Who would’ve thought that a kid from the Midwest would be on the cutting edge of cool? Okay, so “kid” and “cutting edge” are negotiable. Brett McCracken and I crossed paths (in the cyber sense) when he was then senior editor of Relevant Magazine‘s Progressive Culture section and he accepted my essay Let Us Decompose. Since then Brett’s moved to SoCal, received a masters degree in cinema and media studies at UCLA, started blogging, and this week releases his first book Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. Brett’s one of my favorite bloggers and agreed to answer a few of my questions regarding his fascinating new book. He would not, however, validate my hipster cred.
Anyway, as an added bonus, I have three (3) signed copies of Hipster Christianity I’ll be giving away at the end of this week. If you’d like to be entered into the drawing for one of these copies, just leave a comment on this post… and, please, comment about something actually in the post! Thursday midnight will be the deadline. I’ll announce winners on Friday. And thanks again, Brett, for a terrific book and a thoughtful interview.
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MIKE: Brett, exactly what is “Hipster Christianity”?
BRETT: Hipster Christianity is, in short, the fusion of hipster culture—independent, alternative, anti-mainstream, fashionable—with Christianity. It’s a world of mostly twentysomething Christian evangelicals who grew up on CCM and hysteria about being in the “end times,” but now care more about things like social justice, creation care, and whiskey tasting. It’s a world where things like Left Behind, Jesus fish bumper stickers, and door-to-door evangelism are relevant only as a source of irony or nostalgia. It’s a world where Braveheart youth pastor analogies and Thomas Kinkade are anathema. Hipster Christianity is about rebelling against the legalistic, overly political, apathetic-about-culture evangelicalism of the latter half of the 20th century. It’s a new iteration of youth-oriented, alternative, countercultural Christianity—the offspring of the Jesus movement of the 60s-70s but less Pentecostal and more liturgical (in a “postmodern pastiche” sort of way).
MIKE: To many people, the term “Hipster Christianity” probably seems like an oxymoron. Is it? Can “cool” and “Christianity” really co-exist?
BRETT: I think they can co-exist, and do. If “hipster Christianity” wasn’t a real, widespread thing there’s no way a book could have been written about it. I didn’t make things up in the book. It’s all reporting on a real phenomenon.
That said, I think we then have to question whether cool and Christianity should co-exist. That’s really the question my book is asking (especially the latter third of it). What happens to Christianity when it becomes cool? What are the paradoxes of this fusion? Can we follow both Christ AND cool? It’d definitely not a natural fit.
MIKE: The Christian hipster seems to be defined by many surface elements – fashion, music, literature, food, aesthetics, etc. But what are the philosophical and/or religious convictions that shape the Christian hipster? Do Christian hipsters fit more naturally within a specific denomination or theological system?
BRETT: That’s a great question. I think philosophy/theology definitely does help shape the Christian hipster culture. Typically they gravitate toward the old (the church fathers, Thomas a Kempis, Teresa of Avila) or anything mystical or spiritual-formation oriented (Evelyn Underhill, A.W. Tozer, Henri Nouwen). Some of them like Christian existentialism (Tililch, Bultmann), while others of them like Reformed and Puritan theology (Calvin, Luther, Jonathan Edwards). One unifying theological conviction for Christian hipsters seems to be a more covenantal eschatology that looks to a new creation and the redemption of the earth (rather than an “it’s all gonna burn” perspective”). Most of them also tend to view community as an important, oft-neglected aspect of the Christian life. They are less inclined to speak in individualistic salvation terms (“winning souls”) and hardly ever talk about where one goes after they die. They hate the idea that converting to Christianity is merely a “ticket” to heaven or a get out of hell card. They’d prefer to view the gospel in terms of its restoring powers for all creation (including, but not limited to individuals).
MIKE: One writer to Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish described a Christian hipster as, “a person who both believes in Christ and explores the world for themselves, rather than taking their Pastor/Mother/Father/Dobson’s opinion as unquestionable.” Any truth to that perspective? And if so, couldn’t this simply be a sanctified imitation of the 60’s counter-culture?
BRETT: Yeah, I think that’s a fair assessment. And yeah, it definitely has echoes of the 60s counterculture. Youth are always going to want to rebel and define themselves outside of their parents’ milieu. Christian hipsters are just like any other generation of hippies, slackers, hipsters, etc. They are trying to understand the world in a new way, channeling that “I know best!” hubris of youth into the ways they express themselves visually and ideologically. The problem is that they usually throw out a lot of good things when they holistically dismiss the worlds of the authority structures they grew up with. Sure, there is a lot in the pastor/parents/Dobson world that needs to be abandoned and critiqued, but there is also quite a bit in the new hipster world that needs to be critiqued.
MIKE: Bashing the Evangelical Church seems to be en vogue these days. A lot of people hate on mainstream American Christians. At first glance, Christian hipsters seem to share that sentiment. Do they?
