The Gospel According to Hipsters

Can "cool" and Christianity coexist?

Hipsterdom is a significant cultural phenomenon with implications for all sorts of things. “Hipster” is just the latest, most consolidated iteration of the notion of being cool/elite/fashionable. As such, it serves as a convenient entry point for a crucial discussion of what all of this means for Christianity, which to outside observers probably seems about as far from “cool/hipster” as possible.

What does it mean that “hipster Christianity” exists? Should we be alarmed and unnerved by the marriage of seemingly competing aims: following Christ and being cool? Or are there good things “hipster” has done for Christianity?

Well, yes. [Editor’s note: Brett has much more to say about the good things hipster Christianity has brought to the Church. Check out the full article in the Sept/Oct issue of RELEVANT for the whole list.]

It makes the problem of individualism worse

At its core, hip is an individual pursuit. It’s about how I can set myself apart, how I can advance my standing in the world, turn heads toward me, be noticed, be envied, etc. It’s a way to announce oneself to the world, to assert one’s agency against the behemoth of abstracted culture. It’s a way to advertise one’s privileged knowledge about how to look and act in a fashionable way. And all of this is a thoroughly individualistic affair—meant to distance oneself (or at least distinguish oneself) from the pack. 

In terms of Christianity, this is a problem. Contemporary evangelicalism has drifted away from the corporate tradition of Christianity and adopted a more malleable “spirituality” that traffics in phrases like “do-it-yourself,” “self-help” and “your best life now!” That is, we’ve moved from a Christianity that was primarily about living out the Gospel collectively to one that is now almost entirely about “that’s how I like it,” ice cream parlor personal preference. As a result, something so wholeheartedly individualistic and self-serving as “hip” has become commonplace and even virtuous. But I’m convinced it is actually a hindrance.

“Hip” says we can and should rely on our own devices in terms of how we define ourselves. It calls us to be different and unique and not bound by the norms and standardizations of group culture.

It alienates people

Being fashionable is alienating. Some will argue it is attractive, to which I say yes, but it’s attractive mostly in an invidious way. Being fashionable might gain you friends, but more often than not these “friends” are attracted to the image of fashionable association with you more than they are attracted to your personhood or spirit. Chances are they actually can’t stand you.

This is cynical, yes, but unfortunately true. “Cool” is ultimately a lonely world because it makes people fear you. It signifies elitism. It makes uncool people really uncomfortable. It makes it hard for cool people and not-so-cool people to mix and enjoy each other’s company.

This bodes ill for our churches, which are supposed to be welcoming for all people—both cool and uncool.

It fosters pride and vanity

Being a hipster does not help one’s ego. Quite the opposite. The whole notion of “cool” is that we are better than the majority—that we are a minority with privileged knowledge and narrow access to whatever is “in” at the moment. Cool advertises the notion that we have everything together and can execute a style or fashion better than just about anyone. It’s an expression of self-aggrandizement and provides coals for the fires of our pride and arrogance. To be hip is to be haughty and elitist, scorning those “less-thans” and “have-nots” who can’t compete with our fashionable aesthetic—in movies, in clothes, in books, in music ... even in food.

It’s too much about rebellion

The central logic of hip is rebellion. It’s about asserting one’s own personal agency against the forces that be. Every incarnation of hip is a rebellion against something. Trendy fashion is a rebellion against convention. Jazz is a rebellion against strict meter. Riding a fixed-gear bike is a rebellion against gasoline, etc. ... The point is: to be a hipster is to be a rebel. If you want to keep the rules and abide by established conventions, you can only be so cool.

Rebellion itself is not a bad thing, of course. It’s sometimes called for and frequently productive. Jesus was a rebel. He was God incarnate; how could He not be? But His purpose was higher than just subverting the norms and standards for rebellion’s sake. Hipster culture today elevates rebellion as an end unto itself, and this is problematic. Being “cool” requires we bend the rules or break them, because rules are oppressive and systems of control are highly dubious.

As a result, the hipster existence is frequently rife with vices. If hipsters can’t completely overthrow the structures that bind them, they can at least destabilize and unnerve those structures by engaging in hedonistic, naughty behavior. It’s about freedom, partying and transgression. If you aren’t willing to engage in at least some vices, it will be hard for you to maintain any sort of hipster credibility.

This is one of the most important and common sources of tension for the Christian hipster. This is where the inherent dissonance in cool Christianity creates the most ruptures. I’ve known many young Christians (myself included) who have engaged in these “vices” to an unhealthy extent—in the name of “fun” and “cool,” but chiefly “rebellion.” All these things were forbidden and unfairly demonized in evangelicalism for so long, and now the pendulum is swinging. Christian hipsters are rebelling against that old legalism and proclaiming their “freedom in Christ.”

But the life of a Christian is about putting to death our earthly desires, right? (Colossians 3:5) It’s about meditating on things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely and commendable (Philippians 4:8), not flirting with darkness and the corrupt, right? If so, how can we justify living into the patterns of hipster hedonism and rebellion, which esteems vice and shuns the alternative as prudish legalism?

At the end of the day, the moral of this story is that appearances do matter. Many young, fashionable Christians would like to think that looking and being “cool” should not affect or be affected by being a Christian. Why should being Christian spoil all the fun of being a hipster? “Can’t I continue to smoke cloves, dress like a thrift store bohemian, look down on people for liking Daughtry and also be a Christian?”

