Hipster dis-Cred

I’m confused, not hip.

I’m confused on the one hand because some, but not all, of the things I read about so-called ‘hipster’ Christianity ring true for me.

What makes a church a “hipster church”? Does it have a one-word name that is either a Greek word or something evocative of creation? Does the pastor frequently use words like kingdom, authenticity, and justice, and drop names like N. T. Wright in sermons? Does the church advertise a gluten-free option for Communion? If the answer is yes to all of those questions, chances are that it’s a hipster church. (Brett McCracken, “Hipster Faith”, Christianity Today, September, 2010)

I answer yes to some of these questions, but not all. Somewhere a few years ago, I took an online ‘hipster quiz’, an unhip thing to do, and scored 78/120. Not sure what that makes me.

I wear sandals, so suspicions are quickly raised. But I wear them because 30 years ago I met a very square and un-hip Scottish pastor who wore sandals and they looked (and are) comfortable. Sandals are hip, but so are the oft mentioned ‘skinny jeans’, and whatever those are I’m sure I’m not going to wear them. Goatees are hip, but they make one look sinister.

The Coen’s are interesting and often brilliant, but they have their lapses. (That’s hip to say!) Wes Anderson is beyond mystifying. (Not hip.) I love liturgy and literary fiction. Mumford and Sons is on my play list and I believe the kingdom certainly includes elements of social justice. (All fit the hip profile.) But I can’t cuss very well, much less in a sermon, I don’t like beer, and, as a Twitter post commented yesterday, intinction works better for cookies and milk than for bread and wine. (Not very hip). And a ‘gluten free option’? Simply sounds loving rather than ‘hip’.

I thought about this the other day when I decided to retire another element of possible hipster cred. After having completed the massive bio of Winston Churchill (The Last Lion) I moved on to read the popular fiction of David Balducci. Terribly unhip. Perhaps that stirred the hipster demon in me, for after finishing Balducci I had this uncontrollable urge to read Flannery O’Connor. Flan and I started out well, but the more she spoke the harder it became for me to grasp what she was saying. It dawned on me that I was reading her because I thought I was supposed to. Cool pastors read and quote NT Wright AND Flannery O’Connor, I guess. But not this one. Not now, anyway.

I certainly hope I’m not trying to be hip by claiming to be unhip. It can become all very mystifying.

I’d finish by quoting a pop music lyric (a hip thing to do) but the lyrics I’m most familiar with are over 40 years old. Not hip.

Oh heck (a hip pastor would have phrased that more strongly), I’m going to do it anyway:

But it’s all right now, I learned my lesson well.
You see, you can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.
(Rick Nelson, “Garden Party”, 1972)

Nostalgia and the Kingdom

To get me to ignore your message, frame it in crisis terms. I’ve become immune to any appeal suggesting that avoiding this movement or embracing that practice is ushering in the collapse of all the we (generally white Americans) find culturally precious. The claims may be accurate. The sky may be falling. But I’ve grown immune to the screaming.

We see cultural collapse when we are gripped with an unhealthy sense of nostalgia. We are persuaded that the 1950s was the height of safe Christian culture (or, for me for a time, 1860) – conclusions which for obvious reasons will be shared by white men far more than others.

Nostalgia links to our sense of shalom. We long for shalom, and sentiment for a time lost is easier to embrace than hope for a time yet unforeseen. Anything which seems to threaten that nostalgic longing is a portent of imminent social collapse. And for many, the harbinger and possible cause of this collapse is pop culture (rivaled only by, and often seen hand in hand with, the ‘other’ political party). The movies and music and media of our day are eroding our national strength and if not stopped or countered will lead to inevitable loss. So goes the argument meant to make me feel guilty if I don’t buy a ticket to Fireproof.

To argue the case one way or the other seems a bit fruitless to me. Lives are won or lost one at a time through old fashioned love and discipleship. Micro-ministry holds greater hope for the kingdom of God than macro-movements.

That said, pop culture does play a role, but it is not universally negative as some too easily assume.Magnolia melora walters john c reilly Signs that pop-culture can SERVE the kingdom and not degrade it are not hard to find. The 1999 movie Magnolia could be seen as evidence of our cultural fall with its sex and drug use and gay lead character. But the biblical themes of judgment are rich and the Christian character is the only one who is not coming undone. There is much positive here.

In 2005 Steven Spielberg directed a version of the H. G. Wells classic War of the Worlds. It was not a particularly good movie, but that’s not what matters here. In an interview Spielberg compared this movie with his earlier Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Both involved families. Both involved aliens. The difference, he lamented, was that in his earlier movie, crisis tore families apart. In this newer movie, crisis took families which were apart and pulled them back together.

