Friday, May 23, 2008

Hipster Christian: You're Not the Only One

This post is long overdue and the topic probably has been written ad nauseum somewhere else, but I feel a need to address it anyway. The topic is the rise of Christian counterculture, specifically that of the "Hipster Christian", in the early 21st century. Similar to the Jesus movement of the late 60's/early 70's, Hipster Christians tend to be of two sorts: those who identify as "Christian" within the hipsterocracy and those hipsters sitting in the pews.Three things have made me aware of the Hipster Christian phenomena. The first, I believe, was my sister's friend suddenly finding Christ at the end of high school and later going on to being an art major at OSU (and eventual hipster). The second was the rise of Sufjan Stevens and his ilk to indie rock greatness. Finally, the prevalence of the various sects of Hipster Christianity in COMO added to my already anxious state from moving to Misery.

I remember my sister's high school graduation. Her best friend through childhood was giving the valedictorian speech. She went through this list of characteristics of a good friend. Long story short, she concluded with the secret: her best friend was Jesus. Before this event, my sister and her friend were the odd-ball hipster-types of our small-town, rural high school. Then, her friend had som
e life-altering experience and traded my sister in for the messiah. From there, my sister and her friend seemed to drift apart.

Eventually, maybe five years later, the two friends rejoined to become roommates. Her friend was still into being a Jesus freak, only she was fully entrenched in the OSU art scene. Her senior exhibit was held in a very artsy part of town the night of a gallery hop (aka the night where yuppies venture to the city for some culture). I was shocked that such a young artist had been able to secure a space in such a competitive part of the art scene. Then, I saw the venue: the rundown storefront-turned-Christian youth "coffee house". I don't mean to degrade her art. It just had "Hipster Christian" written all over it, long before I coined the term.
This was about the same time I became interested in Sufjan Stevens. His instrumentation and lyrical prowess is unparalleled, but I didn't totally get what he was saying in his music. My partner, a former Catholic school student, could pick out all the religious imagery of which I was ignorant. The guy really gets into the whole Jesus thing and conflicts with his faith. It added a layer to music that just wasn't there for me. It didn't ruin the music for me, a pure-bred atheist. Actually, it had the opposite effect. The themes and ideas Stevens addresses in his music only have made the music deeper, more complex.

Of course, Stevens is not the only Hipster Christian to which I listen. I have a few Pedro the Lion records lying about. Then there's slowcore originators Low. There's the whole Danielson Famile that gave Sufjan his start. I'm sure there are others I don't even realize, but these are the groups who seem to be out of the Christian closet, so to speak.

In case you didn't know, all things Christian happen in Misery. If you haven't seen Jesus Camp, then you wouldn't understand. There's a lot of Christ's blood running through the mighty Missouri River, fo sheezy. And I'm not talking little, modest, country churches. No, I'm talking mega-churches. Even somewhat secular (albeit raised Baptist) rhet/comp faculty members are blogging about it.

The two factions of Jesus freaks are clearly represented in COMO. There are the cool parishioners of churches like The Rock get the point. They wear Burkenstocks and play rock music at services. (OK. This does not make them hipsters, but it does make them cool kids who aspire to be hip, hence they have hipster tendencies.) They even feature some of their hottest, hippest members on their TV ads in order to attract those who want cool friends.

Then, there are the more free-spirited hippies and hipsters who also happen to love Jesus. The reason I lump the hippies with the hipsters is because there is a fine line in these here parts. Now, instead looking for the coolest, most obscure religion or even going without religion altogether, these Hipster Christians really set the trend of worship by toting Bibles and praying before they eat their vegan feasts. Now that they have morality, they can enter the next phase of hipsterdom and become hipster parents.

I don't mean to be offensive, I just don't understand the Hipster Christian ethic. The social justice angle that exists in those secretly Marxist Catholics or the liberal-minded Protestants makes sense, but the embracing of hetero-centric and conservative viewpoints seem to contradict what it means to be a hipster. Conversely, is it really Christian to focus on one's image as much as one's god? I don't know.

I mean, can a Hipster Christian be pro-choice? Can a Hipster Christian care about fashion? Can a Hipster Christian like secular music? I've met some that are on both sides of these issues, which doesn't make things any clearer for me.

Anyway, there's a dissertation in there somewhere that I will never have time to write. I don't know that Hipster Christians are good or bad. I just know that it's a phenomenon of the last decade that needs to be explored.

Until then, watch this.


Elizabeth Hornbeck said...

