We live in a peculiar world where we can knowingly assert that our consumption establishes our identity, and everyone smiles, nods, and moves along as though nothing terribly interesting has transpired.
As Brett McCracken has illustrated, hipster evangelicals are expanding their consumption beyond the cloister to the coffee shops, and out of the mainline cinemas into hallowed movie houses where indie films play.
This expansion of cultural consumption is a welcome development. St. Paul exhorts us to set our minds on whatever is true, good, and beautiful, and he does not cordon off such attributes to institutions or para-church ministries. As Richard Mouw argued in his lectures on common grace, because we await the final consummation of all things, we can find goodness out in the world even while we are simultaneously dismayed at the brokenness of the church.
Given this perpetually messy relationship between church and world, it's not surprising that consumerism would become our primary identity-shaping logic. In fact, there is a serious question about how it is possible to escape consumerism other than by withdrawing from the world in the way fundamentalists do, a route that hipster evangelicals eschew. Consumerist logic runs deeply, and may not be extricated as easily as it seems.
Even if we could avoid consumerism, most of mainstream evangelicalism has not. Its long tentacles have reached into nearly every area of the evangelical culture, stunting our ability to imagine identity-shaping beliefs or practices that are non-consumptive. There is some merit to Jamie Smith's critique in Desiring the Kingdom that evangelical churches have too often bowed the knee to entertainment-driven forms of worship designed to meet felt needs.
As Anna Littauer Carrington argues, many hipster evangelicals are moving beyond consumption to "interaction" and forming communities around the elements of culture that are being consumed and produced, an encouraging sign that evangelicals are expanding their horizons. However, when the emphasis falls on the culture and our relationship to it, relationships can become a byproduct of our cultural making, inevitably leading to the sort of self-selecting communities that we are working to escape.
Traditional evangelicals and their descendants tend to divide on differing points of emphasis. While our parents' generation was preoccupied with their focus on the family, my peers have replaced that focus with a near obsession on objects and structures of culture and how we can engage with and create them. There are some sociological reasons for the transition: Even though most younger evangelicals haven't experienced the much-discussed dissolution of their own families, we have been witnesses to the cultural decline of family life, a decline that has affected us more subtly than we know. And as younger evangelicals have begun to delay marriage and have continued to uproot themselves geographically from their local communities, it has become easier to emphasize "culture" as a way to find our identity, especially when culture is narrowed to the consumption and creation of artifacts.
Yet Andy Crouch will have none of it. As he points out in Culture Making, "Family is culture at its smallest—and its most powerful." Christian Smith's Soul Searching, an exposition of the religious lives of emerging adults, points out that parental religious life is one of the most important factors for determining the religious affiliations of emerging adults. Parental influence trumps peer—and cultural—influence.
The family might be, in fact, the strongest bastion against the consumerism that pervades American life. While we might choose movies, music, and art that we want to appreciate and understand—and the friends or church we enjoy them with—we do not have the same freedom to choose our family. It is an arrangement formed almost by accident, or as G. K. Chesterton would have it, by magic. In his lively image, the day we are born, we are dropped into a house of strangers we did not choose and forced to learn to love them. The family's unique power resides in the fact that the ties that bind are not ties we choose—a fact that does not easily fit souls shaped by consumerism.
In that sense, the younger evangelical obsession with culture needs to be chastened by the traditional evangelical focus on the family, while many traditional evangelicals could learn (from Crouch) about the ways the family stands beneath and shapes the world around it. If each generation ignores the strengths of the other, then hipster evangelicalism might fail to be any more enduring or vibrant than the movement it has rejected.
The real question is whether hipster evangelicals have escaped the consumerist mindset that they shun. The besetting sin of hipster evangelicalism is self-deception, a problem that we are more prone to than other generations because of our fascination with and emphasis on being "real" and "authentic."
In his invaluable book I Told Me So, Gregg Ten Elshof indicates that studies demonstrate that people over the age of 50 list competency as their most desirable trait in a leader, while college students list "authenticity." The difficulty, suggests Ten Elshof, is that when authenticity is the chief virtue, self-deception becomes the most egregious vice. But rather than eliminating self-deception, that ordering actually breeds it. As he argues, the cultural recognition and ascension of racism as a sin made it harder to admit to ourselves that we are racists. Similarly, when inauthenticity becomes the chief sin, it becomes that much harder to see it in ourselves.
Ten Elshof's caution deserves a broad hearing among hipster evangelicals. If he is right, the hipster evangelical critique that mainstream evangelicals have been "inauthentic" due to their captivity to consumerism might mask the ways that consumerism has shaped our own lives and beliefs. To avoid the problem, young evangelicals should begin by critiquing our own inauthenticities and praising what we can about our parents. Then we can avoid framing our generation as a dissident movement that rejects the tradition we inherited even while obliviously maintaining its consumerist underpinnings. Hunter may have been correct in his assertion that traditional evangelicals defined themselves by what they are against, but hipster evangelicals have too often done the same, to our own detriment.
I am hopeful hipster evangelicals are enacting "faithful presence." But I fear that most hipster evangelicals are unwittingly carrying on evangelicalism's most unfortunate tradition of being tossed about by every wave and wind of culture.
Matthew Lee Anderson is author of the forthcoming Earthen Vessels: Breathing New Life into a Broken Faith and blogs at MereOrthodoxy.com.
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Anna Littauer Carrington also discussed similar ideas in "Culture in an Age of Consumption."