Instead of celebrating the fact that Christianity has contributed good things to the world for two thousand years, the increasingly unpopular church feels the need to talk only about the bad things she has done. Rather than drawing from her rich heritage of time-tested tradition, today’s church chooses to adopt last week’s fashion so as to be relevant again.
I'm thrilled to announce that on September 30, 2017, I will release my third book: Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community. Crossway is publishing the book, and the wonderful Russell Moore (!) has kindly written a foreword. I'll be sharing a lot about Uncomfortable in coming months, but here's a bit about it to give you a sense for the general concept...
Earlier this week a segment aired on CNN about "hipster pastor" Carl Lentz, the heavily tattooed, dynamic personality who has helped make Hillsong Church in NYC the sort of place that piques mainstream journalists' interest and occasionally draws paparazzi (celebrities sometimes attend). Back in March, CNN sent its correspondent, Poppy Harlow, to L.A. to interview me for the story.
Gray Matters is the culmination of ideas I've long contemplated—perhaps dating back to high school when I first starting really getting into movies and "secular" music. How and why should Christians enjoy art and culture? Is our consumption of culture simply a "diversion" with no meaningful bearing on our faith? Or should our faith inform, deepen, and open up new layers of enjoyment in our consumption of culture? And how does a Christian evaluate and interact with the thornier areas of culture? Is it better to just flee from anything potentially hazardous and consume only the safe, sanitized or "Christian" cultural items? Or does Christian liberty (e.g. Romans 14) make it possible for us to consume anything and everything as it pleases us, without worrying about it?
scriptural silence about the particularities of 21st century media habits is no reason to just throw up one’s hands and indulge in an “anything goes” free-for-all. Rather, it’s an invitation to think about the gray areas more deeply, to wrestle with them based on what Scripture does say and what we’ve come to know about the calling of Christians in this world. The gray areas matter.
Confused about what a Christian hipster looks like? Fear not. There are interactive photos on the official Hipster Christianity website designed to describe (in great detail) what Christian hipsters look like. Click on the names below to see the images.
What does it mean to package Christianity in a methodical manner so as to make it salient to as wide an audience as possible? What does Christianity lose when it becomes just one piece of a consumer transaction? These are questions that the brand managers of “cool Christianity” would do well to consider.
It’s a strange and wonderful feeling, to see one's idea come to fruition. I never really thought during the summer of 2005 that I'd write a book about hipster Christianity, but I'm glad I did. Looking back I marvel at how it all came together, how so many of my experiences and interactions and relationships all fed into this idea, and how the people in my life during this season were so absolutely instrumental in the whole endeavor.
Last week on the Hipster Christianity Facebook page, I posted YouTube videos from the last 4 decades of "Christian hipster" music, or music that was at least pivotal in the ultimate development of today's culture of hipster Christianity. Here they are, in chronological order... Enjoy!
How did today's Christian hipster come to be? Here are some key dates in the formation of hipster Christianity.
Read the following list of juxtaposed attributes of "cool" and "Christianity," and tell me if you think I'm wrong to suggest they are fundamentally contrary ways of being.
One of the best ways to learn about the type of person someone is is by looking at the books that populate their bookshelves. Books, I've found, play a large role in shaping how any of us understand and inhabit our worlds--so naturally they are a good place to go when seeking to understand a subculture. For example, the following is a list of the types of books that define the Christian hipster subculture.
These days, if you want to start a cool church, it must have a name that either a) has a “deep” meaning, b) has only the obscurest connection to Christianity, c) is shocking in its unorthodox originality, or d) could easily be the name of a Las Vegas nightclub.
A lot of Christian hipsters today were raised in the evangelical Christian subculture in the 90s. Thus, while most of them have completely abandoned CCM by now, they still look fondly and nostalgically (with a smidge of irony) upon the Christian music they were reared on. Here are 20 albums that Christian hipsters today love to listen to for a trip down memory lane. What would you add to this list?
As an entirely unscientific but perhaps accurate summary of the geographic loci of Christian hipster, here is a list of what I suggest are the ten most important cities for Christian hipsterdom. These may not be the cities with the most or the highest concentrations of Christian hipsters; They are simply the most important—for a number of reasons.
