Insider twentysomething Christian journalist Brett McCracken has grown up in the evangelical Christian subculture and observed the recent shift away from the "stained glass and steeples" old guard of traditional Christianity to a more unorthodox, stylized 21st-century church. This change raises a big issue for the church in our postmodern world: the question of cool. The question is whether or not Christianity can be, should be, or is, in fact, cool. This probing book is about an emerging category of Christians McCracken calls "Christian hipsters"--the unlikely fusion of the American obsessions with worldly "cool" and otherworldly religion--an analysis of what they're about, why they exist, and what it all means for Christianity and the church's relevancy and hipness in today's youth-oriented culture.
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hipster christianityWHEN CHURCH AND cool COLLIDE
By brett mccracken
Baker BooksCopyright © 2010 Brett McCracken
All right reserved.
Chapter Oneis christianity cool?
For most of my young life, I was afraid to let anyone know I was a Christian. It just wasn't cool to be a Bible-toting, church going, penny-loafing goody-goody. I knew I was supposed to be proud of my faith in God and my devotion to Christianity, but in the midst of the "indie nineties"-when Kurt Cobain, computers, and Quentin Tarantino mainstreamed "alternative culture"-Christianity was (in my mind) about as far from countercultural coolness as Sandi Patty was from Madonna.
Still, I was a Christian; and not just a cultural, dragged-to-church type. I loved Jesus and prayed a lot, and not just because things like the rapture scared the hell (literally) out of me, though that was probably part of it. Thus, because I was devoted to Christianity, and cool was so evil (or so I was told), I had to resign myself to a life of less-than-nerd status. I wasn't a total nerd, mind you, but I wasn't the hippest kid in school either-because to be so was to take the broad path, the slippery slope, toward you-know-where. Being cool and Christian were not synonymous.
At times I struggled to keep secret my fascination with cool culture-a fascination I suspect everyone has to some extent or another. I remember watching MTV in the basement of my grandma's house because it was the only place I knew that had cable. I nervously kept one ear tuned to The Real World and the other to the possible sound of parents on the stairs. The same thing happened while watching such "racy" fare as Beverly Hills 90210 or The Simpsons. I felt so icky, so worldly, but I couldn't turn my eyes away.
The battle between fundamentalist guilt and worldly desire that played out in my developing soul was quite frequently sickening, because to a rural Baptist reared on apocalyptic boogeyman preaching, any hint that my salvation was in jeopardy was a punch to the gut. I understood that exposure to the temptations of the world was just too big a risk, so I gave up all pretense of being in on the cultural lexicon and just retreated to my fourth-pew cherub status.
I became a Bible-memory superstar in Sunday school, one of those idolized youth group leaders that the Awana kids looked up to; because if I wasn't getting respect in the oh-so-cool secular sphere, at least I had the Baptist crowd. It's funny-the overcompensation that happens when one denies an instinct in one way only to fulfill it in another. And looking back, this only proves to me just how instinctual and natural the drive for cool is in humanity. We want recognition and elite status; we want to occupy places of invidious distinction. Quite simply: we want to be the people everyone else wants to be.
Soon I was introduced to Christian rock music-specifically Audio Adrenaline, dc Talk, and later Jars of Clay-and I began to think that this thing called "cool" ... by God, it could exist within the proper parameters of Christianity! I devoured Christian alternative music, went to concerts and festivals, and became a bona fide Jesus Freak. I became an authority on Christian music and rejoiced when, in the late nineties, some Christian bands (P.O.D., Switchfoot) began to cross over. Christianity was becoming so cool that MTV was paying attention-finally! Why didn't anyone see it before? Jesus is the bomb! Look at my awesome WWJD bracelet, my blue hair, and-gasp!-my fake earring! I'm so rad, and I don't even drink or smoke or cuss! Those were the golden days.
I'm not sure just when it happened, but in the midst of this Edenic phase in which I finally felt comfortable-almost legitimately cool-expressing myself as a Christian, I started to feel a little bit grossed out by it all. Christianity was definitely not the intimidating, "Gabriel's mouth is close to the horn," fundamentalist hideaway of my early childhood, which was good. But it had almost become too accepted. Christian clubs at my school drew hundreds of kids-even tons of the cool kids, the drinking jocks, the party girls, etc. What was up with this? Was Christianity really something so easy and mainstream and amenable to the popular crowd?
And in church itself, services were becoming completely different from the hymn-via-organ styles I grew up with. We started having guitars, drums, wireless mics, and bongos, and people began to dress like they were at a pool party. Church became entertaining, and people I once thought to be the world's worst sinners were increasingly welcomed with open arms. This was both a good and bad thing. People coming to church out of their own free will? Always a good thing. But what was it about church that was suddenly so appealing? This was what troubled me.
