There’s nothing more mysteriously fabulous and fabulously mysterious to me than New York Catholicism. The so-called “Center of the World” is an enrapturing place to watch the Mystery incarnate reveal Himself. Amidst over a hundred parishes exist a plethora of ethnic groups, languages spoken, income ranges, and devotional practices. Catholicism manifests itself in New York as a nuanced and multivalent cultural proposal amidst a hodgepodge of messages and standards to which New Yorkers are invited to embrace. What is it in particular that makes the Catholic faith and the culture that manifests from it something attractive and unique amidst the cultural proposals already available to them?
The matters of relevance and uniqueness take on an interesting weight in light of the recent fixation on “hipster ideals.” The hipster [counter-]culture which has ironically pervaded much of the mainstream in New York prides itself on being both ahead of and behind the times, transcending the norms of mainstream culture. One could summarize the defining factor of hipster subculture as an affinity for exceptionality. This hipster mentality has taken its toll on Catholic and other Christian youth cultures as churches seek to remain a dynamic presence in the lives of millennials. A realistic New York evangelizer will quickly realize that no one will want anything to do with something that is not hip or relevant.
Youth events marked by hipsterisms have proliferated throughout the city in an effort to stay relevant. We have several options to choose from: a night praising and worshiping Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, as rapping friars accompany their guitar-playing brethren; concerts by CCM artists who try to stay abreast of recent trends in music; Instagram accounts and hashtags that allow you to slip John Paul II quotes into your friends’ newsfeeds; young adult nights on rooftop lounges that play songs that are normally only heard in Ibiza; Masses that are put to music that is reminiscent of Broadway musicals, or better yet, Bruce Springsteen. A young Catholic may be amazed by the variety of cool alternatives to the secular cultural outings that are offered to them. And yet, I still feel compelled to ask which aspects of these events make them relevant and unique.
Often times evangelizers and youth ministers take their cues from secular cultural trends. I recently watched a Youtube video with my students that was made by a Catholic textbook publishing company that was full of token black people, asians, hipsters, and overtly (and uncomfortably) smiley young people. The video was an introduction to a series on the Theology of the Body. It seemed as if the video was striving to make John Paul II’s Wednesday catecheses on personhood, redemption, and sexuality relevant to a new generation of young people. To my dismay, it was sprinkled with cringe worthy quotes about “God’s plan for your life” and other unremarkably predictable cliches. What is most unconvincing to me and cringe-worthy about this video, and about most youth ministry resources and events, is that they feel the need to “make relevant” to life and culture that which already constitutes the essence of life and culture. The main reason I showed this video to my students is that the collection of images and videos that served as the background to the corny voice-over gave a sense of the fullness of life–that life was something beautiful as it is and who’s meaning is worth being discovered. Who is behind this beauty? What gives life its fullness? I think we overestimate the need to play up the “hippness” of evangelization. We would be much better returning to the basics, that is the origin and essence of culture.
I usually tend to be struck more by those who seek to grow in a deeper awareness of the roots of already existing cultural phenomena. We believe that all of creation, all that is encompassed in concrete matter and life, points us to the God who revealed Himself through fleshly matter. Rather than trying to make Christian versions of what’s hip, we can strive to discover the presence of the Mystery incarnate within the aspects of culture that already attract us. The theology of aesthetics can illumine our investigation of the full meaning and the presence of beauty within the music, art, and activities that “the world” has to offer us. What is it that the beauty of a piece of music, a film, a dance could ultimately points us to other than Beauty Himself? What does the heart-wrenching voice of Amy Winehouse ultimately long for, or the poetry of Oscar Wilde, if not for the Savior Himself? We may find that the deeper we delve into culture as an expression of our common humanity, we will discover that it is permeated by the desire for Christ. This desire which is so intrinsic to our personhood can reveal itself, even if only to an infinitesimal extent, in all expressions of culture.
The barrage of youth ministries with hipster sensibilities sometimes seems inauthentic and even antithetical to the ideals of both Christianity and hipsterism. Ministries may strive to advertise themselves as a place for people who are cool and “with-it” to encounter Jesus. But this begs the questions: was Jesus actually cool and with-it, and are hipsters actually as concerned with being relevant and hip as many a youth minister are? In reality, hipsters’ “relevancy” banks on the fact that they aim to steer away from what the mainstream culture deems hip and cool; they want to be truly exceptional. And ultimately, the exceptionality of Christianity is not something that has to be updated as the times change–its founder is the only human being who claimed to be God (pretty darn exceptional). The relevance of Christianity to millennial culture derives itself from the fact that it already is the embodiment of that which is exceptional, rather than being yet another cultural phenomenon that is competing for relevancy amongst many others.
What makes Christianity truly “hipster” for me is the fact that we are given the means by which we can experience the most minuscule and banal aspect of reality as infinitely valuable; and that the worth of our humanity is determined by something timeless and universal. Liturgical music that was composed in the first millennium still moves my millennial heart. The presence of paintings and statues, sounds and smells, in a Church allow for us to perceive the emergence of the infinite within the finite. And the claim that a small piece of bread has the power to take on the substance of a wounded and decrepit piece of human flesh sounds is one I’ve yet to hear from a new restaurant or cafe that seeks to cater to a hip millennial crowd. “You only drink fair-trade wine? Well I only drink transubstantiated wine.” …Barely running the risk of being too mainstream for hipsters.
So yes, while I enjoy wearing tight fitting clothing, frequenting fair trade coffee shops, and listening to indie music, I only understand their meaning and value in light of He from whom true meanings emerges. As Christians strive to present their faith as something relevant so as to make it a viable competitor in the market of cultures and ideas, perhaps they can return to the fact that its founder is the one who makes possible the emergence of any strand of truth, beauty, and meaning in each “competing” cultural proposal. Perhaps we can approach evangelization with an attitude of simplicity, asking ourselves and those to whom we are witnessing our faith: from where does culture emerge? toward what does beauty ultimately lead us? In the heart of every true hipster is the yearning for an answer to these questions that is eternally “not mainstream”: the Mystery made flesh.