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.