Tuesday, August 17, 2010

review of "Hipster Christianity" from an Artistic Searcher (or is it Bookish Intellectual?)

I can't quite put my finger on the feelings this book provoked: a little bit of squirmy embarrassment (from all the kitschy Christian stuff I liked at one time), a little bit of respect to the author for all the hipster history  he told so well, and a little bit of eye-rolling (but secret, guilty pleasure) at the occasional slips into a sort-of  "I'll sign your yearbook, if you sign mine" voice.  As McCracken reminds us, we all really just want to be cool. 

Brett McCracken is a historian for his generation. He uses his blog and this book to track the quirks and qualms of a generation in little literary time capsules:  hipsters' favorite music, TV shows, books, clothing preferences.  He acknowledges this as a risk: "...what follows will doubtless be...dated within a few short minutes of being penned."  Likely so, but the work he did in part one, "The History and Collision of Cool and Christianity", helped me understand centuries-old origins of whole swaths of culture, both in the church and in my neighborhood.  I would never have realized, for example, that the hipster persona evolved from the rise of an urban middle class, separating themselves from the medieval lords and landowners.  The noveau riche class stickin' it to the man.  And the hipster is born.  Not quite that simple, but still ironic (in a deliciously hipster sense) since the middle class and bourgeois are the anathema of all things hip.

McCracken is a researcher.  He states that the book is "seeking to document the movement." And so it does. In part two, he adds specific case studies from his visits among hipster churches in North America and Europe.  From a spacious vantage point, he applies these learnings to the contemporary phenomenon of "cool Christianity"  showing up in churches and "Christian" marketing since the late twentieth century.  The definition of hipster McCracken uses embraces a wide variety of counter-cultural types and this is reflected in the range of churches he features.  Denominational to non-denominational, high-tech to low-tech, large congregation to small he offers a fairly generous sampling of a more "organic Christian hip".  Grassroots movements defined more by specific beliefs and convictions rather than surface strategies associated with mass-marketing Christianity.  This may be his most effective argument against the inauthentic attempts of many "wannabe hip" churches.  Hold up the good work of a real thing and let the reader decide.

In part three -- the final part of the 247 page book -- McCracken offers his analysis of problems and solutions related to the collision of cool and Christianity. He offers this part of the book as
"...an admonishment against those who would push for an aggressive strategy of Christian hip in their ecclesiological efforts. It's a cautionary reflection on the presiding impulse these days for churches to be culturally savvy (up on all trends and technologies and entertainment), stylish (designed and packaged to fit the 'young, edgy, hip' mold), and shocking ('not your mother's church!')."
It is not that I disagree with his thoughts, but where earlier in the book he offers a broad vantage point -- revealing a depth beyond his years -- it feels like this part of the book comes from a younger, less developed voice.  (All the more reason to applaud his chutzpa!) It seems that he does not have a hearty enough language to speak outside of the "youth group culture" he lovingly chides.  His language seems a little more stunted here and I fear that only the most discerning of those McCracken wishes to convince will look past the inside jokes and very savvy marketing he -- ironically -- utilizes to send the message.  I'm not gonna lie; I was quite pleased to discover my own CHQ (Christian Hipster Quotient) was admirably high.  (You can take the quiz for yourself here.)  After all, we all want to be in the cool club, right?

Still -- and wisely -- he draws on the aged wisdom of the saints who have gone on before, reminding us of our unadorned heritage in the Church across time and space.The ambition of his book is large -- to be a prophetic voice to this generation. To hold a wide-angle lens up  up to those of us too preoccupied gazing in the mirrors of our own ideal reflection. He has my applause for his ambition, my gratitude for his courage and my encouragement to keep on speaking deeply to the beautiful Bride of Christ.
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