Thank God for Clarity

Thank God for clarity.

Thus begins my opening thoughts and four-word summation of Hipster Christianity – a book I was intrigued by from the moment I heard the title.  In 247 pages, Brett McCracken takes on the adventurous task of examining what happens when “church” and “cool” collide.  When I first heard about this book a few months ago, I shared the idea with my younger brother.  (We both attended Christian colleges in the Midwest, are Over the Rhine / Sufjan Stevens / junkies, and hate to admit that we really can’t afford really nice cigars).  With a half-smile I could detect through the phone line, he said: “Oh, man!  I’ve finally been outed.  And I guess that’s the point.”  Exactly.

I have to admit I was worried when I opened up the Amazon.com box and quickly scanned the chapter headings: “Emerging Church (not again),” “Social Justice (yippee),” and “The History of Hip (oh boy, History Channel meets Freakonomics).”  I thought – Oh man, please don’t let this be another polemical rant for the sake of book sales.  True to its subtitle, however, Hipster Christianity is essentially just a glimpse through the window.  For some of us, it’s a glimpse through the window of a house we’ve lived in for a while.  For others, it will probably be a glimpse through a window you’d prefer be completely draped over.  More on that later.  But like a socio-ecclesiastical photograph of a growing segment of Christian culture, Hipster Christianity offers a thorough study of an often un-study-able subject.

While I don’t plan of recapping a bulk of material, I felt it might be helpful to paint a picture of where McCraken is coming from.  First, I need to say that I’m probably a little biased.  As a 20-something Chicago resident, indie-rock fan, and employee of a missions-related Christian not-for-profit, I’m a likely candidate for falling into the “Christian hipster” bucket (see the quiz at http://www.hipsterchristianity.com/quiz.php.  Incidentally, I passed – mostly owing to those $1 Sacred Heart of Jesus candles I get every once and a while).  Consequently, I felt an affinity with him throughout the read.

(from the back cover)  McCracken is graduate of Wheaton College and UCLA (there’s probably only four or five people  who can say that).  His day job is managing editor for Biola University’s Biola magazine.  He regularly writes move reviews and features for Christianity Today, as well as contributing to Relevant magazine.

McCracken’s writing style (which can be found more frequently at his blog: stillsearching.wordpress.com), will remind you of those late night discussions with your college roommates but also of that guy in your freshmen theology class – the one who quoted Chesterton from the back corner while you were still trying to write down the main tenets of Alexandrian Christology.  It’s unclear whether you’re supposed to be sipping from the coffee cup or the pint glass, but maybe that’s the point.  But by far the most outstanding feat that McCracken performs throughout Hipster Christianity isn’t just in the presentation of the bulk of material – although that is tremendous.  His real accomplishment is remaining objective throughout.  Be to sure, his self-confessed hipster identity is shows through at times, but never in a self-betraying way.  He neither advocates nor denies his observations.  In so doing, he lends credibility to his work, and gives the reader the straight shot.

Probably the most understated feature is the text-boxed asides.  In most works, these exist only to highlight what the author has already said in the preceding paragraph.  Maybe I’m being to rabbinical here, but I always feel ripped off – like I’ve been effectively brainwashed because I was lured into reading the same sentence twice.  Not so here.  Example: When McCracken briefly highlights the reformed tendencies of hipster Christians (p. 104) he gives a well thought-out summary entitled “Why Calvinism is Hipster Friendly.”  When he takes a look into music as art (pp. 173-5), he includes the “Essential Christian Hipster Albums.”  The “Bookshelf” asides are also helpful:  When McCracken takes a 30,000 foot fly over missional theology, he is careful to include a list of books called “The Missional Bookshelf.”  Similarly, he includes a list of “The Emergent Bookshelf.”  Outside of just being helpful resources, these serve the larger purpose of assuring the casual reader that McCracken isn’t operating in a vacuum.

Half sociological observation – half practical theology (there are glimpses of pastoral theology in there as well, for you leadership types), McCraken’s work represents the most helpful, unbiased – even critical at times, and scholarly work on the subject to date.  A work that beautifully walks balance between insight and cynicism.

