Brett McCracken on “Hipster Christianity”


by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Are you a Christian hipster?

Apparently I am—at least moderately.

It seems my affinity for Sufjan Stevens, NT Wright, and “creation care” earns me a Christian Hipster Quotient of 85/120, according to this (absolutely hilarious) quiz at HipsterChristianity.com.

The results say: “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.”

I laughed out loud at least five times while taking the quiz—(the Romans Road question was my favorite)— and immediately wanted to know who was behind HipsterChristianity.com.

It turns out that Brett McCracken has written an entire book on the subject, to be released by Baker Books in August.  It’s entitled Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide and it’s already generating quite a bit of buzz.

With the official launch of HipsterChristianity.com this week, Brett was kind enough to agree to an interview to talk about everything from Sunday school to social justice to Sufjan Stevens. Enjoy!

Tell us a little bit about your own religious background. Did you grow up in church? 

I did grow up in the church. From birth I was an every-Sunday-attending (twice usually) Baptist, in Oklahoma and then in Kansas. It was a pretty standard conservative upbringing, with all the accompanying cultural experiences (McGee and Me, Adventures in Odyssey, Psalty the Songbook, etc). Following in family footsteps, I went to Wheaton College for college, where my faith grew big time and I became privy to things like theology, Calvinism, and creeds. Since college (the last 5 years) I've gone to a Presbyterian church in Los Angeles. 

When did you first notice hipster Christianity emerging within your sphere of influence? 

Well, if you want to broaden it to an awareness of some manifestation of "cool Christianity," I think that I started noticing it very early on... such as when I started getting into Christian rock in middle school, or going to concerts and festivals where, alongside the typical Sunday School nerdy kids there were also kids with tattoos, mohawks, goth makeup, etc. Back then I started wondering about the idea of Christianity being "cool" and I think I really hoped that it could be. As for "Hipster Christianity," the origins of this were in college. I went to an evangelical Christian college (Wheaton) and there were definitely hipsters all over the place. 

What are some ways in which hipster Christianity manifests itself? 

Social justice causes, candles in worship services, v-necks and big neck tattoos on worship leaders, screenings of PT Anderson films at church, heavy use of Helvetica font in church bulletins, bald pastors who always wear black clothes from Banana Republic, beer at church barbecues, a renewed interest in corporately reading ancient creeds or prayers, Nooma videos, Sufjan Stevens and everything related to Sufjan Stevens. Theological approaches that emphasize God's kingdom and the renewal of creation rather than whether or not we go to heaven or hell. Things like that.

Do you identify with certain elements of hipster Christianity yourself? Which ones? 

Definitely. I identify with hipster Christianity's interest in social justice and thinking about how the church is meant to be for the world (i.e. the Gospel as positive, transformative power) as opposed to against it. I identify with the way it appreciates art, culture, conversation, ideas, books, etc. I appreciate the way it attempts to correct the anti-intellectual and anti-culture strains of former eras of evangelicalism. I appreciate its attempts to recover ancient practices of the church, even if it sometimes feels anachronistic or maddeningly ala carte. 

What made you decide that hipster Christianity was worth writing an entire book about (as opposed to an article or blog post)? Why is it so important? 

It started as an article for Relevant magazine ("A New Kind of Hipster") which got a big response back in 2005. I think I decided to pursue it as a full book because I came to realize that the somewhat specific culture of "hipster Christianity" was actually indicative of much broader tensions and paradoxes in contemporary Christianity dealing with identity, image, and the question of cool. Since at least the 1960s, evangelicalism has been wrestling with how it should position itself vis-a-vis the broader popular culture: it's youth obsession, the marketing emphasis, prominence of media, etc. As a result, the church is often trying to brand itself according to what is currently trendy or fashionable, and all of this has major implications for how we think about the church and what we should be in and for the world. 

How did you conduct research? 

It was about half reading books/articles and half ethnography... visiting churches, observing "hip Christian" environments, interviewing pastors, etc. Over the span of about a year I visited about 15 churches all over the country and even some in Europe. Seven of these churches get lengthy treatment in the chapter of my book where I talk about what hipster Christianity looks like in individual churches.

What are some of the redemptive elements of hipster Christianity? 

I actually have a chapter of my book called "Authentic Christian Cool," where I talk about the redemptive parts of hipster culture and under what circumstances hipster is a good thing for the church. I talk about the positive traits of hipster culture, such as the celebration of culture and "good things" (loving food, nature, art, etc), and the way that hipsters seem to genuinely appreciate God's creation and are curious and awestruck by it. I also think that to some extent, the "hipster" mentality of being different and not following the pack can lend itself well to Christianity, if the "difference" we are committed to is biblical and not just some nebulous "rebellious/subversive/countercultural" commitment.

Which elements do you perceive as being problematic? 

I think there are certain essential elements to the nature of "cool" that are fundamentally at odds with Christianity, thus making "hipster Christianity" a problematic fusion. For example, "cool" is all about self-obsession and narcissism, while Christianity calls us to be selfless and giving. "Cool" is about elitism, exclusivity, and arrogance, while Christianity is about humility, inclusivity and loving others. "Cool" is about style, irony, and transience, while Christianity is about substance, sincerity, and transcendence. There are just so many points at which cool and Christianity seem irreconcilable.

I think one of the big ones that a lot of us have experienced first-hand is the way that "hipster Christianity" can seem alienating. Some of the churches I've visited were so hip and so full of well-dressed hipsters that I felt like such an uncool outsider. It makes you feel self-conscious. Makes you feel alienated. And what kind of feeling is that to have in a church? I'd hate to ever make "uncool" visitors feel like they weren't cool enough to be in a church! It seems to me that in the New Testament, Paul is especially adamant on the point (in I Corinthians 10-11, for example), that Christianity is no place for the flaunting of privilege or distinction (whether class or ethnic or whatever), and I think that is exactly what happens anytime you have a church were some members are cool and know it (and flaunt it), while others are not so much. 

Was Jesus “hip”? Might “hipster Christianity” be a contradiction in terms? 

The second part of this question is answered above, but as for the first: I think we often try to make Jesus fit our image of what we ourselves want to be. It's convenient for hipsters to paint Jesus in terms of "insurrectionist/revolutionary" or "sandal-wearing desert-roaming hippie," but I hesitate to call Jesus a hipster or even "hip." You didn't see Jesus wearing ostentatious jewelry or designer tunics. He had "nothing in his appearance that we should desire him" (Is. 53:2). He was definitely a nonconformist in a lot of ways (the things he said and taught were pretty radical), though he was also the biggest conformist in all of history if you think about him being the only person to perfectly abide by the law and conform to the pattern of humanity as God originally intended. 

Who is the target audience for your book and when does it release? 

I wrote it for a broad audience, and I think anyone with an interest in Christian culture will find it interesting. But I definitely had pastors in mind, or youth pastors or just leaders in Christianity... people who are especially concerned with the question of how to make Christianity appealing to the culture and whether or not we should try to make Christianity "cool." I think Christian hipsters themselves should read it. If they like self-referentiality and thinking deeply about sociology and culture as much as I think they do, they will find much of interest in this book.

So—I’m curious—Who is more “hip”? Mark Driscoll or Rob Bell? John Piper or NT Wright? (The Arminians and Calvinists among us want to know!)

Haha. No comment. There are hipsters who like all of those people. Can I answer Sufjan Stevens?

***

So, are you a Christian hipster? (Take the quiz and share your results!)

Have you observed hipster Christianity in your circles? What's your first reaction to the idea of "cool" Christianity?

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