The Sociology of Catalyst Pt 2: Engaged Orthdoxy and Hipster Christianity

Christian Smith’s landmark American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving labels the evangelical posture toward society as “engaged orthodoxy.”  Smith traces this to the founding of the American evangelical movement to the likes of Billy Graham, Harold Ockenga, Charles Fuller, and Carl Henry, beginning in the 1940s.  These reforming fundamentalists were “fully committed to maintaining and promoting confidently traditional, orthodox Protestant theology and belief, while at the same time becoming confidently and proactively engaged in the intellectual, cultural, social, and political life of the nation.”[16] 
            Almost 70 years later, “engaged orthodoxy” is alive and well with Catalyst as one of its freshest champions. 
As seen above, Catalyst calls for Christians to “engage with those around them and be seen as relevant to their peers yet separate in Who guides them.”  Truth, as revealed in the Bible, is regarded as an unwavering standard of orthodoxy but not seen as an impediment to the call to “engage and impact the world.”  Thus, accommodation to moral relativity is derided while the importance of relevancy is stressed.  In the oft-quoted words of Jesus, Catalyst wants to see Christians be “in the world” but not “of the world.”[17] 
            Understanding Catalyst’s unique approach to “engaged orthodoxy” requires an analysis of Catalyst’s relationship to “cool.”  Catalyst is characterized by a tension between a desire for the “coolness” of being “in the world” as well as the “hipness” of being distinct and “not of the (mainstream) world.”  Both this engagement and this distinction are embraced as essential to their efforts to change the world.  The logic used implies that “unless we are cool (engaged) the world will not listen, and unless we are hip (distinct) the world will not be changed. 
            Brett McCracken’s Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide is a surprisingly meaty piece of work given its subject matter, and it sheds light on Catalyst.  According to McCracken,
Since around 1970, the idea of a cool Christianity has in some ways reoriented the way evangelicals go about the business of being evangelical.  They no longer focus on being safe and protected from culture, but being in culture—relevant to it, savvy about it, privy to what’s “in,” and totally comfortable with cool.[18]

Nowhere is this evangelical push for relevance more palpable than at Catalyst, which McCracken says “is to Christian hipsters what Comic Con is to Star Wars nerds.”[19] McCracken identifies five hip Christian figureheads, all of which have spoken at Catalyst events (Shane Claiborne, Rob Bell, Lauren Winner, Mark Driscoll, and Donald Miller).[20]  
Hipsters take many shapes (McCracken has a typology of twelve) but have several shared motivations.  One of these is the drive to be counter or against things—to be different from, outside of, better than the tedious norm.”[21]  Ironically, Christian hipsters want to be both different from mainstream evangelicalism and different from mainstream culture.  So in contrast to traditional evangelicalism, they embrace tattoos, alcohol, smoking and Rated-R movies and shun talk of “saving souls.”  At the same time, Christian hipsters feel a need to be distinct from the world, which is why many of their tattoos are in Greek or Hebrew and you’ll find them smoking, drinking and watching R-rated movies as part of a small group bible study.  Hipsters want nothing more desperately than to be cool, but they go about it by bucking the mainstream norms, which is why no true hipster would admit the label, lest he or she be perceived as a desperate wannabe.  
Another hallmark of hipsters is that, for them, image is everything.[22]  Fashion and tastes in music are employed as primary ways of establishing this image.  Christian hipsters may ‘look and act like your average antiestablishmentarian, image-obsessed subversive, but for the most part they still try to live a Christlike life.”[23]  So while they do tend to drink and smoke, they do it less often and with more guilt than secular hipsters.  Premarital sex and drugs are generally avoided and swearing is limited to occasions of shock-value.  Most importantly, Christian hipsters strive for the coolness of not trying to be popular, and the popularity of being among others who find the mainstream drab. 
            By McCracken’s standards, most Catalyst attendees aren’t hipsters of the die-hard type because they surrender way too quickly and easily to trends in fashion and technology (both within the subculture, and in the mainstream).  In fact, I’m sure that a goodly number of them are what he calls “wannabe hipsters” and simply evidence of the way that “Christian cultural trends always seem to follow a few steps behind the secular culture” in which hip is waning because it is becoming an empire.[24]  And yet, the hipster approach to coolness is precisely the type of engaged orthodoxy that Catalyst seeks to promote.  As I am using the terms, Catalyst promotes both engaging mainstream culture (being cool) and maintaining meaningful distinctions from the mainstream (being hip).  They strive to be relevant “in” the world while remaining distinctly not “of” it so that they can influence it.

The posts in this series include:
The Sociology of Catalyst Pt 1: Anonymous Evangelicalisms Hip New Hub
The Sociology of Catalyst Pt 2: Engaged Orthodoxy and Hipster Christianity
The Sociology of Catalyst Pt 3: The Culture of Cool
The Sociology of Catalyst Pt 4: Hipsters in the Kingdom
The Sociology of Catalyst Pt 5: Trying to Change the World

Works Cited
Berger, Peter. “Epistemological Modesty: An Interview with Peter Berger.” Christian Century 114: 972-75, 978. 1997. 
Christiano, Kevin J., William H. Swatos Jr., and Peter Kivisto. Sociology of Religion: Contemporary Developments. Second Edition. Lanham: Rowman and Little Field Publishers, Inc., 2008 
Griel, Arthur L., and David R. Rudy. “Social Cocoons: Encapsulation and Identity Transformation Organizations.” Sociological Inquiry 54: 260-78. 1984.
Kandell, Steven. “How Looking Poor Became the New Status Symbol.” Details, May 2009. 

Kimball, Dan. They Like Jesus but Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 2007.
Kinnaman, David and Gabe Lyons. UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity…and Why it Matters. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1997.

Lyons, Gabe. The Next Christians: The Good News About the End of Christian America. New York, NY: Doubleday, 2010.
McCracken, Brett. Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010.
Smith, Christian and Michael Emerson. Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Smith, Christian. American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
_______. Christian America?: What Evangelicals Really Want. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002.
Webber, Robert. The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002.

[16] Smith (1998) 10.
[17] John 17:14-18.
[18] McCracken 76.
[19] McCracken 112.
[20] McCracken 98-106. 
[21] McCracken 65.
[22] McCracken 12.
[23] McCracken 96.
[24] McCracken 187-190, 67, and 73.

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