The Need for Better Categories: An Essay on Hipster Christianity by Brett McCracken

Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide
Brett McCracken
247 pp. Baker Books. $15.99.

As is usually the case, I’m late to the game on this one.  McCracken’s book caused its stir a couple years ago, and my only exposure to the book at the time was a series of angry Facebook posts and James K.A. Smith’s scathing review.  With regards to the Facebook posts, I chalked it up to the hipster ladies’ protesting too much.  But I respect Smith’s take on things, so I figured I didn’t need to take the time with the book itself.  But the book industry being what it is, I discovered, while shopping for Christmas presents for my English-department colleagues, that I could tack a copy of this book on to my order for less than a buck and no change in shipping.  So relieved of the pressures of an up-to-the-moment book review, I’m going to write a little essay on this book and the questions that it made me confront.

The Good and the Bad

McCracken divides his text into three sections, and earlier sections are stronger.  Setting aside his introduction and first chapter, which suffer from the same problems that diminish the last section, his second chapter is the strongest in the book.  Digging for the historical roots of “hip” and “cool” (not to be confused with the linguistic roots, which McCracken does not include), Hipster Christianity reaches back to the individualism of the Enlightenment, the Romantic retention of individualism but turn to experience over scientific reason, and the story of race relations in America that result in an oppressed culture’s becoming a fetish-object for the children of the middle class.  Although he does not do extended readings of them, McCracken deftly situates Rousseau and Whitman, Arendt and Gramschi and the Frankfurt School in a fairly responsible historical narrative, leading to the late twentieth century and its ongoing cat-and-mouse game between the non-conformists and the advertising industry tirelessly selling replicas of non-conformity to suburban kids.  As far as accessible, sober surveys of modern history go, McCracken shows that he’s got a sure hand with such things.

Unfortunately, that chapter quickly gives way to much less interesting material.  Rather than go chapter-by-chapter noting problems, I’ll note a small handful of difficulties that persist through McCracken’s book:

  1. The book tends to be far too ready to psychologize entire groups of people.  Among other things, McCracken asserts that hipster Christians “assume that mere Christianity isn’t enough” (12),  that anyone who objects to being called “Christian hipster” does so out of guilt (245), and chalks up hipster identity to exclusively visual cues (200).
  2. On the subject of visual cues, McCracken wavers on what the term “hipster” connotes, and his vacillations go beyond the normal range-of-semantics sorts of flexibility that all responsible examinations allow.  Hipster Christianity veers towards utter contradiction on some points.  “Hipster” in one section of the book connotes non-conformity and in another indicates that Christian hipsters act the way they do in order to fit in with (or to conform to) larger cultural trends.  Moreover, the evaluative force of “hip” and “cool” move around over the course of the book, here being something that it antithetical to Christianity and there something that Christianity embodies more than any of its secular competitors.  That the book includes both a critique of “cool” as an elitist ideology and a section arguing that Christianity is ultimately more “cool” than anything else makes for some dizzying reading.
  3. Whether “hipster” is a narrow or a broad designation is never certain.  In some sections (like the one mentioned above), there is a singular hipster “look” that one could potentially point to in a coffee shop.  In others there is no single form that defines hip, and pages 54 to 62 are an exhausting (no, that was not a typo) catalog of hipster “types” which could range from the sharp-dressed yuppie to the T-shirt-and-jeans Internet junkie to the thrift-store nineties holdover to the camouflage-and-boots “survivalist” type.  Again, to say that there is a core and a periphery would at least to incorporate those two assertions into a larger theory, but Hipster Christianity never attempts that synthesis.
  4. McCracken notes that Christianity’s confession must include a sense of human sinfulness and a sense that God’s righteousness/justice/dikaiosyne demands a response of repentance from those who confront that sin.  That’s good.  McCracken’s examples of human sinfulness, unless I missed some in there, always have to do with sex, drugs, and the consumption of alcohol.  Modern forms of idolatry (nationalism, progressive ideologies, Capitalism-with-a-capital-C) never make his lists, and the self-righteousness that Saint Paul pans in Romans 2 never seems to show up.  Not so good.
  5. Perhaps as a result of his background in magazine writing, McCracken is entirely too impressed with his own cleverness.  From his catalog of hipsters to his sneering descriptions of “wannabe hipster” churches, McCracken often loses sight of the basic humanity of his material, falling into the sort of dismissive tone that he names in other passages as one of the signs of the moral failings of “hip.”  He also tends to treat partisan divisions without much subtlety at all, backhanding DNC devotees in several places without corresponding comments directed towards GOP agents.

I should note at this juncture that, for my money, the chapter on the history of Western individualism and the advertising industry is worth the price of admission; if anything, it gives a perceptive reader a set of categories for thinking hard about the large intellectual and social trends that make a theology of “hip” so difficult to articulate.  Moreover, although his chapter on the Emergent Church is dated (as a group, the big names of Emergent tend to speak in the idioms of liberal Protestantism rather than of postmodernism any more), the examination of postmodernism as a philosophical response to marketing culture is also on target.  What makes this book hard to describe as consistently good is the fact that McCracken, for reasons that the book does not explain, opts to use terms like “hip” and “cool” not merely ambiguously but in ways that inhibit their intelligibility.

