A Hipster’s Inheritance

Two weeks ago Christy Wampole wrote an excellent essay for the New York Times Opinionator about every 20-something’s favorite piñata: hipsters. Wampole calls hipsters “our archetype of ironic living.” After three years in college ministry I’ve discovered that few words describe today’s undergrad better than “ironic.” In fact, it’s the perfect word for my own generation.

The enigma that no one claims, “hipster”, is to my generation what Odysseus was to ancient Acadians, what Cicero was to the Roman Republic, what Luther was to reformation germany. It’s symptomatic of my generation that we don’t have a singular hero, rather a labyrinth-like caricature that everyone loves to hate, and everyone wants to be.

The hipster is our zeitgeist. That’s why I suggest anyone born between 1980 and 1995 read Wampole’s article and then check out this response by Soujourn Worship Pastor, Mike Cosper.

Here, however, rather than repeating Wampole or Cosper, I want to ask myself (a skinny jeaned, 20-something, hipster) some questions: Why do I feel the need to subterfuge my identity in irony? Why do I resist sincere commitment to any one worldview?

One reason is that I’m scared.

My peers and I instinctively doubt that any “truth” can be “total truth,” because we were born into the ocean of postmodernism. We see many islands of truth on the horizon, places where we could plant our feet firmly in belief, but we fear swimming there because we expect every island to crumble. The history of philosophical fads taught us that no truth will last. We fear that if we choose an island, we’ll perish with it. Therefore we never risk sincere commitment to any one truth; we would rather shroud ourselves in noncommittal irony, treading water between truths, slowly drowning.

That said, I believe that there’s a deeper root than fear. Hipsterdom isn’t a statement, it’s a philosophical inheritance. We’ve inherited absurdism.

The French existentialist Albert Camus believed that life lacked objective meaning. Any meaning we assign to life is therefore absurd, made up, imaginary. Camus argued that the great hero in this life is one who absurdly invents his own “great meaning” by an individual act of the will. Our “great meaning” might be our sexual exploits, or our career path, or our social justice deeds. When we claim a “great meaning” we become absurd, because we’re living a self-conscious lie: pretending there’s a “great meaning” when there is none.

We’ve inherited this philosophy. We believe a priori that although life has no meaning, we must pretend it does. A child may make-believe that he is a king and really believe it, or at least not sense his own absurdness while pretending. As adults, however, we deeply sense the ridiculousness of playing make-believe with our lives. Therefore, we hold to all meanings loosely. We jadedly believe that life is an absurd game of make-believe, so we cannot take ourselves seriously. We cannot take anything seriously, so we veil our world in irony.

The hipster’s outward sartorial decisions are a picture of our inward philosophy: self-conscious absurdism. The point is to look ridiculous. Life is ridiculous.  Or just imagine buying someone a birthday card. It cannot be filled with sincere thankfulness for their life. No, life is a absurd, so the card must be a absurd. Perhaps a “Congratulations! It’s a boy!” card, that really says “life is a joke and so is your birthday!” Sincerity is costly and dishonest in an absurd world.

That’s why we resonate with King Solomon who said, “all is vanity” (Ecc. 1:2) Our intellectual pursuits are vain (1:12-17). Our career pursuits are vain (2:18-23). Pursuing pleasure is vain (2:1-11). We sense that all our pursuits and meanings are absurd, just like Solomon. Unlike Solomon, we despair of any hope for meaning.

Solomon ultimately found meaning in the fullness of the life and work of God (Ecc. 3:14-15). For us,  fullness is nowhere. We live lives empty of substance, seriousness, and vulnerability. We’re full of irony, so we’re empty.

Only the gospel frees us from absurdism. It’s the only solid island. The gospel fills our empty souls. In Jesus “was life, and the life was the light of men. … For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:4, 16).

People my age long to stop treading water; it’s exhausting. We long for something that’s weighty, that’s true, and that’s not make-believe. Christ alone offers that freedom. For those of us who claim Christ, my challenge is this: let’s plant our feet solidly on the hope of Christ and repent of our old, vain absurdism. Let’s live faithfully out of our true worldview, one that loves sincerely, speaks honestly, and hides behind nothing but Christ.

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