Today, Rozann Carter reviews Brett McCracken's new book, Hipster Christianity, which gives a detailed exposé on the history of "hip" and the recently forged relationship between "Christianity" and "cool."
Last week, after having read his witty and insightful article in the Wall Street Journal entitled, “The Perils of ‘Wannabe’ Cool Christianity,” I picked up a copy of Brett McCracken’s brand new book, Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. As a fellow 27-year-old involved in evangelical ministry, albeit the Catholic “new evangelism” sort as opposed to a less hierarchical, more grassroots-to-viral type that often characterizes the Protestant evangelical movement, I knew this would be an interesting and highly applicable read. I expected I’d find the close-to-my-heart arguments against the “hipster” mentality: about not creating a relevant Church, but rather, presenting the relevancy of the Church; about how Christianity is not attractive because it morphs itself according to the perennially alterable standards of the present, but because its eternal truths are accessible and beautiful in every age; about how the trendy-ness of the dialogue-worshipping, competitively-compassionate, self-referential vocationalism can take the focus off of the true “end” and begin to sanctify the means to that end in a very misguided and damaging manner. However, what I didn’t expect was a finished book filled with underlines, marginal stars and asterisks, and arrows to my scribbled words: “This is me!” or “I do this!”-- penned epiphanies of disappointment. Oh no. Am I a ... hipster? Just as he intended, McCracken’s depiction cut right to the core of the ironically hipster-esque reader in denial.
Early in his book, McCracken defines “Hipster” as: “a fashionable, young, independent-minded contrarian.” “Hip,” he states, is “an attractive attribute that embodies the existential strains to be independent, enviable, one-of-a-kind, and trailblazing.”
His description goes on to say that hipsters “…absolutely loath the word hipster. And yet, ironically, the word is almost exclusively uttered by hipsters themselves. The word shows up now and again in New York Times or Entertainment Weekly, but in everyday conversation, hipsters use this insider term to express a weird blend of self-loathing, jealousy, and irony.” Pot, meet Kettle.
McCracken speaks of the “History of Hip,” both in the secular realm at large and within the context of Christianity. He details the emergence of “bohemians” and “dandies” in Europe, of Post WWII America and the effect of mass culture on the phenomenon of cool, of beatniks, of the rise of all things hippie and the “mainstreaming of cool,” and how America’s obsession with autonomy made the elusive label of “hip” an internally valorized and increasingly elusive title-- disposable as soon as it is uttered and applied. McCracken follows the sensation through the 2000’s, the decade wherein in Christians most prominently exposed themselves as reaching out to grab onto the coattails of “hip” in an attempt to “meet culture where it is at” and make the message of Christ relevant to an evermore progressive youth culture. Detailing everything from trends in Christian art, music, and fashion to the mega-church phenomenon and the top-down organizational approach to marketing Christ through the big band stages of contemporary services, through starbucks-supplied sermons and lights-camera-action youth group activities, and in guise of “v-necked, skinny-jeaned, faux-hawked, tattooed, occasionally-cussing” pastors, McCracken chronicles this recent trend with insurmountable wit, historical clarity, and stark realism. He offers surprisingly on-par generalizations about where the hipsters live, what categories they typically fall into, “what they like and don’t like,” who are the “hip Christian figureheads,” the typical music tastes for each brand of Christian hipster, etc., etc.
McCracken’s analysis is self-identified as an often “snarky” caricature, but as is the case in any caricature, the most exaggerated features co-opted to induce the knowing nod and cynical snicker are inescapably the features that cut the most deeply to the core of the Christian hipster, specifically the one reading the book. What becomes clear in reading Hipster Christianity is that the identification of the hipster and the effects of his/her cool brand of Christianity is an exercise in removing eye planks & splinters. Whether or not you have ever participated in the Protestant evangelical brand of hipsterdom that sometimes plants Churches, forms creeds, and organizes Bible study groups around the new cool, you’ve likely attempted to justify your thorough participation in and fascination with the intricacies of fashion, hip social events and enviable jobs, and up-to-the-minute indie playlists and facebook favorites by placing it within the context of your love for, as McCracken put it, “thinking and acting Catholic… the Pope, liturgy, incense, lectio divina, Lent, and timeless liturgical phrases like, ‘Thanks be to God,’ or ‘Peace of Christ be with you.” In our own way, most of us have attempted to fit faith into our definition of "cool," rather than become inadvertently cool by offering our entire lives to the One in whom we hold this Faith.
McCracken recognizes and comments on the fact that we cannot separate ourselves from culture, society, and pervading ideology without creating our own new, more “hip” culture, society, and pervading ideology-- an endless cycle of becoming that which we revolt against. That is the paradox of hip, the irony of the cool. However, the purpose of McCracken’s analysis, he states, is “to make people uncomfortable.”
He seeks to demonstrate (and in my opinion, does so effectively) that “Hipster Christianity, which traffics in change and reinvention and self-styled innovation, is in dalliance with the cultural obsession with self.”
His book doesn’t claim to entirely repudiate the hipster. McCracken, as a fellow hipster, knows that would amount to becoming a hypocrite against hypocrisy, a cynic against cynicism. In the same vein, he doesn’t attempt to dismiss this phenomenon in the same cliché manner as those with the ever-available credo, “Oh, I’m just human.” Rather, he wraps up his analysis by resting on the truth that is faithfully demonstrated in the lives of the Saints, the truth that Father Barron often cites: “Your life is not about you.”
“Quite simply, the Church needs to remember that this whole thing is not about us, but God. We should not go to church to get something, because church is not about us. There is admittedly much to dislike about church…I have so many friends who don’t attend church because “it has nothing to offer me anymore” or “I don’t relate to the church anymore.” Others have created their own house churches or ministries where nothing ever annoys them because nothing is ever outside of their control. But this misses the point entirely! Church is not about us. Church is about God. He is the one who calls us into Church and pulls us unto himself….Rather than living as Christian hipsters—always looking within and to the world for envious stares—we should be ‘Christian Hedonists,’ looking to God and the Christian life not as a renunciation of our own happiness but as a consummation of our joy.”
The great Saints never considered anything less than this. A Christianity catered to self would have appeared immediately as the fraud that it is. The lukewarm desire to believe in what McCracken identifies as the god “that won’t demand anything from us, cramp our style, or tell us we can’t be whoever we want to be”
would be laughable to them, but in a sad, pathetic sort of way. Brett McCracken’s exposé gives his readers the chance to jar themselves out of the lukewarm and to embrace the authentic not simply for its authentic appearance, but for the underlying, undeniable truth that defines it. His identification of inconsistencies between the two camps—“hipster” and “Christian”--makes way for this raw, genuine, uncluttered Christianity that is the original and ultimate “cool.” But who’d ever know? Its adherents are too focused on Christ-- in prayer, in adoration, through the Sacraments, in “distressing disguise of the poor,’ and especially in the Eucharist-- to notice anything else.
Read this book
. Seek out and commit to participation in the Sacramental life of the Church. Pray. Forget yourself and become what you are meant to be. As perfectly stated by Brett McCracken in the last line of this fascinating account, “Here-- in service of Christ and with God as the center and core of our being-- our identities become more fully realized that we’ve ever known. If that’s not cool, I don’t know what is.”
Rozann Carter is a Production Assistant at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.
 Brett McCracken, Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010), 139