The Economics of Hipsterdom: An Interview with Brett McCracken

Brett McCracken“Is Christianity cool in today’s culture?” asks Brett McCracken. “And I mean naturally cool? As in — are people attracted to and desirous of it on its own accord?”

McCracken explores this question (and more) in his new book, Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. I outlined some of the book’s major themes in my recent review, but there are some other areas I found particularly pertinent for readers of this blog — namely, the societal systems and cultural institutions that influence and steer hipsterdom.

How should the church respond to “cool” in a capitalistic society? How does competition jive with Christianity? How do we avoid the artificial and attain the authentic in our pursuit of cool?

Although McCracken touches on these matters in the book, he was kind enough to share some of his thoughts with Remnant Culture. If you’re intrigued by his answers, I highly encourage you to pick up the book. Enjoy!

Q: In your chronicling of the history of hip, you call America a country that was “born to be hip.” What about America makes it stand out in the evolution of hipsterdom?

America’s founding principles were utterly conducive to a thriving culture of hip. Individualism and a “self-made-man” ethos, in which status was no longer bound to blood or land but was determined by things like ambition and cleverness, were particularly hip-friendly values. America was founded on the notion that each man is sovereign and subject to no one but himself. The republic was governed by and for the people, and thus it was your right — indeed, your mandate — to be independent and upwardly mobile. America upended the old world’s hierarchies and power classes and made democratic, bottom-up populism the new force majeuer (well, in theory at least). America amplified the dance of power between hereditary elites, upstart entrepreneurs, and newly educated bohemian/intellectual classes, which was the hallmark of hip’s development in Europe in prior centuries. Furthermore, America was just this totally new, fresh, immigrant-heavy melting pot in which ideas, cultures, and ideologies from all over the place came together in dynamic ways. Hip always thrives most at the intersection of a plurality of voices and perspectives which can freely interact under the banner of democracy, and America has been ground zero for intersections of that sort ever since its founding.

Q: If American capitalism has led to “hyperindividuation,” and if the resulting self-centeredness opposes the Christian calling, how can Christians hope to achieve authentic Christian cool in a capitalistic society?

It’s difficult. Our capitalistic society is based on feeding our human impulses to want to stand out, be noticed, and be envied. In many ways, the economy is based on status symbols — buying and selling things that help us project the version of our self that we want others to see. I think for Christians we have to constantly resist the allure of “consumption-as-means-of-becoming-more-enviable.” I don’t think consumerism is inherently evil. Christians can and should participate in buying things as long as it’s for the right reasons (and not because such-and-such product will make you look cool). Ultimately, our identity (and the authentic “coolness” of Christianity) has to come from outside the bounds of consumerism. What is it in our lives, and chiefly our love, that communicates the Gospel? I doubt it has anything to do with our awesomely quirky thrift store clothes or impressive collection of 1960s Brazilian jazz on vinyl.

Q: With the recent rise of globalization and interconnectedness, you argue that hip has become “just another thing to buy and sell, rather than a way of thinking or being.” How complicit have Christians been in consumerizing their version of cool?

I think Christians have been as guilty as anyone. Our “counterculture” also has a market from which money can be made. Just as there’s an increasingly large “rebellious” generation of Millennials who can keep Urban Outfitters and other merchants of cool in business, so too are there larger and larger numbers of young evangelicals who might prefer “countercultural Christian” products — whatever those might be — as opposed to traditional or overtly Christian products. Actually, I think most often Christians just latch on to the commodities of hip/rebellion in the secular culture rather than developing their own uniquely “Christian hipster” market niche. The only uniquely “Christian hipster” products I can really think of right now are Toms shoes, Relevant magazine, and the band The Welcome Wagon.

Q: Early in the book you say, “Cool can’t survive without the aristocrat, because it is only in relation to the aristocrat…that the hipster creates his identity.” In the Christian context, who is the aristocrat?

For this generation of Christian hipsters, I think the “aristocrat” is the stereotypical evangelical church of the 80s – 90s: The Republican, middle class, abortion-clinic-picketing, anti-gay, anti-welfare, legalistic, not-so-interested-in-art-or-books WASP evangelical.

Q: You also talk about how the Christian Right has been on the wane and a newer, less organized Christian Left is on the rise. How has the Christian hipster movement played a role in this shift?

The Christian hipster movement has definitely contributed to, and arisen in conjunction with, the new Christian left. Part of it has to do with a deliberate moving away from the perception that Christians are always, and necessarily, politically conservative. Younger Christians are desperate to change those perceptions, and one way to do it is to express sympathy for, or align with, the political left. But I also think that the concerns of Christian hipsters — social justice, the arts, environmentalism — do align more with the political left, so it make sense that their allegiances would shift in that direction.

Q: When discussing the new Christian Left, you note that many Christian hipsters are turning toward social or economic activism that goes beyond evangelism. Your conclusion is that “this trend toward serving the world can really only be a good thing.” Is well-intentioned activism always a good thing, regardless of the politics or economic thinking behind it?

Well, I don’t want to say it’s always a good thing, because certainly there can be “more harm than good” situations where well-intentioned activism causes more problems than it solves. But I do think in most cases it is a positive thing that people are looking outside of themselves at the problems of the world and doing something — however small — to help decrease suffering and make things better.

Q: One of your most fascinating chapters centers on Christian “art,” in which you emphasize how “we are created to be artists” and that “creative activity is an act of worship.” How will creativity help us achieve authentic Christian cool, and where has the church gone wrong in this area?

I think creativity — and a genuine appreciation for the activity of art and creation — is an essential part of an “authentic Christian cool.” We need to learn to love the good, true, and beautiful in art, and cultivate a taste for it beyond mere utility (as in, how can art be used to impart a Christian message). In the past, the church has approached art and creativity mostly though this utilitarian lens and has appeared apathetic or fearful in the face of art that is difficult or complex or frivolous. As a result, Christians have this reputation of being unfriendly toward the arts and lackluster in their ambition to be active, excellent creators in the image of God.

Q: Among other things, you believe that competition is one common element of hipsterism that is antithetical to the Christian calling. But if competition helps spawn innovation in “regular” markets, how can the church go about “innovating” without it?

That’s a really good question. I think it’s true that competition does spawn innovation — because a competition-driven marketplace rewards innovation. But I think Christianity is different in some ways because it doesn’t need a competition-driven marketplace to get a sense of urgency about its mission or the necessity of innovation. The mission — to spread the Gospel in the world — is the same whether you’re in a communist country, a socialist commune, or a democratic society. Christians always are innovating; it’s inherent in our identity and in the nature of the church, animated by the Holy Spirit.

Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide by Brett McCracken
Q: The overarching point of your book seems to be that we should be careful not to supplant authentic Christian cool with artificial Christian cool. How can Christians get better at discerning between the two? How do we know we’re not just wannabes?

It can be a fine line, and it takes some serious soul-searching to keep yourself in check. What are your motivations to like a certain thing? Is it because that thing is “cool” and will help you become cooler? Or is it because you actually like that thing, regardless of its coolness? The difference between authentic and artificial cool has to do with whether or not you are striving for cool as such. If cool is the end toward which your aesthetic posturing is aimed, that is artificial. If you are cool simply by virtue of the fact that your community or your preferred style/interests are fashionable at the moment, then that’s more authentic. You know you’re a wannabe when you are constantly self-aware of whether you’re looking the right way or liking the right things, as opposed to just being authentic to the things that move you or to which you gravitate.

To purchase the book, click here.

To read my review of the book, click here.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,