Vintage Saints and Sinners by Karen Wright Marsh, Free for CAPC Members
In Vintage Saints and Sinners, Karen Wright Marsh manages to emphasize the vast goodness of spiritual giants while also humanizing them.
Currently, as I type this article, I am sitting in a dimly lit coffee shop with books next to me sipping on my mocha, listening to Sufjan Stevens play over the house stereo. I am wearing a slightly tight fitting retro 8Os tee, Dickies shorts, and black chucks. Tomorrow night I will be going out with friends to drink imported beer and talk about the plausibility of theistic evolution. The church I preached at on Sunday morning was full of people with tattoos (including the guy behind the pulpit…i.e. me), and my wife is dressed like a 1950s movie star (she looks good). Next Tuesday I will visit our local Farmers’ Market because I believe it’s important to buy local and to avoid all the wasteful packaging of commercial products. Apparently this makes me a Christian hipster, or at least that’s what Brett McCracken, author of Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide, says. Although I am not sure that McCracken is fully convinced in his own mind that this is true.
Hipster Christianity is at once one of the most interesting and most frustrating books I’ve read this year. The concept for the book was incredibly attractive to me. A cultural analysis of a particular young Christian subculture today as it reacts to growing up in fundamentalist circles and suddenly discovering a larger world. The reviews of the book were a bit disappointing as they seemed to indicate McCracken was simply lambasting young people for contaminating the church and the gospel with the culture. But having read the book I am convinced that neither of those statements truly represents the book itself, which is perhaps why it’s so frustrating. It’s very hard to pinpoint exactly what McCracken is attempting to accomplish with this work.
In the first part of the book (chapters 1-3) McCracken gives us a cultural history of “cool,” “hip,” and “Christian hipsters.” It’s interesting, even if I am not sure it’s totally accurate. McCracken writes with an engaging style and good use of wit. But by the end of chapter three I am not entirely sure where he’s going. His definition of “Hipster” doesn’t seem to help either: fashionable young people. The definition is so broad and so soft that it may be more indicative of just how hard defining “hipster” really is. McCracken gives a nod to this reality but pushed on ahead anyways. For him “hipsters” are basically defined by their obsession with style, and for part two of the work he builds his case by analyzing every “form” of Christian hipster on display in the culture. His analysis consists of what they wear, what music they like, and what “vices” they indulge in. So you might be a Christian Hipster if…
…You don’t like Pat Roberts, TBN, Joel Osteen, CCM, American flags in churches, phrases like “soul winning” and “nondenominational.” And if you prefer the term “Christ follower” over “Christian.”
…You like left wing politics, smoking, drinking, swearing, communion with real port and common cups, tattoos, piercings, skateboarding, social justice, art and buying organic.
…Your role models include (but are not necessarily limited to): Sufjan Stevens (he is apparently Christian hip epitomized, according to McCracken), Shane Claiborne, Lauren Winner, Jay Bakker, Donald Miller, Mark Driscoll, and Rob Bell.
…You went to a Christian college (especially Calvin College), studies abroad (especially Oxford), or did missions work in Zambia post graduation.
…You wear skinny jeans, Jesus kitsch tees, vintage, thrift, or retro clothes, or Kenneth Cole apparel.
My contention with all of this is that it is so broad, and takes so little consideration of major distinguishing features, that it seems little more than humorous, and that’s how most of the book feels. McCracken is witty and sarcastic, even sardonic, at times. I laughed out loud, even when I hated feeling like he had pegged me in one of his categories. But the reality is that he has pegged just about everyone I know in one of his categories. If you like ancient religious practices with a bent towards Eastern Orthodox worship you’re a hipster. If you like high technological usage, like tweeting during the sermon, then you’re a hipster…and seemingly everything in between. If you’re a yuppie or a starving artist you’re a hipster. If you’re a Calvinist or an Emergent you’re a hipster. And this all just seems like nonsense after a while.
By the end of the book McCracken has summed up his own uncertainty with the startling realization that some Christian Hipsters are all about style and earning “cool points,” while others are actually legitimately interested in enjoying God’s creation and finding real truth, beauty, and aesthetic quality in the world He has made. Some churches are cool and some are trying too hard. “Cool” as rebellion is unacceptable to Christianity, “cool” as authentic counterculture is Biblical. All in all McCracken could have said this rather obvious statement in far fewer pages and with far less confusion. The concept of the book has real potential and I hope this work will spur on a more in-depth discussion of Hipster Christianity. McCracken, however, hasn’t given us a whole lot to work with.
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