It’s not easy to define “hipster,” but hipsters seem to be everywhere now. Even out here in small-town Lower Michigan, I see one once in a while.
I’m not sure if any one person fits the hipster stereotype in its entirety, but they say hipsters only listen to indie albums—hence the meme, “You’ve probably never heard of it”—and wear clothes sourced exclusively from thrift stores. Hipsters wear glasses, and their men sport beards, often with long, styled moustaches to match their carefully styled hair. Bowties and suspenders are common accessories, as are fixed-gear bicycles.
I try not to make fun of people, but I like hipster jokes. My favorite one goes like this: “How do you make a hipster angry? / Listen to music because you enjoy it.”
I like hipster jokes because hipsters are perceived as elitist. (It’s that whole Tall Poppy Syndrome thing.) I’m not sure they would accept the label; they hardly accept any label. But hipsters aren’t hard to spot. You might have a hard time defining them, but you know them when you see them.
While I appreciate hipster jokes, I don’t really have anything against hipsters. They are who they are, they like what they like, and their unique thrift-shop “uniform” is an indication that they have formed their own unique subculture, based on shared experiences and similar life choices. And that’s cool, even if hipsterism itself is consciously uncool.
Think Differently, Act Differently
These kinds of uniquely defined social groups—subcultures—are normal and even healthy expressions of human behavior (subcultures that define themselves in terms of hate or violence notwithstanding). They are the modern equivalent of tribes. They give people a sense of belonging, solidarity, and acceptance that living in a nation of hundreds of millions cannot by itself give, except under extraordinary (and usually terrible) circumstances—war, terrorism, tragedy.
Any subculture will tend toward some sort of homogeneity in dress. Hipsters, punks, skinheads, goths, Orthodox Jews—subculture dictates style. But a defined style, a specific “look,” can remove its owner from the mainstream just as much as it endears him or her to the rest of the subgroup. As much as it is an act of identification, dressing as part of a subculture is also an act of disidentification. It sends a social signal to everyone not in the group: “Hey, I’m not one of you; I’m one of them.”
Christians commonly identify with various subcultures. In some cases, this identification is a powerful witness of Christ’s love. Christian punks, goths, hipsters, and others—these believers can have a great impact in the secular subcultures they’ve joined. Being part of that group as a Christian is a way of helping marginalized people to understand that Jesus loves them and stands with them, even as the wider culture rejects them.
But those of us who are followers of Jesus need to consider carefully how our effectiveness for his kingdom might be limited by intentional and outward identification with a specifically Christian subculture. If every time we go out in public we subconsciously tell all of the non-Christians around us that we are not one of them, we are not part of their group, we are the “other,” we risk making it unnecessarily difficult to make the kinds of connections we need to make in order to communicate the good news with which we’ve been entrusted.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying Christians shouldn’t be different. We are called to be very different. Those of us who are Messianic Gentiles—people who take on Jewish theological models and modes of worship in imitation of Jesus, despite not sharing his Jewish status—are even more different. We pray Jewish prayers and celebrate Jewish holidays, despite not being Jewish. These practices can make it hard for us to identify with the Christian subculture—indeed, many Messianic Gentiles are openly hostile toward the church, an attitude at which I take offense, as a pastor—as well as with the Jewish subculture, which is defined by an identity we don’t possess, and not by the practices we share with them.
As a result, we Messianic Gentiles have begun to create our own subculture, one that is characterized by more than just theological and practical identification with our Jewish roots. In lieu of the unmistakably Jewish kippah, many Messianic Gentiles don other headgear—newsboy caps, flat caps, and trilbies. Facial hair is common. So are tzitzit, often worn improperly. Beyond dress, many of us have become known for an eager (bordering on aggressive) tendency to engage in theological discussion, even when circumstances might suggest a more appropriate topic of conversation. More broadly, we seem to want to wear our distinctiveness—our subculture—on our sleeves. We want a label to tell ourselves and others that we are different.
This is normal. Subcultures are normal. And you know what? When we haven’t been driven underground by persecution, Christians have always been this way. We have always distinguished ourselves loudly and fiercely from everyone who does not share our convictions, and from other Christians who are different enough to be part of another church subculture. We were hipsters before it was… not cool. This is inevitable to a degree simply because Jesus is sanctifying us. He is setting us apart. He is making us more like him and less like the world. So go for it. Embrace your Christian subculture. Be who you need to be.
…But Not Too Different
But even as we embrace our distinctiveness, we need to be careful not to burn bridges. We and other Christians have so much to gain by discovering the Jewish roots of our faith; unfortunately, though, many of us have been so disoriented, so disillusioned, and so distracted by that whole process that we have forgotten our missionary impulse. The Great Commission is still the Great Commission. We are still called to be witnesses to the world around us of the resurrection of Jesus, the forgiveness of sins, and the justification of the ungodly that is available to all who attach themselves to the Messiah of Israel.
In order to engage in the sort of theological discussion you need to have in order to convince someone to follow Jesus, you need to build a relationship. In order to start a relationship with someone, you need to connect. To connect with someone, you need to have something in common. But how can you show someone you have something in common if you openly and obviously identify as a member of a subgroup they’re not in?
I mean, yes, you are a member of a subgroup they’re not in. But if the only things people see are the labels you put on yourself, how can you expect to connect with them on a personal level?
Learning to connect with people is, in part, learning the art of subtlety. It’s pretty normal to be a cable-cutter. It’s not normal to respond, when someone asks you if you have seen a recent movie or TV show, “I don’t watch movies or TV shows because our culture glorifies sex and violence.” While this may be true, saying so is not usually helpful in a light conversational context. It’s normal to say “Happy New Year” on January 1. It’s not normal to say “Happy New Year” on Rosh HaShanah. While it may in fact be a new year on Rosh HaShanah, most people don’t know this.
We may think we’re inviting others into our world when we inflict countercultural dialogue upon the people around us, but if we’re not careful, we will build the very kinds of walls we should seek to tear down; we will hamstring our ability to build relationships with those who are not followers of Jesus. At worst, our attempts to be different will be seen as an immature cry for attention. We will find ourselves needlessly stigmatized, marginalized, and bullied.
My advice to Messianic Gentiles—and any other Christians oriented toward specifically Christian subgroups—is this: Consider whether your words, actions, clothes, and demeanor are helping you connect with others or distancing you from others. If you want to wear a hat and sport a beard, go for it, but do it because you like hats and beards (and hopefully because you can pull off the look), not to send a message that you are different or special.
Be different from the world, but be different in ways that matter. If you are characterized by a gracious demeanor, acts of kindness, humility, and a self-sacrificing love for others, you will distinguish yourself in a way that does not isolate you from the people you are trying to reach. You will wear your discipleship to Jesus on your sleeve in the most authentic way. You will invite others into your world. Most importantly, you will be more effective for the mission to which you have been called.
After all, if you follow a Jewish rabbi who you believe rose from the dead and ascended into heaven two thousand years ago, trust me—you’re already as weird as you will ever need to be.