"Hipster Christianity": Did You Know that You're a Hipster?

Currently, as I type this article, I am sitting in a dimly lit coffee shop with books next to me sipping on my mocha, listening to Sufjan Stevens play over the house stereo. I am wearing a slightly tight fitting retro 8Os tee, Dickies shorts, and black chucks. Tomorrow night I will be going out with friends to drink imported beer and talk about the plausibility of theistic evolution. The church I preached at on Sunday morning was full of people with tattoos (including the guy behind the pulpit…i.e. me), and my wife is dressed like a 1950s movie star (she looks good). Next Tuesday I will visit our local Farmers’ Market because I believe it’s important to buy local and to avoid all the wasteful packaging of commercial products. Apparently this makes me a Christian hipster, or at least that’s what Brett McCracken, author of Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide, says. Although I am not sure that McCracken is fully convinced in his own mind that this is true.

Hipster Christianity is at once one of the most interesting and most frustrating books I’ve read this year. The concept for the book was incredibly attractive to me. A cultural analysis of a particular young Christian subculture today as it reacts to growing up in fundamentalist circles and suddenly discovering a larger world. The reviews of the book were a bit disappointing as they seemed to indicate McCracken was simply lambasting young people for contaminating the church and the gospel with the culture. But having read the book I am convinced that neither of those statements truly represents the book itself, which is perhaps why it’s so frustrating. It’s very hard to pinpoint exactly what McCracken is attempting to accomplish with this work.

In the first part of the book (chapters 1-3) McCracken gives us a cultural history of “cool,” “hip,” and “Christian hipsters.” It’s interesting, even if I am not sure it’s totally accurate. McCracken writes with an engaging style and good use of wit. But by the end of chapter three I am not entirely sure where he’s going. His definition of “Hipster” doesn’t seem to help either: fashionable young people. The definition is so broad and so soft that it may be more indicative of just how hard defining “hipster” really is. McCracken gives a nod to this reality but pushed on ahead anyways. For him “hipsters” are basically defined by their obsession with style, and for part two of the work he builds his case by analyzing every “form” of Christian hipster on display in the culture. His analysis consists of what they wear, what music they like, and what “vices” they indulge in. So you might be a Christian Hipster if…

…You don’t like Pat Roberts, TBN, Joel Osteen, CCM, American flags in churches, phrases like “soul winning” and “nondenominational.” And if you prefer the term “Christ follower” over “Christian.”

…You like left wing politics, smoking, drinking, swearing, communion with real port and common cups, tattoos, piercings, skateboarding, social justice, art and buying organic.

…Your role models include (but are not necessarily limited to): Sufjan Stevens (he is apparently Christian hip epitomized, according to McCracken), Shane Claiborne, Lauren Winner, Jay Bakker, Donald Miller, Mark Driscoll, and Rob Bell.

…You went to a Christian college (especially Calvin College), studies abroad (especially Oxford), or did missions work in Zambia post graduation.

…You wear skinny jeans, Jesus kitsch  tees, vintage, thrift, or retro clothes, or Kenneth Cole apparel.

My contention with all of this is that it is so broad, and takes so little consideration of major distinguishing features, that it seems little more than humorous, and that’s how most of the book feels. McCracken is witty and sarcastic, even sardonic, at times. I laughed out loud, even when I hated feeling like he had pegged me in one of his categories. But the reality is that he has pegged just about everyone I know in one of his categories. If you like ancient religious practices with a bent towards Eastern Orthodox worship you’re a hipster. If you like high technological usage, like tweeting during the sermon, then you’re a hipster…and seemingly everything in between. If you’re a yuppie or a starving artist you’re a hipster. If you’re a Calvinist or an Emergent you’re a hipster. And this all just seems like nonsense after a while.

