Reviews & Recommendations, The Modern Times

On labels, categories, and “Hipster Christianity”

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, 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.

Reviews & Recommendations, The Modern Times

What’s Being Said: Considering the LOST Finale

If you’ve been anywhere near my Facebook page lately you probably noticed that I’ve been mesmerized all week by Sunday’s LOST finale. In my opinion, it was a fantastic blend of mystery, drama, nostalgia, and general, all around LOST-yness. If nothing else, it was the most interesting few hours of television I have ever seen and has been rattling around my somewhat confused but completely exhilarated brain since about 11:30 p.m. ET Sunday night.

Apparently I’m not the only one.

The debate/discussion has been raging fast and furious since then and, as expected, responses have been varied and wildly emotional. That’s as it should be, how it always has been. LOST is a show that, since it’s pilot episode aired in 2004, has itself varied wildly within the collective consciousness of the American viewing public, caught somewhere between opinion that it’s a near perfect example of diverse, postmodernist pop culture and the belief that’s its an unwieldy behemoth of narrative condescension. LOST is confusing, mysterious, full of unmet promise and unanswered questions – and that seems to be why people love it as much as it is why people hate it. But it is also full of characters who feel like friends; struggles that, despite their fantastical nature, hit close to home; and storytelling that captures the imagination and the heart alike.

Concerning the finale, the most common complaints seem to be the following:

– So it was all for nothing? None of it mattered? Screw Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, those bums!
– What about Walt? What about those dead mothers? What about the polar bear? Screw Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, those bums! Screw Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, those bums!
– So what happened with the a-bomb?
– So did Jack have a son or not?
– Who died when now?
– Were they dead the whole time or not?
– What was the deal with Eloise Hawking and other such “annoying plot devices?”
– What were the “rules” and where did they come from?
– And, of course, what the heck was up with the sideways world and why the island on the bottom of the ocean?

These questions, and many others, are answered (or at least valiant attempts were made to answer them) in the following articles, and blog post retrospectives. Obviously, this is a very small sample size; if you have found others please post them in the comments section.

Mike Hale from the NY Times says that the show cleverly “removed the possibility that they were dead all along” and he writes:

And on the other hand: the ending was also elegiac and beautiful, with its stately pace, its elegant cross-cutting between Jack’s death on the island and his awakening in the present, its long shot of the cast arrayed in the church pews like passengers in an airplane. The actors seemed relaxed and genuinely happy, and Matthew Fox, as Jack, underplayed nicely (in a scene where shot after shot was ripe for overacting). The final image of Jack’s eye closing, a reversal of the show’s opening moment six seasons ago, was just right.

— Marc Peyser from Newsweek
writes this:

Once I got over pondering the fates of the individual characters and focused on them collectively, I fixated on the show’s really metamessage. I actually think that the shared journey of the characters—of the collective life they made on the island—is a metaphor for the show itself. In our fractured culture, Lost may arguably be the last mass entertainment to cross genre lines and draw together a group of disparate people. Sci-fi folks, religious-minded people (notice all the different religious symbols in the stained-glass window at the end?), fans of spectacle (the plane crash was nothing it not a blockbuster-movie moment), Web fanatics and old-fashioned TV viewers—the most amazing thing about Lost is the way it managed to draw all these people together into a common discussion, and one about the weightiest of topics. When Jack’s father tells him that the time he spent with the Oceanic passengers was the best of his life, I could hear him talking to the viewers, too, who spent so much time picking and prodding and pondering what was happening and why. Call me crazy, but any television show that gets people talking about the meaning of life—even the meaning of the life of a smoke monster—is a rare commodity these days. I might even say it is an island of thoughtfulness. And now it’s gone.

Meanwhile, Kristin Dos Santos, from E! Online, delves into many of the show’s most mysterious questions in a series of thought provoking, entertaining videos. She too believes there were alive the whole time.

Over at Christianity Today, Chris Seay, author of The Gospel According to Lost, was less than thrilled with the show’s ending, but had this to say:

If we all follow the example of Jesus and leave behind the 99 sheep (in Sunday school class) and pursue the one that is lost (in bars, gyms, streets), we might discover the same kind of transformation experienced by Jack Shephard. This is our calling.

“Live Together, Die Alone” is not a slogan to rally the redeemed. It is a call to the broken in need of redemption.

And at the Hot Air Green Room, Doctor Zero calls the LOST finale a “betrayal.”

