The Fear of Angry Christian Hipsters
We live not too far down the road from a seminary where quite a few millennials seek theological training. About ten or twelve years ago, I began to notice a trend in some of the 20-30 something students who attended. When they disagreed with older, more traditional thinkers of the faith, they would respond with impatient, explosive insults and snide, disparaging remarks.
I wasn't sure how to process this criticism at first, because I agreed that some of the institutions and individuals these students were criticizing had flaws.** Yet their style of proud, verbal bullying, dismissiveness, and condescension hurt to watch.
In years since, I have seen a rapid increase in this method of rebuking traditional believers, and particularly among those who seem to place cultural relevance as a priority above orthodoxy. It is difficult for me to write that, because I am an artistic person who feels most at home in an environment that is at least a little bit bohemian. I don't tend to follow traditional beliefs on many subjects, and I tend to be rather sarcastic. However, this critical spirit seems to go beyond sarcasm, beyond satire, beyond honest banter. It is a sneering elitism that has become pervasive in Christendom.
And it's not just other people who do this. I fall into it now, too, sometimes. When I see ultra-right wing believers doing foolish things, I can get pretty ugly. I'm embarrassed by their behavior and I want to distance myself from it like a teenage kid whose dad showed up in too-short shorts and black dress socks at a school event. I forget what Lewis said about never encountering a mere mortal, and I start ripping things to shreds.
We tend to hear a lot of criticism these days about how bad the church is. Some of that criticism has been merited, to be sure, but the elephant in the room is that there is a also generation of criticizers in the church that has, in many places become, every bit as ugly the object of their criticism. This group has turned into what it hates without even realizing it.
Many believers have already experienced a taste of hipster Christian hostility, either directly or as a result of watching it directed toward others. It is a normal human impulse to want to avoid more pain, and I can understand why this negative presence in our culture has made some people hesitant to speak about matters of Orthodox faith in public at all. However, as much as I empathize with that fear, I want to use this post to encourage us to have courage to continue to talk about the truth.
When I lay my own bruises and failures aside and think about the most aggressive Christian hipsters I know, I see that many of them carry around a nagging doubt that God even exists. Some run in faith circles more out of habit than out of firm conviction. Some get their livelihood from being "Christian," and they either don't have the courage or the financial means to step away from their jobs once they realize that they have become agnostics. A loss of respect for the centrality and reliability of the Bible is rampant in this crowd, and if you take time to look underneath the outer personas of confidence and quick, biting judgments, you might see that many tend to struggle with deep spiritual disorientation.
I have a lot of empathy for those living such lives. Most of us go through seasons of doubt (I certainly have), and those seasons are frightening and painful. But in addition to the conventional dark night of the soul, hipsters have also passed through adolescence into adulthood during years when the very reality of truth was being challenged, and the resulting moral upheaval led many into early life choices that deaden and harden a heart. The sort critics I am addressing in this post haven't yet fought through all of these barriers; they haven't emerged from their dark forest of doubt into light. In fact, many have given up the battle and have just accepted that life is to be lived without solid edges.
Talking with someone who is humble and honest about this struggle evokes compassion in most of us. Sometimes our souls break and we simply collapse for a while, and that is good to admit in safe company. The disoriented become dangerous, however, when they begin to project their own spiritual numbness into the world and ask others to follow it. Instead of admitting need and seeking help until they find it, some of these critics begin to advocate a new ethic from within their existing poverty. The blind lead the blind, teaching that because nothing is very certain we must only just be kind to one another.
Hard truths about eternity are abandoned. Hard truths about sensitive social issues of our time are abandoned. Hard truths about the reality of the faith are abandoned. Hard truths about God's authority are abandoned. These critics doubt solid things and embrace certainty about doubt. Their gospel is vertigo.
Chesterton wrote about a similar (though not identical) type of person in "The Suicide of Thought" in his book Orthodoxy:
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"We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. We are in danger of seeing philosophers who doubt the law of gravity as being a mere fancy of their own. Scoffers of old time were too proud to be convinced; but these are too humble to be convinced. The meek do inherit the earth; but the modern skeptics are too meek even to claim their inheritance."
"...the trouble with our sages is not that they cannot see the answer; it is that they cannot even see the riddle. They are like children so stupid as to notice nothing paradoxical in the playful assertion that a door is not a door. The modern latitudinarians speak, for instance, about authority in religion not only as if there were no reason in it, but as if there had never been any reason for it. Apart from seeing its philosophical basis, they cannot even see its historical cause. Religious authority has often, doubtless, been oppressive or unreasonable; just as every legal system (and especially our present one) has been callous and full of a cruel apathy. It is rational to attack the police; nay, it is glorious. But the modern critics of religious authority are like men who should attack the police without ever having heard of burglars."
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After years of watching this sort of engagement, I have come to think that many of the church's most severe, outspoken, hip modern critics have lost a measure of sensitivity to the Holy Spirit. They do not flinch or blush when violations of truth or goodness are presented to them; instead they allow the lukewarm principles of the spirit of our age to move in where the Spirit of God should lead instead. Embarrassed and restless with the crude, primitive nature of orthodoxy, they have kept only the pieces of Christ's teachings which allow them to blend in with the secular ethic.
The hipster critic tends make snide (often public) scoldings a regular habit. If someone expresses a viewpoint that is socially or politically unacceptable to his particular worldview, the aggressive hipster will not simply disagree with the speaker, he will villainize or insult the speaker. He will mock, attack, and quickly dismiss.
My empathetic side can see that this approach to rebuke generally grows from youthful disappointment into a fullblown cancer of cynicism. It is an odd mixture of aggression and something like sadness. Still, these rebukes do not ring of the sweetness of God or the hope of the gospel; they ring of pride and shame. They demean opponents, impatiently demanding that others simply shut up instead of inviting them to grow in grace. And if one tries to reach out and grasp what is offered instead, there will tend to be only fog. The aggressive hipster's offering to the world tends to be, "I am more enlightened than they are," instead of, "Glory be to God."