By the end of the book McCracken has summed up his own uncertainty with the startling realization that some Christian Hipsters are all about style and earning “cool points,” while others are actually legitimately interested in enjoying God’s creation and finding real truth, beauty, and aesthetic quality in the world He has made. Some churches are cool and some are trying too hard. “Cool” as rebellion is unacceptable to Christianity, “cool” as authentic counterculture is Biblical. All in all McCracken could have said this rather obvious statement in far fewer pages and with far less confusion. The concept of the book has real potential and I hope this work will spur on a more in-depth discussion of Hipster Christianity. McCracken, however, hasn’t given us a whole lot to work with.

About Dave Dunham
  • http://jonathanrose.wordpress.com/ Jonny Rose

    In England, we definitely have hints of this phenomenon amongst younger Christians i.e. there are ‘types’ e.g. Apple user Christians, hip-hop Christians, the Driscoll Fanboys, the Manga/Anime Christians etc, but none of these types are so entirely absorbed in their foibles that it fully defines them and certainly not enough to write a whole book about it!

    In your experience, is this kind of cultural sectarianism on the rise in US churches? Does the presence of these subcultures act as a barrier that ostracise non-’hipster’ Christians in chuches?

  • Alan Noble

    Jonny, you bring up an interesting point about the different “types” of Christians. What troubles me about the “types” is that their cultural preferences come to shape their identity just as much as their faith. The very idea that one could be a hip-hop Christian (a “type” I’ve personal witnessed) or go to a “cowboy” church (there are many of them out here in Texas) suggests to me that some in the church have accepted the consumer-culture idea that we are primarily defined by our style, which really means by what we chose to buy. I’d love to explore this trend further, but I suspect it would turn into a book.

    In some ways, what you’ve described is the “cool” version of the Christian kitch that I wrote about in this older post: . There I wrote about how Christian culture–things like Thomas Kincade paintings–can be a barrier to loving our neighbors. But I suppose I could have easily replaced Kincade with technophiles, indie music, etc…

  • http://www.psonnets.org/ Mr. Poet

    I think I might define a hipster Christian as any Christian who adds cultural mishmash to the pure Gospel: who tries to turn something that is absolutely non-essential (using an Apple or reading manga or whatever) into an essential. Fundamentalists did (and still do) this, although few “hip” Christians would call them hip. Wear a suit, wear a tie, cut your hair a certain way, etc. But instead of the suit, tie, and tool haircut, you wear kitsch Christian T-shirt, skinny jeans, and have long hair or dyed hair or whatever. A hipster Christian can be any Christian in any culture. They just have to be hip according to that culture.

    This doesn’t mean you can’t use “hip” things to convey the Gospel. I have a manga rendering of the Gospel of Luke, written in Japanese, given to me by an American who spent two years in Japan as a missionary. Non-Christian Japanese who wouldn’t open a Bible (which describes most of the population) would read the manga Luke from cover to cover. It was a very good and thorough version, too: so good and thorough that I could tell from the pictures what part of Luke was being displayed, even though I know no Japanese. Unfortunately, a similar effort in America would try to be “too hip,” adding what does not need to be added (comedy characters, talking animals, etc.) to Luke while taking out large swaths of the story. THAT is when “hip” turns ugly.

  • David Dunham

    Mr. Poet,

    Thanks for your comment. I tend to think what you’re describing is just basic legalism and doesn’t actually have anything to do with “hip” itself. Legalism certainly comes in all shades though.

  • http://www.psonnets.org/ Mr. Poet

    If you have to follow a code to be hip (these clothes this season, this hairstyle, etc.), isn’t that legalism?

  • http://spoonfulofhahne.com Seth T. Hahne

    While McKracken is clearly (at least by what you relate in your review) lost in the woods on the issue of hipsterism—creating a paradigm in which a broad swath of humanity falls into his version of what a hipster is—I’ve long found the terminology itself to be repugnant and lacking.