Searching for Better Categories

What Smith proposed as a fix for McCracken were two categories of character, the poser and the bohemian.  The former would be the “false” hipster, the character upon whom McCracken’s sights should be set; the latter would be the “true” hipster, the one that McCracken seems to be seeking at the end of his book.  While I don’t disagree that the introduction of those categories would make for a more capacious discussion, I wonder whether character-class categories are what this discussion calls for.

As an alternative, I’ll offer a brief proposal based on the categories of influence, aims, and authenticity.  None of these are absent from McCracken’s book; in fact, he gives some attention to the fact that the “millennials” draw much of their creative energy from the changes in family structure that their generation lived through as children.  He notes that something different happens when someone is “organically” hipster rather than adopting the affectations of pop culture for the sake of some other end.  And he notes that “authenticity” is a buzzword among Emergent folks, though he doesn’t give much attention to that one beyond those.

Where I’d differ is to attempt to make those criteria central to the evaluative tasks that McCracken attempts.  Rather than assuming that ALL Christians who dress a certain way do so to compensate for being the excluded youth-group kid in high school, entertaining a range of possibilities more robust than “organic” and “wannabe” might be more helpful.  Simply noting that any given person’s affectations, desires, and other human realities likely take their shape under the influence of a plurality of influences would be more capacious and likely more accurate than a single theory that attempts to explain a whole catalog of “hipster-types” with one fell swoop.

Likewise, some more attention to what people are after would really add some depth to what the book is doing.  The only two possibilities given much space in Hipster Christianity are as follows:

  1. People who dress, eat, and otherwise consume in “hipster” manners must be doing so out of hatred for evangelicals.
  2. People who dress, eat, and otherwise consume in “hipster” manners must be doing so in order to attract such people to their churches.

Before I offer other possibilities, I should note that McCracken gets things right when he notes the recent trend of Christian self-flagellation as a book-selling tactic (13).  I share with him a strong sense of frustration with those who would pretend both to identify with and to distance themselves from historical Christianity for the sake of “clean hands.”  I’d be the last to deny the power of confessing sins, but I’m also not going to pretend that I would know what it means to confess sins except through the influence of that same Christian church that’s taught generations to do so.  But once again, although Hipster Christianity occasionally nods to possibilities outside those two, its critique of “Christian hipsters” seems to assume that one of the two (or both) must be behind any given manifestation of departure from Southern Baptist culture, aesthetics, or practice.  A more developed sense of ethics as inherently aesthetic might be in order here.  McCracken is right to decry those who would pretend concern for political activism, solidarity with the poor, or other “hipster” causes for the sake of some other end.  That said, there are two realities that might make the ethical case more intelligible: goodness is beautiful, and Hipster Christianity too easily and too glibly dismisses those whose lives of self-giving and resistance to the worst angels of our historical moment bring people to moments of appreciation and even of emulation.  Also, hypocrisy, if one does it right, looks just about like goodness.  Otherwise it isn’t really hypocrisy but farce.  In other words, one mustn’t too quickly say that a saint is merely a celebrity, and one must not assume that everything that glitters is gold.

Finally, authenticity just deserves more attention than McCracken gives it.  Yes, it was a buzzword among early proponents of “postmodern” Christianity, and that’s enough to give some people a bad taste.  Yes, some people have used “authentic” as a tribal marker, something to separate “us” from “them” in a way that makes a joke out of the term.  Nonetheless, authenticity is a handy category to have when evaluating ways of existing, and McCracken’s “organic hip” would do well to do some thinking about the possibilities that authenticity offers.  Without extensive quotations from Being and Time I can say that authenticity, in a philosophical-existential mold, means being responsible for one’s mode of existence.  Circumstances always contribute to who we are (Aristotle knew that, and the ancient Hebrews too), but the ways in which we have shaped our selves around the contours of circumstance could always be different, and there are some who claim that responsibility while others evade it.  McCracken’s allergy to marketing-driven fake hipness might make more sense with some attention to the ways in which evangelical churches face their historical existence and the ways, on the other hand, in which those who have departed evangelical churches live lives fitting to their actual pasts, not the liberal-from-the-womb mythology that so many fashion for themselves.

To put a cap on this essay, McCracken’s idea is a good one, and it obviously comes from real observations of real social phenomena.  For those who want to take this investigation further (perhaps McCracken is among them–he’s still a young guy), some attention to philosophical accounts of the complexity of human existence could be just what the doctor ordered, something that might take things beyond the false binary of “hip” and “eternal” and into something that maps reality onto a richer, deeper picture of the glory of human life.

 

 

 

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