Christian hipsters tend to find refuge in this sort of dualism, refusing to believe there might be anything implicitly unChristian in the hipster way of life. But lurking beneath this belief is a sort of gnostic assumption that “being a Christian” is mostly a spiritual thing rather than a physical, embodied thing. Christianity, they might think, mostly has to do with believing things and loving people, and has little if anything to do with the clothes we wear, or whether we smoke or get tattoos. But it seems much more likely that these things do matter, at least somewhat.

There are good things that hipsterdom has done for Christianity. Hipsters have helped the Church become more aware of the need for social justice, more attuned to the appreciation of creation and created goods, and hipsterdom has certainly made the Church more culturally engaged. But Christianity is always an embodied thing, and plays out in the material, cultural, socioeconomic world. And this means we have to think about how Christ is seen through our lives in a holistic way.

This article is adapted from a longer piece that appears in the Sept/Oct issue of RELEVANT. Brett McCracken is the author of Hipster Christianity (Baker, 2010), out now. Check out his website to see more about the book and to see if you're a Christian hipster yourself.

Top Comments

David Gooding

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David Gooding replied to 's comment

OK, folks...let's face it - volumes could be (and have been) written about what it means to be a "hipster" and what it means to be a "Christian"....and no matter how you try to frame it, the underlying philosophies are just hopelessly, diametrically opposed. Hipsterism is about EXclusion, whereas Christianity is about INclusion. In fact, I have a humorous book called "The Hipster Handbook", and at one point (after discussing how "bourgeois" mid-life crises - and their attendant actions - are), it actually states that "Hipsters do not sleep with the nanny, and car fetishes are just silly...In an unhappy marriage? Just take the dunk - nothing breaks up a hipster marriage faster than one of the partners finding religion." Pretty much sums it up...

101 Comments

90,694

YouThinkYoureCoolerThanMe commented…

Here in Philadelphia I loathe the thought of living in the Northern Liberty area of Philly where Hipsters abound. Mainly because I love living in my Puerto Rican neighborhood in Hunting Park, Philly. Okay, and I do find mainly hipsters full of pride and elitism. That said, McCracken is on point in the mag article thought on the positive notes. The overwhelming majority of hipsters are indeed passionate about social justice through the gospel. Also, they are showing there is another way we live in terms of what we buy and what not.

Yo McCracken! How 'bout an article on Hip-Hopsters? (Asher Roth, Kanye West, etc.) I'd love to hear you spit some rhymes (or prose) on that deviation of Hipsters.

David Gooding

3

David Gooding replied to 's comment

OK, folks...let's face it - volumes could be (and have been) written about what it means to be a "hipster" and what it means to be a "Christian"....and no matter how you try to frame it, the underlying philosophies are just hopelessly, diametrically opposed. Hipsterism is about EXclusion, whereas Christianity is about INclusion. In fact, I have a humorous book called "The Hipster Handbook", and at one point (after discussing how "bourgeois" mid-life crises - and their attendant actions - are), it actually states that "Hipsters do not sleep with the nanny, and car fetishes are just silly...In an unhappy marriage? Just take the dunk - nothing breaks up a hipster marriage faster than one of the partners finding religion." Pretty much sums it up...

90,694

Sally commented…

there is alot to be said about what is both right and wrong about this article. And thankyou for allowing me to reflect on my own life and how I act as a christian. I think so often as christians...it is so easy to forget, that these "ideas" spoken about above, such as fashion, and creativity, and art are infact blessings to many christian people. I am a christian and study art, i love creating and painting ,and I feel is without a doubt something God has given me. - I like wearing old fashioned clothes, and every colour i can possibly get away with. I like listening to folk music, going to galleries, and art conventions, movies, and those other "arty" like areas...but what I most like doing...is expressing Gods love and joy through my art work...

Don't forget...that creativity is also a gift that God gives people, just like he gives leadership, or administration, listening, preaching etc...

90,694

interesting commented…

As long as we love the Christian hipsters and don't look down on them because we are not hipsters.

90,694

Anonymous commented…

Isn't it really about the truth of the amazing gospel news? Do we understand our theology? Are we letting the truth of God, even when that truth is counter-cultural, form our theology? That's what I think is the real issue. We should be excited about and interested in living out the beauty of Jesus Christ. If I happen to look good while I'm doing it, who cares?? Maybe some of us dress fashionably because we just happen to like fashion. It doesn't mean we are ruled by it and it doesn't mean we judge others by it, either. I feel like this article is simply another piece of "Christian" rhetoric that causes more derision and division within the church. It makes me sad.

Tedrien Nicholas

1

Tedrien Nicholas commented…

This article sounds haughty and elite in itself. I'm momentarily offended by this article. You basically just told me that I am totally contrary to God and Christianity because I love (and work in) fashion, I am told that I am cool, I have three tattoos (2 of which I got before accepting Jesus into my heart), and I rebel against the tradition legalism of the church. I cannot believe I just read this article. It reads as though it were written by someone snubbed by the "cool kids" somewhere in life. Well, many of us "Christian hipsters" do not think we are cooler than most because of the way we dress or the music we listen to. You don't even have to be a hipster to think like that. I've had non hipster individuals in church look down on me for wearing skinny jeans, dying my hair blonde, or listening to Christian rap. What say you to those elitists?

Now, I am by no means advocating young, cool Christians to go out and get tattoos, smoke cloves (or anything), drink, or look down on others. If one is truly spiritually lead, they would not want to do anything that would displease God, or taint their temples. Someone's comment said this seems to be an article that is more divisive [than informative]. I agree. Let's embrace our differences and take over the world like we're supposed to do!

....also, I saw the editor's note. I will have to continue reading because this has really got my brain surging. To be honest, I'm quite offended, though I know I should not allow myself to become offended at anything.

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