In a wonderful blog post Jeff Keuss interprets LOST through the lens of Augustine and St. Paul. He wrote:

Because LOST is a memory bound up in love and longing that signaled for millions of people that as ridiculous as life on the island was, the reality of the life we live day to day was just as insane and far-fetched if it was devoid of love. It is the material thing that signals something beyond itself and triggers the deeper nostalgia for something more. For without love and the eternal light by which to see, hear, touch and taste that love by, this life – whether in a flash back, flash forward, or alternate reality – would not be worth living whether we battled commuter traffic or a vengeful smoke monster, punched a time clock or punched in a sequence of numbers every 108 minutes. For in the end, it is about Desmond finding Penny, about Charlie finding Claire, Jack and Christian embracing, Sun and Jin finding each other, and it is about living together in the light of love rather than dying alone. Perhaps this is something Ben is still pondering on that bench.

And finally, Jeff Jensen from, considers the finale in a tour de force of a blog post in which he considers the role that Desmond played in the final season and the way in which he and Ben Linus might have something in common. He writes:

Desmond wasn’t an Oceanic 815 castaway. Why was he tasked with the work of their Sideways world enlightenment? Because Desmond was the person technically responsible for the defining experience of their lives: crashing on The Island. If Desmond didn’t leave the Hatch to chase after Kelvin, if he hadn’t given into his rage and killed that man on the rocks, he wouldn’t have missed his button-pushing shift, and the plane wouldn’t have crashed. The rejoinder that it was Jacob who pulled the castaways to The Island doesn’t cosmically absolve Desmond of his actions. You always have a choice. And Desmond chose not to push the button. The consequence: crash. Last season, Lost cited the book The Little Prince that includes the great line ”You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.” The word ”tame” in this context means ”to create ties.” Desmond created the tie that bound the castaway spiritual clan. So he became responsible for them. Forever.

– – – –

That’s all for now but please post any conversations, threads, or articles you found interesting or helpful. For the most part, I have actually found the discussion a bit over the top, with emotional responses too often prevailing. Many critics are dismissing the show altogether, a reaction I consider ridiculous considering the themes and characters the show developed (and forced us to consider) even if you think the plot itself falls flat. Claims that it failed on account of kitsch, considerations of eternal life, or talking dead are foolish. On the other hand, while I did say that the finale made for some of the most interesting TV I have seen, that doesn’t mean I consider LOST the best TV show of the decade (Friday Night Lights or Mad Men would probably hold the top spot for me).

But it certainly has been mesmerizing.

Reviews & Recommendations, The Modern Times

My Interpretation of the LOST Finale

I was going to write a lengthy review-style blog about last night’s LOST finale, but found myself, despite my satisfaction with how the show ended, still confused about key points. I’ll get to that soon, and hopefully you can help me resolve them. Like many of you, those questions and confusion pertain the nature of the out-of-time sideways world (which I’m not sure is sideways at all). However, I’ve decided to simply jot down some notes about what I think certain things mean and how they effect the story and characters.

– Ultimately, the masterminds behind LOST provided viewers with a happy ending, albeit an unexpected one. Consider: the island dwellers essentially completed everything they set out to do at the beginning of the finale. They defeated the evil Locke/MIB/smoke monster. They saved the island. And many of the show’s primary characters make it off the island alive, off to new lives and future experiences. That they ultimately die doesn’t change that. All stories, all journeys, all lives, end in death. There is no escaping that, and so it is no tragedy that these lives ended as they did. In fact, it was beautiful, and meaningful, and full of great hope that they were able to enter into their afterlife together, a community of flawed but changed individuals whose relationships with each other helped them grow.

– The implication clearly is that after Jack’s sacrifice (and on-island death) the story goes on. That, for some unspecified number of years, life continued on the island with Hurley and Ben as protectors (hence Hurley’s “you were a great number 2” comment, followed by Ben’s “and you were a great number one.”) And Miles, Kate, Claire, Alpert, Lapidus, and Sawyer really did make it off the island, as suggested by the airplane that Jack sees fly over his head before he closes his eyes and passes away. I love that there is both resolution and mystery in this implication, it’s truly wonderful storytelling. It offers the suggestion but leaves plenty for the imagination.

– I don’t know this for sure, but I think that the reason Ben can’t “let go” at the end and join the others is that he is first going to have to become one of the “whisperers” on the island, like Michael before him, characters both whose past sins will haunt them into the afterlife. For them the island seems to indeed serve as a purgatory (which the writers have continually said the island is not for the rest of the Oceanic survivors).

My favorite line of the finale: Hurley: “this would all be sweet if weren’t about to die.” We should have caught on then!