When you are criticized by this sort of person, I hope that you will not let the confrontation discourage you. I know it hurts. That doesn't mean the rebuke you have received is necessarily valid. Maybe there is something to be learned from the criticism you receive. It's always wise to ask God to show us if He is speaking to us through our opponents. But there are also a lot of severe, wild reactions happening these days. It's quite possible that what is said to you has very little to do with a wrong you have done at all.
As thinkers like Sayers, Lewis, and Chesterton have noted, there are deep moral laws written in the universe, and it is the spirit of our time to defy them. That defiance is not only bad thinking but also bad art. Chesterton wrote:
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"Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame. If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold creative way, you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe. The moment you step into the world of facts, you step into a world of limits. You can free things from alien or accidental laws, but not from the laws of their own nature. You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars; but do not free him from his stripes. Do not free a camel of the burden of his hump: you may be freeing him from being a camel. Do not go about as a demagogue, encouraging triangles to break out of the prison of their three sides. If a triangle breaks out of its three sides, its life comes to a lamentable end."
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I think that it is possible, no probable, that many of the bad art makers of our time are trying to help the world with their self-made ethical pabulum. When people who are living in this sort of spiritual confusion encounter an unpopular but orthodox idea, it will (of course) strike a nerve inside them, for the ultimate good of the disoriented tends to be comfort. In the heat wave of an offense, these critics will often attempt to shove in and referee, trying to protect the world from hard moral conviction. This response may be good-hearted, but at times it is also dead wrong.
I agree with millennial hesitations about forwarding false, right-wing memes, political lies, and the fear-mongering that is rampant in our nation. Often I feel hostility right along side them when such things surface. Still, there will be times to speak difficult truths with wisdom.
The aggressive Christian hipster does not just take issue with propaganda, but also with sincere expressions of unpopular opinion rooted in research. It is difficult to please someone who has such an approach to relationships. Though there are many situations when a winsome approach to communicating truth can be found, when it becomes not okay for something unpleasant to ever be said, a problem arises.
Jesus told us that living life in Him would be difficult, and it is difficult now. There are many sensitive issues to be discussed that involve millions of lives. There are angry, frightened, and numb people on all sides of us. Walking through community can feel like walking through a minefield. Still, God lives inside us, and if we are attacked as we attempt to speak what He gives us, He will also bear us up through our times of opposition.
G.K. Chesterton writes, "Joan of Arc was not stuck at the cross-roads, either by rejecting all the paths like Tolstoy, or by accepting them all like Nietzsche. She chose a path, and went down it like a thunderbolt." A thunderbolt. Wow. That image is such a shock in the lukewarm spirit of our age, isn't it? It's hard for me to even imagine that being done well. The very idea of it is offensive in our time.
There will always be a place for acts of gentleness and beauty. Such tender works are generally the best ones to embrace in these turbulent times. However, there are also situations where boldness is going to be required. We are going to have to say hard things sometimes, too. So, as you embrace the former with your everyday life patterns, I hope you will not be so afraid of the angry Christian hipster that you cannot employ the latter when the need arises.
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Art: "Joan of Arc" by Odilon Redon
*After reading this post, a friend wrote me asking what I considered a Christian hipster and why I was zooming in on that particular group. I thought these were great questions, so I'm including my answer to her here.
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What I am addressing here is not so much an issue of fashionable relevance (surface/style) as it is an issue of ideological foundations (deep truth).
Different versions of elitism definitely show up in different niches of Christendom, and I could have just as easily written a post about those who are stuck in a critical, stodgy anger/fury/tradition.
I think it's probably better to address these groups one at a time, because I would use different quotes, different arguments while addressing that crowd. Although there are some core similarities in the hostility produced, I think internal motivations tend to vary. For example, where I see cynicism resulting from disappointment fueling hyper-critical moderns, I generally see fear (among other motivators that I would have to unpack) fueling those who are hateful with tradition.
In terms of stylistic relevance, I work with teenagers full-time, so I spend a lot of my week adopting the fashions (external, linguistic, philosophical) of our day so that I can relate to their hearts. I don't think that sort of attempt is wrong. In fact, it can be a move like Paul in Athens, using one of the existing pagan gods to introduce the real one.
What I am seeing in certain factions of hip Christianity, though, goes beyond surface imitation of style into a philosophical imitation of hostility against truth. That is what I am attempting to address here.
**And below is a second comment addressing the question: Why didn't you write about the obvious wrongs of the Christian Right?
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I didn't write the "Fear of the Christian Right" essay because so many people are already complaining about the errors of the right and have been for years. I wanted to start with the group aggression that isn't being talked about as much.
A complaint against the religious right is almost cliché these days. It's kind of what everybody (at least in my world) complains about, and it's really the only socially-acceptable complaint to make in the church in a lot of circles.
I'm irritated with tendencies of the extreme right too, but I have noticed that in many moderns (including myself at times) there is an increasing verbal aggression and dismissal in how those criticisms are levied. Also, the right's most hostile critics seem to be casting a wider and wider circle of blame in their dismissal of late. Not only are true, ugly, extreme right-wingers targets, but any opinion that relates to something considered right-wing is also likely to be treated with hostility. As a result, certain aspects of truth (Orthodoxy) are beginning to be dismissed as well.
Certain opponents to the right have created a culture where they have become (in many cases) the very heart of what they despise in the right, some even more hostile and dominant. It's fascinating how while fighting the self-righteous we can become the very thing we hate without even realizing it. It's a good lesson.