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Hipster Christianity

17 May 2010

Apparently there is a book on Hipster Christianity being prepared for publication in a few months time. Hat-tip to Am I a Christian Hipster? : An Uncertain Faith for pointing me to this.

Hipster Christianity:

Many people have asked me: what exactly is a Christian hipster? Am I one? Are you one?

Well, first of all: it’s just a funny label, and we all know that hipsters hate labels. So if you are still reading this post, eager to know what it all means, chances are you are not a Christian hipster. Or maybe you are, and you’re just intrigued by the whole thing (like I am!). In any case, the following is an excerpt from Ch. 5: “Christian Hipsters Today,’ and perhaps it will give you a bit of a better sense as to what Christian hipsters are all about…

To help you discover if you are a Christian hipster, the site offers a quiz you can do to find out. I tried it, and this was the result:

Your Christian Hipster Quotient:
12 / 120
Laggard. You hardly even register on the CHQ scale. But fear not: This is not necessarily a negative thing. Your Christian faith is refreshingly independent of zeitgeisty movements, styles, and reinventions.

…but I thought the quiz was anything but hip and decidedly uncool. It reeked of American Protestant cultural chauvinism, and was so narrow-minded that the authors could have looked with both eyes through the proverbial keyhole. It was full of name-dropping, and mostly names I had never heard of, and my answer to most of the questions would have been “none of the above” if that had been an option. It certainly killed any temptation I might have had to read the book. For a look at real hipster Christianity have a look at Pilgrims of the Absolute.

But perhaps that’s just me being a fusty old language pedant, who fails to realise (or rather resents) that language evolves, and meanings of words change, and that words like “hip” and “cool” no longer mean what they meant in my youth, when the Rolling Stones used to sing “What a drag it is getting old” before they got old, like me.

As a sometime editor of academic texts, or a “language practitioner”[1] as some of my erstwhile colleagues liked to call themselves, I take an interest in the origins and meanings of words, and there have been some interesting discussions on the evolution of the word “cool” on the alt.usage.english newsgroup on Usenet.

“Cool”, in the metaphorical sense, originally referred to a style of playing jazz music. It was usually played with a slow tempo, and quietly, as opposed to “hot” jazz, which was played faster, and louder, suggesting a kind of frenetic excitement, while “cool” jazz was laid-back, quiet and meditative. It was adopted by Beats in the late 1950s and early 1960s to refer to an approach to life that was somewhat detached, especially from the frenetic society around them. “Hipster” was a related term. It originally meant someone who was hip to (appreciated) jazz, and then in a metaphorical sense it came to mean being aware of what was going on, not in the sense of being a dedicated follower of fashion, but rather of not being taken in by the current fads and frauds of society, or what Christian theology called “the world”. So to be “hip” and “cool” was in some ways related to some terms in Orthodox Christian theology. “Cool” meant being dispassionate, and detached from the world, not carried away by every passion or fashion. It was a kind of secular equivalent of apatheia. “Hip” was a kind of secular equivalent of noetic nipsis (awareness and watchfulness).

One writer on the Beats described the opposite of cool like this:

Moneytheism is everywhere, in everything we see and read and hear. The child is indoctrinated with it from birth, not in the schools, which try to counter it with the humanities — as much as they dare — but in the large school of experience where most of our education is received. It is only after a long process of diseducation and re-education that one sees it clearly and sees it whole — the price-wage shell game, the speed-up treadmill, the Save!-Spend! contradictions dinned into our ears each night and day, the heart-breaking brutalities of class-made law, lawyer-made law, judge-made law, money-made law, and the unspeakable vulgarities of hypocritical religion, the nerve-shattering Stop! and Go! and Hurry! and Go slow! Step lively! and Relax! warning flashing before our eyes and bombarding our ears without letup, making the soul a squirrel cage whirligig from the first stimulant in the morning to the last sedative at night. The rat race. A rat race that offers only two alternatives: to run with the hare or hunt with the hounds.[2]

The one thing that “cool” did not mean was to be brand conscious, as it seems to mean to advertisers and manipulators today, nor did it have anything to do with what the Hipster Christianity site called “zeitgeisty movements, styles, and reinventions”.

By the end of the 1960s “hipster” got shortened to “hippie”, and “cool” continued with much the same meaning, though in the early 1970s, according to a Professor Richard Fontana, it dropped out of use, and only returned with the advent of a TV show called Happy Days, where it was used by a character called The Fonz to mean anything pleasant or agreeable, and this determined the current meaning of the term. I wouldn’t know about that, because I never saw the TV show (South Africa didn’t have TV back then), so I have to take his word for it.

A cool car, c1962

The main point is that the terms “cool” and “hip” originally (in the metaphorical sense) were counter cultural. To be “cool” meant that you didn’t get over-excited about mainstream values, or consumer culture, and you were hip to, and rejected, advertising hype. Now they are often used to mean exactly the opposite. Jeremy Clarkson and his associates on the Top Gear motoring programme often classify cars as “cool” or “uncool”. But most of the cars they classify as “cool” are those calculated to make an impresson on other people, making a fashion statement, which to me seems to be twisting “cool” to mean its opposite. My notion of a cool car is my old rust-bucket 1961 Peugeot 403 station wagon, where I had to have metal plates welded into the floor before it would pass the roadworthy test. Or the 1936 Austin 10 that a friend and I found languishing in a garage, bought for a few rand, and painted green, white, yellow and mauve.

A hipster, thus, in the original sense, is a jazz afficionado. In the metaphorical sense, a secular hipster is one who sees through the pretensions and hypocrisy of mainstream society, and rejects its values, especially those promoted by the advertising industry. And a Christian hipster is one who regards the world and its values with cool dispassion, apatheia, and is marching to the beat of a heavenly drummer.

And I am a mere wannabe, in all senses of the word.



[1] Language Practitioner is a pretentious piece of gobbledegook sometimes used by professional editors and translators, who ought to know better, to describe their role, the very use of which shows their incompetence at their job, since a moment’s thought would reveal that anyone who can speak or write in a language understood by another person is a “language practitioner”. I mention this to show how hip and cool and superior I am to my colleagues who use silly tems like “language practitioner”. But in the real meaning of those terms I am decidedly unhip and uncool, because if I were really hip and cool I would realise that it doesn’t matter.

[2] Lawrence Lipton, The holy barbarians, (Messner, New York, 1959), p. 148.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. 17 May 2010 9:36 am

    Interesting how the concept of apatheia or cool (in its original sense) seems quite similar to the Buddhist concept of detachment.

    I also like your definition of the world that Christians are to shun — I have no difficulty shunning advertising, fashion and all that. But I am not particularly keen on jazz; I prefer blues.

    • 17 May 2010 10:44 am

      I’m not sure that Christians are to shun the world, but rather to be in the world, but not of it — in other words, not to accept the values of Moneytheism.

      I quite like jazz, both hot and cool, but instrumental, not vocal. Perhaps that’s a contrast to which, where we are vocal, but not instrumental.

  2. 17 May 2010 9:44 am

    Er, so I just did the quiz even though I am not a Christian… and I had no idea who the people were who might be the future of American Christianity, and I never ever watch football… but here is my result:

    Your Christian Hipster Quotient:
    81 / 120
    High CHQ. You are a pretty progressive, stylish, hipster-leaning Christian, even while you could easily feel at home in a decidedly un-hip non-denominational church. You are conservative on some issues and liberal on others, and sometimes you grow weary of trendy “alt-Christianity.” But make no mistake: You are a Christian hipster to at least some degree.

  3. peter permalink
    18 May 2010 1:10 am

    I’d probably have to say I’m “hipper” than the quiz writer in one sense: I realize that the vast majority of the “contemporary Christian” culture is too often little more of a plastic banana good times rock & roll mimicry of the culture around them – and thus both of them are … fake, frenetic and a fraud.

    As I have no idea who or what the majority of the questions are about, I wasn’t going click on a forced answer because none of the provided answers applied. I could only answer 14 of the questions – the rest make no sense.

