Thursday, March 05, 2009

Are You a Christian Hipster?

Author Brett McCracken takes a crack at defining the Christian hipster:

Christian Hipster Likes and Dislikes (By No Means Exhaustive… Just a Sampling)

Things they don’t like:
Christian hipsters don’t like megachurches, altar calls, and door-to-door evangelism. They don’t really like John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart or youth pastors who talk too much about Braveheart. In general, they tend not to like Mel Gibson and have come to really dislike The Passion for being overly bloody and maybe a little sadistic. They don’t like people like Pat Robertson, who on The 700 Club famously said that America should “take Hugo Chavez out”; and they don’t particularly like The 700 Club either, except to make fun of it. They don’t like evangelical leaders who get too involved in politics, such as James Dobson or Jerry Falwell, who once said of terrorists that America should “blow them all away in the name of the Lord.” They don’t like TBN, PAX, or Joel Osteen. They do have a wry fondness for Benny Hinn, however.

Christian hipsters tend not to like contemporary Christian music (CCM), or Christian films (except ironically), or any non-book item sold at Family Christian Stores. They hate warehouse churches or churches with American flags on stage, or churches with any flag on stage, really. They prefer “Christ follower” to “Christian” and can’t stand the phrases “soul winning” or “non-denominational,” and they could do without weird and awkward evangelistic methods including (but not limited to): sock puppets, ventriloquism, mimes, sign language, “beach evangelism,” and modern dance. Surprisingly, they don’t really have that big of a problem with old school evangelists like Billy Graham and Billy Sunday and kind of love the really wild ones like Aimee Semple McPherson.

By this definition, I am a Christian hipster. I should also point out, however, that I'm 53, balding, overweight, and wear a hearing aid. I also have equilibrium/balance issues, by which I mean that occasionally I have trouble simply not toppling over when standing still. By most counts these defects would disqualify me from hipster status, although I'm still holding out hope for the ironic appeal of hearing aids, particularly when they are worn by music critics, either standing or prone.

But most of the people I know and hang out with solidly qualify in these "hipster" categories. Still, I have some questions, the chief one being why disliking things that suck is a sign of hipsterism, and not simply a sign of general discernment that should apply across the theological, generational, and hair-follicle spectrum. Who in their right mind believes that sock puppets are an effective evangelistic tool? For that matter, who in their right mind believes that statements such as "blow them all away in the name of the Lord" is an attractive and winsome way to articulate the gospel? Hear the good news: you're going to hell! Umm, what's the bad news?

As to the distinction between "Christian" and "Christ follower," it may sound like mere semantics, but there is something to the notion that the word "Christian" has been co-opted by people, both in power and out of power, who don't represent what I believe and who don't live the way I want to live. Almost every day I encounter statements by Christian leaders that make me wince, and that I disagree with on the most basic levels. I'm a screwup loved by God, and I have plenty of crap in my own life that automatically disqualifies me from making self-righteous pronouncements on others. That's the bottom line. Of couse, that doesn't always stop me from speaking and acting judgmentally, but that's part of the crap I need to deal with. And that's what I want to communicate to the people I encounter in my life. And yes, I want to distance myself from people who spew judgment, who are professional haters and whiners and bitchers. Frequently, Christianity in America doesn't look much like Christ, and to the extent that those two things can and should be distinguished, then I'm happy to make that distinction.

Things they like:
Christian hipsters like music, movies, and books that are well-respected by their respective artistic communities—Christian or not. They love books like Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger by Ron Sider, God’s Politics by Jim Wallis, and The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis. They tend to be fans of any number of the following authors: Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Wendell Berry, Thomas Merton, John Howard Yoder, Walter Brueggemann, N.T. Wright, Brennan Manning, Eugene Peterson, Anne Lamott, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Henri Nouwen, Soren Kierkegaard, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Annie Dillard, Marilynne Robison, Chuck Klosterman, David Sedaris, or anything ancient and/or philosophically important.

Christian hipsters love thinking and acting Catholic, even if they are thoroughly Protestant/evangelical. They love the Pope, liturgy, incense, lectio divina, Lent, and timeless phrases like “Thanks be to God” or “Peace of Christ be with you.” They enjoy Eastern Orthodox churches and mysterious iconography, and they love the elaborate cathedrals of Europe (even if they are too museum-like for hipster tastes). Christian hipsters also love taking communion with real Port, and they don’t mind common cups. They love poetry readings, worshipping with candles, and smoking pipes while talking about God. Some of them like smoking a lot of different things.

Christian hipsters love breaking the taboos that used to be taboo for Christians. They love piercings, dressing a little goth, getting lots of tattoos (the Christian Tattoo Association now lists more than 100 member shops), carrying flasks and smoking cloves. A lot of them love skateboarding and surfing, and many of them play in bands. They tend to get jobs working for churches, parachurch organizations, non-profits, or the government. They are, on the whole, a little more sincere and idealistic than their secular hipster counterparts.

Personally, I am afraid of candles, and open fires in general. When you have equilibrium/balance issues, this is not necessarily a trivial concern. But it is also probably a reaction to my suburban neighbors, who spend their days playing golf, running power tools, chopping down trees, and building huge bonfires in their backyards. On summer nights my neighborhood looks like some vast, primordial campground in Tract Home National Forest. While this is happening I tend to listen to Sufjan Stevens and look out smugly from my back porch.