BRETT: Certainly some of them do, but more and more I’m thinking that the biggest “haters” of mainstream American Christianity are the baby boomer pastors and authors (the Emergent leaders, Brian McLaren, various other “hip” pastors) who assume that no kid in their right mind would be attracted to Christianity unless it is revamped and distanced from its various negative evangelical connotations. All these books coming out about “Hate the Christian, Love the Church,” or “Don’t Worry, I’m a Christ-Follower Not a Christian,” are just silly to me… and I suspect most younger Christians find this whole “bending over backward to apologize for how bad some Christians have been” is unnecessary and somewhat desperate.
MIKE: So what can mainstream Evangelicals learn from Christian hipsters?
BRETT: I think there are several things mainstream evangelicals can learn from Christian hipsters. They can learn to care more about art and culture, for instance. Christian hipsters have a healthy (I think) love of “good things.” They value aesthetics and they appreciate well-made things (whether music, food, beer, etc). They seem to genuinely appreciate God’s creation and are curious and awestruck by it, which is something I sometimes think mainstream evangelicalism is lacking. Also, I think the hipster emphases on social justice, caring for the environment, and generally being engaged in world issues can offer some helpful lessons for mainstream evangelicalism.
MIKE: Rod Dreher at Crunchy Con quoted at length from your post “Are You a Christian Hipster,” and concluded, “Rather than the superficial term ‘hipster,’ the more meaningful term for Christians of any tradition is ‘radical.’ A hipster is just playing at being radical.” First, do you think Dreher’s right? If so, can a “radical” posture ultimately bring about the type of change to Evangelical subculture that hipsters want?
BRETT: I always find it funny when hipsterdom is equated with radicalism. In all but the rarest of cases, hipsters are anything but radical. They are as consumer-minded as their capitalism foils, as insulated and bourgeois as their suburban foes, and about as revolutionizing for culture as a Segway was for transportation. Sure, they like to romanticize radicalism and revolution, but are they doing anything truly radical? It’s one thing to have this posture; it’s another to actually be living in a radical way. Shane Claiborne is a true radical. But so are some soccer moms and business men. Wearing Che Guevera shirts, riding fixed gear bikes, and eating community-grown vegetables isn’t really radical.
MIKE: This is your first book. For all my writer friends, can you describe the nuts and bolts of how it came about. Did you acquire an agent, were you approached by a potential publisher, or did you have to “pound the pavement” to sell the idea to others?
BRETT: Baker Books was the first publisher I pitched it to, and it came about from a personal connection who put in a good word for me with the acquisitions editor. I sent him an email with the idea for a book about “cool Christianity,” he had me write a full proposal and a sample chapter, and eventually they acquired it and I signed the contract. No agent involved (though I did consult a few agents for some free advice along the way). I think in this case, what appealed to Baker was that it was a timely idea that I had already written about and thought about (it helped that they could read blog posts and articles, such as Relevant’s “A New Kind of Hipster,” that I had written on the topic). I would suggest that if you’re an aspiring author and you don’t have a blog, start one. Also, try to publish articles on the topic of the book. Show that it’s an idea with proven interest for readers.
MIKE: Is “Hipster Christianity” aimed at defining a growing subculture or informing an aging culture? Since hipsters hate labels, I’m assuming you believe that most hipsters won’t be reading your book. Should they? And if us “non-hipsters” are your target audience, why should the hipster culture be important to us? In other words, who should read “Hipster Christianity”?
BRETT: Both. I wanted the book to be a historical time capsule on one hand, and a cautionary tale critique on the other. I wrote it for a broad audience, and I think anyone with an interest in Christian culture (both hipsters and non hipsters) will find it interesting. I definitely had pastors in mind, or youth pastors or just leaders in Christianity… people who are especially concerned with the question of how to make Christianity appealing to the culture and whether or not we should try to make Christianity “cool.” I think Christian hipsters themselves should read it. If they like self-referentiality and thinking deeply about sociology and culture as much as I think they do, they will find much of interest in this book.
MIKE: Finally, what do you think will eventually come of hipster Christianity? Is it a fad? Or do you see some staying power to its idea and aims?
BRETT: I think it will be around for a bit longer, though it’s always changing. I think the nature of it being first and foremost a rebellion against a certain form of 80s-90s evangelicalism means that once this generation grows up, that need to rebel will gradually wane. I’m sure the current set of Christian hipsters will have kids that will find new ways to rebel. Who knows what that will look like.
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And all this time I thought eating free-range chicken and owning a Che Guevera shirt made me a radical. Oh well. Really, Brett, great stuff. Congratulations and good luck on the book. And remember, if any of you’d like to be entered into the giveaway for one of three signed copies of Hipster Christianity, just leave a comment on this post.