Hans Georg Hamann: The Hipster Wizard of the North

Hans Georg Hamann: The Hipster Wizard of the North November 15, 2019

Might you, dear reader, countenance the revealing of my secret identity as the simulacrum of a hipster? Indulge me, if you would, as I tease content from that staid purveyor of all things hipster in radio-land.

I mean NPR, of course.

It was awfully cute the other day when the Protojournalist–its by-line: very original reporting–over at NPR decided to ask, What exactly is hipster Christianity?

Cute because they clearly have no idea what a hipster is. Nor did anyone they interviewed.

In the post, they lead with the idea that hipster Christianity = cool Christianity.

But hipster isn’t cool. If it were, pretty much all of American evangelical Christianity could lay claim to be making an attempt at being hipster, since that’s been the agenda of American evangelicalism for quite some time… perhaps since the 18th century. 

Cool = culturally relevant. Cool is what a wide array of churches all across the denominational spectrum are attempting these days in order to reach the holy grail… the Millenials.

Cool isn’t all bad. But it isn’t hip. 

“Coolness is an admired aesthetic of attitude, behavior, comportment, appearance and style, influenced by and a product of the Zeitgeist” (or so says Wikipedia… a really cool resource for learning the meaning of words).

However, the NPR article may even miss the mark on being cool. Try this quote:

Living a hip lifestyle can be really cool, he says in our interview, “but what is more cool is the message of Jesus Christ. That’s really cool.”

Judge for yourself whether that sentence comports itself satisfactorily over against whatever barometer you use to measure cool or hip. See what I mean?

“It’s like indie rock or whatever.” Exactly. Because hipsters are always saying “whatever.”

On the other hand, that Arcade Fire reference isn’t half bad. Arcade Fire was hip, a few years ago, because they headline at the Grammys, and before they became the poster band for all things indie. They still are hip, absolutely, because their parents gave them names that are enduringly hip. The lead singer is named Win Butler. He’s from Texas. His wife’s name is Régine Chassagne. She’s French Canadian.

Did I mention that one definition of hipster = French Canadian?

However, I do have one quibble with the quote. Where in the world is it easy to find a hipster worship that sounds more like Arcade Fire than a hymn, because if there is such a thing I plan to uproot my family and pretty much everybody else I like and relocate to that church.

Want a test case to see whether or not a worship near you sounds like Arcade Fire? Try this song, the title track of their newest album, which happens to be produced by the absolute king of hipster, James Murphy.

“Thought you were praying to the resurrector/turns out it was just a reflektor (it’s just a reflektor)”

Hipsters are so misunderstood

Hipsters are fundamentally misunderstood, at least in part because they don’t understand themselves. They might currently have a mustache (hip) or wear thick glasses (hip), or listen to music that doesn’t exist yet (hip). But if you met a hipster with a mustache wearing thick glasses and listening to a band from the future, and you told them they were a hipster, they’d be shocked, perhaps even insulted.

Hipsterism is ever elusive, because as soon as a mark of the hipster is identifiably hip, the true hipster has already moved on from it to occupy some other marker. Like this picture. 

Hipsters try to be there first.

They make Advent beer calendars. But then when Aldi starts selling the same, they move on. They can only do Advent before Advent was cool.
Now that everyone’s doing Advent, he’s prepared to continue being a hipster by, again, celebrating a day or season no one knows about.
“Everyone does Advent, [so in order to remain a hipster, he] occupies Epiphany.”

See what I mean?

See also why this constantly elusive, ironic posture of the hipster by definition precludes the possibility that Hillsong NYC might be the epicenter for hipster Christianity (the church NPR chooses to feature as a hipster church)?

For all I know, Hillsong is a really cool church. They have a cool web site. Their pastor sounds cool, based on the quotes in the NPR post.

The associate pastor does get the hipster shtick correct at one point. He bristles at being called a hipster or pastoring a hipster church. Smart move, Carl Lentz, smart move.

They then deflect attention from their style to the substance of what they are up to, which is care in community.

Hipster Christianity tends to wave its hand in the general direction of serving and doing good in the community as the true mark of being hip. I do not mean this as a criticism per se of hipster Christianity, because the truth is the church generally speaking waves its hand in the general direction of doing good. Here the ordinary and the hip share common cause.

However, this analysis of hipsterism draws our collective attention to what is lacking in all of Christianity that focuses on style. The problem with style is it simply can’t carry the weight of its own importance. Inasmuch as the hipster or the cool person has to maintain their image, the style disallows the kind of radical extravagance the gospel entails. Style often (not always) descends from a place of privilege to occupy a position vis-a-vis the world. So stylish people or communities of any context operate out of a freedom they are often unaware of.

