In his essay “Sympathy & Domination: Adam Smith, Happiness and the Virtues of Augustinianism,”Eric Gregory makes a fascinating observation about the role of desire in Christian life. Reflecting on the young and restless Augustine, Gregory writes, ‘The nice thing about desire, even consumer desire it appears, is that we never rest prematurely. I wonder if Augustine might hold that all desire, in a sense, saves us.' The man who flirted with the followers of Mani, loved Epicurus and declared he was a Sceptic (before accepting Christ), was a spiritual consumer. Every bit as philosophically convulsed as the New Age seekers who fill their weekends with Shamanic workshops and Tantric Yoga, Augustine had tasted the religious diversity before becoming a beacon of orthodoxy. What might this observation mean for the way in which political theologians read consumer cultures they encounter daily? Instead of treating contemporary consumerism as a wholly negative phenomenon, Augustine suggests we look at the issue differently. The behaviour of the shopper or spiritual tourist is the way it is because of the deep structure of the human condition. The longing for fulfilment is at root an existential need: a secularized version of the call at the heart of Augustine’s Confessions: ‘You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.’
Take that much reviled cultural category of the ‘hipster’ in Anglo-American society. In what sense are the savvy kids with vintage clothes (drinking their Starbucks coffee) theological subjects? And to what degree does their post-modern irony and eclectic tastes in music and culture point us towards theological realities? These questions seem rather tongue-in-cheek until one realizes the pivotal role that cultural and material restlessness has in the Christian story. The Hipster in his dissatisfaction with mass trends and his obsession with buying the quirky, the fringe and the idiosyncratic represents an old cultural instinct. Like the intrepid Israelite who gives up ‘the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic’ of Egypt for the open space and possibilities of the wilderness (Numbers 11:5), the Hipster fashions himself as socially aloof, looking with distain on those who has stayed put in Pharaoh’s House (with MTV, Twilight DVDs and mass-produced pop). Admittedly these latter-day wanderers of the coffee-shop experience none of the radical scarcities of their religious ancestors. Their quarrel is not with hunger but rather with aesthetics. Yet their longing for something more than shrunken conformities of mass-culture has something of the prophetic and anti-idolatrous about it. When offered the false gods of conventional culture, these wry and skinny-jeaned Cynics look on with a smile at the grey ‘clone’ crowds. In their disdain for mainstream attitudes towards social success, the Hipsters echo not merely an Augustinian restlessness, but the desire for a countercultural community, which like all bohemia, thrives on its sense of separation from the ‘busy world’.
Just as the young Augustine retreated from a successful career as an imperial publicist to live a life of cultural tranquility with a group of his close reading-buddies, the Hipsters want to live in towns of like-minds (even if like-mindedness means refusing to think alike). Seeking out hubs of ‘cool’ (the second-hand book-shops, the little art galleries) these ironists crave Messianic communities which meet their hopes and aspirations. Their assemblies (like those gatherings of the early Christians) are dispersed, yet they are draw together by a common pattern of life. Leisure (the source of meaning for the Hipster) supplies an anti-politics which attempts to dissent disrupt the ceaseless treadmill of production and commercialization. In this mound, moments of exuberance, carnival and creativity become sites of another society—one in which freedom and pleasure has the upper-hand over the exploitative logic of Capital (the nine to five jobs at Costa or the call-centre). As Bret McCracken notes:
Their very existence is meant to parody bourgeois consumerism, to slap in the face all the mall shoppers, and country club wives who try so hard to adopt a certain part and adopt all the prerequisite accessories and accoutrements to advance in the social hierarchy. Hipsters view any kind of prescribed hierarchy as absurd, and they relish in their ability to unnerve the rich folk and distress the soccer moms by being so flagrantly unconventional.
