In Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide, author Brett McCracken analyzes a growing sub-culture within the Western Church — Millennial postmodern believers seeking to mesh trendiness with spirituality. McCracken concludes that while aspiring to be culturally relevant, Christians need not compromise Truth for being “cool.” In fact, “coolness” and/or “hipness” exist on a sliding scale. Meshing eternal truths with ever-changing contemporary valuations is quite sticky. Thus, the “Christian hipster” straddles the line between legitimate engagement of culture and superficial pop cultural appropriation.
I was thinking about this phenomenon while recently reading about another, similarly odd, subculture — the Christian Geek.
Before we can get to the Christian geek, we must acknowledge the ascension of geekdom in the broader culture. Somewhere along the way, nerds and geeks went from being dorky outsiders to cool kids. This transformation has as much to do with the proliferation of popular culture and exponential technological advance than almost anything. At one time, the geek was the kid who constructed the short wave radio in his garage and chatted with a caribou hunter in Alaska. Today, practically any cell phone owner can Facetime the same caribou hunter in between micro-waving lunch and streaming anime on their HD 4K thinscreen. Now that immediate geek cred is at our fingertips, we can proudly display our bona fides with any number of purchases or references. Just mention ComicCon, much less namedrop panelists you were pictured with, and your geek points accumulate at warp factor.
As a result, a glut of “geek” outlets have been born — Den of Geek, ThinkGeek, Geek Girls, Gadgets for Geeks, Geek Street Clothing, GeekFuel, Geek squads, make-up for geeks, and even a site for Geeks Who Drink. Eventually the most eligible bachelors weren’t just stud muffins, they were geeks, and the quickest career arc to affluence was through the use or development of cutting edge geekery. Now geek is the new sexy. And non-geeks are straight-up muggles.
As with many pop-cultural trends, it didn’t take long for Christians to follow suit.
I’m not sure when it started, but as with the Christian hipster, the Christian geek piggy-backed off an existing cultural trend, appropriating the label for their own purposes and sanctifying the pursuit in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost. So now we have outlets like the Geeky Christian, Christian Geek Central, Geeks Under Grace, The Christian Geeks, and Geeks and God; there’s Geekually Yoked, a podcast for “married Christian geeks,” a Geek’s Guide to Christianity, an Apostle to the Geeks, and even a Gay Christian Geek. With this has come a spate of reflections on Why geeks make great Christ followers, what Christians can learn about God from geek culture, how to Geek-Proof Your Faith, and numerous principles of spiritual growth and evangelism via geek prescripts. Now you can apply Dark Knight Discipleship, and learn how to live in community (because geeks do Acts 2 better than most churches) and geeks don’t crucify each other, but know how to disagree respectfully (of course, don’t tell that to Gamergaters and the Hugo Award flamewarriors).
But while there has been much effort to baptize the new demographic, pushback has been minimal. Research the subject and you’ll inevitably be directed to articles like What the Church Can Learn from Geek Culture and 10 Things Church Can Learn from Geeks. You see, geeks are now the new demographic that the church should be crafting outreach to. Yet while Christians appear to be rushing to embrace the label of “geek,” at least usher them into the fold, few have appeared to offer criticism. Which is what I’d like to offer here.
Affirming Christian geek culture poses two potential problems. One is the continued fragmentation and commodification of Christian culture, the other is interpretative over-reach regarding Christian themes in pop culture. In other words, validating the demographic and sanctioning its many cultural forms.
People will always sub-divide according to their likes and dislikes. Whether it’s music, film, food, politics, hobbies, or clothing, we inevitably migrate toward those with similar interests. So it shouldn’t be a surprise if gamers, anime artists, or Star Wars fans do the same. Even if they do it in the church. The problem arises when we slap the label “geek” on these niche dwellers and frame them as some sort of outcasts who need to be shepherded into the fold.
In their article The Overlooked: Geeks in the Church, Geeks Under Grace suggests that “geeks are particularly too often overlooked in the church” and offers this example:
“A young Christian woman I know creates beautiful anime-style art, but hesitates to share it in a realm of faith because ‘no one wants anime Jesus.’ Well, who says? Hasn’t God equipped her with a love and grace to be shared with others who might respond best to such an outlet?
The fact is, Jesus loves gamers, otakus, and comic book nerds – and he lives in the hearts of many such people. Isn’t it a mistake to overlook them just because it’s hard to understand what God has called them to do?”
While this is true, it’s not not unique to “gamers, otakus, and comic book nerds.” The same argument could be made for creatives in general. Churches don’t do a great job of recognizing horror writers, sushi chefs, and chainsaw sculptors either. So why should “geeks” suddenly become the new outreach demographic? In fact, it could be said that with the embrace of technologies by the church (podcasts, digital overheads, professional stage lighting, etc.) that computer geeks are MORE in demand for churches than, say, oil painters or screenwriters. Other than musicians, the church does not do a great job engaging creatives in general.