    Ideally, the term seems to encompass the concept of those who fit a very particular cultural mold for the sake of whatever reputational cache taking on such characteristics entails. It’s a strange sort of distinction because within every subculture there are a number of members of the group (perhaps even a large number) who meet the fashion and lifestyle requirements of the group for the sake of the image they wish to be a part of. And yet it is only within a very particular (yet still ill-defined) sub-culture that this desire for artifice contracts the name hipster.

    Or rather, it’s may be the sub-culture of the hipster connotes universal artifice upon its adherents. Which is just stupid. There’s really not any tangible point of contact between the terminology and what it is meant to represent.

    Is a hipster someone who has a particular set of tastes? Then so what, because mere tastes are not objectively dismissible. I didn’t like Ratatouille or think it worth the price of a ticket. Other people loved it in a way I reserve for Kurosawa movies. Are either of us better for our tastes? Not in any realistic world. How is a hipster’s tastes (if those ever get defined) any better or worse than the jock, goth, geek, preppy, alt-rock fan, or what-have-you? And if they are not better or worse, why would someone write a book evaluating them specifically from a Christian perspective for any reason other than to speak the same message that one would for any set of culturally-defined tastes: do not fear the taste but the mind behind the taste.

    Is a hipster someone from a particular sub-culture (the hipster sub-culture) who only adopts tastes for what they will mean to those around the person? Then why focus on the sub-culture? Why not address the phonies of all walks. Why do pastors wear robes or suits or ties or mock turtlenecks or Hawaiian shirts? Because they seek to conform to an image. How are they less worthy of ill-attention than the so-called hipsters.

    And then what of the few whose particular tastes are nearly-wholly self-defined but they just happen to intersect with the quote-unquote hipster miasma? How can we best alienate such people because their tastes don’t align with ours and we feel uncomfortable because their tastes lead them to be better informed, better dressed, better stewards or the world than we are? How bout we write a book about them?

  • http://spoonfulofhahne.com Seth T. Hahne

    @Mr. Poet

    If you have to follow a code to be hip (these clothes this season, this hairstyle, etc.), isn’t that legalism?

    Since coolness and salvation are unrelated, no. Following guidelines to be hip is not legalism.

    Of course, it shouldn’t need to be said that coolness can never be attained by following rules. The codification of the so-called hipness does not lend to coolness any more than buying clothes at Hot Topic makes someone a genuine punk.

  • David Dunham

    Yeah, those are both great points to be made here Seth. I think McCracken picks out “hipsters” because he is convinced that they represent the largest swath and potential danger for the church. I don’t really buy this, but that seems to be why he is “targeting” them. And this desire we have to categorize everyone into these subcultures is really weird, and, as I’ve written, totally unrealistic. I know loads of hipsters and no hipsters all at the same time.

    And while this is totally not related I appreciate you pointing out to Mr. Poet’s comments that having rules is not the same as being legalistic.

    Boy that whole response sounded like I was attempting to flatter you…weird!

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    I think behind this book is a far more important question that is not really being addressed (by this book as you review it anyway–I haven’t read it) and that is how cool or “in touch” with the culture do we expect people to be?

    I don’t mean to try and sound cool–but I am probably far closer to being a “hipster” than most people in my church–how culturally savy do they need to be to live faithfully for Christ’s kingdom? I have been to churches that are far more hip than mine and felt utterly uncool and got the sense that I was out of touch with social justice, music, art, and the like.

    There certainly seems to be, in some Christian circles, a need to prove that Christians can be hip. Exhibit A: http://vimeo.com/11501569

    I know that is a parody–but for many that is Christianity and it brings up the question–How important is it that our people be in tune with the culture around them?

    I think there is value in being in touch–but I think that looks vastly different for me here in Albertville, AL than it does for someone in New York or some other more urban environment.

    I think the question is worth asking, but in the end, I am not too worried about how “in touch” the people in my church are. What I care about is that they and I both are growing to love God more and consequently love people more–with a genuine, Christ-centered love that hopes to point them to Him.