In the year 2000, I wrote a list of goals for myself. Life goals. They included such things as traveling across the world, writing music, working at Disney World for a time, and opening a “small, elegant eatery.” Number 6 on the list was “write a book.”
If Rule #1 of hipsterdom is that it’s always one step ahead of the mainstream, then Rule #2 is that “hipster” is an extremely broad, diverse classification of people. But it was not always this way. Back in the day of Kerouac, Ginsburg, Warhol, and friends, “hip” folks used to be a very limited, specific entity. Not so in today’s postmodern, blurry world of cross-marketed mayhem. Today, hipster pervades our culture. From the lofts of Brooklyn to the trailers of the Ozarks, “hip” is as American as apple pie. We all want a taste. Thus, defining types of hipsters is more of a cross-sectional assessment of American culture. You can be a hipster jock, a hipster nerd, a hipster Muslim or a hipster Baptist—sometimes all of these at once (hopefully not…). The point is: there are almost as many types of hipsters as there are types of people.
Because lately I’ve re-discovered my fascination with the theoretical questions surrounding the ontology of cool (see this post), I thought it would be fun to try to articulate some of the more prominent likenesses of hipster in today’s world. Most hipsters will fall into one or several of the following categories, though I’m sure there are some oddball types that I’ve overlooked.
So, without further ado, enter the parade of hip (in three installments):
1) The Natural Insofar as a hipster can be a natural, organically existing entity, this is the closest you get. Seemingly without trying, The Natural attracts legions of horn-rimmed eyes at every soiree he or she walks into. This hipster typically comes from urbane parents or family who have long been attuned to or supported culture and the arts. Education is important, but so is social involvement and active participation in and appreciation of artistic endeavors. Good taste comes naturally for this person, who has every right to be elitist or snobbish, but avoids this whenever possible. They are well rounded, successful, and hard to denigrate. If there is a downside to this kind of hipster, it is that observers tend toward jealousy or fear, and friends are usually in it for status or to learn pointers.
- Fashion: Impeccable and respectable, daring but not over the top. The consummate trend-setter.
- Music: Nothing too trendy, hard to peg. Tends to have a nice balance of appreciation across genres and time periods, with lots of influence from parents and growing up amidst good music. Beatles, Dylan, U2, Simon and Garfunkel, Jeff Buckley, Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Chopin.
- Movies: Has seen most of the AFI Top 100, and favors older, classic Hollywood cinema. Appreciates lots of foreign film too, Warhol shorts, and non-political documentaries. Favorite filmmakers: Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, Jean-Luc Godard, Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog.
- Celebs of this kind: Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Parker Posey, Johnny Depp, Morgan Freeman, Sienna Miller, Prince Harry.
2) The Newbie This is one of the more intriguing, though surprisingly common, breeds of hipster. The Newbie is fresh off of a former life of less-than status (that is, less than cool, less than stylish, more like the mainstream). The Newbie is found in large numbers in the sophomore classes of colleges, though sometimes freshmen (second semester) at more hip-friendly campuses. The Newbie often comes from a naïve, “everyone likes Dave Matthews and drives SUVs!” high school experience and then finds that in college, respectable uniqueness is the name of the game. Therefore, he/she scurries to find a hip niche, latching on to current fads and working hard to establish an individual style. Frequently they’ll attend a concert or movie that will instantly change them into a lifelong devotee. Very faddish, fickle, passionate, and irksome to many established hipsters.
- Fashion: Chameleon. Always trying new things, with many more misses than hits. Recycles current wardrobe in various new ways. Can’t afford high fashion, though avoids boring staples like Gap and Old Navy. Tries a lot of statement tees and vintage band shirts, though typically feels uncomfortable in them at first.
- Music: Very impressionable. Open to recommendations and attends lots of concerts for ideas. Scours old CD collection for salvageable records; usually only finds a few worthy of hipster repute. Johnny Cash, Death Cab For Cutie, Bright Eyes, Devandra Barnhart, The Shins, whatever Pitchfork says is cool…
- Movies: Takes longer to fashion a personal taste in cinema, but latches on to those “eye-openers” seen on late-night dorm viewings (Requiem for a Dream, Full Metal Jacket, Fight Club). Doesn’t have favorite directors yet.
