In the September issue of Christianity Today magazine, author Brett McCracken has penned an article called “Hipster Faith.” It’s more or less an exposé on the “hipster” trend in modern Christianity—the fashionable, emergent, trendy faith that bears all the hallmarks of being the next ‘it’ thing in Christianity. His evaluation is not particularly flattering, and I wanted to take a moment to address what I consider to be its strengths and weaknesses. (If you haven’t yet, please read the article here.)
Perhaps the strongest critique that McCracken offers to hipster Christians is the observation (somewhat implicit) that what we’re dealing with is a movement based on a reaction. Here is a group of Christians seeking to break away from their parents’ faith and make it their own, essentially by reacting against it. In light of this, McCracken can claim that, “In order to be a hipster, one must be a rebel.”
The problem, of course, with reactive movements is precisely their reactiveness. They are often so focused on not being what others have been that they draw all their sense of identity from their dialogue partner. They have definition only by virtue of being against something. When that something which they are against fades, or weakens, or stops caring, then the whole power of the movement is lost. Then, like the riot in Ephesus (Acts 19), everyone is shouting but no one knows what about. The ultimate problem is that it is not possible to build a lasting movement upon a negation. It must be built upon a positive. Our foundational identity as Church is drawn from Christ, and not over against anything.
Another critique of hipster Christianity—and of many Christian movements in general—is the confusion these movements seem to inhabit when it comes to the concept of the subversive nature of the Gospel. The logic seems to run like this: Jesus was subversive to religious authorities (a true statement); therefore, to be like Jesus we must subvert religious authorities (a false conclusion). They then seem to conclude that anything subversive is also therefore Gospel, and this gives the rational force to the disavowal of traditional Evangelicalism. Hence, McCracken states that “One thing we can fairly say of hipster Christianity is that it frequently strives for shock value.” He cites, throughout the article, tattoos, alcohol, tobacco, swearing, non-traditional church locations (bars, warehouses). He says, “If you aren’t willing to engage in at least some of this ‘subversive hedonism,’ you will have a hard time maintaining any hipster credibility.” Many of these elements are subversion for subversion’s sake—reactions against the ‘rules’ of Evangelicalism.
The problem here is that hipster Christianity, so defined, is a self-negating entity. McCracken’s comparison with the Jesus People of the 60s and 70s is appropriate:
“In a way, the contemporary Christian hipster is a full-circle return to the Jesus People hippies of yesteryear. But the Jesus People were secular “hipsters” first, then—having converted to Christianity—began to shed their hippie clothes and customs to form communities that were set apart, ultimately becoming their own subculture (e.g., Jesus People USA). Today’s Christian hipsters are doing the reverse.”
Here he hits the nail on the head. The Jesus People were reformed rebels, people captured by Christ and made new by his grace. They were ‘fringe’ only because of where they had come from. The hipsters are reformed people who are now rebelling. They are choosing to become fringe—and in McCracken’s estimation this seems to be because the fringe is cooler than what they came from. Christ drastically subverted the culture he lived in, but not because he was attempting to subvert it—rather because he was committed to God’s Kingdom and God’s righteousness. Anyone who makes that commitment will become by definition subversive (see, of course, the eighth beatitude and its closing comment by Jesus himself). All other subversive activity is mere rebellion against authority.
The previous comment provides an apt segue into the weaknesses of McCracken’s article, because subversion by virtue of commitment to Christ’s Kingdom and righteousness is one of the strengths of the ‘hipster’ trend. Hence, McCracken offers some of the following criteria for identifying a hipster church (critically):
“What makes a church a “hipster church”? Does it have a one-word name that is either a Greek word or something evocative of creation? Does the pastor frequently use words like kingdom, authenticity, and justice, and drop names like N. T. Wright in sermons? Does the church advertise a gluten-free option for Communion? If the answer is yes to all of those questions, chances are that it’s a hipster church.”
