Interview with Author Brett McCracken
I’m just glad the book has got people talking. I’m glad it’s ruffled some feathers.
- Brett McCracken
When I was growing up, I wasn’t all that cool. Neither was being a Christian, a reality my devout parents considered less important than my spiritual formation. In retrospect, I’m grateful for their priorities, even if their policing went a little far.
In lieu of the classic Green Day, Nirvana, and Rage Against The Machine records my schoolmates were spinning, I spent jr. high afternoons rocking out to DC Talk (think the Beastie Boys trapped on an endless tour with Savage Garden), Petra (the glam/worship fountainhead from whose prophetic loins Stryper would burst forth), and The Supertones (spirit-filled ska; it sounds like you think it does). Mix in some Paul Simon, a little Keith Green, a warped cassette tape of the Mannheim Steamroller Christmas album, and the occasional juicy cut from Sandi Patty and you’ve got a standard playlist from the Bishop family mini-van, circa 1996. Pretty punk rock.
To be fair, the restrictions I faced were nothing compared with what a lot of my church-going peers were stuck with. At least I wasn’t kept from watching The Land Before Time due to its endorsement of evolution.
Despite an ignorance of Weezer and the inner workings of the WWF, I ended up navigating the hierarchies of suburban middle-school fairly well. Then I became an adult, realized that popularity is a zero sum game, and that there are times when the things that lend one hipster cred are vapid, or at least secondary when it comes to that which is important in a person’s character.
The very word “cool” defies definition; if you have to ask if something’s cool, you don’t get it. In addition to its slippery qualities, coolness has often been synonymous with rebellion, or at least that which is inaccessible, ahead of the curve, underground. That which is hip becomes equated with that which is exclusive—once everyone is in on something it’s lost its cachet. This presents some obvious problems for a religion which claims to offer love and forgiveness to all, no matter how square they may be.
How does the seemingly unavoidable portion of the gospel message which holds that Jesus Christ came for the marginalized stack up against the reality that attending certain contemporary urban churches can leave one feeling distinctly outclassed and in need of a shopping spree? Is it just an issue of different congregations serving different portions of the population, or is there something insidious about churches marketing themselves in a concerted effort to be slick, to appeal to the bleeding cultural edge; to be, in a word, cool? How about believers themselves? Is it wrong to dress fashionably and listen to good music? Is that what we’re even talking about when we call someone cool?
In his controversial treatise on the contemporary church and its contingent of fashionable young people, Hipster Christianity, Brett McCracken seeks to answer these questions along with many others. Beginning with a brief ideological history and working definition of “hip”, McCracken turns to an examination of the unique issues and phenomena he sees surrounding the pursuit of hipness in the modern church. In so doing, he makes value statements and stakes out ideological ground, a courageous move when writing about a subculture known for its cynicism and tendency to view searching and dialogue as ends unto themselves.
We spoke via email about his writing process, the spectrum of certainty, and why he’s bummed on Thomas Kinkade.
RB: At the end of the book you land with a number of positions and statements regarding the viability and appropriateness of hipster sensibilities in light of Christian history and your understanding of the gospel. While allowing for the possibility that you might be persuaded otherwise, you do assert that Christianity and the pursuit of “hip” are largely incompatible. You state in the book that you’ve wanted to “document the moment” your generation of the church finds itself in, but you’ve gone beyond merely documenting and have thrown your hat into the ring with a value judgment.
Amongst Christians there is such a huge range in what might be called the spectrum of certainty. You have Joel Osteen at one end saying “I don’t know,” forty-some odd times in response to Larry King’s interview questions and then you’ve got the John MacArthurs and John Pipers of the world at the other end who seem to have a fortified, confidently articulated position on many, many topics. Your book notes the response of hipsters or “young, fashionable people” to the idea of certainty at a few different points, with a chapter on the emerging church, whose leaders congregate at the postmodern end of the spectrum, as well as multiple references to folks like Mark Driscoll who seem pretty certain a lot of the time.
