Hip Christianity: Part 6, Selling Out

Some of you might be uncomfortable with the notion of a hip or cool Christianity. The source of the discomfort may be the close association between hip/cool and consumerism. "Hip" and "cool" are simply labels to get us to buy stuff. Macs are cool and hip; PCs are not. So we buy Macs. Hip is something we purchase. Buy the right stuff and you are hip.

This is certainly a legitimate concern and complaint. In Chapter 13 of Hip: The History Leland discusses the relationship between hip and consumerism. He posits two theories about hip and consumptive culture. The first model, the one I've been working with, is that hip is out ahead of culture. Consumptive culture is always chasing hip but never catches it. Because when hip gets "caught" it is no longer hip. It is true that hip is an engine of cultural change, but hip can never be the dominant fashion or trend. Current fashions and trends are hip fossils.

But the trouble is, Leland notes, the consumptive culture is moving so fast it is hard to see how hip can legitimately stay out in front. Further, there is the whole phenomenon of "selling out." In the artistic trades (music, writing, film, etc.) a person sells out when they give up their artistic standards, which might be hard on a mass-market audience, to become "popular" and make some money.

The difficulty here is that it can be, at times, awfully hard to tell when an artist is selling out. Again, the culture moves so fast that something hip, an isolated cult phenomenon, can explode overnight into a popular phenomenon. Especially in the age of Facebook and YouTube.

But it is even worse than that. Let's take, as a case study, one of the most famous incidents in rock history: The day Dylan plugged in.

In 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival Bob Dylan shocked his folk following by plugging in, moving from acoustic to electric guitar. Dylan was met with a chorus of boos and jeers from the audience. As a consequence, Dylan cut short his set and walked off stage. The claim in the wake of the Festival was that Dylan was selling out. Moving out of the cultish folk scene and trying to appeal to a broader radio audience.

The question I'd like to consider is this: Was Dylan really selling out? Who gets to say?

The point being that it can be very hard to disentangle hip from popular appeal and the engine of capitalism. Things are moving so fast and artistic choices so subjective (an electric versus acoustic Dylan) that one suspects that no real distinction exists between hip and the whims of culture.

This leads to the second model regarding the relationship between hip and consumerism. In the first model, the one I've been working with, hip is an engine of consumerism but is separate from it. Consumptive culture is parasitic upon hip, it mimics hip. But the second model is that there is no substantive difference between hip and consumerism. Maybe there was in the beat and bebop generations, but not today (for the reasons noted above).

Stating this thesis baldly, consumptive culture now sells rebellion. And when we all fancy ourselves as rebels no one is a rebel. Leland points us to a wonderful 1995 essay by Thomas Frank entitled "Why Johnny Can't Dissent" on just this topic. Here is a bit of Frank's analysis:

Consumerism is no longer about "conformity" but about "difference." Advertising teaches us not in the ways of puritanical self-denial (a bizarre notion on the face of it), but in orgiastic, never-ending self-fulfillment. It counsels not rigid adherence to the tastes of the herd but vigilant and constantly updated individualism. We consume not to fit in, but to prove, on the surface at least, that we are rock `n' roll rebels, each one of us as rule-breaking and hierarchy-defying as our heroes of the 60s, who now pitch cars, shoes, and beer. This imperative of endless difference is today the genius at the heart of American capitalism, an eternal fleeing from "sameness" that satiates our thirst for the New with such achievements of civilization as the infinite brands of identical cola, the myriad colors and irrepressible variety of the cigarette rack at 7-Eleven.

As existential rebellion has become a more or less official style of Information Age capitalism, so has the countercultural notion of a static, repressive Establishment grown hopelessly obsolete...

The problem with cultural dissent in America isn't that it's been co-opted, absorbed, or ripped-off. Of course it's been all of these things. But it has proven so hopelessly susceptible to such assaults for the same reason it has become so harmless in the first place, so toothless even before Mr. Geffen's boys discover it angsting away in some bar in Lawrence, Kansas: It is no longer any different from the official culture it's supposed to be subverting...

