don’t like megachurches, altar calls, the 700 Club, contemporary Christian music, or Christian movies. They like breaking taboos and getting tattoos. They tend to drink and may smoke, and they prefer the term Christ follower to Christian. Generally, they like alternative and independent secular music, movies, and books “well respected by their respective artistic communities—Christian or not.” McCracken offers examples of Christian hipster “figureheads,” such as musician Sufjan Stevens and writer Lauren Winner, author of Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity, and he lists top Christian hipster cities and churches.
The “Cool” Conundrum. What distinguishes the Christian hipster from his secular counterpart? The Christian hipster strives to live a more Christlike life, as befitting a believer, and he’s marked by “significantly less” hedonism, less cynicism, less drug use, and less premarital sex. Nevertheless, McCracken concludes that the pursuits of Christianity and cool are irreconcilable.
“Cool” trails, which include individualism, alienation, and rebellion, are problematic for the Christian, because these things tend to cause self-centeredness, loneliness, and elitism. Rebelliousness, for instance, isn’t always a bad thing. Jesus Himself was a rebel. But an attitude of rebelliousness can easily move from breaking oppressive rules to breaking rules that help us grow in grace.
When is Christian coolness authentic? When it sincerely celebrates what’s good about art and culture apart from trendiness, when it’s centered on Christ and not consumption and image, when it’s different from the world, and when it’s willing to say no to sin.
“We easily forget that our Christian beliefs are actually pretty radical, unheard of, life-changing, world-shaking, and elegant,” McCracken writes (240). Why should we fear unpopularity or being out of touch? The Christian shouldn’t concern himself with outward coolness and being different for its own sake. Our faith sets us apart. We should dare to be different as new creations in Christ.
Though Hipster Christianity adopts a tongue-in-cheek tone at times, it’s appropriate to the material. McCracken attempts to generate a serious discussion about a subculture of believers trying to set themselves apart, like generations before and generations to come. The impulse to stand out, however, is satisfied only in Christ.
—La Shawn Barber
La Shawn Barber is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in such publications as Christianity Today, Today’s Christian Woman, the Washington Post, and the Washington Examiner. Visit her blog at lashawnbarber.com.