What’s it like to think about where you fall on that spectrum of certainty now that your thoughts are enshrined in a book, particularly in light of the fact that you’re offering your thoughts on a demographic and subculture that has shown itself to be crushingly adept at cynicism?
BM: On the spectrum of certainty, I like to think I fall somewhere in the middle… I tire of the Osteens and emergents and postmodern baby boomers who demonize the very idea of certainty, but I also recoil at the cocksure attitudes of the MacArthurs/Pipers who seem so sure about everything, as if theology is a settled matter as of Luther and Calvin. I hope that my book, surely soon to be an outdated antiquity, never comes across as setting forth a once-and-for-all philosophy of Christians and “cool.” I don’t make any pretense of having the final answer. What I wanted it to be was an attempt at furthering an ongoing discussion about Christians and culture by describing the situation of a particular time and place.
In terms of certainty, I think that any attempt at progressive discussion should hold both a belief in some measure of certainty and also concede a healthy dose of uncertainty. If there are moments or statements in my book that seem confident or “certain” in their assertions, it’s because I think one has to assert some measure of certainty to be an effective rhetorician. Hopefully the more aggressive or certain assertions I make are supported by the evidence and logic presented in the book. But that doesn’t mean I am 100% sure of them; it’s just that progress can’t happen if no one makes bold statements based on the best evidence they have and the conclusions derived from their rational faculties.
We have minds so that we can mull things over and consider all the angles, and then take what we’ve learned and present our deductions or conclusions. That’s what I did with Hipster Christianity. I thought about it for years, researched it thoroughly, considered all sides, and then took my knowledge and pushed the discussion forward by offering my conclusions. I hope others take my conclusions into consideration in their own ongoing searches for the truth.
RB: Is there anything amidst all the feedback and interviews that you feel like readers just haven’t gotten? An idea or area where you’ve felt missed?
BM: One of the things I often feel frustrated by or misunderstood about is the various taxonomies and “Stuff Christian Hipsters Like” lists that I use in the book to help paint the picture of the Christian hipster universe. Some people take these lists too seriously, as if I’m rigidly boxing in a people group or writing off everyone who likes these things as superficial trend-seeking dilettantes.
Or, they see me as dismissing the art and culture that hipsters like as merely trendy, and thus devaluing it. I am not saying that these things aren’t great in themselves. And I’m not saying that “if you like the films of Ozu or the music of Panda Bear, you’re a hipster.” Rather, I’m saying that these are things hipsters tend to like, and it serves a purpose in exploring the people within a subculture to examine the artifacts they tend to consume.
RB: Some critics, including John Wilson of Books & Culture, as well as the guys at Patrol, gave Hipster Christianity a pretty thorough savaging. You spoke of Patrol positively in the book… what was the experience of receiving feedback and even criticism over the book like, particularly from folks you’d referenced?
BM: The criticisms were entirely expected, and the origins of the criticisms entirely predictable. Patrol in particular was unsurprising; I knew they would feel implicated in the critique of my book and respond defensively. John Wilson was less expected because I take him for a man of nuance and thoughtfulness rather than someone prone to reactionary lashing out. In both cases I didn’t take it personally because I knew going in to the book that the subject matter would probably elicit passionate responses. I knew I would be subject to savage attacks. 3 years in the blogosphere prepared me for that. I was a little surprised by the tone of some of the critiques, however, because many seemed to give themselves away as angry/reactionary/threatened rather than thoughtful in their engagement with the material. I didn’t write the book to pick fights with anyone, and I’m surprised that some people seem to only see the book through that lens–as if I’m entirely against or for one thing or the other. I never had any such polarizing intentions.
To answer your question more specifically: The experience of receiving feedback has been mostly positive, and very helpful, even from the harshest critics. I’m just glad the book has got people talking. I’m glad it’s ruffled some feathers.