What this book will do to you:

You will feel ironically happy.  Maybe you’re like me and feel like you’ve been outed.  In which case, you’ll take McCracken at his word and hightail it to the nearest fair-trade, organic, local coffee shop to drowning your sorrows in a triple grandissimo red-eye.  Realizing that you’re not as “cool” as you might have previously thought, you’ll feel a little out of touch and probably a little convicted.  This can only serve a greater purpose however, because you’ll be a part of creating the next big thing that makes you feel alive.  I hear Over the Rhine is playing Kansas City this weekend.

You will be frustrated.  You realize that you simply can’t keep up.  Also not a bad thing because you’ll finally find purpose outside the faux-hawk you sported last Sunday.  Your youth group – and your 8-year old daughter – will thank you.   This will lead to a series of mini-crises including giving your wife back her jeans, and eventually admitting that you use an online texting translation guide when no one’s looking.

Or maybe the best option: you’ll find a strange mixture of both – hopefully leading you to eventually put down the book (after yet another read through that Thomas Kinkade rant in chapter 9), recommend it to some friends, and then nestle it on your book shelf in between your copies of Traveling Mercies and A Brief Guide to Western Philosophy.  Then you’ll move on.  And that’s probably the best part.  This book won’t change your life or give you the next great ministry idea.  It’ll hopefully just give you better footing in the faith you love.

In the end, this work is a passion play concerning relevance – the eternal kind – with the church displayed as the beautiful, unavoidable backdrop.  McCracken hits the nail on the head when he writes: “Here – in the service of Christ and with God as the center and core of our being – our identities more fully realized than we’ve ever known.”

Thank God for clarity.

Away from a Cluttered Missiology: Part One

This post is about what it means to be a missionary.  At least as far as I understand it.  The groundwork for this post has been laid in several discussions with friends and co-laborers who share a burden for the future of God’s Kingdom.  I want to make sure that from the onset: I’m not just wondering where to draw the linguistic or semantic lines between “missionary” and “salesman.”  Rather, I want to address what it means to be a missionary – and simply a missionary.

Perhaps a little background:

For six years I lived in Colorado.  During that time (along with working through the haze of seminary), I worked as a bi-vocational faith-supported “missionary.”  I worked as part of a church planting team, as well as a tent-maker of sorts.  In my case, I worked alongside a local honey farmer in various capacities – among them as a sales representative.  I soon learned that it was hard to juggle the demands of both sides of my life.  I found myself frequently and rapidly switching gears between “… and that’s why you need this product” and “Jesus came to seek and save the lost.”

The lines became blurred.  Techniques that I learned as a sales representative bled into my understanding of the gospel to an unhealthy level.  I found myself arrogantly (albeit unconsciously) looking at myself as upwardly mobile in ministry.  I had innovation.  I talked about models and structures that were “groundbreaking.”  I didn’t know it at the time, but I was slowly moving away from both roles – seeking an awkward fusion of the two.  But over time, I learned something that saved my sanity: I found that the ends of both were better served by keeping a clear distinction between the two.

Being a missionary means a form of bondage.  Unlike the images of bondage that we might immediately jump to (slavery, punitive servitude, caste systems, etc.) – where one is in bondage to an outside, incidental ruler – the missionary’s bondage is a bondage to the essential – the irreducible – something to which he / she is inextricably linked.

When I worked as a sales representative, I couldn’t exist without the larger complex superstructure of business to support my initiatives: goals, strategies, sales pitches, relational dynamics, invoices, deliverables, follow-ups, etc.  And anything evaluated by economic measurements is very complex.  A missionary, however, needs only to sink him/herself more and more deeply into a few simple things that are incredibly important.  When I read how Paul looked at himself (“bond-servant”), he always seemed to point to a few simple, obvious things (the cross, Christ and Him crucified, the proclamation of the gospel, the need for personal holiness).  Maybe a helpful formula: The more complex your missiology (the more you’re “bonded to”), the less devoted you are to dying for it.  A read through 1st Corinthians might bring greater clarity to what I’m getting at.

We’ve got tools.  We’ve got innovation.  And – in many Christian circles – we’re almost keeping pace with the culture.  But no one that I know would honestly consider dying for the models their innovations produce.  I think it was Henri Nouwen who said that “the Christian in this world is called to be completely irrelevant.”  Exactly.  Relevance is not our concern.  Because the question is: “When the model fades and when innovation dies, will we have anything left to stand on (better: stand for)?”

In future posts, some of these issues might re-present themselves along related lines.  But maybe next time, I’ll drop in some poetry.  That’s always refreshing.