Medium: Cool

The following is an excerpt from the lecture I delivered at Taylor University this week ("Medium Cool: A Formal Analysis of the Christian Hipster"). Enjoy!

Imagine you are a visitor to a church, and you walk in to find that nearly everyone around you is a well-dressed, fashionable, “indie”-looking twentysomething with skinny jeans, stylish hair, and a clear sense of cutting-edge fashion. You look at yourself, and you don’t fit in. You feel self-consciously excluded, unfashionable and awkward. We all know what this feels like. Whenever you’re around a bunch of hipsters and you are clearly not as hip, you feel uncomfortable. You can’t help but feel that way.

Now, it may well be that the hipsters in this hypothetical church are very genuine, authentically cool people. They could be very friendly and not at all elitist or snobby. But nevertheless, they have that hipster “look,” and on first impression, it isn’t the most inviting thing to outsiders. More often than not, the impression “cool” gives is alienating, off-putting, and exclusionary. It implies a hierarchy, an “in-the-know” vs. “out-of-touch” dichotomy, an atmosphere of divineness and discomfort. But is this the sort of atmosphere you should find in a church?

Here is one of the problems for Christian hipsters. Whatever they might mean by the clothes they wear or hairstyle they sport, however authentically they are expressing themselves, the fact is that the medium of “cool” communicates certain connotations, and some of those connotations might not fit so well with what Christ in us should convey.

Many Christian hipsters would like to believe that their faith has mostly to do with their beliefs and their actions, but that it doesn’t have much at all to do with how they look. But I think we have to consider that our “look” does matter, because—for good or ill—it does communicate things.

Christian hipsters may be driven by legitimate motivations, by honest aesthetic interests and by an understandable desire to want to distance themselves from the old-guard evangelical culture that connotes so many bad things for so many people.

But in the process of trying to create new associations of what Christian identity is and how it is enacted in the world, many Christian hipsters are simply falling neatly in line with an already established and increasingly proliferate industry of “hipster” identity. We are rebelling against the consumer-minded excesses of mainstream evangelism by identifying ourselves with the consumer-minded practices of hipster culture. Our alternative is simply consuming different sorts of things. Instead of McGee and Me, we’re watching Mad Men. Instead of Audio Adrenaline we’re listening to Animal Collective. Isn’t our identity more than our consumer preferences?

Unfortunately our culture—built around consumerism and advertising—has for years reinforced that identity is in fact about what you consume. We are told that buying certain things will make you attractive or “cool.” Liking certain things will give you a unique flavor and will make you “different.” In short, consumption makes you who you are, and gives you the power to set yourself apart from the pack. The medium of “cool” has been perfected by the culture industry, and its message—exclusivity, elitism, edgy rebellion—is collateral damage in just another economic exchange.

Consumerism has become crucial in how we define ourselves. Just look at our Facebook pages where identity is defined in terms of what products, groups, bands, movies we “like.” And hipsters are as susceptible to it as anyone else. They are defining themselves by their opposition to consumerism and attempts to subvert it by shopping at thrift stores or dumpster diving, freegan-style. But such things are still identity-markers bound up within a consumerist framework. To be “anti-consumerism” depends on a thriving consumerism. At the end of the day, it’s still all about defining ourselves by what we like and don’t like, and we have a very hard time articulating who we are outside of those terms.

In her recent Christianity Today article “Culture in an Age of Consumption,” Anna Littauer Carrington talks about the way that consuming cultural artifacts establishes personal identity in today’s world. She notes that even for young evangelicals, “Consumption-as-identity has moved beyond establishing social status by flaunting wealth; in fact, one's relative wealth may be less important than it once was. What matters now is the ability to cobble together a unique blend of thrift store clothing, just-out-of-the-mainstream iPod tracks, and vintage posters. The blend of consumed artifacts—or bricolage—is what sets you apart. Curating a personal style isn't wrong, but trying to be "original" for its own sake can easily foster both pride and insecurity.”

