When I first picked up Brett McCracken’s new book, I was expecting a simple, cheeky romp through the various fads and frivolities within modern Christianity. The title itself, Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide, sounded an awful lot like the pretentiously reflective, light-and-trite nonfiction that Christian twentysomethings flock to nowadays.
But McCracken takes hip seriously, and he has a strong message for Christians who don’t.
“[W]e have to think harder,” says McCracken. “…even with something that might seem trivial, like ideas of “hip” and “cool,” Christians need to think long and hard about what it all means for our objective on this planet.”
McCracken certainly has a lighter side, and anyone who has read his blog or his movie reviews will know that he has a great ability to write wittily and pithily on all things art and culture. But although he enjoys cracking church-culture jokes as much as the rest of us, McCracken is largely on a mission to find an answer.
The question, as McCracken sees it, is this:
Is Christianity cool in today’s culture? And I mean naturally cool? As in — are people attracted to and desirous of it on its own accord? Or must it be cool in the marketed, presentational sense? … perhaps Christianity is hopelessly unhip, maybe even the anticool. What if it turns out that Christianity’s endurance comes from the fact that it is, has been, and continues to be the antithesis and antidote to the intoxicating and exhausting drive in our human nature for cool (for independence, for survival, for leadership, for hipness)?
Before answering this question directly, McCracken uses the first part of the book to offer an extensive history of hip, beginning in the Renaissance and proceeding all the way up to the modern church. Moving from Rousseau’s anti-aristocrat pose to Brummel’s eighteenth-century dandyism and bohemianism, McCracken eventually hangs the hat of hipsterdom on the birth of America, a country that McCracken describes as “born to be hip.” It is in America, McCracken argues, that “the Romantic ideal of hyperindividuation” reigned supreme. The American Revolution spawned new ideas about freedom as an ideal. Writers like Emerson and Thoreau exalted the notion of the “nonconforming individual.” Poets like Poe and Dickinson confronted social taboos with artistic flare.
Then, of course, there’s capitalism — a force McCracken argues has “sustained hip for the past two hundred years.” But while the “mass culture” bred by eighteenth-century capitalism has led to widespread prosperity, it has also led to a vibrant counterculture — one that is defined by an outright rejection of homogeneous, cookie-cutter norms. This rejection was evidenced most clearly in the 1960s and 1970s, when generational rebellion engulfed America’s youth. This theme of individualistic rebellion as a reaction to individualistic fervor is evident throughout the book, and McCracken alludes to both sides (conformist and nonconformist) with thought-provoking balance.
With this history as a foundation (along with the ironing out of some fundamental terminology issues), McCracken shifts into the more recent emergence of Christian hipsterdom, tracing its origins to the Jesus People movement of the ’60s and ’70s. McCracken doesn’t deny that various forms of “Christian hip” didn’t emerge beforehand, but as far as a widespread, definitive movement, McCracken argues that Christian hipsterdom as we know it was never really possible before the explosion of capitalism and the cultural clash in the ’60s.
At this point, McCracken moves into a bit more analysis. He nails down some of the key movements among today’s Christian hipsters and offers some intriguing portraits of the ways hipsterdom is playing out in modern Christian circles. Case studies cover churches like Life on the Vine, Mosaic, and Mars Hill Bible Church, as well as personalities like Sufjan Stevens, Shane Claiborne, and Mark Driscoll. Given the wide variety and organic spontaneity of hip churches and the related figureheads, such a survey is certainly a difficult undertaking. On this challenge, McCracken demonstrates a unique ability to hone down vastly different theologies and ideologies under a comprehensive (yet flexible) taxonomy of cool. The most notable of this analysis comes in McCracken’s in-depth analysis of the emerging church and the social justice/missional movement, which I have already commented on here.
After acting as both historian and sociologist, McCracken finally returns to his initial question: Is Christianity cool in today’s culture, and if so, is it cool in the proper understanding of the word?
McCracken does not respond by providing a single, absolutist answer. Rather, he points out the irreconcilable elements of hipsterdom (e.g. self-absorption, alienation, pride and vanity, rebellion) and ponders whether cool can even exist apart from them. If so, McCracken believes the next step of Christian cool is judging whether its fundamental approach represents authentic or genuine Christianity. In other words, we shouldn’t see Christianity as “cool” according the world’s definition; we should judge its coolness by its core message and the proper execution thereof.
For McCracken, authentic Christian cool is not about worldly chic, political posturing, or countercultural stances for the sake of countercultural stances. We cannot promote a version of Christianity that proclaims selflessness while relying on consumption and self-image. We cannot justify our cultural preferences by manipulating Christianity to mirror them or reinforce their aims. We cannot accept certain sins or certain behaviors just so we can prove to the world that Christianity is cool enough for them.
In closing, McCracken notes that worldly hipness is fleeting, whereas Christian hipness is lasting. “Relevance is not a fad,” he says, and indeed he is correct.
As McCracken explains:
It’s not that I don’t think Christianity is cool. On the contrary, I think it is the coolest thing ever. It is eternal and life-changing in a world of waste and quick fixes. It’s the answer to everything and everyone. For wanderers, laborers, lovers, poets, slaves, villains, heroes, movers, doers, and dancers…Jesus is the answer. In a world of power grabbing and war and insurgency, of institutions and rebellion and protest movements, of blood and bombs and endless battles, where all hands are clamoring for control of some contested bit of land or love or liberty, Jesus Christ is the H-bomb force that levels it all and allows for the rebuilding of an eternal kingdom.
Elsewhere in the book, McCracken encourages Christians to temper their approach to the Gospel by being both “steadfast” and “nuanced,” meaning that we should be careful that we are neither too religious nor too worldly, balancing each according to Jesus’ approach to the Lost.
In Hipster Christianity, McCracken provides a good example of such an approach. The book is neither self-congratulatory nor condemning. It is not about introspective elbowing with an occasional “but seriously now!” Rather, it is a careful and disinterested overview of the history of ourselves, filled with indications of success and failure, each of which provides its own lesson for redemption.
McCracken encourages us to think about Christianity and cool because he believes the issue has profound implications for the Gospel. Although people from all sides will want to blow this off (huffing that hipsterdom is not within our purview), we should use McCracken’s book as an opportunity to look inside ourselves and at Christianity at large, always asking that most fundamental of questions: