A few days ago, a piece I wrote on “hipster” culture posted on the blog at The Gospel Coalition. If you missed it, you can follow the link, or read this lightning review:
- Hipster fashion exudes irony and cynicism.
- Irony and cynicism play a strong role in our culture.
- Irony and cynicism as cultural phenomena are nothing new.
- Sincerity is better than irony.
- Irony is often a hedge for insecurity about who we are.
- Not all hipsters are cynics.
The responses have been varied. Two specifics bear mentioning.
The Fundamentalist Response
First is the fundamentalist response, which says, “Hipster fashion comes from a cynical world view, and is therefore unchristian. Therefore, Christians shouldn’t wear skinny jeans, ride bicycles, or smoke parliaments.”
This is, of course, an absurd response. All fashion is (or can be) associated with worldview. Power suits are associated with the idolatry of money and success, so no suits. Pants suits on women are associated with a radical feminist agenda, so no pants suits. Black clothes are worn by priests and Satanists, both of whom are on the “outs” with fundamentalist Christians, therefore Christians shouldn’t wear all black. Mom jeans are worn by the worshipers of the idol of children and family, so no Mom jeans (and while we’re at it, no mini vans).
Hopefully, you get my point. It’s the old guilt-by-association fallacy that leads Christians to ban drinking, make-up, and sex.
For the Christian, these things aren’t unclean in themselves — including mustaches, skinny jeans and grandpa hats — so go to town, folks.
The Jonathan D. Fitzgerald Response
The second reaction worth responding to is harder to peg. Forgive the length here, as the whole thing requires a bit of background.
Jonathan D. Fitzgerald, a writer for The Huffington Post, The Atlantic, and several other magazines and online news sites, wrote a response called “Hipsters and Hamster Wheels.” On Patrolmag.com, he writes:
I’m just going to come right out and say it: when it comes to arts and culture, evangelicals don’t know their Adele’s from their Elmo’s.
For the record, I do actually know the difference between these two, but that may only be because I share a roof with one rabid Adele fan and two Elmo fans.
We evangelicals who care about the arts tend to operate in a hamster ball. Protected by our Christian worldview and our theologies of art and culture which fuel our work, we scurry about the artistic and cultural landscape able to apply our worldview and theology to everything we see. The fact that we see it gives us the illusion that that we’re in it, “engaging,” “transforming,” or being “faithfully present.” But the reality is that we are completely irrelevant and cut off from it.
It’s not enough to study the arts in college or seminary and begin writing, speaking, and critiquing it from within an evangelical, institutional bubble. Instead, we need to be participants as both patrons and creatives, in-but-not-of, loving and serving artists and creatives as our brothers, sisters, and neighbors.
The evangelical hamster ball ultimately deprives us of the joy and risk of loving, of being loved, and being touched by another. There is no grace to be found in the hamster ball. We have to get out of it to experience the miracle of grace, perhaps even to be it for our suffering neighbor. The contemporary art world is full of artists whom we evangelicals dismiss and dehumanize as charlatans, debasers of art and beauty. Just a cursory glance at the beliefs and behavior of our own evangelical leaders (and re-reading Rom. 3: 10-11) should remind us that we have no moral high ground. What would happen if we saw these artists first and foremost as our neighbors, suffering under the unbearable weight of a graceless art world—one of the most transactional, conditional, and de-humanizing industries in the world? Those who live in this world don’t need more law, more judgment, more worldview. They need love and to be shown grace.
I absolutely agree with Siedell. Similar ideas where at the core of why Sojourn Church was started, why we moved into certain neighborhoods and participated in the vibrant arts life of our city.
Which is why I was surprised to see this argument turned quite aggressively against me by Fitzgerald, who said:
I read Siedell’s piece last night right before I went to bed, and then, as if divinely ordained to prove Siedell’s point about evangelicals and culture, a piece at The Gospel Coalition titled “The Hipster in All of Us” appeared in my Twitter feed this morning…
Anyway, the TGC piece, written by Mike Cosper, “pastor of worship and arts” at a church in Louisville, Kentucky, addresses the irony versus sincerity debate that started with Christy Wampole’s article in The New York Times two Sundays ago, and has been making its way around the internet ever since.
Fitzgerald argues that I, along with Christy Wampole have gotten the ethos of our age completely wrong: we don’t live in an age of irony, we live in an age of sincerity. “Scores of other writers” agree with him, apparently (though he only cites one other than himself).
So, with all of this out there for anyone to read, it baffled me that Cosper would jump into the fray and use Wampole’s incorrect thesis about irony and hipsters as an opportunity for some thoughts about how to reach this lost bunch of irony-driven lackeys.
Here, I started scratching my head. My article wasn’t an evangelism strategy at all. Where is the list of 10 Steps Towards Acting Like A Hipster So You Can Trick Them Into Liking Jesus? And really, it wasn’t a broad statement on the ethos of our age – it was a commentary on a particular subculture, trying to understand it. I’m more concerned with how this particular example is a reflection of the whole – which is what I thought was helpful about Wampole’s piece in the first place.
Fitzgerald then doubles down:
Here’s the thing, if you’re so removed from culture that you will take any opinion that confirms your bias as gospel truth (see what I did there?), you’re never going to reach anyone. I can imagine that Pastor Cosper, already a little leery of those he perceives as hipsters, read Professor Wampole’s essay in the Times and thought to himself, why yes, that’s exactly the problem, irony is the ethos of our age as embodied by hipsters,and then he quickly devised a ministry plan for witnessing to those lost, ironic souls. But Wampole was wrong about “the ethos of our age,” and then Cosper, in running with her misguided assumptions and adding some pretty clueless observations of his own, was doubly wrong.
Here, I want to offer a counter-observation: Fitzgerald is making broad, sweeping assumptions about me. I can only guess (since I haven’t met, spoken with, or arm wrestled Mr. Fitzgerald) that because I’m an evangelical writing at TGC, he imagines me to be “leery” of hipsters, and ready with a whiteboard to devise a ministry plan for witnessing to them.
The reality is far from it. I pastor in a church full of ironically mustachioed, fixed-gear cycling folks who love Jesus. As I’ve pastored them and observed their lives, I’ve been concerned about the general air of cynicism and criticism that pervades their dialogue. It’s not the work of a single individual, but an atmosphere that seems to impact a whole subculture.
Fitzgerald does give me some credit, but in a sleight of hand fashion, manages to quickly take it back:
To his credit, the response he came up with to the misperceived irony problem is the very thing I argue that he and Wampole are missing about our culture’s more likely ethos (though identifying such a thing is probably impossible), namely sincerity. Yes, sincerity is the appropriate answer to ironic detachment, and that is exactly why it began to take hold, over a decade ago, in popular culture. Isn’t it just like evangelicals, always late to the party, but still so eager to join in on the fun.
There are two problems with this paragraph. First, he cuts the legs off of his criticisms of Wampole and myself when he says that identifying a culture’s ethos is “probably impossible” — even though he aggressively argues there, at The Atlantic and in his own e-book that he has discerned the ethos of our culture. You can’t cry, “The color of the sky is impossible to discern” while arguing that it is green.
Second, I wouldn’t disagree with Fitzgerald if he’s saying that there is vein of culture that values sincerity. I wouldn’t disagree if he argued that this vein has been around for ten years. I wouldn’t disagree if he argued that there’s an element of hipster culture that’s tied into this vein. But he seems to be arguing that sincerity has taken hold and been the dominant force in culture for ten years.
I’m thankful for creative work by people like Ira Glass, Diablo Cody, Wes Anderson, Judd Apatow, and many others whose work celebrates humanity, authenticity, and sincerity. But for each of them, there are plenty of others whose work is marked far more by cynicism, distrust of authority, and irony.
Consider the Golden Age of TV drama that we’ve watched for the last ten years. Most of them center on human failure, hypocrisy, and inauthenticity: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, LOST, Dexter, Homeland… the list could go on and on. These shows feature protagonists who have deep conflicts about who they present themselves to be and who they actually are. They are stories of loss, unraveling, and failure. They are deeply cynical – and that’s just one genre of one medium.
Again – I wouldn’t deny that there is a vibrant sincerity movement in contemporary pop culture. But to deny that irony and cynicism have a profound, culture-shaping power is to live inside your own sincerity-filled subcultural bubble.
Fitzgerald closes his article with this:
This is how you fail. If you think of yourself as outside of culture, if you stay rolling around in your hamster ball making occasional plans for how you’ll bring outsiders in, you’ll fail.
(I’ll say it again: please show me in the article where this is my aim?)
You, like Mike Cosper, will look for evidence that confirms your bias but you’ll inevitably misread it and be wrong…
(Hmmm… like someone misreading the point of an online article.)
…and in your defeat you’ll grow ever more weary of the world you’re trying to reach.
(World weary? Who is this straw man?)
This is a fruitless pursuit; in the end, you’ll just keep rolling around in circles, bumping into walls, and being kicked by kids to the point that your plastic orb existence gets so scuffed up and filled with your own pellet-like excrement that it becomes nearly impossible to see where you’re going.
I will resist responding in full to these final sentences. They feel like a personal attack: accusing me of rolling around in a crap-filled ball that blinds me to the world around me. Since Fitzgerald and I have never met, and since he appears to know nothing about the ministry to which I’ve been devoted for the last twelve years, I would guess that it isn’t personal at all. Instead, after reading Siedell’s article, he saw mine as a chance to unleash some vitriol at a group of people he deeply dislikes.
The absurdity here needs to be pointed out: Fitzgerald accuses me of misreading culture, when he has clearly misread my article. I can only assume that he has a bitterness towards either TGC in particular or evangelicalism and cultural engagement in general. And it’s no small irony that he borrows heavily from Dan Siedell (an evangelical) to level this attack.
This is particularly frustrating when Siedell’s wonderful article is so consonant with the vision for ministry that’s been lived out at Sojourn Community Church, where I’ve served as the “Pastor of Worship and Arts” for 12 years.
Finally, it was deliberate that I lumped my response to him with my response to the fundamentalists. They come from the same place in the human heart. Fundamentalists live by a codified set of rules, a clear black-and-white religious set of values that makes discernment easy and relationships hard. There is a prescribed orthodoxy of values and (perhaps even more important) behaviors that defines who’s in and who’s out. In the end, fundamentalists can only get along with fundamentalists because their orthodoxy is exclusionary. They can’t live comfortably in the tension of a fallen world, so they hedge off from it. Liberalism is the exact same thing. Liberal values claim inclusiveness, but fail to deliver because they can’t include people who disagree with their pluralistic worldview. Just as fundies put up hedges and fire off reactionary responses to those who don’t prescribe to their brand of orthodoxy, so do liberals.
What I wish had happened is very different. I think Fitzgerald and I could have had an interesting conversation about irony and sincerity. I think he makes a good case, though he doesn’t actually make the case in his article. Instead, he didn’t actually engage with my material; he reacted, believing that my article somehow confirmed his biases about evangelicals, lobbing his attacks. It’s as though he lived in some kind of protective shell… Like a hamster ball. And we know what happens if you live inside that shell too long.