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The life and times of Christian hipsters

Looking at Brett McCracken's book as it considers the relationship between "cool" and "Christian"

by Jeff Miller

“Cool.” The word has had little to do with Christianity. That is, until now. And for author Brett McCracken, this brings up a whole lot of questions—questions that he explores in his new book Hipster Christianity: When church and cool collide.

Hipster Christianity revolves around one main question: Should Christianity be cool? Wisely, he does not race to answer this but instead seeks to define his terms.

Cool, McCracken writes, is “an attractive attribute that embodies the existential strains to be independent, enviable, one-of-a-kind, and trailblazing.” (Yeah, I had to take a nap half- way through it too!) And what about hipsters? For the author, hipsters are simply young people who are rebellious, edgy, and fashionable.

After examining the history of hip in North American culture (think hippies) and the various types of hipsters that exist today (think urban or college-town artists, yuppies, or activists), McCracken shares the story of Christianity’s journey toward embracing the “cool”—from the Jesus People movement in the ’70s to Christian rock.

This movement toward what is hip, McCracken suggests, has created “Christian hipsters,” young people in the Church today who embrace certain shared values and attitudes. For one, fashion and art are huge among Christian hipsters. Skinny jeans and scarves are common, while listening to tunes from Sufjan Stevens and U2 is almost required. They celebrate a wide array of artistic forms and appreciate the works of authors like Ron Sider, N.T. Wright, and Anne Lamott.

Christian hipsters aren’t big fans of altar calls and door-to-door evangelism, and they tend to look up to people like Shane Claiborne, Mark Driscoll, Donald Miller, and Rob Bell. Theologically, they often resonate with parts of the emergent church conversation and to the idea of missional living, which centers on living for God’s kingdom right now. Consequently, they are known for being passionate about social justice issues, such as poverty and creation care.

To be honest, in many ways, I was hearing McCracken describe me. These were the things I was passionate about, the people I respected and read, and the things that I did or didn’t like. I soon thought, “If this was what it means to be a Christian hipster, then sign me up!” Cool never looked so good.

Yet this wasn’t the whole story. Hipster Christianity isn’t a mere announcement of this new movement but also a critique of it. First off, McCracken rejects the idea that the Gospel needs to be marketed as “cool” for its audience. Though I see where he’s coming from, I was surprised that he didn’t wrestle with Paul’s charge in 1 Corinthians 9 to become “all things to all men,” because sometimes we have to speak the language of the people we’re trying to reach.

In our changing culture, I think cool has the chance to be redeemed.

Secondly, McCracken suggests that some Christians have gone too far to embrace culture for the sake of seeming cool. This is an important issue because, as he points out, the message is not separate from the medium we use to share it. How we live and present ourselves to the watching world is fused with the good news we bring, so we need to be careful that they both reflect Jesus.

That said, I agree with McCracken when he says that coolness is often undergirded by un-Christ-like traits, such as individualism, pride, vanity, and a focus on the now. If that is what cool means, then it has little room for Jesus and His kingdom.

But I wonder, Is that what cool has to be? You see, in our changing culture, I think cool has the chance to be redeemed. Pursuing peace and justice in order to advance God’s kingdom can be cool. Loving and accepting all people, no matter who they are can be cool. To his credit, McCracken acknowledges this and in fact calls believers to pursue what he calls the “authentic Christian cool.”

As a whole, this book was thought-provoking, timely, and something that I didn’t expect: fair. McCracken’s love for the Church shines through as he spends most of his time looking for common ground to build others up instead of tearing them down. It’s a beautiful thing and a hopeful sign for future dialogue.

Overall, Hipster Christianity is one of the first books that gives an objective and holistic picture of this fresh wind that is blowing through Christianity. And though it’s a wind that has its flaws and potential hazards, it is full of Jesus and has the ability to speak to the younger generations in a powerful way. And that, I think we can all agree, is pretty cool.

This article originally appeared in the winter 2010 issue of In Part magazine.
Jeff Miller

Jeff Miller is an associate pastor at Cumberland Valley Church (BIC). He lives in Dillsburg, Pa., with his wife, Shannon, and their 9-month-old daughter, Alyssa, who, for the record, thinks her dad is cool . . . at least for now.

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Comments

Joel Vermont (Oak Ridges BIC) Posted on March 23, 2011

I thought this was a well written review. I have not read the book myself, and I don't recall hearing of it before reading this article. But I think that it brings up an interesting topic that is certainly very relevant to the North American church of today.

More and more, there seems to be a move by North American churches and Christians to be cool. But Scripture tells us to expect the opposite. The narrow gate and the narrow path that few will enter can't be the cool way. The effort to be cool will come at the cost of our spiritual health. I think that there will be times when some of the things we believe in and do as followers of Christ will be respected by unbelievers. But many of the same people will dislike or even hate other things. If we take social justice for example, many people will respect us for striving to help the needy. And a church that is all about social justice would be very attractive to a lot of people. But if the same church is teaching against unbiblical divorce for example, there will be a lot of those same people who would not find that to be cool.

When Paul says that he has become all things to all people, that by all means he might save some, his goal is to remove hindrances to the gospel, not to be cool or even to make following Jesus look more appealing. But it seems that many have taken that verse as license to dress in a worldly way to identify with those who are worldly when we are supposed to be calling them out of the world. We should not aim to be cool, we should aim to be authentic followers of Jesus, whether people like it or hate it.

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