Why the medium of cool isn’t a neutral vehicle for the gospel
Four years ago I published my first book, Hipster Christianity (Baker Books), which sought to explore the complexities and questions surrounding what happens “when church and cool collide.” I wanted the book to provoke discussion — which it has — and inspire critical thinking in the church about her identity and the meaning of “relevance” in the 21st century.
Though “hipster” is in the title and much of the book (especially the first half) discusses the overlap of hipsterdom and Christendom, the book is less about hipster faith particularly than the notion of “cool” generally: how is it leveraged, manifested, and interacted with by churches, pastors, Christian institutions, and individuals? Perhaps more than anything the book is an invitation to consider the way form matters in the Christian life. Indeed, a common response from those who feel implicated by the questions of Hipster goes something like this: “What we’re doing is simply putting the gospel in different packaging and updating the style of its delivery as to be relevant to a particular audience. The medium may be different and new, but the message remains the same.”
Are the medium and the message really so detached that, no matter how an idea is packaged or presented, its meaning remains the same?
But is this really true? Are the medium and the message really so detached that, no matter how an idea is packaged or presented, its meaning remains the same? With Hipster I wanted to challenge this notion and show how form matters: that perhaps the way Christianity is understood and appropriated is different when packaged in Helvetica, skinny jeans, and small batch whisky than when it’s packaged in robes, pews, and pleated khakis. Not that one is necessarily preferable to the other, mind you; just that they are different.
Christians of all people should grasp the inextricability of form and content. The Incarnation itself demonstrates it. The Word made flesh is content meeting form (John 1:1-18). The gospel is not some ethereal, conceptual “message” as much as it is an enfleshed reality and storied form. The gospel message is embedded within and derived from a medium: the medium of a man named Jesus, out of a nation named Israel, crucified in a place named Calvary. As believers we are part of the enfleshed gospel narrative too. Our lives are to be the forms where the gospel takes shape, through the working of the Holy Spirit. We are the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27). We are not just the gospel proclaimers or message transmitters; we are in a profound sense the gospel enacted and enfleshed.
“Be Thou My Vision” is a different experience when sung a capella by a group of Christians in a house church than when performed by a loud, seven-piece worship band in an arena megachurch or on a tiny bar stage by a somber David Bazan. The Apostle’s Creed is a different thing when an individual silently reads it on a page than when a church stands and recites it corporately. The words may be the same, but different forms necessarily imbue them with slightly different meanings. There is plenty of truth in Marshall McLuhan’s famous adage “the medium is the message.”
Given this, we must admit that the particular shape and style Christianity takes has some bearing on what people perceive it to mean. Does the gospel message conveyed in a glitzy American suburban megachurch equal that which is conveyed by the beleaguered churches of Iraq or Syria? Does the fact that a church meets in a bar, or a cathedral, or a gutted shopping mall, or someone’s living room, make no difference whatsoever in how the church’s faith is understood?
Does the gospel message conveyed in a glitzy American suburban megachurch equal that which is conveyed by the beleaguered churches of Iraq or Syria?
I think it’s naive for Christians to suggest that medium is something separate from message; they are intertwined. The architects of the great cathedrals in Christian history understood it; composers of sacred music like Handel and Berlioz and Tavener understood it. And yet contemporary evangelical Christians seem to have lost the inextricable connection between form and content. It’s one of the reasons, I think, why evangelical movies, music and artistic output have such a reputation for mediocrity. In privileging content over form, and caring about medium only insofar as it efficiently conveys a message, we’ve tiptoed down a Gnostic path of dualism that doesn’t really resonate with how embodied people live in this world.
Because most Protestant evangelicals don’t recognize a meaningful connection between form and content (e.g. “the medium may change but the message remains the same!”), the church can only throw up its hands in surrender to the postmodern standard of “individual preference” or “whatever works” pragmatism. With ever less consensus on styles of worship and ever more reticence to suggest that some forms might be better fit to the gospel than others, its not surprising that we’re seeing a diversity and fragmentation of “ways of doing church” on an unprecedented scale.
Hipster Christianity was my way of addressing these questions with a look specifically at the meaning and implications of the “cool” style of doing church. In the book I address specific instances where the inherent qualities of cool clash with those of the gospel, where the medium of cool isn’t just a neutral vehicle for the gospel but rather a form that changes and even subverts the gospel. Here are a couple of those points of dissonance:
- Trendiness: The medium of cool is necessarily ephemeral: always changing, always moving on to the next thing once the current cool thing becomes too popular. To embrace a cool aesthetic is to adopt a posture that values the “next” more than the “what is and was.” How does this fit with a faith that isn’t ephemeral, but eternal? How can we simultaneously embrace a sacred view of time, and a valuing of tradition, when we’re so compelled by the ever-changing contours of cool and disposability of trendiness?
- Exclusivity: The medium of cool is necessarily exclusivist; it can only exist as a minority, in-the-know subculture. Not everyone can be cool. Indeed, this idea drives fashion’s fast-moving ephemerality. If something is cool for too long, it becomes known and accessible to too many. How does this exclusivism square with a faith that is fundamentally inclusive and open-to-all? Imagine walking in to a hipster church as a visitor, looking around and seeing that everyone around you is a fashionable 20-something with impeccable, intimidating style? It makes you uncomfortable, self-conscious. The people might be incredibly nice when you get to know them, but their visual identity alone (the trendy clothes, the beards, the tattoos, etc.) evokes something that makes you feel like an outsider. Is this a feeling that anyone should feel in a church?
- Individualism: The medium of cool is necessarily individualistic; it’s about setting myself apart from the pack, drawing attention to an individuated me and my against-the-grain, totally unique tastes. It is and has always been about individuals taking the (stylistic, philosophical, political) road less travelled. But how does cool’s inherent individualism square with a Christian faith that beckons us outside of the self, calling us to deny ourselves and put others first? Can the Christian values of community, collectivism and humility be effectively enacted in a community where cool is a valued currency? Does the gospel take on an unhealthy self-focused bent when it is clothed in the packaging of cool?
These are just a few of the ways I believe form and content interact in the specific case of “hipster Christianity.” My aim is not to write off the possibility that a church can never be cool or that hipster pastors are always a questionable thing; nor is it to suggest that “cool” is a better or worse medium for church than others (“mega,” “traditional,” “online,” “emergent,” “neighbourhood,” etc.). My hope is simply that we would move away from an unhealthy form/content dualism and start to ask critical questions about how a particular medium might actually profoundly shape the Christian message.
The perpetuation of strict separation between form and content will only exacerbate evangelical Christianity’s current identity crisis. If we are to thrive in the 21st century, Christians must think deeply about medium: not in the sense of what medium is most efficient or trendy as a transmission vehicle for the gospel message, but how medium (that is, the shape of our lives and communities) is itself part of the gospel message.
Photo (Flickr CC) by Mars Hill Church Seattle.