Brett McCracken's, "Hipster Christianity"

A couple weeks ago my brother sent me a link to the Wall Street Journal’s summary of Brett McCraken’s new book, “Hipster Christianity.” The article for some reason really got under my skin so I thought I might blog a brief response to Mr. McCraken’s observations.

As he noted in the second paragraph of the article, yes, many Americans in their 20’s are “losing interest in the Christian establishment.” This is not a new trend by any means. This has been a growing trend for at least 30 years. And it may be more accurate to say the lack of interest in not in spirituality but in institutional religion or the “Christian establishment.” In fact, the Lifeway research he cites regarding young Protestant adults between 18-22 may be up a little but is consistent with trends over the last 30 years.

What irritates me to no end is McCracken’s insistence in portraying the emerging church as a “re-branding” to make Christianity “…hip, countercultural, [and] relevant.” There may be some who claim the emergent name who view the movement as a re-packaging but the vast majority of the writing on the emergent church understand it to be a substantive re-examination of American Christianity. I just finished reading Brian McLaren’s, A New Kind of Christianity which may be the most important book on the emerging church to date. Interesting that not once in the 300 or so pages of the book was worship style or “how to be more cool" addressed. Instead, it is a poignant critique of the theological constructs that have short circuited contemporary Christian faith. For example, Brian McLaren writes, “Every time we use terms like ‘the Fall’ and ‘original sin,’ I believe, many of us are unknowingly importing more or less this package of Greco-Roman, non-Jewish, and therefore nonbiblical concepts like smugglers bringing foreign currency into the biblical economy or tourists introducing invasive species into the biblical ecosystem.” (p. 43) There is a lot to talk about here beyond “style.”

Of course, there are some aspects of the emerging church that need thoughtful critique. But it sure would be nice if Mr. McCraken addressed THOSE issues and not the imaginary ones that he addressed. (And it would have been nice if the Wall Street Journal did their editorial homework before publishing a summary of his book).

But what is most surprisingly naïve about McCraken’s article is his lack of understanding of Christianity’s relationship to culture. McCraken uses anecdotal observations of various churches to bolster his hipster case – “The pastor quotes Steven Colbert or Lady Gaga during his [sic] sermon…For others, the emphasis is on looking cool, perhaps by giving the pastor a metrosexual makeover…” Firstly, I don’t understand how this is any different from Harry Emerson Fosdick in the 1950’s telling preachers to speak with “The daily newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other.” Christianity never comes to us in a vacuum but always wrapped in a cultural context. Granted, a critical critique of culture is necessary but it is impossible to escape the intertwining of the gospel and culture.

McCraken cites Mosaic Church in L.A. meeting in the Mayan Theater as an example of trying to be hip. Yet, while I was interviewing Erwin McManus (the Lead Pastor of Mosaic) for my dissertation he cited meeting in the Myan as a strategic and missional decision based on their ecclesiology, NOT to be more hipster. “Meeting in the Myan harkens back to the first century when the early Christians met in the pagan temples of their day. It is our way to speak to the culture of Los Angeles,” McManus told me. McCraken makes a lot of anthropological rookie mistakes – projecting his own meaning on to symbols that he is unfamiliar with.

McCraken’s discussion of sex in the church was the most disturbing to me. It seems that EVERYBODY in our culture is talking about sex except the church but apparently, it’s too embarrassing for McCraken. Jesus talked about sex and there is even a whole book of the Bible devoted to sex. Many of the contemporary attempts at discussing sex are not what McCraken calls, “…deep, serious cultural adaptations…” but thoughtful cultural exegesis and contextualization of the way of Jesus. (In particular, Rob Bell's, Sex God - which I believe was a breath of fresh air to the conversation).

McCraken ends the article with this prophecy, “As a twentysomething, I can say with confidence that when it comes to church, we don’t want cool as much as we want real. When I read those words, I had a serious case of déjà vu. I heard those same words from the mouths of Bill Hybels and Rick Warren in the mid-1990’s. It was the same thing I heard repeated ad nausium at Leadership Network’s Gen X conferences in the late 1990’s. It is the same thing I hear from idealistic college students to this day. Perhaps every idealistic twentysomething thinks their generation is just a little more pure, a little more well intentioned, and therefore a little more “real” than previous generations? I will be interested to read McCraken’s children’s critique of McCraken’s church in another 20 years.

Dana Hicks