  • http://www.ShareAsYouGo.com Jimmy Kinnaird

    According to this book, I must be a “hasbeener” Christian.

  • David Dunham

    Drew, I understand what you’re saying and while this is not directly a response to what you’ve written I have to say that that specific message has been communicated. It seems like all you hear about is either contextualization or warnings against contextualization these days.

    I think part of my response to guys like McCracken is that Christian 20 somethings like what other 20 somethings like. Just like Christian 30 somethings like what other Christian 30 somethings like. There’s not a whole lot of mystery or evil in it. Can it be bad, sure…but I think he’s blown some of these trends way out of proportion.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    Right. I am with you there. I just think that McCracken’s book is probably motivated by at least some unhealthy dedication to being cool in our churches whether real or perceived (probably real to some extent). I have experienced this–its worth talking about.

    I think its important to be “in-touch” with the culture around us and I could list several reasons why. Suffice it to say that I wouldn’t write for this site if I thought being in-touch with our culture had no value. I just think that as we keep up with pop culture, we ought to be willing to look inwardly and ask ourselves whether we are making too much of being cool, maintaining a certain image, and caring about all the culturally appropriate things and consequently not making enough of Jesus. Perhaps we are, perhaps we aren’t–I just think the question is a valid one. Again I haven’t read McCracken’s book, I did read his piece for WSJ, and my initial response is that it is not particularly helpful as a diagnosis of Christian culture but certainly brings up questions individual Christians should be asking themselves.

  • http://spoonfulofhahne.com Seth T. Hahne

    The irony of coolness is that those who try to be cool, cannot be cool. This is probably where hipness and coolness part ways. To be hip is merely to be culturally aware (therefore, hipsters, in one sense are those who are hyperaware of the cultural produce). To be cool is to be beyond awareness, such that style, fashion, and behaviour though plausibly intersecting at points with cultural trends is not dictated by them, is not dictated by what is hip. If hipness finds harmony with cultural awareness, then coolness finds itself linked to cultural aloofness.

    We ought to be willing to look inwardly and ask ourselves whether we are making too much of being cool, maintaining a certain image, and caring about all the culturally appropriate things and consequently not making enough of Jesus.

    Subtracting coolness from the equation, this is the the M.O. for the church since its establishment. Maintaining a certain image. Caring about the things that are culturally appropriate to our sub-culture. Biblically, our concern with our image is not to be one of artifice but our image is to be one of such transparency that it is Christ’s image that is seen in and through us.

    But that’s hard. And so the Christian cultures have long made an indelicate point of performing according to a particularly “Christian” status quo. At times Peter’s advice about outward adornment has been taken to regions it was never meant to traverse. At times Paul’s advice about temperance has guided the Christian culture to reimage Christ himself into the visage of a teetotaler. Et cetera. There is even a kind of uniform for Christians within each particular Christian subculture.

    So Christians far too often exchange conformation to the image of Christ for a kind of low-grade legalism that demands they conform to other images as well—that they might evidence their conformation to the image of Christ.

  • Melody

    Honestly, it sounds like he’s trying to be the first to give this magical subculture of Christian young people an official name and description. He should start off by being more descriptive when attempting to define what a hipster is! Young and fashionable is not accurate. It’s far too broad. I attend to a big, mostly preppy, Southern university where there are hipsters and well-dressed people. Trust me, they are not the same thing.

    Also – you can’t knock Christians today who just prefer to coexist with technology and cultural advances instead of clinging to tradition and pretending like the world isn’t changing. Every other person in my Bible Study has a Bible app on their iPhone (a lot of these people come to study straight from work, class or don’t have room to carry a big Bible) and that’s what they prefer. It doesn’t mean their way of doing things is bad or wrong cause it coincides with the “hip” trend of today – which is owning an iPhone. It’s a new way of life.