Progression toward shalom, and not away from it, should be celebrated. Not all ‘progress’ is retrograde.

Nostalgia can fix our eyes on the past and blind us to the progress of God’s work in the present. Perhaps it is better to fix our eyes on the kingdom and celebrate it wherever we see its fingerprints, in the present, in the past, and especially in our hopes for the future.

Djesus Uncrossed?

I’m sincerely interested in what those who read this blog think of the recent SNL production based upon the revenge movies of Quentin Tarantino and starring Tarantino’s favorite Christopher Waltz. Is it good humor or blasphemy? I want to hear others’ opinions before I share my own.

I have been for some reason unsuccessful in embedding the clip here. So here is the link to the video on the NBC site.

That link was not working on Chrome or Safari for me (Firefox seems to work fine), and so if you are having trouble, you can view the clip here.

Warning: if you have NOT seen this and are bothered by Tarantino-style blood and gore you should not watch this!

Let me know what you think.

Questions from the Sixties

The title does not refer to the famous decade of the 20th Century, but of the advanced decade of a human life. We are considering the kinds of questions that various decades of life force upon us, as suggested by Gordon MacDonald in his book A Resilient Life.

The sixty-year-old then is asking questions which reflect the fact that some whom he loves have died and his accomplishments are fading farther into the background.

When do I stop doing the things that have always defined me?
Why do I feel ignored by a large part of the younger population?
Do I have enough time to do all the things I’ve dreamed about doing?

Life and death issues loom:

Why am I curious about who is listed in the obituaries?
Who will be around me when I die?
Which one of us (if married) will go first?
What is it like to say goodbye?

And again, end of life issues push the buttons of doubt and fear:

Are the things I’ve believed in capable of taking me to the end?
Is there really life after death?
What do I regret?
What have I done that will outlive me?

We invest a great deal of effort in trying to form our messages to be comprehended by youth. We need to take these questions to heart as we seek to speak to those who are older as well.

Reaching Fifty

The questions we ask at various stages in life are not bound to the age we actually inhabit, but more to the life situations those ages thrust upon us. So, some may ask questions at 45 that others are not asking until 65, and vise versa. But these generalizations do help us who teach and preach to consider how we might better connect with the real concerns of our audience.

As we ‘reach’ the fifties, Gordon MacDonald, from whose book A Resilient Life these observations come, says that having moved past life’s middle, we have reached a point for sober thinking. The questions that arise include:

Why is time moving so fast?
Why is my body becoming unreliable?
How do I deal with my failures and successes?
How can my spouse and I reinvigorate our relationship now that the children are gone?
Who are these young people who want to replace me?
Will we have enough money for our retirement years?

And, perhaps more than before, this one:

What do I do with my doubts and fears?

In the Forties

We are pondering the questions that people in various stages of life might be asking so that we might better communicate with them. Perhaps these suggestions from Gordon MacDonald are accurate, perhaps not, but they seem to me to be a good place to begin the conversation.

Those in their forties realize that they are beyond the place where they can protest that their mistakes are the product of youthful ignorance. They are mature, and are beginning to realize that they will not live forever. We wonder what has made us what we are and we wonder what we have yet to become. Some questions:

Who was I as a child, and what powers back then influence the kind of person I am today?
Why do some people seem to be doing better than I?
Why am I often disappointed in myself and others?
Why are limitations beginning to outnumber options?

The forties are times of great change. Bodies, children, marriage, financial standing, all change and create uncertainty. Questions can hinge toward hope or despair:

Why do I seem to face so many uncertainties?
What can I do to make a greater contribution to my generation?
What would it take to pick up a whole new calling in life and do the thing I’ve always wanted to do?

Though the word ‘trapped’ does come up more often than we wish it would, the forties can be a time when people are encouraged to focus their energies in a whole new way for good.

Questions of a ‘ThirtySomething’

Continuing to consider the questions that people in various stages of life are asking, Gordon MacDonald considers those in their thirties.

How do I prioritize the demands being made on my life?
How far can I go in fulfilling my sense of purpose?
Who are the people with whom I know I walk through life?

This last question is one of loneliness. With increased demands on time and responsibilities, old friendships drift into the distance, and there often is not the time to build and deepen new friendships.

This increased time demand raises a spiritual component. There is no longer much time for retreats and conferences and times of hanging out. Words like ’empty’, ‘tired’, ‘confused’, and ‘drifting’ come up frequently. And so does the question

What does my spiritual life look like? Do I even have time for one?

