Saturday, November 12, 2011

Hip to Be Square

Last September, I wrote about Kenda Creasy Dean's research published in her book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).[1] Dean's work was in some ways a sociological introduction to the emerging, American-based Christian culture (particularly of the evangelical flavor). This subject has intrigued me as of late, fueled by my various contacts with campus Christians during my undergraduate studies. The evangelical culture among college students ranged from the likes of Mark Driscoll to that of John Piper (though some would embrace both).

One particular college course featured a fair amount of Christian students, many of which gave presentations explicitly about Christ or Christian life. I was surprised not only by the amount of Christian-themed presentations, but the frankness of them (admirable, if not slightly uncomfortable). The body language, articulation, and dress of these fellow Christian students provided an interesting model by which to compare. Many were average in their dress and appearance. However, some embraced a counter-cultural fashion, talked about how their "eyes had been opened" by [insert freshman college course here] and how they were seeking a church that "accepted them for who they are." I've become increasingly aware of the strains of this Christian subculture in my community and specifically at the university. I've witnessed first-hand the mating of university subculture ideas with LDS doctrine in an institute class setting.

This is the very Moralistic Therapeutic Deism described in Dean's book: "No pretense at changing lives; a low commitment, compartmentalized set of attitudes aimed at "meeting my needs" and "making me happy" rather than bending my life into a pattern of love and obedience to God."[2] As Dean recognizes, "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism cannot exist on its own. It requires a host, and American Christianity has proven to be an exceptionally gracious one."[3] The two great commandments have been reduced from "love God" and "love thy neighbor as thy self" to "believe there is a god" and "be nice to people while feeling good about yourself." I was excited to hear Elder Christofferson quote from Dean's work in his excellent Conference talk last April:

"By contrast,” as one author declares, “the God portrayed in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures asks, not just for commitment, but for our very lives. The God of the Bible traffics in life and death, not niceness, and calls for sacrificial love, not benign whatever-ism."

I struggled for some time with the exact term by which to describe what I was witnessing in the university and institute, until I discovered that one had already been coined: hipster. What I had been observing was nothing short of what writer and journalist Brett McCracken calls hipster Christianity. In his book Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010), McCracken takes great care to explain the hipster mentality and the way it has infiltrated the various Christian denominations. The very notion of hip invokes raw individualism, rebellion against the status quo, the maintainance of a "unique" public image, and immersion in present-day consumerism. He successfully describes twelve common types of hipster (for more detail, see his book):
  1. The Natural - hipness just flows naturally.
  2. The Newbie - the clingy, fickle freshman who saw a movie or concert that "changed his/her life" and "opened his/her eyes." 
  3. The Artist - the starving, bohemian artist.
  4. The Academic - the bookish intellectual. 
  5. The Dilettante - a fringe-lover who knows little of the actual fringes he/she embraces (I think "poser" would be an adequate alternative name). 
  6. The Mountain Man - unshaven, nature-loving, agrarian-nostalgic macho man (or possibly woman).
  7. The Shaman Mystic - supposedly in touch with the energies of the universe. 
  8. The Detached Ironic - witty, sarcastic class clown.
  9. The Yuppie - Patrick Bateman without the murderous tendencies.
  10. The Flower Child - born to hippie parents and stands in "solidarity with the poor and, well, everyone except the white bourgeoisie." (pg. 60)
  11. The Expat - traveling, humanitarian types.
  12. The Activist - the annoying protester who "raises awareness" of the "evils" of things like globalization.

A five-year project by the Barna Group found the six major reasons young adults leave church life to be 1) the overprotective environment, 2) shallow church experience, 3) the perceived antagonism toward science, 4) the supposed judgmental attitudes toward sex, 5) the theological exclusiveness of Christianity, and 6) believers' unfriendliness toward doubt.[4] Today's young Christian hipsters dislike the ultra-conservative fundamentalism of Pat Robertson's The 700 Club and instead favor more "liberal" theologians such as N.T. Wright, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (I must have hipster tendencies). These hipsters prefer a postmodern approach to Christianity (something Mormonism certainly understands).[5] The Gospel becomes more important than the Church (echoes of Elder Poelman), dialogue replaces argumentation (this fits Joseph Smith's fundamental principles of Mormonism), and actions speak louder than words (this is key to all three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). These things require a more intellectually satisfying, pro-active Christianity (I'm all for moving past the gospel made easy! we often find in Sunday School classes). Unfortunately, many of these positive attributes are rooted in the recent reactions to modernity rather than any deep spiritual reflection; in political leanings and activism rather than Christian ethics. It is merely the manifestation of a culture obsessed with shock value and "edginess." In other words, it is a fad and, as McCracken wisely notes, "True relevance is not a fad."[6] Narcissism, alienation, rebellion, and a reduction to the visually stimulating are neither appropriate nor sustainable foundations for a modern approach to the gospel, despite being dressed up in flattering terms. "When I asked my undergraduate students to name the characteristics that best described their generation," writes psychologist Jean Twenge, "the two most popular answer were "independent" and "open-minded.""[7] Twenge's research finds that social norms and manners are increasingly cast aside, from stopping at stop signs to cheating in school.[8]

Big words, big protests, and big egos. These seem like the very products of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (and the surrounding culture in general, but that is for another post). The sad part, according to Dean, is that the churches are to blame: "Why do teenagers practice Moralistic Therapeutic Deism? Not because they have misunderstood what we have taught them in church. They practice it because it is what we have taught them in church. In fact, American teenagers are barometers of a major theological shift taking place in the United States."[9] Churches have made accidental Christian hipsters of their youth.

