Wednesday, September 10, 2014

"Cool" Christianity and Form/Content Dualism

I'd like to give a quick shout-out to a recent article written by a blogger I follow, Brett McCracken, as a follow-up to his book Hipster Christianity.

McCracken's book wasn't specifically about the trend of "hipster" Christianity that we seem to hear so much about today (which my church simultaneously participates in and pokes fun at), but about the notion of "cool" Christianity in general. He examines the ways we try to make our timeless faith more "accessible", "seeker-oriented", "user-friendly", or "contemporary" by "repackaging" it in a different, culturally-appropriate style, ostensibly without changing the underlying gospel message. A sample summary of this approach that he gives goes, "What we’re doing is simply putting the gospel in different packaging and updating the style of its delivery [so] as to be relevant to a particular audience. The medium may be different and new, but the message remains the same."

McCracken doesn't think this approach to church is worse, just different, but tries to call attention to "the way form matters in the Christian life", the connection between style matter and manner that is forgotten all too often by "cool" Christians. It's something I'm concerned about and periodically bring up on my blog, but McCracken explains it much better.
Are the medium and the message really so detached that, no matter how an idea is packaged or presented, its meaning remains the same? With Hipster I wanted to challenge this notion and show how form matters: that perhaps the way Christianity is understood and appropriated is different when packaged in Helvetica, skinny jeans, and small batch whisky than when it’s packaged in robes, pews, and pleated khakis. Not that one is necessarily preferable to the other, mind you; just that they are different.
He makes a very insightful connection with the Incarnation that I hadn't thought of:
Christians of all people should grasp the inextricability of form and content. The Incarnation itself demonstrates it. The Word made flesh is content meeting form (John 1:1-18). The gospel is not some ethereal, conceptual “message” as much as it is an enfleshed reality and storied form. The gospel message is embedded within and derived from a medium: the medium of a man named Jesus, out of a nation named Israel, crucified in a place named Calvary.
He also alludes to some of the Christian artists of yesteryear to show what we stand to lose along with the connection between form and content. I agree with his comments on "Christian" media: when we turn the medium into nothing more than a container for the message, we lose sight of makes great art, art.
I think it’s naive for Christians to suggest that medium is something separate from message; they are intertwined. The architects of the great cathedrals in Christian history understood it; composers of sacred music like Handel and Berlioz and Tavener understood it. And yet contemporary evangelical Christians seem to have lost the inextricable connection between form and content. It’s one of the reasons, I think, why evangelical movies, music and artistic output have such a reputation for mediocrity. In privileging content over form, and caring about medium only insofar as it efficiently conveys a message, we’ve tiptoed down a Gnostic path of dualism that doesn’t really resonate with how embodied people live in this world.
Going into specifics, he identifies three values where the ideal of "cool" clashes with the Christian gospel: trendiness, exclusivity, and individualism. I really appreciated this part, as he shows how particular media and style are not content-free but carry their own values and assumptions which may or may not be conducive to the gospel.

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