- Celebs of this kind: Cameron Diaz, Lauren Conrad, Mandy Moore, Shia Lebouf, Dakota Fanning, any reality star trying to make it big on VH1.
3) The Academic Being in to smarts is a broad trait of hipsters (all of them are more or less well-educated), but there is a specific type of hipster whose identity is defined by the bookish quality. This is the guy who came late to philosophy class everyday with tortured, tussled hair, but still blew everyone away in the discussion. This is the girl with thick-rim glasses who drinks red tea and reads Adorno for fun. These guys are way into intelligence and the image that accompanies that persona. They tend to be independent but thrive in academic circles and reading/writing groups. They like art and fun, insofar as they understand the socio-cultural implications of it, of course. You find these hipsters at colleges and in urban environments with a healthy culture and thought life.
- Fashion: British intelligentsia couture. Glasses (trendy, horn-rimmed most likely), clean earth tones, lots of blazers. Nothing flashy or too youthful. Has the look of Banana Republic or Burberry but often by way of a cheaper, more student-friendly alternative.
- Music: Not hugely important to the daily life of the Academic hipster, but very much appreciated. Classical and jazz are cool to them, as are more mellow and intelligent singer-songwriters. Rufus Wainwright, St. Vincent, Andrew Bird, Sufjan Stevens, Phillip Glass, Nina Simone, Feist, Brian Eno, Arvo Part.
- Movies: Heavy on the foreign films and euro-existentialist cinema. Hardly ever goes to the multiplex for a popcorn flick, unless it is a Harry Potter adaptation or some other book-to-movie guilty pleasure. Favorite directors: Ingmar Bergman, Francois Truffaut, Lars von Trier, Patrice Leconte.
- Celebs of this kind: Wes Anderson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rivers Cuomo, Natalie Portman, Claire Danes.
4) The Dilettante Sorry to use a term that “The Academic” might use, but it fits. Dilettante is a word for someone who has a superficial, yet passionate admiration for the arts. In other words, this is the artsy-fartsy hipster who really doesn’t know that much about art, but likes the image. They took art in high school or college and fell in love with the sexiness of it. They love art openings, gallery parties, and all things “fringe” in the world of cinema, music, theater, or whatever. When you quiz them on the difference between rococo and neo-classical, however, they brush you off as pedantic (because they do not know what you’re talking about, but like using words like “pedantic”). Still, they have respectable taste because they associate enough with real artists who tend to have good taste. The Dilettante is a sometimes-artist (mostly failed), but tends toward amateur art-criticism and usually has a job and life completely separate from the weekend art binge.
- Fashion: Cocktail party chic. The skinny jeans, t-shirt and blazer look is popular for guys; heeled-boots, slinky dress and bohemian Anthopologie jewelry for girls. Lots of unnatural hair color.
- Music: Heavy on techno and art-rock—music you’d hear at a swank warehouse art party. Moby, The notwist, Four Tet, Squarepusher, Thievery Corporation, The Field.
- Movies: Art house all the way—the more subversive the better. Favorite directors: Todd Solondz, Darren Aronofsky, Jim Jarmusch, P.T. Anderson.
- Celebs of this kind: Mary Kate Olson, Mischa Barton, Macaulay Culkin, Seal, Kirsten Dunst, select journalists or MTV VJs.
Two years ago today, I published an article on Relevant entitled “A New Kind of Hipster.” The article (the title of which is a play on Brian McLaren’s book, A New Kind of Christian) definitely struck a chord—to this day I still meet people who read it, remember discussing it, etc. The article basically examined the phenomenon of “hip Christianity,” a reactionary movement (corollary to, but not the same as “the emerging church”) that has strived to paint Christianity as cool and Christians as hip. Relevant is probably the most visible manifestation of this trend.
In some instances, hip Christianity has been an organic phenomenon (that is, it hasn’t consciously striven to adopt some trend or characteristic of cool from the larger culture, but rather it has been a “first generation” cool that sets the trends of the larger culture). Examples might be Daniel Smith (of the band Danielson Famile) or Sufjan Stevens—totally original artists who have embodied a certain strand of “indie/arthouse” style and subsequently launched many other talented, original Christian artists. I also think of people like Shane Claiborne, who—in efforts to live the humble life among the poor and downtrodden, Mother Theresa-style—has inadvertently framed Christianity in a “radical,” “progressive,” cool light.
