A Review of Brett McCracken’s Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010).
The managing editor of Bioloa magazine, Wheaton college graduate Brett McCracken is a prolific consumer of books, music, and films. He often contributes thoughtful reviews to publications like Relevant magazine or posts them to his blog, “The Search” (see http://stillsearching.wordpress.com). His experience within evangelical circles of higher education along with his keen analytical eye for all things pop-culture-oriented situate McCracken as an effective critic of hipsterdom as it converges in varying Christian streams. I approached Hipster Christianity with a degree of apprehension due to its subject content; in short, I expected another trite critique of (admittedly) feeble evangelical attempts at relevancy. My fears were realized to a point, I must admit, but not without offering a qualifying disclaimer: Hipster Christianity was one of my favorite reads of the summer, easily in the top ten list of reads over the past several months and very likely one of the top three or four.
McCracken’s purpose, credentials, and scope are relatively straightforward:
This book is about exploring, analyzing, and critiquing this desire for Christianity to be cool–but it also analyzes the already-existing cultures of Christian hip. The book addresses, in part, the phenomenon of Christian hipsters. I’ve observed this phenomenon firsthand for many years now, through writing for Relevant but also by being an evangelical youth group alumnus and a student and now employee at Christian colleges. I’ve observed the world of Christian hipsterdom at conferences and events from Michigan to Massachusetts, Oxford to Paris. I’ve seen it in the dozens of churches I’ve visited in preparation for this book–from a massive mega church in Las Vegas to a tiny Anglican gathering in a centuries-old church in London. I’ve heard it from the mouths of pastors and in the ironic jargon and nomenclature of the specific hipster communities I’ve observed. It’s fascinating to see these communities of Christian hip emerging, but it’s also confusing and a tad bit troubling. What does it mean that Christians are suddenly becoming just as cool as the cool elites in secular culture? This is another question that drives the writing of this book (20-21).
The book is divided into three parts, but for analytical purposes falls more cleanly into two. In part one, McCracken clarifies important terminologies (chapter one), gives a brief (and quite helpful) history of hip (chapter two), a general overview of hipsterdom (chapter three) and then narrows to North American Christianity and its relationship with hip (chapter four). Easily the most important contribution of the book, in my opinion, is the overview of contemporary Christian hipsters given in chapter five. McCracken offers a list of prominent hipster churches in chapter six, followed by discussions on the emergent/ing church (seven), social justice (eight), and the contentious world of contemporary “Christian” art (nine).
Thus ends what I have deemed part one of the book, as these chapters are primarily descriptive in nature with minimum of critical (i.e., theological) engagement. In part two, however, McCracken moves from description to analysis and diagnosis. This part begins with a fascinating treatment of churches that try too hard to be “hip” or “cool” (chapter ten) and is followed by a series of chapters that demonstrate the perils of a Christianity that sacrifices its ethos for the sake of being cool or relevant (eleven-fourteen). To put it pointedly, McCracken, himself a self-admitted Christian hipster to a degree (51), sees irreconcilable contrasts between the Gospel and core trends (or tenets?) of hipsterdom.
Hipster Christianity is a wealth of highly-informative material on the eccentric postmodern individual that of late has been dubbed by his or her critics as “the hipster.” The book is clearly and intelligibly written; McCracken illustrates not only his familiarity with the subculture but also that he is conversant in society’s trends. McCracken speaks fluent hipster, and his list of identification guides for various types of hipsters (see chapter five) are as witty and comical as they are accurate, in my perception of things. If one was to go on a hunt in the urban wilderness, in hunt of the ever-elusive hipster, McCracken would be one’s first choice as a guide. He knows his stuff. As I mentioned at the outset, Hipster Christianity is easily one of the most enjoyable reads of my summer. Yet, I have some minor reservations.
I hope it is clear by now that I consider part one of the book to be one of the most important contributions to the field of literature that has been written on hipsters, to date. But where part one is informative and valuable, part two seems to be a bit run-on and borderline redundant in parts. The book might be improved by reducing the theological analysis portion and extending the descriptive chapters. Hipster Christianity is primarily an essentialist take on a highly superfluous group within American subculture, but besides some brief descriptions of several hipster churches, what are Christian hipsters doing on the ground? What do their quotidian, daily lives look like? One wonders if more space might have been spent giving the reader a glimpse into live hipster culture as it is lived out on an everyday basis, such as through in-depth interviews or extended conversations with subjects. Where part one is cutting-edge in terms of informational relevancy, part two reads as a longwinded sermon. (Admittedly, however, this is a lesson that might actually do the listener good if they can bear it out.)
A second issue has to do with the subject matter in focus. As McCracken well knows–and demonstrates on multiple occasions–there are major difficulties in studying a group so diffused, varied, and eclectic. At times the author pleads with his readers to understand the diverse nature of hipsterdom and the problems that come when one is forced to identify and characterize such a sundry group of people. (In chapter three, for instance, he lists a mere twelve “common types of hipster” including the Natural, the Newbie, the Artist, the Academic, the Dilettante, the Mountain Man, the Shaman Mystic, the Detached Ironic, the Yuppie, the Flower Child, the Expat, and the Activist; McCracken convincingly identifies each category by both clothing and musical preferences.)