And this is complicated by the sense of failure that may begin to peek over the horizon, leading to the question:

Why am I not a better person?

If these thoughts are anywhere near the mark, it speaks of fertile ground for the Gospel.

“20-ish” Questions

In reference to this goal, then, what are the questions that those in their twenties are asking? I summarize MacDonald here:

What kind of a man or woman am I becoming?
How am I different from my mother or father?
Where can I find a few friends who will welcome me as I am and who will offer the familylike connections that I need [or never had]?
Can I love, and am I lovable?

MacDonald finds fear of rejection, loneliness, and the feeling that one might not fit.

Other questions include

What will I do with my life?
What is it that I really want in exchange for my life’s labors?
What parts of me and my life need correction?
and
Around what person or conviction will I organize my life?

Do you agree with these? What would you add or take away?

The Questions of Life

I’ve read about 40% of Gordon MacDonald’s book A Resilient Life and can only commend it with one SERIOUS reservation which, while not stripping the book of all value, places it in a category in which I could not give it to anyone without some explanation. I’ll comment on that when I have the opportunity to finish it.

I draw attention to the book at this point in order to extract from it something that MacDonald very well and which many should find useful. I refer to a portion of the book in which MacDonald helps us understand the questions that people are asking at various stages of their lives. This has value to me as a preacher but can be useful as well to any who are involved in teaching or leading adults.

Preachers, for example, have a message that they want to be heard. It is not merely an intellectual message appealing to intellectuals interested in discussing all the latest ideas. It is a practical message regarding a person’s place in this world and the purpose of his life. If I can preach Jesus in such a way that intersects the questions a listener is already asking, he is far more likely to give the message attention than if what I am saying appears to be ethereal and unrelated to the life he, or she, is living. In preparing a sermon or a lesson, it is good to ponder the questions the listener brings to the table so that one might address the content in such a way that it answers those questions. Do that, and we will be heard.

But getting a handle on what those questions are can be the tricky part. MacDonald has asked representative people from each decade of life to share with him the questions which most concern their peers. He asked this of twenty-somethings, those in their thirties, and each decade thereafter. His read on these questions seems to me to be highly accurate. I would like to share those with the readers of this blog.

But before I do that, I encourage those of you who are reading this and are interested to ponder what you think those questions might be. What questions are those in YOUR decade asking? What troubles them? What do they worry about? What occupies their innermost thoughts? What matters most to them?

The End of the World

I have grown used to Christians making generalizations lamenting the present state of life in the world, assuming a moral degradation from some idealized standard, and suggesting that such is a clear harbinger of the End of the World.

I have grown used to it. I just don’t get it. Earlier this year I read Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century and if ever an era revealed End-of-the-World colors, it was the 14th century. But we are still here.

My patience wears thin, though, when the idealized standard is localized to something like the 1950s and some historic event (“…when they took prayer out of our schools…”) or another is erected as the watershed moment. Yes, THOSE 1950s when my black friends endured dental work without anesthesia and Colin Powell, later so distinguished, would drive through the south having to turn his wife into the woods to relieve herself, as they were unable to find a restroom she was free to use.

There never has been a golden age. We might even want to argue that things are so much better today than they have been at any time in the past.

But that is not my purpose. My purpose is for us to look critically at any and every era and train ourselves to see God’s providential hand of grace through it all.

In the following quote, John Frame is critiquing those critical assessments which judge contemporary life as defective because they have departed from a high and therefore pure standard. His comments are applicable as well to any effort to locate a pure golden standard anywhere in history and outside the hope of the Gospel.

So the problem is not history; the problem is sin. Culture is bad today, but Sodom and Gomorrah were probably not any better, nor were Tyre, Sidon, Ninevah, Babylon, Rome, Capernaum, or Bethsaida.

Popular culture is bad, but high culture is too. Beethoven was a devotee of the secularism of the French Revolution, Wagner of German mythology, and their music makes a powerful case for these false worldviews.. The problems of high culture go back a long way. It is not that high culture has been infected by popular culture; if anything, the reverse is true. And folk culture has always had alongside its humble virtues a lot of bawdy tales, class warfare, ignorant populism, and disrespect for the holy.

It is always wrong to try to single out one element of culture as pure, even relatively pure, and blame all of society’s ills on some other element. That is almost always self-serving: we like what we like and we want to blame the evils of life on the culture we dislike. But perhaps we need to have a more biblical view of sin. Sin is not limited to one segment of society or one segment of culture. It pervades everything. And whatever good there is comes from God’s common and special grace.

The Doctrine of the Christian Life, Page 887.