RB: I saw a correction at the bottom of your now infamous Wall Street Journal piece in which Mark Driscoll, or a representative of his camp, seems to have disputed the p’s and q’s of your reference to the way he has titled some of his sermons. Have you received any feedback from Driscoll or interacted with him at all?
BM: Not with Driscoll directly. I know him or someone in his office requested that several copies of the book be sent from the publisher to the leadership team at Mars Hill. So I think they have read it, although I’m not sure about Driscoll in particular. The Wall Street Journal thing was pretty funny… the day it came out in the WSJ I got frantic, angry phone calls from the PR person at Mars Hill, asking for a retraction or correction because the original piece referred to “sermons with titles like… ‘Biblical Oral Sex’…” and they insisted that they weren’t sermons, but rather online videos with those titles. So the WSJ made the correction, but to me the point is made whether it’s “sermons” or “online-videos” that have titles like “Biblical Oral Sex.”
RB: One of the funniest passages in the book, at least for me, was the one in which you roast Thomas Kinkade:
For Christian hipsters, Kinkade represents much of what is wrong with Christian art. Why? Because his paintings are just so saccharine and idyllic, they say. The cottages and waterfalls and lush flower lawns as rendered by the so-called Painter of Light do not advance any sort of truthful or artistically credible vision of the world. His paintings are just so happy and naive and fake.
You go on to quote Joe Carter who contends that “what is so dispiriting about this painting is that rather than being created in order to be challenging or even inspiring, it’s intended only to be comforting. It invites the viewer to enter a world of unnatural nature, a world where the “light” comes from within, and the warmth comes not from the receding sun but from inside the walls of the perfect Anglo shelter.”
What I heard, explicitly and implicitly, in these excerpts and indeed the entire chapter “Reframing Christian Art,” was an elevation of that which is “gritty” and “authentic” over and above that which is merely pleasant, or comforting. In my experience, that which is “challenging” seems to have a cachet amongst hipsters. What’s more, navigating the gray territory between edifying, authentic, and “saccharine” is difficult.
Michael Chabon contends that all literature serves the purpose of entertainment and challenges the idea that escapism is in and of itself a bad thing. It’s a train of thought that seems to dovetail with what I took away from your chapter on hipsters and art. I don’t hear you saying that entertainment is a bad thing. But, and correct me if I’m wrong here, I sense that you don’t perceive it as a legitimate end in and of itself.
And perhaps I should clarify how I see that relating to the Kinkade piece. Is Kinkade’s work to be shunned primarily because it doesn’t challenge its audience enough? Would a bombed out cottage be a better painting? To what extent does aesthetic preference play into the hipster disdain for his work?
I guess I’m asking two separate questions. One on Kinkade, and one on the merits of entertainment or the merits or dangers of escapism in art.
BM: I do consider entertainment and escapism as being valid ends-unto-themselves. That is, entertainment and escapism grounded in truth and artistic integrity. I’m definitely not of the mind that all things gritty/raw/difficult are somehow better or truer than that which is pleasant/comforting/escapist. I actually get frustrated when “authentic” or “valuable” is equated with dark/edgy/profane. There can be art full of goodness and light and encouragement that is equally valuable and true.
The problem with Kinkade is not just that his work avoids darkness; it’s that his version of “light” is too simple, too cliché. It doesn’t ring true. This doesn’t preclude the existence of idyllic/escapist art that does ring true.
To use movies as an example: There are feel-good, happy-go-lucky romantic comedies that are entertaining and escapist, but don’t portray a goodness that is relatable. Then there are those that do portray a relatable goodness. And the latter is the one that I think is aesthetically preferable.
RB: Take us back to the moment you found out Hipster Christianity would be published. I imagine that must have been exhilarating.
