You may have noticed a strange phenomenon on the sidewalks, coffee shops, and (perhaps) church pews of your town: mustachioed men in tight denim shorts wearing worn-out touristy t-shirts, ugly moth-eaten cardigans, and grandpa hats. Women with boxy haircuts, cat-eyed glasses, hideous Christmas sweaters, and working-class 1950s skirts. Gangs in skinny jeans that would make a magician wonder how they fit their feet through ankle openings. They ride around the city on fixed-gear bicycles, drinking PBR, smoking Lucky Strikes or Parliament cigarettes, and taking pictures on Holga, Polaroid, and other clumsy, vintage cameras.
Hipsters as a cultural phenomenon have been around for a few years. Their influence has spread into the broader American culture, becoming a regular punchline on Saturday Night Live and on primetime television. For better or worse, they are the hippies, punks, and grungers of our generation.
But where the hippies and grungers were marked by a howl of angst against the shiny veneer of the previous generation's glamour, prosperity, and presumption, the hipster makes a much different sound—the sneer of cynicism. Their core value is irony, and the aesthetic they embrace—their posture towards the culture around them—is defined by a sense of cynical superiority over it.
A recent opinion piece in The New York Times took a look at hipsters, calling them “the archetype of ironic living.” In the article, Christy Wampole argues that this sense of irony stems from a desire to “hide in public,” and has its roots in a sense that culturally, our generation has nothing to offer. Rather than risk action (and open ourselves up to ridicule), we have settled into a passive state of judgment. By this, the hipster becomes the ultimate connoisseur of cool. Most hipster parodies point out that hipsters tend to be selectively obsessed with the finest stuff—gourmet food, gourmet coffee, vintage vinyl, bands you've never heard of, and so on.
One who mocks the hipster only affirms the hipster's self-important superiority. By mocking mustaches, skinny jeans, and vintage bicycles, you reveal yourself as an outsider; you're not in on the joke. Because the core belief of the hipster is that fashion, aesthetics, and sincerity itself is a joke.
(Which reminds me: How many hipsters does it take to change a light bulb? Oh . . . you haven't heard already? I'm actually not surprised. It's a really exclusive number.)
There's nothing new under the sun. Twenty years ago, David Foster Wallace saw a similar ironic sensibility flourishing and sounded familiar alarms. For Wallace, the source was television, which trained people to be spectators, awarding their cynicism with the sense that they were “above the fray” as they passively watched TV. Wallace argued that everyone watching TV felt a little bit of guilt. So writers and advertisers began to use self-conscious irony, mocking television and advertising, in order to make viewers feel like they were better than the average viewer. TV trained viewers to be cynical observers, which simultaneously made them feel better than other TV watchers, and kept them watching TV. You can see the connections to hipster ethos in Wallace's description:
In fact, the numb blank bored demeanor—what one friend calls the “girl who's-dancing-with-you-but-would-obviously-rather-be-dancing-with-somebody-else” expression—that has become my generation's version of cool is all about TV. “Television” . . . trains us to relate to real live personal up-close stuff the same way we relate to the distant and exotic, as if separated from us by physics and glass, extant only as performance, awaiting our cool review. . . . (W)ooed several gorgeous hours a day for nothing but our attention, we regard that attention as our chief commodity, our social capital, and we are loath to fritter it. In the same regard . . . flatness, numbness, and cynicism in one's demeanor are clear ways to transmit the televisual attitude of stand-out-transcendence—flatness and numbness transcend sentimentality, and cynicism announces that one knows the score, was last naïve about something at maybe like age four.
— David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments
Today, our attention isn't merely sought by TV. Wallace's argument seems almost antiquated compared to the all-out assault on our attention spans that come from TV, smart phones, and social media. We live on display in Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and much more.
So like Wallace's numb blank bored figure, today's hipster is likewise numb blank bored, detached from the world like a perpetual critic. They consume the media around them having bought into the ironic cultural ethos—believing that the only righteous position is one above the fray, beyond affect, and whose only sincere emotion is disdain.
This may seem like a flash-in-the-pan cultural phenomenon that doesn't matter, but if you're like me, you see hipsters every Sunday, and throughout the week in the neighborhoods where you live. Not only that, but Wampole argues that the hipster is only an extreme version of a general attitude of irony and cynicism that pervades our culture. How can Christians think about this odd phenomenon?