I’m certainly convinced of the group’s disdain for labels, boundaries, or rigid definitions and in this respect hipsters are thoroughly postmodern. But to describe a group as postmodern (an equally ambiguous term that itself implies flux, fluidity, dissimilarity, and fragmentation) does little to ease my taxonomic anxiety; at times McCracken convinces his readers so well of the necessary or required reductions of a study of this sort that I question whether this thing we call hipsterdom even exists. Is any attempt to homogenize these superfluous urban contrarians a serious categorical misstep? I’m just not sure. My confusion concerning definition and qualifications of hipsters and hipsterdom reaches an apex at chapter seven, “The Emerging Church.” Prominent Emerging Church Movement (ECM) thinkers like Tony Jones have demonstrated its “pluriform and multivocal” nature (134) resisting any rigid and confining definition and cherishing openness, fluidity, and flux. Does this sound familiar? McCracken obviously sees the similarities; the ECM even has its own chapter in Hipster Christianity. But now I wonder if Hipster Christianity is a misnomer; perhaps, one might query, a better title for the book would have been Emerging Christianity? I hardly see any differences between these two designations, if any at all. Both emergents and hipsters are contrarian in nature. Both tend to appropriate postmodern theory to their spiritual and cultural lives. Both stringently resist being boxed-in by any types of reductionistic labels. The list goes on and on, so I wonder: might “emergent Christianity” and “hipster Christianity” by synonyms? With the exception of Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill in Seattle, all of the “hipster” churches McCracken surveys in chapter six might also be considered “emergent” churches (and even Driscoll has roots in the ECM but has recently distanced himself from the movement). I’m not convinced that these designations are any different. According to Tony Jones, in fact, several caricatures of ECM practitioners include their penchant for “cool glasses,” “trendy clothes,” body piercing, and tattoos (see Tony Jones, “Emergent’s White Problem,” at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tonyjones/2010/04/11/emergents -white-problem/). If these aren’t caricatures of hipsters, too, I don’t know what are. In summary, then, I remain unconvinced that trends within “hipsterdom” are concurrent enough to legitimize the label: “hipster.” And if an ambiguous group of people are indeed loosely identifiable by ethos or essence, even with all of the dissimilarities, I still don’t see how the “Christian” version of this subculture differs any from my ECM friends.
Ultimately–and aside from the above quibbles–I don’t think that these difficulties detract much from McCracken’s coherent overview of hipster Christianity. Regardless of whether or not I take issue with terms and technical designations, there is something going on in these progressive camps of Christian young people. After reading the second part of the book, however, I do feel that the author might somewhat overstate his critique. In the introduction of the book McCracken clarifies his position as author, intending a balanced outlook: “The book is not an advertisement or rallying cry for hip Christianity, nor is it an outright chastisement. It’s a critical analysis” (13). Yet, most critical analyses include treatment of both strengths and weaknesses and the prior is noticeably lacking in the second part of Hipster Christianity. Towards the end of the book McCracken warns against the “threat of postmodernity” (220) but simultaneously overlooks the benefits of the postmodern era to the Christian church (such as have been emphasized recently by thinkers like James K. A. Smith and Carl Raschke, among many others). Another example has to do with the author’s critique of absurd hipster fashion trends because of their self-interestedness, individualistic nature, and catering to “pride and vanity” (196). While he is right to do so, McCracken seems to avoid the positive aspects of some hipster fashion trends such as the frequenting of thrift stores or buying sweat-free in order to resist rampant mall-shopping consumerism that ultimately cater to self-centeredness and hyper-consumerism. There are ethical dimensions to the ways some Christian hipsters dress as they do, and while these reasons don’t alleviate the individualistic (and sometimes dandyistic) fashion styles, the positives, too, deserve focus. Perhaps as has been demonstrated over and over again throughout the colorful history of global Christianity, contemporary Christians are simply appropriating current trends, sanctifying them or making them holy. In the broader scheme of things, how is thrift-store shopping more self-interested than the suburban masses that flock on the weekends to mall retailers? Second-hand shopping is itself an act that carries positive ethical results: many thrift stores that I’m aware of, for example, donate a sizeable percentage of one’s purchase to a charity or non-profit.
In the end, McCracken’s book provides excellent reading material not only for confessional Christians (on both sides of the cultural spectrum), but for scholars of religion, especially those interested in emerging forms of post-evangelical, post-Protestant Christianity. Hipster Christianity is a must-read for anyone interested in contemporary society, popular culture, postmodernism, and cultural studies. For researchers like myself, working from the perspective of religious studies, McCracken provides a wealth of information on dimensions of religious life such as clothing, dress, identity-construction, consumption and recreational preferences (films, literature, music, food), as well as a compelling description of the re-alignment or contestation of religio-cultural taboos.
Travis W. Cooper