Inside the steepled, red brick building, I choose a pew midway toward the front of the sanctuary, below the stained glass windows. It’s a muggy August evening. To compensate for the lack of air conditioning, I fan myself with a bulletin, then watch other young people stroll in, many with beards, tattoos, and vintage clothes.
I am a member of Resurrection Presbyterian Church, a congregation with a sincere heart and a transparent vision that is “situated smack-dab in the heart of worldwide hipster culture”: Williamsburg, Brooklyn. For this reason, RPC is one of the “Christian hipster churches” that Brett McCracken profiles in his book Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide.
The book is essentially asking: “[A]s messengers of Christ, are we to let the message speak for itself or must we adapt and package it for a specific context?” It’s a poignant question, one Christians should ask themselves and one I wish McCracken had addressed outside of a discussion of hipster culture. Instead, this point gets snagged on a teetering understanding of a loaded cultural phenomenon, turning the book into a loose cultural survey.
McCracken first attempts to define “cool” by defining “hipster” with a hasty “history of hip.” By following the concept of cool from the Renaissance through the Enlightenment and onto the birth of mass culture and modernity-pulling out key players such as Rousseau, Beau Brummel, and even Edgar Allan Poe, “the first ‘goth’ hipster”—he tries to excavate the origins of hip.
He goes on to build up his own definition of hipsters, explaining who they are and where you can find them. He creates a taxonomy of “hip,” profiling 12 “common types of hipster” such as “The Academic” who is “really into intelligence,” or “The Detached Ironic” who is a “class clown” or “The Yuppie,” a “young urban professional.”
McCracken adopts “fashionable young people,” i.e., cool kids, as his definition of hipster. While I disagree with him—I concur with Christian Lorentzen, senior editor of the New York Observer, who said that hipsters are “the assassins of cool”—I would willing comply with McCracken’s generously broad definition for the sake of discussion. The problem, however, is that his definition is a moving target.
In addition to using “hip,” “cool,” and “hipster” interchangeably, McCracken argues on numerous occasions that hipster is “a style and nothing more.” At other times, McCracken admits that hipster is more than an assortment of aesthetic choices; it is a worldview. When he details their motivations and their values, their way of thinking and viewing the world, he is saying that being a hipster is about much more than skinny jeans, dirty hair, and thrift store purchases. It is about individualism, alienation, pride, and vanity. A hipster might look a certain way, but a true-blooded hipster is someone who adheres to a philosophy of apathy, withdraw, and angst. McCracken puts it quite expertly when he says hipsters are committed to meaninglessness.
Yet if hipsters embrace meaninglessness and “a weird blend of self-loathing, jealousy, and irony,” then there is no such thing as Hipster Christianity. Maybe that is precisely McCracken’s point: Hipsters and Christians are inherently repelling forces. Maybe the very title of the book is an ironic play of words à la hipster humor.
Honestly, it’s hard to determine his point. For the first 200 pages, McCracken allows for the coexistence of hipster and Christian, using the terms “hipster Christian” and “hipster church” to refer to anything that smacks of a hipsterish paraphernalia such as Ray Bans, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and indie music.
Then McCracken undercuts the preceding 200 pages by arguing in about 10 pages near the end that hipster and Christianity simply cannot overlap because they are opposing worldviews. He illustrates this by pulling out seven traits of “cool”—i.e. “hipster”—that “become problematic in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Here his logic derails. Either there is a hipster Christianity, which would just be a matter of style, or there isn’t, because it is a matter of belief. Under one category, I am a hipster; under the other, I am definitely not.
McCracken persists. He takes readers through an erratic sampling of “hipster Christianity,” slapping the label on everything from emergent churches, Sufjan Stevens, and Diane von Furstenberg, to Calvinism, Lauren Winner, and poetry readings. He disregards any theological distinctions within Christianity, such as the differences between emergent “hipsters” and reformed “hipsters,” even assuming that they all “love the Pope.”
Even as he is using the “hipster” label, he is aware that hipster “communicates something very negative and derogatory.” Regardless, he insists on using it because “there are no better terms out there.” But I would suggest there are no better terms out there because the very word “hipster” cannot be co-opted into a discussion about Christianity without running into more than a few difficulties.
Perhaps this is why the “hipster Christians” McCracken profiles adamantly insist they are not in fact hipsters. For example, Donald Miller, who McCracken considers a “hip Christian figurehead” said, “I don’t know that Christianity can be cool. And I suspect that people who think I have made it cool don’t realize that it . . . exists outside of cool . . . ” Wouldn’t Miller be rebuking McCracken here?
McCracken chides the church for chasing after cool and losing sight of the gospel. Surely at times the church has done this, and when it happens a rebuke is in order. But when one lumps an ambiguous “church” under an ambiguous accusation of being “cool” with only a minimal appeal to Scripture—because Scripture can only say so much about today’s trends—the theological persuasion will be obvious, at best, and unconvincing, at worst.
But if McCracken offers something helpful, it is a sweeping survey of contemporary evangelicalism. He lays out what many 20-somethings value in their faith. But it is not apparent whether these themes among younger Christians testify to a longing to be cool or indicate maturation. For example, McCracken devotes one chapter to social justice because “Christian hipsters” have an “activist core.” But does their interest in justice have anything to do with being a hipster? Or is it evidence that young Christians are rediscovering the importance of being a voice for the voiceless and taking seriously Christ’s call to be his hands and feet? Are young Christians reading Thomas a Kempis, Flannery O’Connor, C. S. Lewis, Henry Nouwen, and Marilynne Robinson because they are hipsters? Or do they read because they are hungry for beautiful and wise works of literature that will nurture their faith? Are young Christians demanding a more nuanced understanding of art because that is what hipsters do? Or is it that they are coming into a fuller appreciation for the complexities of the gospel and how they relate to creativity?
By insisting that such trends are the result of Christianity accommodating to hipsters, McCracken reduces some of the exciting things happening in Christianity to image, the very thing he wants the church to move beyond. He challenges the church to throw off the trifles of stylization that are obscuring the message of Jesus Christ, but he is not careful in judging between what distracts from the message and what embodies the message.
In the end, McCracken devotes so much energy toward trying to bring together two separate things—the hipster and the Christian—that he must settle with stating the obvious: There are some Christians and churches that resemble the hipster milieu in which they are situated; sometimes this is bad, and sometimes this is natural.
Next Sunday as I ponder my pastor’s plaid shirt and the array of fedoras and skinny jeans in the pews, I can ask myself if we are a hipster church or not. But the moment my pastor starts preaching about Jesus being the king over every aspect of life, I can rest assured that we have not bowed down to cool. The pulpit, not the paraphernalia, is the indicator.