Don't Confuse the General With the Specific
It's important to remember than many people adopt stylistic trappings without necessarily embracing (or being embraced by) their philosophical underpinnings. In other words, not every hipster is a Hipster. Not every kid with a mustache and skinny jeans is cynical and self-protective. Some of the kindest, most generous, and sincere folks in my church appear—at first glance—to be part of that cultural phenomenon. But they know Jesus, and he's transformed them into quirky, mustachioed lovers of God and others, and I praise Jesus for them.
Cultivate Sincere Awe
The best response to a culture of cynics and skeptics is sincerity. While cynics mock everything that doesn't rise to their cryptic standards, Christians look at the world and remember that it was all mysteriously and wonderfully made by God. Even human handiwork, via the imago dei, reflects God's creativity.
Christian participation in culture should be warm, generous, and sincere. We worship a God who made the world and made it profoundly good. Our God is not a cynic; he takes pleasure in his creation (Genesis 1), and he invites us to share in his joy (Psalm 16:11).
Embracing mere goodness in the world around us—good food, good conversation, and good leisure—could be transformative. By that I mean mere goodness. Life doesn't have to be full of the best of everything, and good can certainly be good enough. Especially if we lower our grandiose and idealized expectations and simply determine to enjoy what God puts before us.
Here again, I think about social media. Social media compels its users to project idealized versions of themselves. A photo of a meal can bear the caption, “UnbeLIEVable homemade ravioli!!!!!!!!” Meanwhile the pasta is chewy, the sauce is tasteless, and the dining couple fights throughout the entire meal. The nature of social media, and its accompanying audience, leads us to glamorize the mundane, leaving no superlatives for truly great experiences.
The real is still good. Life is still a gift. A meal calls for gratitude because it simply exists—as opposed to no meal, and the consequences of hunger.
Similarly, we can experience mere goodness when we allow ourselves to applaud and appreciate the experiences of others. We can fight to turn off our internal simmering vat of contempt and judgment and be joyful at the blessings, pleasure, and goodness of the people around us, both in the real world and also in the virtual world.
Psalm 1 confronts skeptics when it says:
Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
The fourth line of that Psalm makes two points. First, in the context of the psalm, we see that scoffing (mocking) isn't part of a blessed life. It's not the way that God meant the world to be. Second, the scoffer is the only one of the trio who is sitting—inactive, on the sidelines, scoffing at a world that attempts anything.
It's a great snapshot of the stereotypical hipster—sitting on the sidelines and casting judgment on all that passes by. And as Christy Wampole points out, the hipster is actually just an extreme version of a spirit that dominates our whole culture. We're all guilty of this critical spirit, feeding into it as we cynically observe the world around us.
In other words, there's a little bit of a hipster in all of us.
One sad aspect of hipster culture is self-criticism. Where hippies find a sense of belonging in one another's company, hipsters are skeptical of any sense of belonging. So they default to their highest virtue: mockery. No one seems as capable of mocking hipsters as hipsters.
The Root of Cynicism and Irony
I entirely agree with what Wampole and Wallace on the short-term, cultural roots of this sense of irony, but an even deeper cause exists. It's the cause of all tribalism in humanity—the inarticulate sense of alienation we all feel from God and one another. In mild forms, people attempt to satiate this feeling with club and political party memberships, cultural tribalism (like hipsters), and in extreme forms, hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan and Nazi Party.
But it all goes back to Genesis—both to the Tower of Babel, where God confused languages and divided us into tribes and tongues, alienating us from one another, and also to the Garden of Eden, where sin entered the world, and we were cast out from the presence of God. This twin sense of alienation—from one another and from God—leaves us looking for a place to belong.
As Christians, we can speak of a true sense of belonging—a real home—made available in Jesus (Hebrews 3-4). We can also speak of a loyalty that transcends cultural differences—including aesthetic snobbery (Colossians 3:11). The gospel reconciles us, and in the church, we don't stand over and above anyone for any reason. In Christ, we are family, and there's simultaneously a place for everyone and no place for cultural or aesthetic snobbery.
Only the reconciling power of the gospel can transcend this sense of alienation, reconnect us to our maker, and end hostility—and cynicism—between one another.