The “sideways world” certainly remains a bit of a mystery. But I think that one of the keys to understanding it was given by Christian when he tells Jack that “there is no now here.” The sideways reality, if indeed it is sideways at all, is outside of time. It’s not a product or time at all and thus it neither functions nor behaves like it would were it confined to the restrictions of time. It is simply a part of eternity and so it doesn’t matter whether it happens at the same time as the on-island events, as Jack’s bleeding seems to imply, or whether it happens later. It happens, and it matters, just like the events on the island happen and matter. But when they happen doesn’t matter. Christian tells Jack that all of them are dead, some died before him and others much later. Boone, Shannon, Charlie, Juliet, Sayid, Locke, Sun, and Jin obviously died before him. But Sawyer, Kate, Claire, Aaron, and the others died after him; when, we don’t know, and ultimately it doesn’t matter. They died after the on-island adventure occurred, after the “most important” time in their lives happened, and what is important is that they ultimately were able to be together in their after life, that they were able to rejoin the community of people whose friendship and love changed them for eternity. Much like the Christian hope.

A “sideways world” theory: Is it possible that the afterlife we saw at the end of the episode was only Jack’s version? I don’t think so, but what do you think?

– It does seem, however, that “sideways” seems to be some kind of preparation ground, some gathering place before the after life. Not a purgatory per se, but an opportunity to make amends for past mistakes and refurbish some broken relationships. I need to think more on what it means. I have a whole season of key scenes to re-watch and reconsider, which was presumably one of the writers’ goals.

– I think we need to forget about Walt-related answers. The producers had the problem of a kid who was aging too quickly to remain an active member of the cast and they were, it seems, forced to make some concessions. We would do well to remember that, since TV is such a unique medium, especially this TV show, the storytellers were forced to operate around restrictions that filmmakers or fiction writers can avoid.

– That said, I read a report (which I subsequently can’t find again) that revealed that show runners Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindeloff will provide some answers about key, unanswered questions on the forthcoming DVD. That will help tie up some loose ends I’m sure.

A few key visual metaphors I LOVED: The angels on the either side of the door that Christian opens at the end, allowing the white light to fill the church. Also, Jack stretched out crucifix style in the bamboo patch, a Christlike sacrifice for his friends. And, of course, the obvious one – the eye closing at the end.

Jack is the key. Consider this portion of a review from USA Today:

So in some ways the 2½-hour finale was two journeys, both centered on Jack, each illustrating the themes of individual redemption and group responsibility. On our world, he saved the island, handed the guardian job to Hurley, and died. (For the record, Kate, Sawyer, Claire, Miles, Richard, Lapidus and Desmond eventually left the island; Hurley and Ben stayed.) In the other world, the post-life purgatory where “now” does not exist, he was the final piece that reunited the characters and allowed all to leave — a reawakening of memories, theirs and ours, any fan had to cherish.

LOST was ultimately a show about people, as Lindelof suggested in the pre-finale retrospective. It’s flawed people changing, interacting, growing, struggling, loving, living, dying, failing and succeeding. We are all lost it says, and we are. And we are all in need of other people, of community. And no, there are no do-overs, it’s not true that nothing is irreversible, but in the end every action we take, everything we do, matters. All of it, the good and the bad, the regrettable and beautiful alike. And, when the show faded to black a final time, we knew that Jack had found his purpose and Kate her peace; that Hurley finally was able to accept himself for who he was and that Sayid could learn to forgive himself; that Claire would be able to protect her child and that the flame of Sun and Jin’s relationship would not burn out.

It’s been said that LOST is full of sloppy storytelling, and that was true from time to time. But not last night. It was full of crowd pleasing references to past episodes and seasons, and tied the oddly circular narrative of the show up in a nice (if predictable) way. For all of the hysteria that is sure is to ensure in the next few days, the show’s fans should have plenty of nostalgia to celebrate. But more than that, it did a marvelous job of re-instilling the key themes and ideas that made the show what it was.

– Writers Lindeloff and Cuse have said they were not interested in making a show that took the easy way out (and they sure weren’t lying). They said that they wanted to produce a finale that would help the show be long remembered, discussed, and thought about, full of big ideas and difficult themes, and in that they succeeded. LOST is perhaps the most unique television series in history, and there will never be another show like it. Viewers should be grateful for the experience, even if they came to it late, as I did.

What were your impressions and interpretations?

The Modern Times

Sensory Deficit Disorder: On the Disappearance of DVDs and Books

Last week, published an article by film critic Robert Davis entitled Your DVDs Are Rotting, in which Davis argues that the DVD as we now know it will soon be as extinct as the VHS or cassette tape. In the face of the rise of online viewing, he argues, the DVD will not be able to stand long. And no, the Blu Ray is not the answer. As fantastic as the Blu Ray picture is, and as cute as those little discs are, even the almighty Blu Ray will eventually fade to oblivion. No, online viewing is the answer, according to Davis.