    Selah. Five years ago, I found myself too liturgical to go with the Evangelicals, too Protestant to go Roman Catholic, and too Christan to stay with the Episcopalians. Since then, I’ve only become more so … but I think the Hipsters and Beats of the 50s & 60s (and contemporary Punks and Goths) were on to this much: the “plastic” world being presented is a fraud. that much hasn’t changed since before Pentecost.

  4. Don Phillipson permalink
    18 May 2010 10:13 pm

    Because this whole page suggests historical accuracy and precision, perhaps Norman Mailer should also have been cited, for his essay “The White Negro” (approx. 1960) which had much to do with the general culture’s adoption of these subculture concepts. Mailer there set out to explain to ordinary Americans what cool and hip were all about.

    • 20 May 2010 10:20 am

      Thanks very much for that, Don. I knew of Mailer’s work, but haven’t read it. I think some of my knowledge of the terms comes from people who cited Mailer, or at least discussed his views. I’ll have to see if I can find a copy.

  5. 19 May 2010 4:41 pm

    I scored 84/120 which makes me pretty hip! But I don’t think I’m all that thrilled about it! Apart from your interesting unpacking of the terms ‘cool’ and ‘hip’, I wondered why anyone would want to be a hipster Christian (as in, fitting in with the latest trends) and was also a little wary of their definition. I guess its interesting, perhaps anthropologically, to look at what might be considered hip in the American Christian protestant evangelical world but further than that, this may not be all the relevant to people who are just being, without trying to be anything else.

    • 20 May 2010 10:27 am


      Yes, part of my understanding of cool is that it’s not trying to be what you are not. Somewhere I once read something that was alleged to have been said by Dostoevsky, though I haven’t found it in Dostoevsky’s works: “Talk nonsense, but talk your own nonsense. It is better to go wrong in your own way than to go right in somebody else’s.”

      I don’t take that to mean that one should be closed to new ideas and experiences, and learning from other people, but rather that we should not try to create an impression that we believe things that we don’t believe, or that we like things that we don’t like, or that we are something and someone other than who and what we are.

      But many people seem to use cool today to mean the opposite.

  6. 20 May 2010 4:46 pm

    74/100 for me. I didn’t understand all the questions either, but knew at least a few of the names. Not entirely sure what it was all about, but I can’t resist an online questionnaire… and the description, quoted by someone else above, fit me pretty well.

    In particular: you could easily feel at home in a decidedly un-hip non-denominational church. You are conservative on some issues and liberal on others, and sometimes you grow weary of trendy “alt-Christianity.”

  7. Don Phillipson permalink
    20 May 2010 5:06 pm

    1. Ref: “part of my understanding of cool is that it’s not trying to be what you are not:” rather than Dostoyevsky, this evokes the concept of authenticity as articulated by Sartre in the 1940s. Within Sartre’s corpus, this idea also seems unusual as independent of most Marxism. Authenticity seems superficially just opposite to alienation, but has different roots. Alienation is caused by maladjustment between the individual and some aspect of his work, but Authenticity appears more autonomous than derivative.
    2. This reminds us of the “essential” (non-existentialist) character of coolness. Mailer and later writers suggest some people and some activities are inherently cool. But this contradicts the main theme of both Marx and Sartre, that most characters are determined by something else (economic conditions and class barriers for Marx.), Being no theoretician, I do not believe Mailer ever thought it necessary to pursue this paradox: the essentialism of cool did not bother him the way it ought to have bothered a dialectical materialist.

    • 21 May 2010 8:46 am

      Thanks again for an interesting and thought-provoking comment.

      I’d never thought of Mailer as a dialectical materialist, but I can see how essentialism might have bothered Sartre if, as an existentialist, he believed that existence precedes essence.

      Mailer’s book seems to be essential (yeah, right) reading for this topic, and I see it is in our university library, so I’ve made a note to get it next time I go there.


  1. Hipster Christianity redux « Khanya
  2. The end of the hipster: how flat caps and beards stopped being so cool | Fashion | The Observer | Khanya

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