According to the Urban Dictionary, a hipster is defined as:
a subculture of men and women typically in their 20’s and 30’s that value independent thinking, counter-culture, progressive politics, an appreciation of art and indie-rock, creativity, intelligence, and witty banter…Hipsters reject the culturally-ignorant attitudes of mainstream consumers, and are often be seen wearing vintage and thrift store inspired fashions, tight-fitting jeans, old-school sneakers, and sometimes thick rimmed glasses.
Hipsters therefore reject the “mainstream” in favor of what they perceive to be unique, “cool,” and authentic in life. Think: well-educated hippies with trendy fashion sense. Hipster Christianity is even a thing these days: those who “attempt to burn away the kitschy dross of the megachurch Christianity of their youth,” in the process caring deeply about both Christian aesthetics (both within the Church and in the way it interacts with the world) and the emulating that original rejecter of the “mainstream,” Christ himself.
Like every movement of “cool,” hipster faith is itself in danger of turning in on itself or becoming more about style over substance. And yet, they can offer some interesting and surprisingly old-school (again, a hipster hallmark) and authentic takes on the faith.
Enter Pope Francis, representative of some of the most “old school” Christianity around. Though the 76-year-old pontiff is by no means a contemporary hipster, his actions and words since his election earlier this year have excited many. Whether it has been forgoing the papal apartments in favor of a simpler dwelling, washing feet, calling up random people on the phone to minister to them, or personally paying his own hotel bill, Francis has staked out a style and position that is a clear departure from the papacies that went before him. Smaller in scope than that of Benedict XVI and John Paul II, Francis’ approach is nevertheless wider and potentially more influential than either.
It is ironic in this way that the man who literally is “the Man” of the Catholic Church seems to be rejecting the mainstream in favor of a different, more stripped-down approach. In an interview published yesterday (of which I’ve read only part), he was clear, for instance, on what Church was:
“I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.”
He goes on to say that:
The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all.
Think want you want about his words (which, by the way, Relevant Magazine, that newsletter of hipster Christianity, was sure to highlight), but they definitely seem to be peeling back layers of theological and bureaucratic accretions in order to get at the genuine heart of Christianity. Even Francis’ choice of papal name is an attempt to reach back to something more authentic: the medieval monk now known as St. Francis, who literally stripped off all of his clothes and offered himself up when he felt the call of God. Francis went on to be a person of great piety, preaching and ministering to people (and birds) far and wide and reflecting deeply on the person of Christ and work of God in our world. If there ever was a hipster saint, Francis of Assisi was surely him.
In the end, Pope Francis’ style and approach may very well make him the first “hipster Pope,” and that’s interesting…as far as it goes. But if that is all he is, if he is just a man of style without substance or some creation of the fawning media, I would be disappointed. If, in other words, he set out to be the hipster Pope of trendy Catholicism, he would be discredited. If, however, his piety and authenticity are simply such that they cannot be ignored and must be given attention because of Christ living through him, I welcome such a moment in the history of the Church.
And yet we know that, like all men, Francis is imperfect. That despite how inspiring he may be to Christian hipsters (in this category I might perhaps include myself) and countless others, we ought to observe some caution. Francis, like any human being, can fail. Yet even in this, we are given hope by the fact that he himself may be more aware of this than all his fawning admirers:
“I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”
Food for thought as we head into the weekend.