Hip Christianity: Part 1, Seeing and Authenticity

I've been reading John Leland's book Hip: The History. It is an interesting cultural history with an interesting thesis. One of the things I've noticed is that Leland's descriptions of hip often converge on descriptions I'd like to claim for the church. That is, given Leland's definitions and descriptions I keep seeing the church as hip, even cool, but mostly hip.

Of course, hip and Christianity don't overlap completely. I don't think anyone would find that surprising. There are aspects of hip that don't apply to the church and aspects of the church that are not hip. And yet, I think the two converge enough for us to speak of a "hip Christianity." These posts are devoted to test that hypothesis.

To begin, what is hip? Let's start with word-origins. Linguists believe the word hip comes from the Wolof verbs hepi or hipi meaning, respectively, "to see" or "to open one's eyes." Thus, Leland concludes that hip is, in essence, a form of enlightenment (p. 5). This is a fruitful beginning for our purposes as it suggests that hip can be taken as a theological or religious construct.

Leland contends that the origins of hip, as a place of enlightenment, emerged out of the intermingling of black and white cultures in America. Hip began as the edge between black and white cultures. Consequently, hip tends to mark the boundary between culture and counter-culture. Between establishment and rebellion. Majority and minority. Further, the mainstream culture often pursues hip, attempting to co-opt it. Theft is a large part of hip's history. Elvis stole the blues. Designer jeans are made to look old and ripped. Constantine stole the church.

So hip is always moving. Staying out in front of a mass-market culture trying to sell rebellion and cool to a bunch of squares. Consequently, a large part of the enlightenment of hip is knowing what is truly hip versus simply a fad or a trend. Being hip is knowing what is authentic and real. And the masses are no guide. For the minute hip is popular it is no longer hip.

I expect you can see how this core notion of hip is a nice metaphor for the Christian experience. First, the church's location in relation to culture places it in the space of hip. In its counter-cultural stance the church is in a mode of rebellion. And as with hip the church is constantly struggling to stay a moving target. Trying to remain hip rather than being co-opted by the mass-market culture. When can we know when a church becomes co-opted? Well, it's a question, to use the categories of hip, of separating the squares from the truly hip. This is hip's "ability to see." It's the apostle Paul's discerning the spirits.

The applications are obvious. When we enter a church are we encountering a truly hip experience? Is the life we find in that place organic, authentic and counter-cultural? Or has the hipness and coolness of the church been merely purchased? Has the veneer of hip been plastered onto the church? That is, might this church look counter-cultural and rebellious but, at root, be wholly co-opted by the mainstream culture? And finally, if the history of hip is any guide to discernment, a truly hip church wouldn't be very large or popular.

In short, the history of hip suggests that hip has always been seeking a counter-cultural life that has spiritual integrity. For most of hip's history this integrity has been found in rejecting consumptive existence and narrating life around artistic or intellectual values. Hip is the story of coffee-shop philosophers, beat poets, bohemians, and jazz musicians. And much of this seems to parallel the heart of the church where consumptive existence is eschewed in favor of a common spiritual life. If so, then perhaps hip and Christianity go together quite nicely.

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11 thoughts on “Hip Christianity: Part 1, Seeing and Authenticity”

  1. Reminds me so much of Tower of Power's song: What is hip? (lyrics here: http://www.stlyrics.com/songs/t/towerofpower10994/whatiship349781.html)

    The song itself seems "hip" in a way that it was written in the funk style of the era, but the lyrics look to the bigger picture in a simple and profoundly way.

    Eagerly waiting for the next installment!!!

  2. This entry's viewpoint the is "emergent" church's view. I don't buy it, as the sacred and secular have collapsed to me. There is no spriitual truth apart from one's "faith", which is based on some standard of authority.

    When you speak of the church, the church is a human organization, period. And the attempt to spiritualize it is not authentic. Authenticity is about what the individual "sees", "hears", and "values", as there is no 'ideal church". Perhaps, because I don't value the church anymore, I don't hear this entry's "authentic message".