Fortunately for Latter-day Saints, Dean's research along with the National Study of Youth and Religion found that LDS kids are less likely to drink, smoke, and engage in risky behavior, while more likely to postpone sex (to age 18 instead of the average 16.5; 13% of Mormon teens identify themselves as not being virgins compared to the average 20%). "Mormon teenagers rank ahead of other youth in terms of spiritual vitality, hope for the future, and overall health and well-being." Dean also finds that Mormon teenagers are more likely than other teenagers to hold religious beliefs similar to their parents, attend weekly religious services, and talk about religious matters in their families. Religious faith is seen as "extremely important" in shaping daily life, demonstrated by the fact that Mormon youths participate in more religious practices than most teenagers and are more articulate about church teachings. Early morning seminary, family home evening, and two-year missions prepare Mormon children for adulthood. All in all, "Mormon teenagers tend to be the "spiritual athletes" of their generation, conditioning for an eternal goal with an intensity that requires sacrifice, discipline, and energy." As NSYR researcher John Bartkowski put it, "The story we tell about Mormon youth is not that all is well, but compared with other teens they're more knowledgeable about their faith, more committed to their faith, and have more positive social outcomes associated with their faith."[10]

Despite these inspiring comments, author and scholar Jana Riess correctly notes in her online review, "One complaint I have with Dean’s book is that she seems to assume that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism doesn’t exist in Mormonism, which it does despite the aforementioned high levels of religiosity." My aforementioned observation regarding hipster subculture and Mormon youth apparently was not far off. A recent article in The New York Times describes "a young generation of Mormons [that] has adopted a fashion-forward urban aesthetic (geek-chic glasses, designer labels and plenty of vintage) that wouldn’t look out of place at a Bushwick party." A trendy subculture has slowly developed in response to the former "bias against being 'cool' in the Mormon world." While every generation goes through similar stages, the period of what is known as "emerging adulthood" is getting much larger. I worry as to how long this desire to be "hip" will last with young Mormon adults and what effects it may have on the following generation (if any).[11] Instead of "finding ourselves" in come-and-go trends, we need to be rooting ourselves in Christ. "We will never truly be at peace with ourselves, comfortable in our skin, and happy with who we are, outside of the one who created us and calls us into his presence and eternal fulfillment," writes McCracken. "Here--in the service of Christ and with God as the center and core of our being--our identities become more fully realized than we've ever known. If that's not cool, I don't know what is."[12]

As members of the Church, we should always remember that it is hip to be square.   

1. Commenting on the recent Pew Forum findings, I half-jokingly wrote, "I can hear it now: "See! This proves Mormons aren't real Christians! If they were, they'd be scoring down here with the rest of us! Mormons reject Christ just like their atheist and Jewish friends!" Either that or something worse like the Mormons and Masons have infiltrated the Pew Forum." Ironically, another Pew Forum study finds that most non-LDS Christians identify Mormons as Christian. The category "White Evangelical" had the highest percentage (45%) of 'No's when it came to the question, "Are Mormons Christian?" My friend Daniel McClellan has some excellent comments on self-identification and Christianity in his online debate with James White of Alpha and Omega Ministries.

2. Dean, 2010, 30.

3. Ibid.

4. This should not be too alarming. As Rodney Stark and Byron Johnson of Baylor University explained in The Wall Street Journal, "The national news media yawned over the Baylor Survey's findings that the number of American atheists has remained steady at 4% since 1944, and that church membership has reached an all-time high. But when a study by the Barna Research Group claimed that young people under 30 are deserting the church in droves, it made headlines and newscasts across the nation—even though it was a false alarm. Surveys always find that younger people are less likely to attend church, yet this has never resulted in the decline of the churches. It merely reflects the fact that, having left home, many single young adults choose to sleep in on Sunday mornings. Once they marry, though, and especially once they have children, their attendance rates recover. Unfortunately, because the press tends not to publicize this correction, many church leaders continue unnecessarily fretting about regaining the lost young people." In other words, once they grow up a little, these church deserters often return.

5. McGuire's point about Nephi's vision is encapsulated in Terryl Givens, "The Book of Mormon and Dialogic Revelation," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 10:2 (2001) and further expounded on in chapter 8 of Givens, By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture That Launched a New World Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002). For a Mormon philosophical approach to postmodernism, see James E. Faulconer, "The Myth of the Modern; the Anti-Myth of the Postmodern," FARMS Review 20:1 (2008).

6. McCracken, 2010: pg. 234.

7. Jean M. Twenge, Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled - and More Miserable Than Ever Before (New York: Free Press, 2006), pg. 24.

8. "In 1979, 29% of people failed to stop at a particular stop sign in a New York suburb, but by 1996 a stunning 97% of drivers did not stop at all...In 2002, 74% of high school students admitted to cheating, up from 61% in 1992. In 1969, only 34% of high school students admitted to cheating, less than half of the 2002 number. This continues into college; a 2002 survey found that 80% of students at Texas A&M University admitted to cheating...Not only are teens more likely to cheat, but they are resigned to cheating among their peers. In a 1997 survey, 88% of high school students said that chearing was common at their school. Three times as many high school stuents in 1969 compared to 1989 said they would report someone they saw cheating. Also in 1989, an incredible 97% of high school students said they had let someone else copy their work. The disregard for rules continues outside the classroom: in 2000, 26% of high school boys admitted they had shoplifted from a store at least once." (Twenge, 2006, 26-27)

9. Dean, 2010, 29.

10. Ibid., 51.

11. See the review of Christian Smith with Patricia Smith, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (Oxford University Press, 2009) in The Wall Street Journal. This book is on my extensive "to-read" list.

12. McCracken, 2010, 247.

1 comment:

  1. Walker, this is great! I've been having some similar thoughts lately.