Hipster Christian: Signified Without a Signifier

Full disclosure: I haven’t read and don’t plan to read Brett McCracken’s debut book, Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. If commentary on the ideas of an unread book makes me unfair and imbalanced, then disqualify me now. There are two reasons that I’m not interested in reading this book: the first concerns the method and subject, an unprofessional ethnographic study of a sub-culture in American Christianity, which might not exist, and the second concerns the gratuitous publicity – gratuitous when there are other titles from Christian authors that deserve such attention and never get it because, ironically, their subject isn’t perceived as “hip and happening” (e.g., Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Emmanuel Katongole’s The Sacrifice of Africa: A Political Theology for Africa, and Brian Brock’s Christian Ethics in a Technological Age). That said, I’ve done enough homework to weigh in.

McCraken wrote an article in The Wall Street Journal and a cover story in Christianity Today. A surfeit of reviews have also appeared, most notably Kristen Scharold in The Gospel Coalition and James K. A. Smith in The Other Journal, although you might want to check out John Wilson in Books & Culture, Charles Colson in Breakpoint, David Sessions in Patrol, and Matthew Lee Anderson in Mere Orthodoxy.

As I’m writing this post, I feel that I’m an accomplice to gratuity. Nevertheless, I can’t resist the impulse to register an observation. Much of the “controversy” surrounding Hipster Christianity is related to slippery nomenclature. Simply put, if you’ve got trouble naming something, perhaps that something doesn’t exist at all. What we’ve got here is weird semiotics: the signified (the mental image of a Christian hipster) lacks a signifier (a Christian hipster qua Christian hipster).

Scharold claims that an important discussion about contextualization of the gospel “gets snagged on a teetering understanding of a loaded cultural phenomenon, turning the book into a loose cultural survey.” McCracken’s definition of hipster, according to Scharold, is “a moving target,” used interchangeably with “cool,” referring to “fashionable young people,” “a style and nothing more,” or a worldview committed to meaninglessness. Smith, another critical reviewer, says “poser is a relevant, important term missing from Brett McCracken’s lexicon.” As a result, his treatment of hipster Christianity is “reductionistic” because it fails to distinguish between the “real deal” and “wannabe.”

But Smith hasn’t resolved anything by the addition of another word to the lexicon. He’s further problematized matters with the assumption, lacking definitional clarity and empirical support, that hipster Christianity exists and, even worse, with the designation of himself as the de facto arbiter of genuine hipness. I wouldn’t be surprised if Smith launches a website soon called “Hip or Not,” although there’s not much guesswork in who qualifies because candidates will bear resemblance to his students at Calvin College “who, from Christian convictions, have intentionally pursued a lifestyle that rejects the bourgeois consumerism of mass, commercialized culture.” Only a few sentences later Smith renames hipsters, opting for “bohemians,” which reinforces my perception that the elasticity of “hipster” evacuates it of usable signification.

All this talk of Christian hipsterdom seems like the new wardrobe that is fitted for the emperor in Hans Christian Andersen’s famous tale. The weavers pull off a hoax that beguiles the crowd until a clear-sighted child cries out, “He’s naked!” Our concern, against the American penchant for expressive individualism, should be the exigencies of a gospel-driven life, a concern that motivates both McCracken and Smith but gets bogged down in irrelevancies. Dropping the signified – “hipster” or “bohemian” – helps us get closer to being simply Christian.

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3 thoughts on “Hipster Christian: Signified Without a Signifier

  1. Christopher – Very good. I think the main point worth further discussion here is the self-conscious nature of evangelicalism. It seems like there’s always been a highly self-conscious component to it because it was formed as an attempt to reclaim the center between fundamentalism and modernism. Yet I wonder if the introspective intentions of the founders have lapsed into little more than vain navel gazing amongst their descendants. I think your call to be simply Christian is dead on, but I’m struggling with how we get from here (self conscious “hipsters” and “posers”) to there.

    • Jake: Thanks for stopping by. I think it’s important to see “the self-conscious nature of evangelicalism” as a manifestation of “the American penchant for expressive individualism” rather than a singular phenomenon. While I haven’t done enough homework on the history of American evangelicalism to make a strong claim, here’s my hunch: the self-consciousness originates less with an effort “to reclaim the center between fundamentalism and modernism” and more with an assimilation to consumerist society.

      How do we get from self-consciousness to “simply Christian”? If my experience has any predictive power, I suggest that we adopt a post-evangelical identity, where evangelical functions improperly as a noun with a capital “E” rather than properly as an adjective with a lower case “e.” Kierkegaard’s existential accent informs my self-conception because he interprets Jesus’ injunction, “Take up the cross,” as a reminder that we’re always in the process of becoming Christian and never Christian qua Christian. Instead of focusing neurotically and narcissistically on what kind of Christian I am, either “hipster or “bohemian,” the one Christian who hung on a tree invites me to undergo a death to the flattering delights of self in order to be remade, day by day, through his resurrection power.

  2. Pingback: Not exactly the Arian controversy | Return to Rome

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