    But, I don't think collapsing the two realms together gives room for the church to act "above the law", because it is a 'spiritual realm" that doesn't have to "give account to man". That is disrespecting and disrespectful of government.

    While I agree that sometimes civil disobedience is needed in certain "regimes", it is not needed in our country, as we have a right to obtain a hearing without civil disobedience...

  3. Angie,

    Your hyperindividualism is showing. But I agree that emergent church might be analogous to hip. But my take on hip is that it is very much about this blog--theological and experimental. Before co-opted by commercialization, it speaks out of suffering and from the margins and transfigures that into community and acceptance.

    You speak of collapsing the sacred and secular. Even though Jesus' incarnation as well as his teachings made made the ordinary highly important, even holy--there is always that distinction between Creator and Creation. But surely there are some thngs before which you stand in awe--e.g. your grandchildren--what Rudolf Otto called the "mysterium tremendum et fascinans." We (individually and collectively) are always struggling with being in the world and of it. The church, the community of believers, is available to help us. Sadly, it doesn't always help, care for, nurture, and guide. Too often, some idolize it.

    Hug your grandchildren.


  4. Excellent point that some idolize church. Perhaps that is where church has lost its "thinkling" powers, grace and "authenticity" (much abused word) and given way to authoritarianism and social politics.

    The little congregation we've been experimenting with for the past few months uses some of the "emergent" terminology. The young pastor is trying to be cutting edge (hip), appealing to those who have walked away in disgust from the religously ordered caste system so prevalent in churches. Whether it can be or remain cutting edge, or will simply devolve into churchianity, God only knows. Perhaps that's why we've taken a more cautious "meta" approach.

  5. P.J.,

    Sometimes "re-inventing" the church wheel can be exceedingly laborious. When it is possible to be "authentic" leaven--i.e. truly hip--remaining with a church is better than trying to built one from scratch. Knowing what one is against and avoiding and critiquing it is much easier than knowing what one is for and building anew. Sometimes the old needs a new perspective and new life. There are different ways of singing "Amazing Grace"--e.g. try it in a minor key. Using hip or novel languages or styles does not make one hip.

    The meta approach can be helpful. Maybe the Serenity prayer is also helpful here.


  6. Richard and the group:
    I rather like the notion of Jazz as metaphor for the Christian experience. It provides the colour, the nuance, the variations, the tone and the rhythm that a subject as complex as Theology can bring to and bring out of the individual. I look forward to the series.

    Poetry makes Rhythm in Philosophy

    Maybe it was the Bichot
    Beaujolais, 1970
    But in the a.m. upstairs on
    Crescent Ave. I had a conversation
    With K.C. Bird

    We were discussing
    Rhythm and I said
    “Rhythm makes everything move
    The seasons swing
    It backs up the elements
    Like walking Paul-Chambers fingers”

    by: Ishmael Reed
    Extract from: The Jazz Poetry Anthology

  7. Frank, When we were in D.C. last year, I went to a panel presentation of "Jazz as diplomacy".
    Since, jazz is improvisational, it leaves elements open for there to be diverse ways for the individual instruments and musicians to express themselves.
    Jazz, also being an American music creation is expressive of American culture in its diversity.
    It was interesting to hear an ambassador, a musician, a senator, "Voice of America", and scholars discuss such issues...

    Theology is similar in the many ways that people understand "god". But, I do not enjoy that "dialogue" as much as the political one. Theology is only a way of talking about "god" and it is not based in the "real world", but one that is just terminology...It is much easier to "just leave that area alone". As Nietzche said that "God is dead" and the Church killed him...

  8. George,
    Thanks for your response. I agree that language and music style does not make for "hip." Music gets too much credit, and terminology quickly goes passe. The church plant we've found is not discarding the roots of its own tradition, but the majority who attend, like us, do not hail from that denomination, and have left our origins for strikingly similar reasons. You're right that it's easier to critique "against" than to delineate "for," but sometimes it just comes down to choosing the lifeboat over the Titanic, and sorting things out as you row.

    Blessings back.

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