These criteria clearly aren’t all that helpful, because most of them have nothing to do with the rebelliousness of hipster Christianity. First, there are nearly as many names of churches as there are, well, churches. Some with strange names, some with catchy names, some with ordinary names. Most people, it is my guess, don’t really pick a church based on its name; they choose it based on the community of people that are there. Second, of the three clue words, “kingdom, authenticity, and justice” that McCracken offers as hipster clues, go and do a word search on two of them—”kingdom” and “justice” (or, righteousness, dikaiosune accounts for both ‘justice’ and ‘righteousness’ in the bible) and you’ll see just how very biblical these terms are. ‘Authenticity’ is the only non-biblical word which clues us in to a cultural preference. (And, we might observe, a word such as ‘authenticity’, while sometimes an excuse for flagrant sinfulness, can also be a tonic against the pretense of church life in the past.) As for N.T. Wright, he’s one of the finest biblical scholars living today, and his works will likely be read long after he’s passed into the Kingdom itself. Third, what’s the point about gluten-free communion? Are people with wheat allergies permanently barred from Holy Communion? I think not.
At another point, when discussing the subversive ‘shock value’ of hipster churches, McCracken points out the trend of sermons dealing with “touchy subjects such as homosexuality, child abuse, sex trafficking, HIV/AIDS, and so on, sometimes with an f-bomb or two thrown in for good measure.” Apart, of course, from the f-bombs, these are all topics which are real issues in our world today, and which, as the Church, we should be actively striving to address through our mission together.
My point is this. You could attend “St. John’s Church,” or “Mosaic” in Anywhere, North America, where the minister preached regularly Jesus’ parables about the Kingdom of God (Jesus’ favourite subject), and about God’s passion for Justice, relating the issues of the bible to issues of today (sex trafficking and child abuse), quoting N.T. Wright occasionally, and offering gluten-free communion because a member of the congregation has a wheat allergy. None of that would indicate a “hipster,” cool, or particularly rebellious community of faith.
Lastly, McCracken identified the following theological trends as indicative of the hipster movement:
“Hipster Christianity also expresses itself theologically, through preaching that often emphasizes covenantal and “new creation” ideas and attempts to construct a more ecclesiological or community-centric view of salvation. Things like soul-winning and going to heaven are downplayed in favor of the notion that heaven will come down to earth and renew the broken creation. Thus, the world matters. It’s not a piece of rotting kindling that we will abandon for heaven one day. It’s the site of a renewed kingdom. All of this informs hipster Christianity’s attention to things like social justice, environmentalism, and the arts, because if God is building his kingdom on earth, then it all matters.”
Well, I find nothing in this paragraph to disagree with. In fact, I pretty much entirely agree with it. Further, if the definition of “hipster” Christianity is that it’s reactive, rebellious, and subversive to Evangelicalism, then these are welcome reactions against the isolationist, destructo-creation trends which mark modern Evangelicalism. Consider the following: “Covenant” is one of the central constructs through which God has communicated with His people. “New Creation” is central to the effects of the work which Christ has accomplished on our behalf as his Church. And as regards a “community-centric view of salvation,” it almost seems too easy to point out that the entirely of the bible is intended as a community book, and that the goal of all creation revealed in Revelation is that we will dwell together in a city. If there is a reaction against Evangelical trends and practices, then it is against the isolating and individualist trends of 20th century Evangelical evangelism. Church, as Christ’s body, is the goal of creation, says Paul to the Ephesians, and we, as Church, must explore and understand our purpose. In matters of Ecclesiology—one of the greatest theological shortcomings of the Evangelical church—any recovery or restoration of that area of theology should be a welcome correction.
All in all, the reactive, false, and pretentiously subversive elements of hipster Christianity will fade, as all reactive movements fade. No church can survive such a groundless, negative, and Christ-anemic atmosphere. However, the true subversive elements present among the so-called ‘hipster faith’—the creational, covenantal, N.T. Wright reading, ecclesiological, kingdom-justice and culturally relevant elements—these, because of their truly biblical foundations, will and should remain. Such issues, in fact, aren’t specifically hipster at all.