I read Brett McCraken’s book “Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide.” I’m not sure why I decided to read it. Maybe it is because the title of the book immediately frustrated me and I felt guilty for such an unfair dismissal. So, because I hated the title, I thought I should read it. I’ll first say this, to juxtapose something so transparently (almost by definition) ephemeral with that which is, considered in its ideal, transcendent, eternal, and thoroughly transformative (i.e. what is hip and Christianity), is suspicious. To pull one down to the arena of the other, or as it may be, to pull one up into the realm of the other, necessarily requires a reduction (especially considering the length of this book) of thought. Granted, McCraken does take time to mention the impossible reconciliation of the two phenomena, but that is only before he then explains how one can, with proper conditions, be the other — how Christianity can be cool. Below, I try to work out my issues with the book.
Concern with what is referred to as “hipsterdom” or the “hipster” is fraught with dead ends because the phenomena is illusive and the label is a cheap classification only employed to self serve. An underlying, and undermining, irony to the whole book is that McCraken indirectly admits to being classified as a hipster — the same phenomena the same types of person he sought to dissect. Perhaps one might believe that it gives the study a higher level of ethos, but it is not self-reflective enough for that. I think that it plagues the study with a bias. Furthermore, McCraken reduces the individuals who fit the mold into categories of 12 types of hipster, and then explains the habits and likes of Christian hipsters. He tells us what they (we?) listen to (Sufjan Stevens), what they read (Soren Kierkegaard, Paul Tillich), where they live, etc. Indeed, McCraken may correctly identify some prevalent external characteristics of the “hipster,” but these cursory observations are at odds with McCraken’s attempt at a somewhat abridged cultural anthropology of the history of hip, which is said to be fueled by something much larger, something sociological and psychological (he even references some Adorno), something much too ubiquitous to then be pigeonholed into a few external identifiers such as music or fashion preference meant characterize a type individual in a unique generation. The characterization and explanation requires more analysis. Perhaps, on the question of the so called “hipster”, McCraken is not totally off on all counts, but his broad sweep and reduced index begs for more detail.
Indeed, he continues his brief summary and narrows the scope as he shifts towards more theological implications. The middle section of the book discusses what he refers to hipster christianity. He writes about a handful of churches which he feels represent salient components of hipster christianity. He discusses the emergent church, the demographics of attendees, the appropriation of technology, the type of structure used for worship, etc. So again, there seems to be a reduction of something we all know to be much more complex. All of that which makes up a church service is reduced to a summary which is biased towards a particular intent, which thus far, I’m not recognizing. The problem, at least for me, is that the broad stroke of his analysis brings into question his motivation in writing the book. The brief summaries potentially betray the idea that the author has a genuine interest in any reconciliation of particular phenomena with Christianity. The descriptions of the churches, of the types of hipsters, are both brief and systematic. If a “hipster” happens to read the book, then he or she is both disingenuously summed up and described to fit a four-cornered mold. If one isn’t a hipster, then he or she learns nothing substantial or substantially accurate about the “hipster.” (If there is indeed anything to learn)
So then I wonder if the problem is me, maybe I’m wanting the book to be something more detailed, but that brings me right back to the book itself — what’s the occasion? I read on and then come upon the theological implications. This is the crux of the book — this answers to the treadmill neutrality perceived thus far, and sure enough this is the nail in the coffin of disappointment. No where else in the book is banality more prevalent than the conclusion. The body of the book leads to the central question — asking if whether that which is perceived (and deemed so by McCraken) to be cool can be reconciled with Christianity. The answer? According to McCraken – no, but then, yes – in that order. Like countless other questions of Christianity, relevance, and proper discourse or narratives in relation to problems of modernity and the condition of “postmodernity,” the answer retreats back into vacuous buzzwords which are removed from urgency by nature of their ambiguity and lack of concreteness. Christians need to be “authentic,” and then they’ll be cool. Jesus himself was a rebel, but the right kind of rebel. We need to be the right kind of rebel! We shouldn’t worry about being cool and worry only about being like Christ, and then we’ll be cool necessarily — “holy non-comformity.” The answer is plagued by platitudes. This is my main problem with the book, indeed, it’s what is bothersome about contemporary modes of Christianity’s varied flirtations with culture in hopes of becoming more relevant in the eyes of the secular world, to potential converts, to those struggling with faith. In a certain sense, because Christ can not be objectively summed up, it liberates the Christian from legalism as well as narrative accountability. This book is an example of the problem — no definitive lines are drawn, therefore there is no real discussion — it is merely safe and unchallenging rhetoric tagged on to the end of a somewhat amusing, yet reductive and all too familiar analysis of kids you love to talk shit on.
In a larger sense, this book exemplifies another larger problem which is not new (yet it may take on new contexts). Richard Neibuhr discusses it in Christ and Culture — “The debate is as confused as it is many-sided…It is helpful to recall that the repeated struggles of Christians with this problem have yielded no single Christian answer, but only a series of typical answers…(emphasis mine).” Particular diagnoses of the problems between Christ and culture, and the subsequent offerings of solutions reflect nothing but mind of he or she who speaks on it (this is not necessarily negative). Soren Kierkegaard claimed that nothing of substantial value (in a spiritual sense) can be communicated directly, thus it brings critical reflection upon that which is communicated with regard to spirituality. There is surely a fine line between healthy discourse and didacticism, but my critical lens is sharpened when, with the release of a book meant to attempt a genuine answer to a timeless problem (in this case an answer which amounts to a non-answer), there is also a website where one can take a quiz to see what type of hipster he or she is. It all becomes part of the non-sense, it all becomes hipster fodder. It reminds me of the popular meme which pictures Fry skeptical about the show Portlandia, “Not sure if this making fun of hipster bullshit, or is hipster bullshit.” Any potential weight this book may have is chipped away little by little when, after McCraken mentions how hipsters love to reference N.T Wright, he then references N.T Wright. Or how Relevant Magazine (to which he is a contributor) is marketed towards christian hipsters, and he admits to being a part of their intended market. This book sits too comfortably as a product of that which is being critically analyzed in relation to Christianity. It exists as an act under the tent of the circus and never escapes. After reading the book, one gets a sense, as with so many other similar books of its nature, that Christianity is simply an mode of self-expression – it’s a type of hipster, not a type of Christianity. Christendom is confused, self-serving, self-righteous, knee-deep phenomena. This book reads like a product of the phenomena, like a product fit for the market of christendom, despite the good will of the author. If I ask myself what I gained from reading the book, I realize that I learned more about hipsters than I did about anything else.