Furthermore, do we really need another sub-culture within the church? At some point, we are in danger of fracturing the Body into an infinite number of subcultures – Christian geeks, Christian singles, Christian homeschoolers, Christian athletes, Christian business owners, etc., etc. Heck, even within the geek community there exists numerous sub-divisions — Firefly fans, Marvel enthusiasts, Halo buffs, Tech toy aficionados, etc., etc. Shouldn’t we be more reluctant to embrace another label (“Christian geek”) which potentially fragments the community into another specialty niche? And with technologically-based pop-culture exponentially growing, people who enjoy gaming, gadgets, computers, comics, and CGI comprise, like, half of our Western world. Christian geeks are not the lonely misunderstood outsiders they are often made out to be.
A second possible issue concerning Christian geek culture is its embrace, assimilation, and sanctioning of numerous pop cultural commodities. Now don’t get me wrong here, Christians DO need to be more culturally savvy. And in the broader sense, Christians should be adept at identifying echoes of the Gospel anywhere we hear them. God has fused us with His image (Gen. 1:27), placed “eternity in [our] hearts” (Eccl. 3:11), and written His Law in our consciences (Rom. 2:14-15). It’s no wonder that even the most seemingly innocuous pop cultural artifacts can contain glimpses of Truth. So riffing on these “Gospel glimpses” seems like a smart thing to do, apologetically speaking. In this sense, identifying and affirming spiritual themes in popular culture, from X-Men to XBox, seems a reasonable thing to do.
The problem is that Christian geeks can simply become celebrants of niche elements of pop culture who attempt to spiritualize their specific fandom. With the rise of Christian geekdom, it is now not uncommon to find those highlighting the numerous “Christian” elements of their specific fandom. Thus, Christian geeks seem to find Bible truth just about anywhere — Harry Potter, Star Trek, Dr. Who, The Walking Dead, or Dragon Ball Z. To say that some of these are a bit of a stretch is an understatement. Take Star Wars Redeemed: Your Life-Transforming Journey with Jesus and the Jedi, wherein the author uses the Star Wars series as a template for expounding upon “some of the most difficult-to-understand subjects in the Bible.” From the synop:
Star Wars Redeemed teaches the powerful truths of God’s Word using the backdrop of Star Wars. Have fun exploring some of the themes, metaphors, motifs, scenes, characters, and dialogue from the first six Star Wars films while learning some of the most difficult-to-understand subjects in the Bible.
In Star Wars Redeemed, you will find answers to the following questions:
• Is it possible to find God’s will for my life?
• Does God’s control have limits?
• How can I know if I’m saved?
• What’s the purpose of the Church?
• How can I arm myself for spiritual warfare?
• Is speaking in tongues possible?
• Does God care how I vote?
• What about the “End Times”?
Look, I’m a Star Wars fan. Are there hints of the Gospel in Star Wars. Absolutely! But does the series really answer questions about the End Times or whether speaking in tongues is possible? This kind of interpretative overreach is symptomatic of much of today’s Christian geek culture. I mean are Batman and Robin really templates for biblical discipleship? Is there really a Gospel According to Spiderman? Only if you squint. Let me suggest that this is another potential problematic element of Christian geek culture. I mean, what is the “Christian geek” but someone who seeks to superimpose his or her spiritual values over a specific fandom? Often this involves over-reach, the sanctification of our own amusements. It is pop cultural appropriation at its worst.
But perhaps the potentially most troubling aspect of Christian geekdom is its appeal to cultural hipness. The term “geek” used to be synonymous with “outsider.” And though many professing geeks still like to gloss themselves as misunderstood outsiders, the truth is that geeks now exists in the tens of freakin’ millions. Yes, at one time the guy with the short wave radio in his garage WAS an outsider. Trouble is, anime fans, Star War cosplayers, and tech lovers are now everywhere! Face it, the term “geek” is now brandished as a badge of honor. It is cool. Wearing a Superman shirt is hardly unfashionable. Quoting Batman in a sermon garners you props. And knowing how to write code for video games can make you a pretty penny. So this idea that geeks are somehow still some misunderstood group of outsiders is just inaccurate. Frankly, one reason Christians are anxious to embrace the “geek” label is because it carries cultural cache. Geeks are now the cool kids. And God knows that we Christians need to appear more cool.
Wherever you fall on the geek spectrum, might I suggest that we not rush to baptize “Christian geeks” as the next unreached people group. Every Christian, geek or not, is measured by their relationship to Christ and to His Body. Knowing all the characters in Full Metal Alchemist or owning a Nanoleaf Aurora will not improve your standing with either. Building a TARDIS might earn you a side-eye from the choir ladies. But methinks Jesus could care less.