    I didn’t think this subculture of so-called ‘hipster Christians’ was a big enough issue to merit a book, so this has been interesting to read. Is there any talk in the book of how the ‘hipster Christian’ trend isn’t so much about wanting to belong by having Apple products and wearing skinny jeans as it is about young people wanting to culturally distance themselves from this belief that all Christians are super-traditional, frumpy, out-of-touch nutjobs?

    Witnessing today to 20-somethings is interesting because these stereotypes make being accepted by non-believers as a kind and open-minded example of Christianity difficult. On a completely different side note – the cover is pretty. The choice of font is surprisingly… hip.

  • http://pos51.org/ Charles Jones

    A lot of attention here has been paid to the difficulty of defining “hipster”. But maybe he wasn’t trying to define, but describe. Defining something basically requires distinguishing it from everything else in an abstract way. Describing allows you to be clear and concrete, without the burden of making definitive distinctions. This is like trying to explain the difference between a shrub and a tree. There are things that definitely fit each category, and other things that are hard to classify.

    When it comes to the description shared in the review, I don’t think it is so broad that it loses meaning. I actually didn’t find it that broad at all. Perhaps we’re meant to understand it as we understand the concepts of Stuff White People Like and Stuff Christians Like. They seem to come with the same disclaimer: the descriptions only fit people who are college-educated, and were raised in a mildly affluent urban or suburban environment.

    To me, the “You might be a Christian hipster if…” section David included describes a particular type of person; I don’t find it vague or general at all. It might seem that way if you take the characteristics individually, but I don’t think it’s meant to be read that way. Try thinking of it as a personality survey; “If you answered yes to 9 or more, you are a hipster Christian.”

    I don’t fit that list at all, except for attending a Christian college and studying abroad (don’t hate me for not knowing who Sufjan Stevens is!), and I don’t personally know many believers who do. I feel a little left out, but i have little interest in liking any of the things on the list except organic food. Am I in the minority, or are hipster Christians overrepresented at CaPC?

  • http://spoonfulofhahne.com Seth T. Hahne

    Funny thing. In the real world, nobody at CAPC would come close to being counted as a hipster in the derogatory sense—which is the sense generally meant when one hears use of the term. That they could away from Zak McKracken’s book and get the feeling that they might be is evidence that McKracken speaks too broadly about out hipsterism.

    Or maybe he speaks specifically enough but just doesn’t understand what he’s talking about.

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

    Someone asked for threaded comments, so here is one that I am testing out.

  • http://pos51.org/ Charles Jones

    Threads…sweet.

    I got the impression from David’s conclusion that “hipster” wasn’t necessarily derogatory. I’m going to have to read the book now. Like I’m not busy enough…

  • Patrick

    I’m from Portland Oregon, which if any of you have been here lately, would know that hipster culture is rampant. Designer glasses are on the faces of most people, even those who have good vision, its hard to find people without tattoos, urban outfitter catalogs are walking the streets, most people care about the environment and indie rock/indie folk is huge.
    I talk about all this to say that it’s a given that a church down here is full of people that look, think and act like that. Shouldn’t it be? If it weren’t full of people like that, the church isn’t reaching anyone in our city. I don’t expect churches in towns that aren’t like Portland to look, think and act the same. I think it’s a good thing that people here can find a community of Christians that are alike. They can find a church that plays worship music they enjoy worshiping to. They can dress how they like and find comfortable and be around people that aren’t judgmental towards them in that aspect. The Gospel is being preached at these churches and hipster culture is not.
    Therefore lets praise God for the fact that people with tattoos aren’t being judged at church, lets praise God that the big cities are becoming a place where the church can be! Lets praise God for using these “hipsters”, but lets stop reducing this to a title of “Hipster Christianity.”
    Hipster is a derogatory term for those of you that may not be familiar with it. Hipsters dress the same and do some of the same stuff but wont admit they’re hipsters because they don’t want to be part of a fad. Makes sense right? lets just rejoice in Christianity and not discount what it happening.

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