But the majority of Christian hipsterdom is self-consciously so. This includes people who believe that in order to make a difference or be significant in culture, one must have wicked style. This includes the churches that have candles everywhere and serve micro-brewed beer and cognac at potlucks. These are the Christians who emphasize how God is all over things like The Sopranos, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and of course, U2. These are the Christians who like to speak of Jesus as a hippie countercultural activist who was a Che-esque revolutionary, and who probably would have smoked pot and listened to Radiohead were he on earth today. Essentially, this is a Christianity that bends over backward to be incredibly cool.
And so, two years later, the question is still on my mind: Is Christianity Cool? In some ways it’s the leading question of our time, as evangelicals desperately try to keep their faith relevant in a rapidly changing culture. And most probably this question isn’t being explicitly asked, because to ask if something is cool automatically negates its coolness. Everyone who is or has ever been hip knows that coolness isn’t ever analyzed or spoken of in any way by those who possess it. Coolness is understood. It is mystery. It is contagious. And that last word is the key for many—especially those looking to sell something—seeking to tap into hip potential. Bridled cool is an economic cashcow. Translated to Christianity, cool is the currency whereby we must dispense the Gospel.
But what is cool? If I had to succinctly define this incredibly complicated word without use of synonyms, it might be something like this: Cool: An attribute that is attractive because it embodies the existential efforts to be supremely independent, one-of-a-kind, and trailblazing.
It is enormously interesting to me that we are so attracted and desirous of this thing called “cool,” but what is more intriguing to me is how exactly the search and adoption of coolness affects our lives. Is our longing to be fashionable, hip, stylish, and “ahead” of our peers benign? Or, if not, how does it affect our personhood (and, by extension, our Christianity) for good or ill?
The relative goodness or badness in the nature of “cool” is of utmost importance. Being stylish/trendy is certainly our society’s highest value, so the question we must ask as Christians is this: can we sustain integrity and substance in a world so driven by packaging? Must every work, every person, every message that seeks mass acceptance be form-fitted to the hieroglyphics of hip? Are the purposes and/or effects of cool compatible with those of Christianity?
If it is true that our culture today is most effectively reached through the channels of cool, does this mean Christianity’s message must be styled as such? What does this look like, and are there any alternatives? How does the Christian navigate in this climate without reducing the faith to an easy-to-swallow, hip-friendly phenomenon? Is the church’s future helped or hindered by an assimilation to cultural whims and fads?
We can all agree that the ultimate purpose of the church on earth is, as C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity, “nothing else but to draw men into Christ.” But the challenging question is this: to what extent do we assume that men are drawn to Christ by the way in which He is presented to them? In other words, as the messengers of the gospel, are we to let the message speak for itself or must we adapt and package it for a specific context?
It is certainly appropriate that “packaging” is at the forefront of many church discussions today. In a world so obviously obsessed with style as a gateway to substance, we are right in viewing this as an important issue. But what are we losing when we start to sell Jesus as the ultimate in cool commodities?
As I noted at the beginning of this article, there are really two distinct categories of “hip” in today’s world: 1) The natural hip, and 2) The marketed hip. What I am speaking of above—about Christianity harnessing the horses of hip to help spread the message—is definitely the latter. If Christianity is naturally hip, then, well that’s a horse of a different color.
And that is the question we must wrestle with: is Christianity naturally cool? As in—are people attracted to it on it’s own accord? Or must it be cool in the marketed, presentation sense? Or perhaps there is a third option—a much more insidious, counter-cultural idea: perhaps Christianity is hopelessly un-hip; maybe even the anti-cool. What if it turns out that Christianity’s endurance comes from the fact that it has been and continues to be the antithesis and antidote to the intoxicating drive in our human nature for cool (for independence, for survival, for leadership, for hipness)?
What are Christian hipsters, then, except an unnatural, paradoxical embodiment of the faith?