Christianity is not hip, or cool. It is according to Paul, foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:18, Bible Gateway). Christianity doesn’t wear well. Following Christ may put you, as the hipster hopes, ahead of the trend, but not because everyone will want to follow, but because no one or very few will. This is where foolhardy parts ways with hip.

So the true definition of hipster Christianity has to crucify the hipster just as much as the Christ in Christianity was crucified, and only then can we get at the crux of the true meaning of the term.

Perhaps the best way to narrate this is to offer some alternative examples of who might exemplify a cruciform hipster Christianity.

Cruciform Hipster Christians

The first living theologian who comes to mind is Peter Rollins. Rollins is relatively well-known in English-language hipster Christian communities for subverting classical Christianity from the inside out, bringing doubt centrally into the life of faith, observing Atheism for Lent as a contemplative practice, and practicing “pyrotheology.”

If you are looking for a living example of hipster Christianity, Rollins comes awfully close, in much the same way Arcade Fire is a hipster indie rock band.

But to really dig in and discover the true hipster Christian, we may have to go back a few generations. I’m thinking here of Albert Schweitzer. Why? Well, let’s try it out. Schweitzer practiced deliberate distancing. He began his career as an organist, and influenced the Orgelbewegung which brought organ music in Germany back to its baroque roots. He also founded the Paris Bach Society.

It wasn’t enough for Schweitzer to reform that great hipster instrument, the organ, so he also wrote a book that transformed how historians and theologians think about The Quest of the Historical Jesus.

Also, did I mention he grew up speaking Alsatian? Another definition of hipster = speaks Alsatian.

Having accomplished these two things, Schweitzer resolved to pay back to the world for the happiness he had experienced in his life, so at the age of 30, he went back to school and studied to become a medical doctor. He devoted the rest of his life to medical missions in Gabon. He self-funded his medical missions through concerts and speaking engagements.
All of this was really cool, until he became a medical missionary. His family was against it. He was kept from doing it by many leading theologians and church-leaders because his theology was not sufficiently orthodox. But he devoted his life to it in any event, which was either foolhardy or hip or a mix of both.
Continuing backwards in time, we can point to some other truly hipster Christians. Many readers might assume I would conclude this backwards genealogy of hipster Christians with reference to Søren Kierkegaard, and indeed, if anyone was capable of the ironic distancing native to the hipster, it was Kierkegaard. So, if it weren’t for the existence of one other theologian, I would give S.K. the title “one hipster to rule them all,” and leave it at that.
One Hipster To Rule Them All
But there is one, the one, who is in the end even more hip than all of the preceding. I am reluctant even to mention the man, for fear too many will flock to read him, and he will become simply cool rather than hip.
Nevertheless, I offer him up, at least in part because he wrote an essay on the letter H, and since hipster begins with H, well…
Hans Georg Hamann is our one hipster to rule them all for a variety of reasons, but at least these.
First, as I have already mentioned, he wrote a “new apology of the letter h“. Here it is in the original. If that’s not hip, I don’t know what is.
Furthermore, he was the clerk of a mercantile house, and throughout his career held many small public offices, so that he could devote his leisure to intense study. This offers hipster street cred on many levels, not the least of which is intense study in leisure, and working at a mercantile house.
Third, he wrote under a nom de plume: the Magus of the North. That is sooooo cool.
Fourth, he was a cross-disciplinary thinker, a kind of polyglot philologist, theologian, and philosopher who brought Lutheran theology to bear on Enlightment views, especially over against another (decidedly unhip) Lutheran, Immanuel Kant. All critics of Kant are hip, although the true hipster will distance themselves from post-Kantian criticism and perhaps occupy Kant. Perhaps.
Finally, it’s rather difficult to read his short essays. No, it’s really really hard to read his essays. They’re often critical responses to other’s work, dense with allusions and compacted into virtually incomprehensible German prose.
It’s hard to say that Hamann had or forwarded a system of his own. In fact some of his stuff is downright incomprehensible. But that makes it even more profound. In an ironic sort of way.
It also hides under the form of its opposite, for it transforms the Christian worldview not from a position of power or authority, but to weakness and marginalization. The greatest mind of that generation (according to other great minds) wrote in his spare time while working in public offices serving the public good.
If that isn’t hipster Lutheranism, I don’t know what is. This is not waving the hand in the direction of good works. It is occupying good works as a way of life, a vocation, without ever labeling it as such.
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