Wednesday, August 18, 2010

hipster christianity, tradition & my people

by Tim K. Snyder

Twice this week I've run into articles making commentary about Christianity and young people. The first was sent to me by my high school English teacher, Christa Allan (who happens to also be a fabulous fiction writer). The article  — "The Perils of 'Wanna Be Cool' Christianity" (Wall Street Journal Online, Aug. 13, 2010) — was by Brett McCracken, author of Hipster Christianity: When Christianity and Cool Collide. The second article was a blog post by the Lutheran (ELCA) Bishop Kevin Kanouse in North Texas & North Louisiana. Both identify a real sense of urgency and both sit honestly with the unresolved tension that exists at the intersection of young people, the church, tradition and culture. But both fail to capture the rather complex conversation that I find most of my people struggling with.

Brett McCracken's article captures some important dynamics of what many of us struggle with. He's dead on when he identifies the struggle to be with the "Christian establishment." I think he's also right about the struggle not about being about "coolness" but rather what is real. I suspect he's even right about many in my generation not wanting something "easy, trendy or popular."

But I question seriously his idea that the Church is merely trying to be one of the cool kids again. McCracken seems to ignore the possibility that there may be real deep theological reasons why the Church must engage culture. For McCracken "cool" and "culturally savvy" are synonymous. That's pretty unfortunate because Christianity is about following this "God with us" Jesus who was a particular person in a particular time. The whole incarnation screams an invitation to engage culture. Of course there are "thin" and "thick" ways for Christians to engage culture (to use the anthropological categories of Clifford Geertz).

As unpopular as it may be these days to defend what's been labeled the emerging church movement, I'm going to go ahead and do it because I think McCracken's analysis of it is so off. Yes, much of the movement in North America got it's spark from Evangelicals. And yes it is certainly informed by postmodern sensibilities that question everything. But I'm skeptical that McCracken has spent any real time in any of the actual faith communities that make up the movement. Having started one, participated in one of the older ones, and having researched others in the UK, I feel fairly confident in suggesting that actually these communities are actually creating exactly the kinds of alternatives to the Christian establishment that he's longing for. Similarly, I just submitted a chapter for a book (expected out in 2011) that argues that creativity is found at the intersection of the given — also called "what lasts in Christianity" or simply "tradition" — and the unpredictable, or in other words the intersection of the future and culture.

Similarly as McCracken's article, Bishop Kevin Kanouse quotes research studies and then writes in his blog post, "It is this sense of inauthenticity that is driving many people away from the community of those who claim the name of Jesus Christ." Sure, I suppose. But to be fair Bishop, it's not that simple. Much of the reason my generation is alienated by its inauthenticity is isn't being honest. For three years serving as a lay pastor in the Lutheran Church (ELCA) we were encouraged to do ministry with young adults and figure out that would look like. "Do something new and experiment," we were told. But then when it came to supporting our ministry we were told "You can have any color car you want as long it is black." As it turns out the Church wasn't ready to make room for communities of faith that are taking improvisation seriously.

The irony of course is that Bishop Kanouse writes this as an introduction to this week's lectionary texts. The Gospel this week, for those using the Revised Common Lectionary, is a text where Jesus debates with religious authorities about the purpose of the sabbath. Bishop Kanouse draws on the Old Testament lesson from Isaiah 58 in which Israel is returning from exile longing for the good ole days. Of course he draws on the value of sabbath for rest, for the soul. That's helpful. But such lack of boldness is par for the course from a bishop so let me be more clear. My church, like Israel is still longing for the days of old. Instead of Isaiah we should be reading Deuteronomy this coming Sunday. In Deuteronomy 5 we find a much different conversation about the sabbath: liberation from that which enslaves us. But we also find the most brilliant display of improvising tradition as a new generation (the old one doesn't get to go!) is commissioned to lead the community of faith into a new day.

This is a much bigger conversation than about being cool or about being authentic. It's about the very complex process of improvisation. It requires careful thought and study; but it also requires real risk.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm glad there's a debate about engaging culture with ministry, but I'm shaking my head with the discouraging remarks that some leaders make. If the ELCA magically travels back to a "better time" that somehow younger generations will follow? I don't get it. I think your analysis is helpful. I appreciate your voice and hope that it's not discouraged as you take your first call. Keep asking questions and challenging those with more experience. Peace.

8/19/2010 10:54:00 PM  

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