By rejecting visions of the mass-produced and corporate, the Hipster can frequently be found embracing ethical causes through their wallets: local shops, vegetarianism and fair-trade. In this way the Hipsters are a perfect example of Luke Bretherton’s claim that: ‘even within capitalism and consumerism, there are means available for mediating concern and care for others and extending bonds of friendship and pursuing justice.’ If there is something prophetic, even messianic about the Hipsters, there is also something explicitly theological. Indeed, these Aficionados of cool are not beyond turns to the spiritual, even the downright religious to solidly their sense of counterculture. The arrival of Nu-Folk on the play-lists of the Hipsters (especially Mumford and Sons) defies a norm of baize atheism. Marcus Mumford can sing passionately in front of thousands of jaded and otherwise Scripturally-illiterate teenagers of the depths of faith hope and charity and it doesn’t cause the crowd unease. There is a need which such religious imagery is clearly meeting. So whatever the moral failures of consumerism and affluent counterculture, the Hipster scene possesses an artistic sensibility which is hospitable Christian life, praise and politics. Far from opposing Christian visions and practices, we can see that secular consumerism has the capacity to gesture towards the transcendent.
And yet, much like the restless Cynic philosophers of Augustine’s era, the Hipster is proficient at irony, deconstruction and scorn, but less effective at forming a communal life which lasts. With their generally non-committal attitude and disillusionment the Hipster has a tendency of excluding himself from affirmative relationships rather than taking the risk of rejection. Equally when faced with opposition, instead of reacting with courage or defiance, the Hipster tends to indulge in a self-righteous quietism, which rejects the hard slog of sacrifice or principle. This inability to open up to the possibilities of love or criticism is brilliantly parodied by Liam Lynch’s 2002 track “My United States of Whatever”. This state of isolation is amplified by the fact that Hipsters tend to be found in mobile and gentrified areas where local identities are subsumed by rapidly moving populations. People don’t settle so they never have the time to get to know one another. Yet the greatest flaw in Hipster culture is found in its professed turn to counterculture. While Hipsters attempt to distance themselves from the idols of corporate culture, they themselves are frequently trapped in their own form of false worship: the cult of the cool. In its perpetual urge to be ahead of the curve, to be counter-cultural, to be different, Hipster culture merely re-inscribes the competitive and hierarchical behaviors of late Capitalism.
Trend and fashions replace class as a marker of status (now being measured by earnestness and authenticity). Indeed as Bourdieu observed back in the 1980s, the Hipster is a representative of a new phase of political economy where ‘cultural capital’ rather than money becomes a key indicator of social participation. So although Hipster life is capable of mimicking and mirroring the transformation of the Gospel, its restlessness lacks the teleology necessary to move from creative protest to holiness. The Hipster’s particular malady is our culture’s general condition. We are so convulsed by desire that we no-longer know what we really want and what we really value. We are so beguiled by the new that we find it nearly impossible to attend to an old Christian discipline: staying put and being still. Instead of rushing head-long into the distractions of the cool, we need to cultivate of rootedness and ordinariness. Uniqueness and individuality cannot be gained merely by vintage clothes or music, but is something worked out quietly and concertedly with others. We develop and deepen the sense of ourselves not by competing for cultural prestige, but by taking part in those unremarkable practices of caring and loving. As Pope Francis puts it in The Joy of the Gospel: ‘people who wholeheartedly enter into the life of a community need…. [not] lose their individualism or hide their identity; instead, they receive new impulses to personal growth’ by being in community. If the cultural homelessness of the Hipster can be translated into the attitude of a pilgrim, then the city terrains of these new bohemians can become potent spaces for an altogether different culture to take shape.
Dr Benjamin J. Wood is a Research Associate at the Lincoln Theological Institute, University of Manchester. His current research interests include the theological validity of political liberalism, the Christian foundations of secularity and Augustinian theology in relation to individualism.
Eric Gregory, ‘Sympathy & Domination: Adam Smith, Happiness and the Virtues of Augustinianism’, in Adam Smith as Theologian, ed. Paul Oslington, (Abington: Routledge, 2011), p. 42
McCracken, Hipster Christianity: When Cool and Church Collide, (Grand Rapids: Barker Press, 2010), p. 65.
Luke Bretherton, Christianity and Contemporary Politics, (Willey-Blackwell: Oxford, 2010), p. 183.
Francis, Evangeli Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), (London: Catholic Truth Society, 2013), p. 113.