Again, I plead guilty. I like almost all of the authors listed above. But again I would like to think that this has little to do with hipness, and a lot to do with the fact that they write well and have worthwhile things to say. In terms of the eclectic theological approach, for too long the evangelical church has assumed that they have a corner on Truth with a capital T. Having been membered for years in a True New Testament Church(TM), the one bunch of misfits who finally got it right after two thousand years, and who had to deal with the attendant hubris and incessant bickering that accompanied that view, I'm grateful to acknowledge that maybe, just possibly, a couple Christians in the past might have some things to teach me. Personally, in terms of communion, I can deal with Merlot, grape juice, or the ingenious McCommunion Wafer 'n Wine Combo Pack, with throwaway cup. It's not worth fighting about, in my opinion. Re: the "some of them like smoking a lot of different things" comment, I'm sure that's true. It's been true for me. Idolotry can be an oppressive reality. Here's the deal: don't smoke, kids. It's bad for your health. So are double Whoppers. Depending on what you're smoking, and why you're doing it, it might also be illegal and immoral.

Stupid taboos probably ought to be broken. Thirty-five years ago almost every Christian male I knew had hair down to the middle of his back. I used to have hair down to the middle of my back. I used to have hair. Now a lot of the Christians I know have piercings and tattoos. Come to think of it, I'm the only member of my family who doesn't have a piercing and/or a tattoo. It's all about as eternally consequential as whether you like American Idol. But let me also state that Real Christians(TM) don't like American Idol.

By the way, the people shown above are Vito and Monique Aiuto. Together they make music, and are known as The Welcome Wagon. A lot of Christian hipsters like them. What I like about them is that that's who they are, that they aren't trying to be ironic, and that they really do carry off that Grant Wood/American Gothic in the City vibe quite naturally. As a parting word, let me encourage you all to be yourselves quite naturally.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Andy,

This brought me much joy on a gloomy morning. As a Gavin MacLeod-bald, 40-year-old suburban schmuck, it's nice to be able to add "Christian hipster" to that list.

Pilgrim said...

What's the difference between a hipster and a Consumer?

Andy Whitman said...

Julana, consumers live in suburbia, drive minivans, dress their children in designer labels, and lead shallow lives.

Hipsters live in the city, rely on Pitchfork to tell them how to be rugged individualists, and listen to indie rock that only they and their closest 100,000 friends on Facebook know about.

They both love stereotypes. Me too.

Anonymous said...

I think it's very therapeutic to poke fun occasionally at the person in the mirror. No matter what group our uniqueness places us in, it's at least a good sense of humor detector.

I hope all your readers can laugh and learn rather than huff and puff.

As for me, I like much of the stuff listed, although I suspect belonging to a mainline church and the Republican Party would probably disqualify me from full-fledged membership. Plus, I like Mel Gibson and think tattoos are dumb for a variety of reasons, including health.

Pray for me.

Andy Whitman said...

The problem with lumping people into broad demographic categories is that every single one of them -- with heavy emphasis on "single" and "one" -- defies the stereotypes in significant ways every single day of their lives. Are the people I know "Christian hipsters"? Yeah, probably in some significant ways they are. But they are also individuals with names, and unique histories, and unique tastes, and unique ways of relating to the world around them.

Very few people I know, including myself, actually want to be labeled as "hipsters." I don't think I need to be overly concerned about it, personally. When you look like a near-deaf Dick Cheney, it's not a label most people will apply. But it's clearly not a positive label. It suggests shallowness and conformity to fashion. And the people I know are just that -- people -- who are delightful precisely in the ways that they are not just like one another.

hallga77 said...


Enjoyed (& shared) the article much.
Can a Real Christian(TM) prefer Billy Idol to American Idol?

I am considering having hipster replace surgery.


Chris Smith said...

Thanks Andy!

I riffed off this rapidly-becoming-viral post in my new review of the new Flannery O'Connor bio...

Unknown said...

While I'm sure it makes no difference to you, this is my favorite thing you've written lately. It was a level-headed take on a humorous article and I think it hit the nail on the head.

I think more productive than categorizing these "hipsters" into a connotatively negative category is to explore the growing trends (as you point out) of Christians learning that that our history is full of richness, and artistic merit isn't simply a Bible verse stuck in our desired medium.

And I think your article does that a little better than McCracken's.

Pilgrim said...

There's enough truth to the consumer aspect of the hipster image to be troubling--to me, anyway.

Joe Koch said...

I like Rich Mullins. Christ-follower, not a hipster, still cooler than anyone else the past two decades has witnessed.

Anonymous said...

Nice, great post. And thanks for saying that about Vito and Monique. You're totally right. They look the part, but they couldn't care less about "hipsterism." Too busy raising a son, surviving in the city and keeping a church prospering.

Mercy said...

Rollick of a post. But what a vastly empathetic reconsideration of the walls that surround us.

I sort of organically absorbed hipster trappings after moving to Brooklyn (it doesn't get easier or cheaper than skinny jeans, a PBR, & a show), but wondered how being Catholic fit into the picture and if I was the only one who wondered...sweet. Thanks for taking the time to write it and well. nice blog.

ChildsPlay said...

What's your beef with contemporary Christian music (CCM)?