The people who staff the Combine aren't like Nurse Ratched. They aren't Frank Burns, they aren't the Church Lady, they aren't Dean Wormer from Animal House, they aren't those repressed old folks in the commercials who want to ban Tropicana Fruit Twisters. They're hipper than you can ever hope to be because hip is their official ideology, and they're always going to be there at the poetry reading to encourage your "rebellion" with a hearty "right on, man!" before you even know they're in the auditorium. You can't outrun them, or even stay ahead of them for very long: it's their racetrack, and that's them waiting at the finish line to congratulate you on how outrageous your new style is, on how you shocked those stuffy prudes out in the heartland.

Frank's point is well taken. Think, again, of the PC versus Mac commercials. Hipness is what we are being sold.

All this complicity between hip and mass-market consumerism makes us wonder if the question "Can Christianity be hip?" can be answered in the affirmative. If there is no difference anymore between hip and selling out then a hip Christianity seems to be a non-starter.

And we know this. We've seen how Christianity, or what passes for Christianity, is often co-opted by consumptive culture. The Christian junk industry is alive and well. And health and wealth preachers are best-selling authors with packed out mega-churches.

But all this looks so similar to the story of hip that I can't help but wonder if there is an alliance between Christianity and hip. Both Christianity and hip struggle, and often fail, to keep distance from the marketplace. Both resist selling out. Often it is hard to tell the difference. But a real struggle seems to be going on. Something pure is pushing back against simplification and pollution. Like the church, hip is trying to say on a narrow and a lonely road.

The point is that a hip Christianity is always going to be struggling against selling out. And it is going to be an ongoing process of discernment to determine if one's soul has been lost. It's a razor edge and people will disagree. Again, an electric Dylan comes to mind. New forms might be hip or sell outs. And it will be hard to tell the difference, initially at least. But that's not bad, just a call for awareness and self-criticism.

So hip Christians beware! It's hard to be a rebel in a mall full of rebels. It's hard to be a church that doesn't sell out. It's hard to embrace the PC in a world full of Macs. Or a Miller High Life in a world full of micro-brews. Or Maxwell House in a world full of Starbucks. Beware. And seek the truly hip.

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7 thoughts on “Hip Christianity: Part 6, Selling Out”

  1. Individualsim does not necessarily mean that one "loves to be the rock and roll rebel". Individualism presupposes freedom, but freedom doesn't have to mean "lawless", disrepect for government, consumerism etc.

    Individualism can mean those things, but, a slave who is learning that their "self respect" is something to be valued and not dismissed or diminished is not acting in a way that is inappropriate.Would it be right to tell these that they lack humility, submission, and are "rebellious".Understanding the person and the context is most important in judging individuality, freedom and government.

    I find that much abuse happens by those who are so compulsive about their control and position over others. Good leaders don't have to worry about people following them and they don't have to create oppressive ways of maintaining "order". People are designed to follow those who are "servant leaders" and have no ulterior motives other than to enlarge, encourage, and enable another.

    Those very "servant leaders" cannot be "demanded" or "forced" by others, because they are not in leadership positions because of any other reason than to do what they are passionate about. It is 'out of order' to get others to do things they are not passionate about. And this is the "perk" of our society's individuality, as we can choose what we want to do with our lives.

  2. I think "hip-ness" can endure - but it's not necessarily realized until perhaps the following generation.

    "Kind of Blue" recorded in 1958
    featuring Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, etc is a benchmark for the "Cool" Jazz era.
    It was a very experimental work at the time but as of today, that
    recording is listed as 12th on Rolling Stone (RS) Magazine's Greatest All-Time Album list.
    (long-term popularity).

    Herbie Hancock (who also worked with Miles Davis) was severely criticized for experimenting with electronic keyboards in the 70s (after having established himself as a premier Straight-Ahead Jazz pianist). Today, "Headhunters" is also regarded as a legendary work helping to define the beginning of the Jazz Fusion era (again long-term popularity).

    Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye were
    nearly terminated from Motown Records for their pursuit towards "statement" songs (i.e. "Living in the City", "Mercy Mercy Me"). BTW, "Innervisions" is currently listed 23rd and "What's Going On" is listed 6th on RS.

