Last week or so I was driving somewhere and listening to an ad on the radio, an ad that (like those Geico commercials [TV, 2007*] with the Pierce Brosnan look-a-like) was intentionally ironic, self-referential. That is, it made fun of itself, pretending to be a non-ad ad. As Bob is my witless (Rugrats, 1993*), I thought, “I’ve got to write an article about the irony now prevailing in contemporary culture.” But the prospect was daunting; I didn’t feel S-M-R-T enough (Simpsons, 1999*) to even start.
So two paragraphs into this must-read article, I knew that A) I would post a link to it on my blog and B) my thunder had been stolen and then greatly improved upon. A French prof at Princeton got my idea into the New York Times. Not fair. In her piece, she describes with not-fair levels of insight the culture of ironic malaise that we now call hipsterism. She worries publicly about a visible (?) class of Americans for whom the unbearable pressures of being are alleviated by donning a non-identity identity. She describes hipsters as people who wear and collect and do stuff they don’t personally like from eras in which they did not personally live in order to escape their own failure to contribute to Western culture. (Whew!)
And, she points out, they make as many pop-culture references per minute as there are Twilight sequels.*
The cartoons appended to the article are to die for. If you have no idea what I’m talking about when I speak of a hipster culture of irony, there are 2,000 words of pictures on the page which will clue you in.
Can this humble blogger add an insight to such a good piece? I just wonder if the culture of ironic pop-culture references is one reason Wikipedia is so popular. So many articles end with a “This Topic in Popular Culture” section—it’s a perfect usage guide for the hipster. You don’t want to quote Chandler (FRIENDS, 1998*) when it was really Kramer (Seinfeld, 1996*). When you smile knowingly, the true cognoscenti may smile back wryly. Your cover will be blown.
Fundamentalism: The Plot Thickens
So I was reading blithely along, chuckling and marveling at appropriate points. And then (“all of the sudden!” as my toddler likes to shout), fifteen paragraphs in, I was shocked to see myself!
Historically, vacuums eventually have been filled by something—more often than not, a hazardous something. Fundamentalists are never ironists; dictators are never ironists.
I think that’s what you call a backhanded compliment. It’s nice to be recognized for our success in avoiding ironism. But not so nice when the next person on the platform to get the award is Pol Pot. Why can’t people be nice to us? I can be cool in a detached way! I have a youth-sized 1993 National Geography Bee T-shirt that I sometimes wear in an ironic fashion!
But we fundamentalists get no mercy. One of the commenters, whose viewpoint achieved “Recommended Pick” status, is even more pointed than the article:
I think to fully understand the hipster you have to place him alongside the fundamentalist. The hipster and the fundamentalist are two sides of the same fake coin; they are both fearful people. The first is too afraid of looking like a fool to risk being wrong or right; the second is so afraid of ambiguity, of not knowing the difference between wrong and right, that he throws himself blindly into “faith.” They are equally fearful responses to the moral ambiguity of life. The hipster stands outside every attempt at sincere living, mocking anyone who tries to find a moral center; the fundamentalist pretends there is no question about it, there is only one center, one God, one true, one good, and he has found it.
Jesus was capable of irony, even sarcasm. I have always loved His response to the Syro-phoenician woman, for example (Matt. 15:22–28). Two could play His game. And it’s only because you’ve heard it your whole life that you fail to laugh at His “Get the plank out of your own eye” line (Matt. 7:3). Laughter does good like a medicine (Prov. 17:22), even sometimes ironic laughter.
But I think this commenter is on to something. People who truly believe in the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith can’t build their lives on the shifting sands of irony. Our lives are founded on a rock. Even our young men are supposed to be sober (Titus 2:6). (The Greek word for “sober” means, literally, “not slackers.”) For some discussion topics, the ironic mode is nothing less than blasphemous. A Christian life will look like fideism to a culture of hipsters—or to a culture of scientific modernist materialist evolutionists. We will look fake. But there is only one center, one God, one true. And He has found us. What else can we do?
I didn’t start this post with a point in mind, but I can’t help it. I’m reminded of how Tim Keller once pointed out that the trend toward casual dress in society was, he judged, a simple fruit of rebellion against authority. He wondered aloud whether churches should support such a trend by encouraging casual dress in worship.
I feel the same way about ironic hipsterism, despite being myself someone with (ahem) no mean ability to drop subtle references to pop-culture (minus all R-rated movies and nearly every TV show created after the year 2000).* Hipster culture means something. It says something. Is that something consistent with the Christian faith? I urge you to read the article and decide, before God our Rock, for yourself.
*Disclaimer: The pop-culture references in this piece are only illustrative, proving that I am a man of my generation. I discard all irony and prove myself a fundamentalist when I say I’d rather not know what I know about 1990s television.