Carrington believes, as I do, that while it is a positive thing to embrace music and other cultural artifacts simply because they are excellent, we have to be careful that we don’t use our consumer habits as a power to set ourselves apart from others and above them on some scale of good taste.

“Embracing "cool,” writes Carrington, “can easily become a way to assert social power over someone else, and can easily lead to individualism, competition, vanity, and rebellion for its own sake… Our ability to consume is a form of power. Will Christians use that power to portray the image of Christ to a broken world? Or will we strive to be cool individuals attending cool churches?”

The temptation of identifying ourselves through what we consume is a very real temptation for our generation, because the idea is so ingrained in our culture. Want to be unique or different? Simply buy music or wear clothes that no one else is buying or wearing. But as soon as we succumb to this simplistic notion of “difference,” we begin to lose a sense of what really constitutes identity.

In an October 2008 article for PopMatters, Erik Hinton points to the hipster as a symbol of the broader culture’s faltering sense of otherness and alterity—of being able to recognize something or someone as meaningfully different from oneself beyond superficial assessment of appearance. Hinton points out, quite correctly, that the hipster’s tendency to collapse and collect bits and pieces of all culture and boil it up in one “totally unique” personal stew, ultimately creates a void of meaning wherein cultural distinction and difference is lost. As hipsters become more and more identified by the styles and tastes they accumulate, they lose their own sense of identity. “Who am I?” gets lost in the more pressing hipster question: “what bands, brands, and quirky styles do I like?”

Hinton writes:

Our lists of particulars become the whole of our personalities. This is why we see that kid at parties dressed like Hunter S. Thompson and break-dancing with gold chains around his neck, the girl reading Byron, wearing a Siouxsie T-shirt and hanging out at the bike shop. . . . The hipster is no more than a conscious manipulation of the freedom to live these piecemeal identities, comfortable in the awareness that identity can be constructed out of any bands, clothing, cheap, regionally esoteric beer, and inane micro-fiction that pleases. The hipster is a pastiche of old and new culture, free from the limits of meaning or the constraints of authentic identity.

Within contemporary hipsterdom, unique identity is ironically lost in the all-consuming desire to fashion a unique, rebellious identity. Hipsters seeking difference get lost in style and subversion and forget that skinny jeans and Parliament cigarettes can only go so far in setting them apart. Throwing all his eggs into the superficial basket of style, the hipster might gain a small measure of cultural power over those who aren’t in the “trendy loop.” But in the process he often loses any sort of profound sense of self that transcends the constantly passing fads of culture.

Christian hipsters must be very careful that they don’t fall in this trap. They must examine their Christian identity and embodiment and ask questions like: Am I mostly rebelling against the Christianity I was raised in? Am I enlisting my progressive, artsy consumer choices as a power-play against those Christians who are cultural and intellectual philistines? Do I take any pride in not being “one of those Christians”?

Now, I am not suggesting that you stop buying indie music or consuming media or dressing fashionably. All those things are fine, and if you are truly moved by them and seeking them because they are good, true, or beautiful, then that’s great.

What I’m suggesting is that we need to think more about what it means to be a Christian on both the form and content level. What does it mean to truly embody the call of Christ in our lives? Can we embody that selfless, humble, transcendent Gospel of Christ when we look the part of a self-focused, vain, trendy hipster?

I think we need to deal with this dissonance, and confront the implications of cool head on. I think we need to redefine cool in terms that aren’t as much about consuming the right sorts of things or having privileged knowledge of what is or isn’t fashionable, as much as about the things that are truly attractive and appealing about our faith.

The coolness of Christianity comes not from how fashionable or trendy Christians are, but rather from how well we embody the humility and charity and love of Christ in our lives.

In a world that constantly reinforces our own hubris and obsession with self, true revolution is that which points us outward. And this is my hope for the Christian hipster. That in the midst of this business of creating new perceptions and correcting some of the skewed priorities of evangelicalism, the focus should always be on Christ and his kingdom, rather than on ourselves, our skinny jeans, and our strategically overgrown mountain man beards.