And it troubles me still, more than ever. Cool doesn't seem quite as cool to me as it once did, because I've borne witness to how distasteful it can be as a widespread economic philosophy-especially when fused with the sacred. The problem has not gone away, and in a culture that has increasingly co-opted cool and made rebellion and dissent the vernacular of any appealing movement, the body of Christ faces some difficult decisions. Will Christianity cower to the crown of cool, and at what cost? Is there really any other way to preach the gospel in the postmodern era-especially to young audiences-than to dress it up in chic?
As a longtime contributing writer for Relevant magazine, I've seen the tensions between cool and Christianity especially clearly. Relevant, after all, is the boundary-pushing, edgy-hip magazine that bends over backward to stylize Christianity and reframe it as "not your Grandma's Christianity." Their tagline is "God. Life. Progressive Culture." Keyword: progressive ... hip, forward-thinking, trendy, current, relevant. The magazine traffics in the lingo and patterns of contemporary fashion to an extent that perhaps no Christian organization or product ever has before. But what are we to make of this new brand of "cool Christianity"?
Recognizing the extent to which the masses are entranced by the mystique of style and the temptation of trend, should Christian leaders resign themselves to the notion that "cool is necessary"? Or are there alternative means to reaching the culture for Christ than through the avenues of hip? And what does it mean to be a cool Christian anyway? Can or should such a category even exist?
The Question of Cool
Is Christianity cool? This question of whether Christianity can or should be comfortable with the image and labels that go along with cool culture lies at the heart of this book. And it seems to be the question of the moment for a large number of evangelicals desperately trying to keep their faith relevant in a changing culture.
But people rarely ask or discuss this question explicitly, because to ask if something is cool automatically negates its coolness. Everyone who is or has ever been hip knows that coolness is never analyzed or spoken of in any obvious way by those who possess it. Coolness is understood. It is mystery. It is contagious, viral. And this knowledge is the key for many-especially those looking to sell something or monetize hip potential. Bridled cool is an economic cash cow and can magically turn any idea, product, or personality into the next big thing. Pastors and twentysomethings-starved churches are increasingly the first in line to tap into a piece of that. Suddenly cool isn't a worldly indulgence from which Christians recoil; on the contrary, it is increasingly the chosen means of message delivery.
But as with all things cool, no one in Christianity is really talking about this in any sort of direct way. The talk is usually about "contextualization" or "postmodernity" or "meeting the culture where it's at." But it all really boils down to one simple desire: the desire to make Christianity cool. And this desire is bigger and stranger and more difficult than we'd like to admit. It comes with implications, baggage, and inherent problems that need to be discussed. The question of cool is loaded, and it's time we stopped dancing around it.
This book is about exploring, analyzing, and critiquing this desire for Christianity to be cool-but it also analyzes the already-existing cultures of Christian hip. The book addresses, in part, the phenomenon of Christian hipsters. I've observed this phenomenon firsthand for many years now, through writing for Relevant but also by being an evangelical youth group alumnus and a student and now employee at Christian colleges. I've observed the world of Christian hipsterdom at conferences and events from Michigan to Massachusetts, Oxford to Paris. I've seen it in the dozens of churches I've visited in preparation for this book-from a massive megachurch in Las Vegas to a tiny Anglican gathering in a centuries-old church in London. I've heard it from the mouths of pastors and in the ironic jargon and nomenclature of the specific hipster communities I've observed. It's fascinating to see these communities of Christian hip emerging, but it's also confusing and a tad bit troubling. What does it mean that Christians are suddenly becoming just as cool as the cool elites in secular culture? This is another question that drives the writing of this book.
This may be an odd book to write, I suppose, because as mentioned above, talking about cool in any sort of academic or serious manner is thoroughly uncool. There is a supreme dearth of meta-discussion of hip by those who are hip, though there are definitely a few caveats here: (1) Hip people, more so today than ever, do allow for hip self-reference in a postmodern sort of detached way. Talking about and making fun of hipsters is rather fashionable these days. (2) Hipsters also allow for earnest self-referential discussion when in academic settings; say, a rhetoric class or a book discussion of Nation of Rebels or something. But even this is partially involuntary, because when hipsters talk about hipsters, they are referencing entities they see as totally separate, totally bourgeois, totally manufactured phenomena-nothing like themselves. As Adbusters writer Douglas Haddow points out in his essay, "Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization," it is rare-if not impossible-to find a person who proudly labels himself or herself a hipster. "It's an odd dance of self-identity-adamantly denying your existence while wearing clearly defined symbols that proclaim it," he writes. To label oneself a "hipster," then, is either a fun exercise in irony or just a misguided platitude that exacerbates our increasing inability to understand language, labels, and ourselves.
So on that note, why am I writing about the subject of cool? Obviously it must mean I am not in the inner circle of hip. I'm fine with that. But I know that I've tried to be cool, and that to an extent, everyone aims for this, struggles, fights the good fight of fashion. We seek cool because we understand it to be the capital of our culture-the holy grail, Gatsby's green light, the American dream-and that to ignore or write it off as "just how the kids are today" probably won't do anyone any good.
