Unhip for Lent: Book Review of Brett McCracken’s Hipster Christianity

image Last month I blogged about reading books during Lent that would force me to listen to what critics are saying about the emerging church. So I wrote a review of Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck’s Why We’re Not Emergent.

The second book I’ve tackled that falls into that category is Brett McCracken’s Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide (Baker Books, 2010).

Don’t jump to conclusions – I’m not a hipster. (Of course, McCracken says that all hipsters claim that they are not hipsters.) So it’s not hipsterdom that I’m concerned about here, it’s McCracken’s association of hipsters with the emerging church.

My first introduction to this book was a cover story about it in the September 2010 issue of Christianity Today. My initial reading of that story was that what McCracken was defining as hipster Christianity was profoundly superficial and didn’t have much to do with what interested me in the emerging church.

It bothered me that in that cover story, written by McCracken himself, that the emerging church was associated with hip. After reading this book, I still think that’s it’s misleading and unhelpful to link hipster Christianity and the emerging church.

But first, the positives about the book.

McCracken is a journalist, so he writes with a journalist’s flair. You can get a sense of this if you read his Christianity Today piece, which reproduces parts of the book.

And parts of the book are pretty humorous, especially for people who have been brought up in an American evangelical subculture and understand the inside jokes. For instance, in the final chapter there are two text boxes, comparing ‘Hipster Fads that will have Passed by the Time you Read this Book’ and ‘Things About Christianity that will not have Changed by the Time you Read this Book’ (p. 236-237).

The ‘Hipster Fads’ box contains items like ‘John Lennon small round spectacles,’ ‘Ironic appreciation of Lady Gaga and Twilight,’ and ‘Bacon-and-chocolate deserts.’ The ‘Things about Christianity’ box contains items like ‘God the Father,’ ‘Jesus’s resurrection and defeat of sin and death’ and ‘mayo-based casseroles at church potlucks.’ The potluck line is just funny.

On the book’s accompanying website, you can take a quiz to find out if you are a Christian hipster. The questions for the quiz should also coax some smiles, for those in ‘the know.’ I scored 70/120 on the Christian Hipster Quotient (CHQ), which characterised me this way:

High CHQ. You are a pretty progressive, stylish, hipster-leaning Christian, even while you could easily feel at home in a decidedly un-hip non-denominational church. You are conservative on some issues and liberal on others, and sometimes you grow weary of trendy "alt-Christianity." But make no mistake: You are a Christian hipster to at least some degree.

And finally, Hipster Christianity introduced me to worlds that I had not encountered since emigrating from the US to Ireland more than ten years ago. McCracken discussed a dizzying array of bands and fashion styles that I’d never encountered. (I had to ask my husband what skinny jeans are – sad, I suppose.)

Similarly, I’d never even heard of Relevant magazine, which McCracken writes for. The publication of the first issue of Relevant on March 1, 2003 makes it into McCracken’s text box on ‘Key Dates in the Formation of Hipster Christianity’ (p. 84). He even says: ‘… I’m going to arbitrarily place the birth of the Christian hipster at 2003, when the first issue of Relevant magazine was released’ (p. 88).

McCracken’s association with Relevant should make it clear that he has some sympathies and affinities with Christian hipsters. But in the book he strongly cautions against being caught up in hipster Christianity.

He sees hipster Christianity as faddish, lacking substance, and succumbing to the pressure to ‘market’ Christianity in our consumerist, post-modern milieu.

That’s all fair enough, but McCracken’s denunciations hinge on his own conception of hipster Christianity. And as I suspected when I first read that Christianity Today article, that conception is caricatured and confused.

McCracken’s hipster Christians are simply strawmen that are easy to ridicule and dismiss. I see three main problems throughout the book:

Uncharitable Caricatures

McCracken is prone to gross generalisations like this:

‘Many hipsters today can perhaps be described as fashionable nihilist. A sort of gleeful glorification of meaninglessness directly inspires their extreme vanity and hedonism. … That there are no causes or real philosophies undergirding hipsterdom ensures that, for all practical purposes, being a hipster is a style and nothing more’ (p. 66-67).

Similarly, on pages 198-199 he says: ‘Hipsters care only about freedom, partying and transgression.’