Hey, there. What an interesting topic for your blog. Although I know (or care) little about the Hipster Christian as a "taste culture" (to use a phrase coined by Herbert Gans, I think), I notice in your essay a prevalent tendency to assume that most people who call themselves Christians are socially and politically conservative (prevalent in our culture, I mean). In fact, in my experience, a great many Christians are not. There are many liberal, Democratic, and even pro-choice Christians in this country. For me, as a former Christian, the most difficult thing to deal with were the assumptions people made about one's politics (not to mention one's personal choices and lifestyle) if I told them I went to church. This became really bad in the George W. Bush years, which is what finally made me stop identifying myself as a Christian. But Christians are really no different from the rest of the population, if you were to take demographic statistics about their habits and lifestyles. Lots of Christians care about fashion (though if you walk into a church you will immediately notice that lots of them don't!) Lots of Christians listen to secular music, and lots of Christians are pro-choice. And lots of Christians object strenuously to the Bushies' misuse of the Christian appellation to support their extremely un-Christian policies of war.

You (like many people during the last decade) take Christian fundamentalists to represent the mainstream of Christianity. To me they are a fringe element -- a large fringe element, but still not mainstream -- who use religion improperly.

To ask whether Hipster Christians are "good or bad" is sort of beside the point. What's worse, injecting a religious element into your musical entertainment, or destroying countries while simultaneously leaving America without a shred of integrity?

By the way, do you think Peter Gabriel's "Solsbury Hill" is a Christian allegory? Or do you not listen to Peter Gabriel because he's not an indie rocker? I have to admit I enjoy the song more because it makes me wonder if there's a secret message encrypted in its lyrics.

Oops, I notice it's around 1 a.m. (Eastern Time, where I currently find myself). How does this always happen?


comoprozac said...

I like that term taste culture. That describes what I was getting at quite well.

I didn't assume anything in this post. In fact, I believe I pointed out some examples of progressive Christians.

Also, if you follow the pro-choice link, someone way more eloquent and knowledgeable than me comments on the issue. I suggest one read the comments as well.

When I wonder whether Hipster Christians are embracing a conservative mind-set, I am not talking about George W Bush. You assumed that. What I mean is the domestic conservatism related to starting a family...concern over the schools, neighborhood safety, financial security, etc. In a sense, I too have embraced this sort of conservatism.

I am not pro- or anti-Hipster Christian. I just find fashionable religion to be intriguing. Of course, I also don't think all Christians fall neatly into one or two categories. This is just one subculture that is interesting to me.

For those who have read this blog for a while, they realize that I write about hipsters all the time. I also talk about HC's all the time and the blog is a way to extend those conversations.

Zach said...

Replace "Christian" with "Jew" and this reads as pryingly anti-Semitic. That's something worth noting.

(This is a relatively objective take on Christianity. I'm just saying that there's a prevailing double standard that some people are finding increasingly frustrating, if not frightening)

comoprozac said...

Yeah, but "Hipster Jew" just doesn't have as nice a ring. I think there is actually a lot of people also turning to Judaism (among other religions) because it's cool. There was that whole Madonna thing a while back.

Double standards are always disturbing. It usually limits open dialog. And, as you know, I'm all about the open dialog. The anti-semitic double standard is similar to those involving sexism, racism, (insert your own -ism here). While double standards seem unfair to the outsider, they are really rooted in histories of power inequities. So, you have to let them go sometimes.

It is an interesting point you bring up, though. I'd address it more, but it's way more serious than I wanted to get into here. I mostly am concerned with religion (particularly Christianity) as fashion or accessory.

Anonymous said...

Because I'm a coward, I'm agnostic. Anyway, thought you'd might like this.

comoprozac said...

I did like that and I generally call myself "agnostic", although I was raised atheist.

Jerry and Dena said...

I didn't feel like we raised you as an atheist, so I'm surprised to hear that you think so. Your dad and I grew up actively involved in organized religions (Christian) and one of the things we had in common when we met is that we couldn't figure out why people believed in the Bible, God, etc., but have always considered oursleves Agnostic. We fully intended to let you, Katie, and Nate make the decision of how you believe yourselves. We even sent you to Vacation Bible school for many years (at Grace Chapel of all places!). After that experience and attending WL schools, I'm surprised you didn't all run away and join a cult:)
Anyway, I enjoyed reading this blog.

ks said...

I thought of a couple of things in reading this blog. First thing was, I think you would enjoy Netflixing the IFC series "One Punk Under God" (I think that's the title) about Jay Baker, son of Jim & Tammy Faye Baker (of PTL fame). Jay is the epitome of "Hipster Christian," and a really, really neat guy. He started Revolution Church, a church here in Atlanta that has now moved to NYC. The church met in bars and coffeeshops for years and is known for its bumper stickers tagged around town that read "As Christians We Apologize for Being Self-Righteous Bastards." He's also pretty famously embraced homosexuals into his church. Even if you're not religion-inclined, you'd probably really enjoy the IFC show.

I'd also recommend checking out the blog Street Prophets. It's a sister site to the Daily Kos, and it's focused on faith & politics (and daily life). There's a rather large atheist readership on this blog, too. But in reading it, you'll see how it IS possible to be progressively Christian or religious, and how being progressive/liberal is actually truer to the Christian message (and other religions too) than conservatism is.