Naturally, Davis cites Netflix as the most prominent online purveyor of the world’s finest films. But he also notes such inventions as the Roku box, which is plugged into the back of your tv (just like the good old fashioned DVD player), and, of course, the now abundantly popular digital sales by companies like Amazon and Apple. Throw in the likes of Hulu and the multitude of other websites that make tv shows and movies available online for streaming and it’s no wonder movie rental stores (including large chains like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video) are dropping like Starbucks franchises (rapidly and often, that is).

It’s so easy to find quality viewing material online, for extremely reasonable prices, why would anyone purchase a DVD anymore? Why would anyone bother heading to their favorite video rental store, used bookstore, or electronics shop to buy an old school DVD? Well, for the same reason that they still go to the movie theaters, for the same reason they go to the football game, for the same reason they go to a concert. For the experience.

In the age of YouTube and Hulu, of Bartleby and iPhones and Kindle, of itunes and emusic, the sensory experience of visiting the store is lost. We’re so focused on ease and speed and precision that we don’t care enough about the experience of a good old fashioned choice. Don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful to be able to simply fire up a web browser, head over to a bookmarked web page, scan through a few pages of more or less familiar artists, sample and download them right then and there, and all for a pretty reasonable price. It’s great for finding new music, for networking; it’s great for the bloggers.

kindle-handBut it’s a shame that future generations could miss out on the uniquely rewarding experience of wandering the aisles of a video rental store or bookstore, of the smells and sounds and sights and the hundreds of DVD or book covers. Of the ironically demanding pressure of deciding between Big Jake and The Magnificent Seven in less than an hour, without the aid of an online trailer or imdb. Go ahead, take a chance! Yul Brynner or John Wayne? Steve McQueen or Richard Boone? Sounds like the decision is made for you. But the art work….

What about the book stores? I imagine it will take the Barnes & Noble and Borders chains a little longer to die out than their video rental store counterparts, but it seems only a matter of time. The Kindle is growing ever more popular and the rate at which people are reading books online is rapidly increasing.

This is sad.

What could be better than perusing the crowded shelves of an old used book store run by a proprietor with a big, bushy mustache and yarns as tall as Paul Bunyan? What could be better than the musty smell of moth balls and dust and old, loved pages, crispy and torn from years of affection, written in and marked up and dog-eared? What could be better than the glorious discovery of a little known early novel by a favorite author or a hundred year old copy of poems by your favorite Romantic? What could be better than climbing into your car with a stack of new treasures under your arm, a sweet, sweet, hard earned collection of wisdom and history emanating from the very pores of each dusty page?

The only thing better is reading them.

We live in an age where our senses are bombarded from all angles, at all times. Yet, we don’t appreciate the simple pleasures available to them. They have become so overwhelmed, so over-crowded, so over-stimulated that they no longer have the capability to recognize those sensory experiences that are most unique, most inspiring, most physically meaningful.

oldbooksYes, it’s great to be able to quickly and easily read a favorite novel on a Kindle. But it’s important that we not forget the sensory wonder of holding a book in one’s hands, of marking spots and flipping the pages back and forth, of noting those passages that are meaningful, of realizing just how much effort and care was put into the creation of the thing. These are the kind of experiences that condition us, that allow us to escape the extreme busy-ness and sensory overload of the modern world. These are the kind of experiences that free us from the indulgent modern existence and allow us to revel in the simple, to take joy in the subtle, to explore the art of the commonplace (to borrow Wendell Berry’s phrase).

When I was in high school I once complained to my dad about how I had managed to collect more books than I had time to read. My shelves were stocked with stories and theories I feared I would never get to. But he responded with a piece of wisdom I will never forget. He said, “the things we collect say a lot about who we want to be.”

I love this.

But I fear that as long as we are collecting downloadable links more than hard copy books and bookmarked web pages more than DVDs for the shelves, we are aligning ourselves with a modern ethos detrimental to both our intellects and our collective sanity. I wonder what we are saying we want to be. It is important that we be willing to take the time to enjoy small pleasures, to take part in commonplace experiences, to take joy in the subtle blush of a physical work of art much, and well, loved.

Otherwise, we will be creatures with unpolished senses, uneducated, unguided. We will be like children who simply follow lights and colors. We will be blind to many of the mysteries of the physical universe, our ability to see will be diminished. Our senses will be bombarded yet we will be unable to tell the difference between the various things we see and hear and taste and feel. We will be hungry for Ramen noodle when a delicious steak dinner would provide more nourishment. We will suffer from a sensory deficit disorder.

I, for one, am happy to keep on buying used. Don’t want your hard copies? I know people who will take them.