Ask Me Anything – Toy Story 3, Inception, “Hipsters”

On my new Tumblr site, there’s a feature called “Ask Me Anything.”

Nobody ever uses it.

And yet here at LookingCloser.org, people ask me things all the time.

So, I figure I’d better answer the questions where they’re being asked.

And in this new, recurring “Ask Me Anything” series, I’ll often consolidate questions for the sake of convenience.

Like this question, which has come up frequently both here and on Facebook:

Q: When will you review Toy Story 3?

A:

I’ll review Toy Story 3 when I have time to write a review, and when I think of something to say about it that, to my knowledge, hasn’t already been written. Did I love it? Oh yes. Was it the best Toy Story movie ever? No, but it was still fantastic. I can’t think of another American-made trilogy that is as consistently awesome as this one.

Q: What did you think of Inception?

A:

Check my review archive. I wrote a two-part review, which was published at Image.

Q: Is there another book in The Auralia Thread and when is it coming out?

A:

I’ve been surprised by how many people want to know this. Raven’s Ladder ends with some rather severe cliffhangers. Did anybody really think that was the end of the series? Yes, there’s one more on the way. The Ale Boy’s Feast arrives in March 2011, if all goes according to plan.

Q: Will you be reviewing the book Hipster Christianity?

No, not until I’ve read the book.

But since I’ve seen so much online marketing for the book, and since I’ve read excerpts, and since somebody at Gospel.com asked me to respond, I’ll share here what I posted there.

The question there was this: Do you think Christian hipster-ism is a dangerous trend?

I should have responded with this:

I don’t understand the question. Define “hipster.” Define “dangerous.” Define “trend.” If by “hip” you mean “cool,” well, what do you mean by “Christian hipster”? A Christian seeking to adopt the cultural idea of cool? Or a Christian seeking to be cool among fellow Christians? Do you mean “dangerous” to the church? To other Christians? To culture? To themselves? By “trend”, do you mean to assume it *is* a trend? What is your evidence? Do you mean in recent months? Years? Decades?

But I didn’t.

Since I think the definition of the word “hipster” is very vague, I found it difficult to respond. But here is what I posted (in a hurry):

Is “hipster Christianity” a dangerous trend? I think it’s as risk-prone, and trendy, as any movement to resist, avoid, or condemn the “cult of cool.”

I think youth of every generation, in their enthusiasm and eagerness to develop their own generational community, and in their concerns about peer pressure and status and acceptance, embrace “cool” just like any other social group. The ever-changing landscape of “cool,” impossible as it is to define, is fraught with pitfalls, and full of wonderful surprises. That’s true for Christians… and the rest of the world.

I don’t see the embrace of “cool” among Christians as an increasing trend. I don’t know how to measure such a thing. Looking back at the pop culture paraphernalia of my parents’ generation, I see that some Christians were busy making cheap ripoffs of what was cool back then, and that some were just embracing cultural trends. Some savored “the taste of new wine” in a desire for what was “real”… while others savored it because it was an excuse to indulge.

Nothing new there.

In the same way, some embraced the Reformation because they sensed a new opportunity for a deeper engagement with the Scriptures, while others embraced because it was an opportunity to lash out at authority. Were they all hipsters? Or just some of them? Does it matter? Is the term useful?

As long as I’ve been in churches (since I was a kid), I’ve seen churches occasionally embarrassing themselves in attempts to market the Gospel. Since long before I became a teenager myself, I saw kids striking poses and accessorizing in a desire to be cool. And, since long before I noticed dishonest marketing techniques in Christian publishing, I’ve seen Christian communities and organizations stooping to promote themselves in trendy, superficial, “worldly” ways. How is this news?

I haven’t had time to read it all yet, so this isn’t a review. But the “hipster” characteristics described in the excerpts of this book I’ve read so far — the music preferences, the styles, etc — are embraced by many people I know for many reasons, many of them sincere, authentic, even admirable. To slap a label on the lot of them as if they’re all alike is, I’m afraid, misleading and damaging.

For example, I know that many churches are showing and discussing movies simply because they aren’t crippled by the societal fears and the separatist instincts that hurt so many churches I observed. They’re engaging in a meaningful discussion of the stories being told by, and about, our times, our culture, our history, our hopes. Others may, perhaps, merely show R-rated films to look “edgy”… but I haven’t encountered that yet.

And I know that some of the titles McCracken singles out (like Lauren Winner’s book) are meaningful, thoughtful publications. To say that putting “sex” in the title is a brash attempt to achieve “cool” is quite a rash judgment, I think. (We might as well criticize those who established the Biblical canon for including The Song of Solomon, as if they were attempting to give the Scriptures street cred.)