No, I'm writing about cool because I see its force, not only in the world at large, but in the church. To write a book examining the culture of cool and its tyrannous control of modern society from an economic or political standpoint would suffice, but there are already scads of books on this topic. What I want to know is, given the ubiquity of "cool is king" thinking, how are sacred realms-which seemingly teach and believe and survive on notions antithetical to coolness-coping? Specifically, how is Christianity dealing with a culture so driven by style? Is content taking a backseat?
The Essence of Cool
In examining this question of the coolness of Christianity, it behooves us to begin by examining coolness in general. In the next chapter I'll explore the historical roots of hip and the process by which this beast has morphed over the centuries.
But before that, I want to explore the basic meaning of cool-the being of it. I realize this is an inquiry that to many probably seems unnecessarily cerebral or even pedantic, but nevertheless, I think it is an important question: What does it mean to be cool? From where do we get this idea or notion of "cool"? First of all, the word itself means nothing. In fact, in the language of hip, cool is probably way outdated as a descriptor of something fashionable, trendy, or hot (hot as in the way Paris Hilton uses it). But I don't want to get into a deconstructionist loop-de-loop here. The word cool indicates something that we can all-at this point in time-generally understand. So bear with me: cool and hip, whatever they may really mean, are the words I will be using (pretty much interchangeably) in this study.
And so, back to the topic at hand: defining cool. The word is often defined solely in terms of mere synonyms (trendy, fashionable, chic), which is unfortunate for a word that is infinitely more complex than people think. Hip is taken for granted in our culture-people presume its meaning with little deep thought as to why it exists. Why are certain things cooler or hipper than others? Who determines it? What is the appeal of it? What drives us to want to be the cool kid in class? These are questions we must ask if we seek to truly understand just where coolness comes from and why.
The following metaphors might help us in this pursuit of understanding the ontology of cool.
The Marathon Metaphor: Being Ahead of the Pack
Why do people race? Why is running in a marathon such an ancient rite of passage? What makes man compete? These questions, when taken to their logical end, allude to something within the human soul that spurs us toward winning, or at least to being ahead of others on the journey of life. We possess an existential drive to be in front, or at least not in the tail end. As anyone who has ever walked through a dark haunted house with a group of friends can testify, bringing up the rear is the place you do not want to be.
And this instinct-to be one step ahead, with an advantage and not at the mercy of anyone-speaks to the existence of cool. Any time you have a culture where everyone tries to be a leader rather than a follower, or a "head" rather than a "tail," you will naturally find that those who rise above and move ahead of the pack become the idolized. They are worshiped, esteemed, imitated. Everyone wants to be that, and thus the possessors of "that" become prized possessions themselves. People start to pay attention to these people: what they do, what they like, how they act, etc. In this process of esteeming the front-runners, however subliminally, a codification of cool begins to take shape.
The Divergent Path Metaphor: The Road Less Traveled
Robert Frost wasn't just anticipating inspirational office landscapes, Hallmark shelf life, or Dead Poets' Society cheesiness when he wrote "The Road Not Taken." He recognized an existential truth: we are drawn toward the unexplored, the unfound, the unexpected. The key line for me in Frost's famous poem is not "I took the one less traveled by," but rather, the line that follows: "And that has made all the difference." 4 What is "the difference"? How appropriate that we don't know, because Frost didn't know either when he took that lonely path. All he knew was that "the difference," whatever it might be, excited him and spurred him on.
Humanity, under the strain of mortality and danger on all sides, seeks comfort but also risk. To survive is one thing, but to really thrive on earth requires trailblazing ventures that might be fearful but are ultimately desirable. We sense that a glorious inheritance, an imminent difference that will put us ahead in the struggle, is waiting just beyond the borders of where we are. And with everyone looking for it, we have to be creative and sometimes stealthy in our pursuits. We have to forge new paths and circumvent the highways. While hordes of people are stuck on the thoroughfares-too afraid or else mired in traffic to get free-there are those who veer off and take a different route. Though everyone in life is in motion and keenly aware of the percussive rhythm of time passing and mortality coming, a select group of people chooses to march to a different drummer, hoping that in so doing they might control a bit more of the tempo.
Excerpted from hipster christianity by brett mccracken Copyright © 2010 by Brett McCracken. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
Part 1 The History and Collision of Cool and Christianity
1 Is Christianity Cool? 17
2 The History of Hip 31
3 Hipsters Today 51
4 The History of Hip Christianity 75
5 Christian Hipsters Today 95
Part 2 Hipster Christianity in Practice
6 Christian Hipster Churches 117
7 The Emerging Church 133
8 Social Justice, Missional, and the New Christian Left 147
9 Reframing Christian "Art" 161
Part 3 Problems and Solutions
10 Wannabe Hip Churches 179
11 What's So Wrong with Cool? 191
12 Authentic Christian Cool 205
13 Reversing the Ripple Effect 217
14 Relevance Is Not a Fad 233