Hipster Hope

In Culture by Mandy Smith

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As the pastor of an artsy, university church which has its own fair-trade cafe, I’m positively swimming in hipsters.

And I love it.

Let me first define what I’m talking about. In my mind, there’s a difference between a hipster aesthetic and a hipster philosophy. The difference was glaringly obvious to me at an “urban, curated flea market” (named as such to declare itself the center of all things hipster, I guess). But I found it rather disheartening to see table after table of plastic, retro-looking, Made in China typewriter keys made into cufflinks and actual, interesting pieces of ephemera chopped up to look like something Made in China. This, in my opinion, is the hipster aesthetic—putting things on ourselves and in our homes to look like a hipster because it’s cool at the moment. (Often even when we, as Christians, talk about Hipster Christians, the conversation is about skinny jeans and alternative haircuts.)

On the other hand, there’s hipster philosophy (which, in my mind, is the antithesis of anything that is only about appearances) and it’s something I study up close daily. As I do, I’m finding hope. The hipsters I watch are 20-somethings who knit and garden and cook and fix things and ride bikes. They want to talk about the books they’ve been reading and the secret ingredient in their homemade ale. You may be able to recognize them by their facial hair and leather shoes and vintage tweed jackets. But the aesthetic flows out of a philosophy.

Take, for example, knitting. It’s soft, it’s complicated, it’s homey—the opposite of screen time. With 10 minutes and 10 dollars, anyone could walk into a store and buy a ready-made scarf. So knitting can’t be about efficiency. Instead, it wants to resurrect slow, humble things. The yarn bombing trend grows from this—humanizing our cities by covering metal and concrete with colorful yarn, bringing something of the domestic arts to places which feel unwelcoming. Every stitch made by a stranger’s hands makes us feel connected, brings institutions down to a human scale again.

And take vintage clothing. People who want the vintage look are longing for a time when things didn’t change so fast, when people had less, but what they had was well-made and hand repaired to be treasured for years. And the choice to buy second hand clothing is a choice not to enter the endless mall-to-landfill cycle that the fashion industry promotes.

And take cycling. There’s a humility in being willing to consume less and go slower to get places. There’s something human about braving the elements and the hills and the traffic to have an adventure just getting to work. Cyclists feel alive. And then there’s the side of cycling that happens at home—the ongoing building and tweaking that becomes an art-form in itself. Cyclists are willing to get dirty and skin their knees because that’s what it costs to move ourselves around this world.

And take hipster music. It’s eclectic and homegrown and gritty. It sounds like it was made by humans, humans who may have suffered and who may be sweating. There’s such a thing as sounding too good. Hipster music longs to feel connected to the past, to keep what is timeless and good and bring it with us into the future, reviving songs and styles and instruments that have been forgotten in the popular music world.

And take gardening and cooking. Factory food has disconnected us from weather and seasons and the needs of our own bodies. We laugh at those who think eggs come from the supermarket, but we aren’t far behind just because we’ve seen a chicken lay an egg on TV. Those I know who have taken the time and energy to raise a carrot take the time to savor that carrot. Which means less wasted food and more appreciation for the wonder of creation—in the earth and the animals and in our own bodies.

This is what I find hopeful about this hipster philosophy. It’s a longing for authenticity, for humanity, for slow and timeless and meaningful things. In short, it’s a longing for substance. It’s wary of conglomerates and brands and mass consumption and instant gratification, not for the sake of it, but because those things don’t feel human. Hipsters are beginning to learn that fast, convenient, new things often come at an invisible cost to unseen someones—someone across the world or someone in the future. And deep down they know that the pace of contemporary life can slowly sap their own souls too.

Of course, it’s possible that for some, the knitting, tweed jackets, bikes, mandolins, and homegrown carrots may all just be trendy, surface level things. But for many, they are aesthetics that grow out of a philosophy which values substance.

So if you want to laugh at hipsters, laugh at the hipster aesthetic. But don’t laugh at the hipster philosophy. Because if that philosophy means a willingness to acknowledge the challenges of life, an appreciation of nature and each other, a desire to learn again what it really takes to sustain this life, then you can see why I have hope. Of course, these same hipsters are toting smart phones filled with their eclectic music, streaming their edgy movies and Instagramming their homemade dinners. They’re not anti-technology, but they’re trying to figure out what has always been true of human beings and bring it with them into the ever-changing future. The more we can see our own longings in their longings, the more of Jesus we will have to share with them. The more we see a longing for Substance as a longing for God, the more we can offer.

Photo (Flickr CC) by Punting Cambridge

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Mandy Smith
Originally from Australia, Mandy studied Biblical Studies at Cincinnati Christian University and is Lead Pastor of University Christian Church, a campus and neighborhood church and fair-trade cafe in Cincinnati. She is the author of The Vulnerable Pastor: How Human Limitations Empower Our Ministry (upcoming, 2015), regular contributor to Christianity Today’s PARSE site and creator of "The Collect," a city-wide trash-to-art project. She is married to Dr. Jamie Smith, New Testament Professor at Cincinnati Christian University, and they live with their two children in a little house by campus where the teapot is always warm.
Mandy Smith

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