Brett McCracken’s suddenly semi-controversial and certainly thought provoking book, Hipster Christianity, has been making the proverbial rounds as bloggers, editors, and book reviewers begin to consider the questions it raises and the implications of its thesis.
It seems to me they are, largely, missing the point.
For a basic introduction to the book, click here.
Fundamental to McCracken’s point is the truth that if church is too enamored with “cool” than its necessary emphasis on the gospel will be diminished. That this is true seems unarguable and so I won’t touch on it here.
Yet, McCracken’s most insistent critics, especially the always insightful and admirable Jeffrey Overstreet ( who, like McCracken, has been a film critic for Christianity Today), are primarily concerned with the idea that McCracken defines “hipsterdom” and then perhaps too broadly suggests that people who bear the characteristics that define said hipsterdom are, in fact, hipsters. In response to gospel.com, Overstreet blogged this:
I haven’t had time to read it all yet, so this isn’t a review. But the “hipster” characteristics described in the excerpts of this book I’ve read so far — the music preferences, the styles, etc — are embraced by many people I know for many reasons, many of them sincere, authentic, even admirable. To slap a label on the lot of them as if they’re all alike is, I’m afraid, misleading and damaging.
I have a problem with the logic of this criticism.
While it is true that McCracken does define the world of hipsterdom (as he should), even tracing its history and heritage and the many characteristics that most often define people who consider themselves hipsters – or are considered by others to be hipsters – such a definition does not necessarily suggest that people who bear those characteristics are always hipsters.
Overstreet is rightly saying that just because someone listens to a kind of music most hipsters listen to does not mean he is a hipster. But McCracken wouldn’t disagree. Essentially, I think the disagreement is over nothing, created ex nihilo so to speak. A fallacy, if you will. McCracken sets out to identify and report those characteristics that can be most commonly attributed to various kinds of hipsters. He doesn’t suggest that just because one has those characteristics means one is a hipster.
Overstreet specifically mentions a quiz/test on the book’s website that, in a lighthearted and, I thought, clearly ironic fashion suggests that it can help determine what kind of hipster you are. Overstreet rightly suggests that such a quiz cannot “tell me who I am.” He writes:
If I see an online quiz that claims to show me whether or not I am a “Christian hipster,” I’m going to ignore it. I don’t believe a checklist can tell me what I am, why I make the decisions I do, or whether or not I am selling out. It will probably only *encourage* [asterix his] me to look to such surveys for self-definition, to worry about what I *look* like to the culture around me.
But this surely was never the intention of the quiz. Such a tongue-in-cheek quiz, for such a book, by such an author as McCracken, is not designed to define a person. Rather, it is for someone who is interested in seeing, in a humorous way, what kind of hipster they might beaccording to the specific definitions the book presents. The flaw in Overstreets criticism, in my mind, is in the suggestion that McCracken, or his quiz, means to lump anyone into anything. After all, if you head over to the site and take the quiz, I think you will find that, with the slightest honest tweak to any number of questions, you are any number of hipster incarnations.
The book seems to have three main goals: to trace the history of the various incarnations of hipsterdom, to define what it often looks like in our current culture, and to question what role it ought to play within the culture of our churches. How can McCracken be expected to write such a book without first defining his terms according to a criteria he deems most appropriate? The fact is that there is such a thing as a so-called hipster subculture, that it is widely considered “cool,” and that is a large and ever-growing subculture within the Christian church. And as Overstreet writes in the same blog post, the discussion must be had and it should inspire us to “think about our choices, our sincerity, and our priorities.” But if it is to be had we must, we absolutely must, define out terms – something McCracken sets out to do in this book.
To that end, as a tool, labels are useful, as are categories. That’s why they exist and why they are and ought to be used. They are organizers, tools for definition (which, as Aristotle argued, is the necessary first step in any argument). And, I would argue, McCracken uses them as nothing more.
To suggest that most so-called hipsters (a term he consistently and rightly says is slippery at best) tend to like certain kinds of clothes, art, food, lifestyles, etc is no different than suggesting that most African Americans tend to vote democrat and most white evangelicals tend to vote republican. It’s fact. Statistic. Both are true, as is the fact that most hipsters prefer a specific sets of lifestyle choices. McCracken is not saying, however, that all hipsters like the same kind of music, clothes, etc., just as studies do not suggest that all African Americans voted Democrat, etc. Most do, though, and one cannot study cultural trends, as McCracken is doing, without observing the broader consistencies of a demographic.
Indeed, the fact is that the vast majority of people who listen to the Arcade Fire or The National, who wear “superfluous” scarves in the summer in LA, or who attend church in bars or clubs with coffee shops and “sex talks” tend to be a part, in some way or another, of the hipster sub-culture. To observe this is simply not the same as making a sweeping declaration about the character of the individual people who are a part of such things; it is an observation McCracken has no choice but to make and upon which he has no choice but to build his arguments.
And he is not judging the hipsters as individuals, nor is he, in point of fact, judging the movement itself so much as he is, after considering the reams of evidence such as it exists, judging the influence of modern hipsterdom on the modern church.
And he is right to do so, for if “cool” manages to overwhelm the gospel in our places of worship and community then why go there anyway? We have other places for that.
It’s not that there isn’t a place for hipster culture in our churches. But it must be just that – relegated to it’s rightful place, alongside politics, rock music, and business-savvy marketing.
What do you think? I could be wrong, no doubt.
In no way do I mean to disrespect Mr. Overstreet. I consider him my very favorite blogger and film reviewer and a leading light within the world of Christ-led art-makers. I offer my thoughts humbly and with the acknowledgment that he is much wiser than I.