BM: It was an amazing moment. I was in London on vacation, at one of the “pay for 30 minutes of use” computers in the lobby of my hostel, when I read the email from the editor at Baker Books with the subject heading “Good News!” I got chills just seeing that subject line in my inbox, because I had submitted my full proposal to them a month or so earlier and knew that there was interest but that there were still discussions about whether or not they were going to publish it. So when I opened the email and read that they were excited to take on the book and publish it, I was just stunned in a good way. My girlfriend at the time was there with me, reading the email over my shoulder, and it was amazing to share that moment with someone. It was one of those major milestone moments when you knew that something big was happening in your life, a major change that would affect the course forever. So yeah, it was definitely exhilarating!
RB: It sounds like you didn’t sell the manuscript through an agent.
BM: I did not have an agent for this book. I got the contract to write the book for Baker Books based on a proposal (including sample chapter, chapter-by-chapter outline, ideas for audience/marketing, etc) that I sent to an acquisitions editor at Baker that I knew through a mutual friend. So the manuscript was written after I signed the contract. I basically signed it in August of 2008, wrote the book over the next 12 months, and submitted the first draft of the manuscript in August of 2009.
RB: You bounced all around the states and even attended churches in London and Paris as part of the research for the book. Did you write the book concurrently while doing the research and attendant world tour, or did you do all the research up front before the proposal and then sit down to write?
BM: The church visits/travel all happened after I started actually writing the book. I was writing the book (especially the early chapters on history and definitions, etc.) as I was visiting the churches that Fall of 2008 and Spring of 2009. In the book I did make reference to some churches that I’d visited prior to getting the book deal, but of the 7 churches I talk about specifically in chapter 6 of the book, all of them were ones that I visited after I knew I was going to be writing the book.
RB: You’re a busy man who wears multiple hats, not least of which is a full time job managing a magazine. Tell me about your process. Are you a Steve Almond, write-every-day-or-die-trying kind of a guy? Or did the book come in pieces?
BM: I really enjoy the process. I sort of approach writing like putting together a puzzle. In my mind and in my various notebooks and word docs I have all sorts of thoughts and words and images that I want to include, but the challenge is putting them together in the way that makes sense and is most effective. With each writing task that I have, whether it be writing a movie review, a feature article for a magazine, a book, or a blog post, there is an objective and I know what needs to be accomplished.
It’s a challenge, but also a thrill, to sit down and put together the puzzle pieces toward the end of highly effective and (hopefully) beautiful prose. I’m a lover of words and sentences and well-crafted structure, so I actually love the process of putting sentences together. In general I try to write everyday, whether because I have to or because I want to. I’m a big believer in the importance of habitual practice in bettering one’s craft.
In terms of the book, I wrote it mostly chronologically: Chap. 1 first, then Ch. 2, and so on. Some chapters took a lot longer than others because they involved more research and citations and had a lot more puzzle pieces involved (e.g. Chap. 2: “The History of Hip” took me about a month to write). Other chapters (especially the latter ones, where I was really in the zone and finally getting to the heart of the argument) took less time. I finished two of the final chapters in one week that I spent in Oxford on a sort of writing retreat.
For me, getting long stretches of time to write is key. I like to get out of the house and go to Starbucks or Panera or something and write for 4-5 hours if possible. It’s all about flow and rhythm, and avoiding too many interruptions. Even for my job at Biola Magazine, if I have to write a story I oftentimes go off campus to write it in one big chunk, distraction free.
RB: You spoke earlier about the moment when you received word that Hipster Christianity was going to be published as one in which you sensed your life was being affected for the long term. What’s on the horizon for you now, both in terms of opportunities this book has opened up, and specifically as regards upcoming books or projects?
BM: In the immediate future, the book has opened up a lot more writing and speaking opportunities… I’m going to be speaking at various conferences around the country and in Europe in 2011, which is exciting. As far as future books, there is nothing set yet but several ideas are in the early stages of development. I’m hoping that early in 2011 I will pitch ideas with my agent to publishers for new books, and hopefully something will happen… but only if it feels right. I don’t want to jump into a 2nd book just because it’s the thing to do. I want it to be a topic that I think needs to be explored and which I feel personally called to explore. So we’ll see what that turns out to be.