I must say that I’ve been a fan of McCracken’s film reviews – his own prolific work exploring the meaningfulness of art and pop culture – for quite a while. I read all of his reviews at CT Movies, and I look forward to what he writes in the future.

But while I share his dismay over the occasionally embarrassing, fumbling attempts of some Christians leaders to appear cool, and the occasionally atrocious consumer-driven ventures Christians carry out in Christ’s name (http://www.fuzzycross.com , anyone?)… I think that a healthy Christian community will be deeply involved in the vocabulary and art of its culture. Instead of censoring, they’ll shine bright lights on the details of their culture, exposing the truth of it: both the diseases in it, and the surprising glories. That’s not “selling out.” It’s a way of living in the belief that God is alive and involved and moving in the lives, trends, traditions, and expressions of our culture.

I have a great dislike for labels that contribute to the ways in which we divide ourselves into camps, make gross generalizations, dismiss each other, and marginalize each other.

A fellow I know who is continually striving to divorce himself and his community from all of the trappings of “secular culture” has embraced this new term “Christian hipsters.” He is suddenly using it a lot, with great condescension, clearly enjoying this convenient way to criticize and dismiss pretty much all Christian youth who are interested in the culture around them. (For example, he sneers at Christians who admire the music and activism of the band U2 as if they’re all idolators. According to him, if something is popular with non-Christians, than it’s a worrying sign if Christians like it too.)

(And yet, he watches pro football.)

While it can be helpful to recognize and consider trends, I think it’s a good idea to think about the consequences of the names we pin on people, and to consider whether our vocabulary is contributing to the divisions within an already fractured, already divided church, or if we’re presenting a vision that will encourage humility and transformation.

We *should* think about our decisions, and whether we’re making choices for the sake of ego or the sake of Christ. And I have no doubt that there are teenagers who are too worried about “cool” and not worried enough about truth.

But to start telling us how to recognize these folks based on what’s on their iPod? That might be very misleading. Better to deepen the discussion about motivations, fruitful cultural engagement, and lessons learned in the history of the church, than to give us checklists by which we can recognize those among us who are probably superficial.

(Has anyone commented on the extremely “hip” style of the “Hipster Christianity” book cover and marketing plan, and how it draws attention to the author’s work by embracing and employing mainstream marketing trends? I’m not saying that’s wrong. I’m asking if there is any irony in the fact that a book criticizing “hipsterdom” might appear to be presenting itself in a method that is about as hip and attention-grabbing as they come. My compliments to the designers. Seriously. That book practically leaps off the shelf at me.)

If I see an online quiz that claims to show me whether or not I am a “Christian hipster,” I’m going to ignore it. I don’t believe a checklist can tell me what I am, why I make the decisions I do, or whether or not I am selling out. It will probably only *encourage* me to look to such surveys for self-definition, to worry about what I *look* like to the culture around me.

Personally, I love the vibrant, exciting, ever-changing landscape of art, style, and pop culture, and how it expresses the longings, heartaches, discoveries, and passions of the world around me. I love a lot of the music that’s been recently flagged with “Hipster Alert” warnings; and I love a lot of other things besides. If you want to trouble yourself with whether or not that makes me a “hipster,” that’s your deal. Frederic Buechner says that the world speaks of the holy in the only language it knows, which is a worldly language. That’s a language I want to understand, and I’m going to go on being “bilingual,” if you will, so I can love my neighbor, and so I can hear God when he speaks in that language.

In summary, I am pleased that the subject of Christianity and “cool” is on the table for discussion. I hope it encourages all of us to think about our choices, our sincerity, and our priorities. I share McCracken’s concerns about that, and I mean to go on reading him, as I have for years. But I have concerns about the “how” and the “stuff” of this discussion. I hope it leads us to a place of greater unity, and greater apprehension of God’s work in the world around us… even the world of pop culture, art, style, and “cool.”

I pray that, by God’s grace, these hastily offered words don’t lead to any hurt feelings or misunderstanding.

Sincerely,
Jeffrey Overstreet
(who was born with a long list of characteristics that guaranteed him
a life of un-coolness)

http://lookingcloser.org

For further reading on this question, see David Sessions’ review at Patrol.

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  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/stuffchristianculturelikes stephy

    Good on you!

  • RobertT

    Hear, hear.

    So you were born with a long list of characteristics that guaranteed you a life of un-coolness? Wow, what a scientific field day it must have been in the maternity ward. :)


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