US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Where's the "truth" in hating on "Hipster Christians"?

By Meghan Murphy-Gill | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

It's been cool for a while now in the general culture to make fun of being cool, to look down on hipsters as dirty, tattooed, skinny-jean and Ray-Ban donning elitists with esoteric taste in film and music. (I was handed my first Hipster Bingo card in 2003.) By virtue of not being a hipster and dismissing them as all style and no substance, you become a better person, not concerned with fashion trends and new music, and certainly not one to be found in trendy coffee shops. By not being cool, relevant, and up on your pop culture, you actually are cool, relevant, and up on your pop culture. It's a meta madness, I say.

Nothing says "I'm an elitist whose afraid I'm meaningless and uncool" like making fun of people's fashion choices, and unfortunately, this phenomenon of proving how much better you are by poo pooing another's style has become a hot discussion in Christian circles as well.

Writing about Brett McCracken's book Hipster Christianity, Charles Colson demonizes the kind of pastor who can be found "sporting a faux hawk, tight t-shirt, and skinny jeans," effectively dismissing the flock who follows said pastor as a group who (although "well-meaning") would rather be hip than meaningful:

Every generation has sought what is real, what is true, and what has ultimate meaning. While these "hipster Christian" leaders may be well-meaning, and may see temporary success in attracting the young, McCracken says that "When it comes to church, we don't want COOL as much as we want REAL." And, he adds, in a world that is "utterly phony, ephemeral, narcissistic, image-obsessed and sex-drenched, "we want a good alternative."

Things that make you "cool" but not "real" according to Colson? Using the word "sex" in a URL and having a blog in which you're emotionally naked. "To be hip, after all," he says, "is to be shocking."

Maybe I'm just jaded and desensitized by our "utterly phony, ephemeral, narcissistic, image-obsessed and sex-drenched" world (sarcasm intended here), but I'm concerned that McCracken and Colson are pretty off base. While I'm more interested in listening to indie rock on my iPhone than in a worship service, I don't think the treatment they're giving to "hipster Christians" is fair or right. 

First, my understanding of evangelical subculture is that there is a tradition of creating a parallel culture to the general culture. Granted, my experience with non-mainline Christianity is limited, but in listening to conversations between my husband and his fellow Wheaton College alumni, I've become privy to this parallel culture that permeated their collective upbringing. From them I've learned that about how Christian labels marketed their artists: "If you like [insert name of band making it big in the general culture], you'll love [insert name of Christian band]!" Essentially, you could enjoy rock and roll as long as it had an explicitly Christian message. The same went for television, film, and books.

The same thing seems to be happening with "hipster Christians." While McCracken and others too important to be bothered with being cool think that this sub sub-culture is an attempt to "rebrand Christianity as hip, countercultural, relevant," what they're totally blind to is that hipsterism is much more mainstream now. Celebrities don Ray Bans, Arcade Fire had a No. 1 album, and Pitchfork Music Festival, a hipster Mecca, was attended by 54,000 this year (to say nothing of the increase in attendance of other major gatherings of people with passionate tastes in music and film such as South by Southwest and CMJ). It only makes sense, given the trend of evangelical subculture, that there now be tattooed Christians with a taste for fair trade coffee (as well as Christians who make fun of their hipster brothers and sisters--they just do it with a meanness that's unprecedented in the popular culture).

Secondly, it's not fair to say that hipsters are sacrificing meaning (dubbed "truth" and "authenticity") for coolness. Just look at Relevant Magazine's top three stories on their home page this morning: a piece by N.T. Wright on the importance of character, corruption in Russia, and a run-down on fall TV premiere week. (UPDATE: the N.T. Write article was replaced by one on a young man using Twitter to raise money for Haiti relief.) It doesn't look to me like Relevant, a magazine that's got style for miles and miles, is sacrificing meaning for coolness. Rather, the style is mixed with a sense of mission: to engage in the world and both find and give meaning to it.

I'm sure Colson who says, "...I've found in my own experiences that young people, when it's explained to them well, are far more impressed with authenticity and the truth," would disagree with me though. (Emphasis mine.)

See, I just can't buy into this notion that as long as you explain authenticity and truth well, young adults will be transformed. It's been my experience that encounters with "truth" and "authenticity" have been very visceral, needing no explanation at all, such as the beauty of meeting the newborn daughter of two of my dearest friends or knowing the sheer injustice of homelessness and hunger. I'm afraid that attitudes like Colson's are why young people are leaving the church in droves. Sure, there's a small (very vocal) minority who ascribe to this idea that if you just understood, then you'd believe (thus equating faith with some kind of intellectual affirmation). But the vast majority of young adults are having a hard time finding much that inspires them in the Catholic Church these days, particularly in the way "authenticity" and "truth" have been handled by leadership in this church.