I find it hard to believe that’s true for all people McCracken lumps together as hipsters, all of the time. McCracken might even agree with me on this. But how does it advance civil conversation to essentially call people names?

Style over Substance

When reviewing DeYoung and Kluck’s book, I wrote:

… I was taken aback by Kluck’s tendency, in his chapters, to mock the appearance of various leaders in the emergent movement, particularly how they dressed, what their hair is like, or what sort of glasses they wear. A generous reviewer on amazon.com (D. Stringer, The Common Loon) described this style of Kluck’s as ‘satirical’, but to me it just came off as mean.

McCracken, like Kluck, really hones in on appearances – what people wear, what sorts of places they frequent, etc.

Ironically, I suppose, after spending so much time focusing on appearances, McCracken laments that we spend so much time focusing on appearances.

He calls this ‘a reduction of our identities to the visual’, arguing that ‘visual appearance’ is ‘possibly the most important piece in this discussion’ (p. 200-202). This leads him to finally define hipster in terms of appearances:

… I’ve learned that it is almost impossible to agree on a stable, uniform meaning of hipster. As a result (and perhaps it was always this way), I’ve come to understand the meaning primarily in superficial, visual terms – in hipsters’ dress, look, style, and immediate visceral appearance. Hipsters today can only exist as such by way of the visual: their identity as a member of the group “cool” is for all intents and purposes derived from their outward appearance …

I don’t think McCracken wrote an entire book on hipster Christianity to condemn some Christians for the way they dress (at least I hope not). But I really wonder if devoting so much time to appearances is really necessary or helpful. I’d like to think that what’s important are the ideas that the so-called hipsters are trying to bring to the wider church.

Ignoring Real Differences Among So-called Hipster Christians

And I think it’s in the realm of ideas that McCracken’s analysis really falls down. Part Two of the book focuses on ‘Hipster Christianity in Practice’ and has chapters on ‘Christian Hipster Churches,’ ‘The Emerging Church,’ ‘Social Justice, Missional, and the New Christian Left’ and ‘Reframing Christian Art.’

The chapter on Christian Hipster Churches offers sound bite-style profiles of seven churches in the US and UK, including Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill in Seattle and Rob Bell’s Mars Hill in Grandville, Michigan. An earlier chapter on ‘The History and Collision of Cool and Christianity’ profiles seven ‘hip Christian figureheads’, including Driscoll and Bell (p. 98-106).

Anyone who has even a vague awareness of Driscoll and Bell’s beliefs will know that they differ pretty significantly on key theological issues. This is alluded to but never fully explored – perhaps because McCracken considers appearances so much more important.

Driscoll is Calvinist – and indeed, McCracken asserts that Calvinism is attractive to hipsters. There’s a textbox on page 104 called ‘Reasons Why Calvinism is Hipster-Friendly.’ But Bell, and most of the other authors McCracken discusses in his chapter on the emerging church, are decidedly not Calvinist. Indeed, many of them directly challenge the core assumptions of Calvinism.

In my review of Why We’re Not Emergent, I actually summed it up like this: DeYoung and Kluck are not emergent, because they are Calvinists.

McCracken, by focusing on appearances, misses an opportunity to have a meatier discussion about the ideas behind the hip.

3 Responses to Unhip for Lent: Book Review of Brett McCracken’s Hipster Christianity

  1. Amy April 7, 2011 at 7:04 pm #

    Hey, Gladys, I’ve really been enjoying your blog and book reviews. Thanks!

  2. rodney neill April 9, 2011 at 5:28 pm #

    I scored 68 – crap quiz

  3. Tanya Jones April 10, 2011 at 8:14 pm #

    I did the quiz too and came out about the same as Gladys – 78 – though a lot of my answers were that I hadn’t heard of the concepts/people mentioned, so I’m not sure about the value of the exercise. I also looked at some more of the site and read the opening chapter and share many of Gladys’ reservations. The term ‘hipster’ (which I thought was a style of jeans) seems to be used so widely as to mean anything at all that isn’t highly traditional, populist and lowbrow. In England, for example, I imagine that almost all practising Christians under the age of seventy-five would qualify. There seems to be no distinction between activities carried out for the express reason of being ‘cool’ and those (such as buying clothes from charity shops, showing concern about justice, peace and the environment, listening to thoughtful music, reading serious books etc.) which are a natural part of many people’s Christian life.

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