    As of this day, many, many kids in their early 20s and younger (my kids, nephews/nieces included) BUY Beatles and Led Zepplin music. Being nearly 50 and having grown up loving that music myself, that makes me laugh.

    Today, the Prophets and Apostles are admired as heros, but they sure weren't regarded as that during their generation. Of course, Jesus Christ Himself was a radical (hero/revolutionary/rebel/enigma) during his visit to Earth AND His living legacy remains to this very day.

    I think it is Christ that remains permanently "hip" - not necessarily the church nor "Christianity". Defining, achieving, and remaining "hip" seems very elusive.

    Gary Y.

  3. Jesus was hip while he was alive for the exact same reason he was crucified.

    He stirred dissent, flouted religious law, insulted theologians, mocked the self-righteous ethic of the priestly caste, humiliated secular officials, and was generally a thorn in the side of the society in which he lived.

    I mean, that scene where he pulls the coin out of the fish to pay his tax is one of the most subversive things I have ever read! He adheres to the letter of the law while demonstrating its spiritual emptiness. In public. In front of everybody.

    Jesus was an individualist, a non-conformist, and a humanist. These are traits the mainstream church despises and suppresses and attacks in all ways. The Pharisees are still with us and they're still running the show.

  4. I guess some folkies were making claims about Dylan's motives, but it's hard to see them credible. Going electric in '65 certainly wasn't a proven path to commercial success -- esp. when you insist on making many of your best songs too long for what the radio of the day would play. Gotta suspect they were just feeling betrayed because he was leaving them behind. But to boo someone who was, before your very eyes (ears?) starting to produce some of the best music of the century (imho, of course)? I hope they all came to feel appropriately ashamed!

  5. I don't usually comment but I figured I would throw something in. I teach design at ACU so I confront the language of 'cool' everyday. Students begin by stamping their approval on work by saying "it's cool". I am amazed at how durable that phrase has been. I remember using it in high school 20 years ago.

    I want to throw in another model, that I would imagine Richard knows more about than I do, so I would love his thoughts if he has time. One theory of aesthetics is that we, as humans, seek pleasure in two ways. We look for the 'new' and we look for the ideal (or the archetype). Both of these can be placed on two ends of a pole. On one end, we enjoy the satisfaction of experiencing the ideal in any category. On the other, we like to experience new things. When we experience the 'new', the birth of a future ideal begins. This is largely for the purpose of building categories.

    For example, Starbucks is likely a closed archetype. It is an ideal that many use to judge other coffee shops against. Starbucks is currently enjoyed primarily because it's an ideal but it began as something 'new', and likely hip. It slowly made its journey from new to ideal. Mac is constantly seeking to develop the 'new' with the goal of achieving a product that becomes the ideal. A product that those who come after will be judged against. The iPod comes to mind. For my purpose the concept of 'new' has a strong relationship to what we are calling 'hip'. I would think for producers the goal is not to be hip (the audience is to small). Hip is a necessary stop on the journey towards the ideal (where the audience is large).

    For something to bring pleasure as 'new' it needs to fall into a fairly narrow band. If it's not new enough it's judged as an inferior version of some other archetype (Zune vs. iPod). If it's too new, people don't have a vocabulary for it and its dismissed as incomprehensible (people don't get it). I would guess this is why most people don't understand the clothes on Paris runways. The fashion critics and designers sitting in the audience have a broad and complex vocabulary giving a wide tolerance to the concept of 'new'.

    Anyway, what does this have to do with Christians and hip? That's what I would like to know. Are we just manufacturing new practices and ideas that start the typical journey toward common ideals. Is it a pleasure seeking exercise? Is it the reason my church looks and acts different than my parents. Is it a question of selling out or the natural order of things? Are these musicians you mentioned selling out or did their 'hipness' just become an archetype. They didn't change, they changed the world, and in the new world they were no longer hip. Will the hipness in my church become the archetype of tomorrow and a cliche for my kids?

    I'll stop because this is way too long.

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