Monthly Archives: August 2010

Book Review: Hipster Christianity

Book Review: Hipster ChristianityBrett McCracken’s Hipster Christianity attempts to document the fusion of modern western Christianity with the hipster subculture. It’s mostly a descriptive book with a bit of prescriptive advice at the end that might ruffle some feathers, but for the most part McCracken -– a writer for spiritual hipster publication Relevant magazine –- offers germane insight into the recent movement.

McCracken, a self-described hipster, helpfully offers a general, secularized history of the notion of “hip” and places its origins as far back as the Enlightenment, with Rousseau’s On the Social Contract (though he committed a slight academic flub by referring to the medieval period as the Dark Ages). He leads us through the dandies to the beatniks and all the way up to the present day purveyors of cool: the hipster, and its Christianized versions and their particular brand of theology. The real takeaway meat of McCracken’s book raises issues with the merging of Christianity and the hipster movement and attempts to resolve the question as to whether Christianity can be “cool” at all.

As I’ve mentioned before, McCracken’s book is mostly an objective analysis of the hipster social phenomenon. One of the more interesting chapters is the third, where the various sub-hipster factions are examined, and it got me doing an examination of conscience at my degree to which I was a hipster (McCracken even has an unscientific survey on his site to determine your level of hipsterdom), though I had a good idea of the answer already. I’m about 50-50 hipster: yay to secular art and literature, tattoos, and deferential discussions of theology with non-Christians; I get docked points for living in the suburbs, giving thumbs up to capitalism (not corporatism), and having Explosions In the Sky as my sole hipster-approved music on my iPod. Fifty percent is usually a failing grade.

Though he is more or less sympathetic to the hipster movement in his book, McCracken wisely defers to his “Christian” side. I think he may regard hipster Christianity as just another trend-swell within the church and treats its ideals as secondary to the stalwart presence of the church on earth. He even admits to the trend’s recent decline, and here would have been an opportunity to posit some predictions at the next movement to pass. One would assume something gap-filling and swinging in a Chestertonian counter-direction. Just as hipster’s bar-hopping tendencies and penchant for vintage-style ecumenism was a reaction to evangelicals’ teetotalist tut-tutting and megachurchery, so will the next movement tip the balance in certain respects away from hipster Christianity.

So can Christianity be “cool”? I don’t think McCracken doesn’t give a definite answer, but it’s really a trick question. Christianity’s – or the various movements within Christendom’s attempts to be genuinely relevant to secular culture –- is an irrelevant variable. God’s truths aren’t subject to social trends or the shifting demands of the market. The last few chapters has McCracken giving scripture-based advice to the Christian hipster movement on the aspects of the hipster culture that are at odds, or could be at odds, with the truths of Christianity. It’s run-of-the-mill advice to those familiar with orthodox Christianity, but that’s actually good: the propositional truths of Christian doctrine have not and should not change, though their emphases do change given cultural standards (one is reminded of the tailored admonishments and warnings Jesus gave the churches in Revelation). There is nothing new in McCracken’s reminders. It would be suspect if there were.

This is a disclaimer to any meddling government bureaucrats reading this and wondering if I got this book for free. I did, so now you can feel better that you are getting paid to keep innocent people safe from another blogger’s book review.

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Your Writing Is Terrible: Put Your Pen Down

Invisible Creature started a series of posts on packaging design, then and now. Their first target is a box of Trix. It’s the case that packaging has gotten a lot more cluttered the past few decades. Empty space in design is seen as wasted real estate for marketing or information. Our eyes aren’t able to breathe as easily.

How does this relate to writing? Well, take your first novel – maybe you’re on your first draft it already or you’re just in the thinking stages. You’ve read tons of great books already, and the thought of escalating your own plot germ into 300 or so pages feels daunting. You’ll need to fill in that space with something, because your plot isn’t quite as expansive as you thought. What do you think you will do?

The amateur mistake is to write too much. Too much description, too much dialogue, too many needless scenes, or the worst offense: too much backstory. We marvel at our verbosity in transit but when we reread that page we though was so clever turned out to read like fifth grader with an overworked thesaurus fetish (no offense to talented fifth grade writers).

I fell into this trap on my first draft of Gods. I overexplained the environment or stretched my dialogue out instead of economizing my words to get the point across, and I substituted five words for one that would have worked just as effectively. There were unnecessary scenes I wrote out because I thought they were humorous or passionate. I even laid out the protagonist’s entire childhood (really), and I thought I was disguising bare exposition by having her speak her whole history to another character. Going back and reading that and other newbie blunders in overwriting resulted in many facepalms.

To remedy this, copy the masters. Take two of my favorites, Fahrenheit 451 and The Bell Jar – Bradbury and Plath both hold back when they could have unleashed the full power their literary fury. Their respective tomes are slim but classic. Certainly there are classics that are much lengthier, but the idea here is that the more is better so long as the better is consistent. More words by themselves are useless.

I know it’s hard to delete that one nice action scene or section of wry dialogue, but keep it mind the edited out parts can always be used for a different work. Some of you might fear that you’re “estupidizing” (my word) your writing by making it less effusive; I can certainly understand that sentiment as I personally hate reading things for myself that are too easily digested. It’s better to think of it more as respecting your readers’ time. They are putting their whole attention and a block of time into reading your story – why not make their effort “high quality” by not jerking them around with stacks of descriptive paragraphs of snowy mountaintops or the villain’s tentacle-like nosehairs? Your story is good enough without all the insane packaging. Step aside a little but, let the story tell itself, and allow your readers’ minds to breathe.

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Collectivist Kids’ Books

Being the father of an almost-five year old and a book dweeb, I naturally enjoy reading her books with her — at least, as much as an adult can enjoy that sort of thing. The ones that are didactic are fairly innocuous in their delivery; they promote good manners, cooperation, learning, imagination, inventiveness (some of the A Bug’s Life offshoot books are good for that) and other things that aren’t politic-specific. Then there are some that have raised some red flags in that they hint at a collectivist politics, whether intended or not. This is not paranoia on my part, especially when some of these books are actively promoted as such.

As mentioned, most books don’t go either way, even if they are meant to be taken as such. Horton Hears A Who? is about the post-World War II American occupation of Japan (imperialism is a form of collectivism, keep in mind…a usually right-wing form), but it can be read without that allegorical attachment. For the older crowd, The Lord of the Rings series can be interpreted via Tolkein’s Catholicism or an expression of mild British nationalism (Tolkein said that the books were an artificial mythology for England), but they don’t need to be deconstructed to be enjoyed. Other times the collectivism is more obvious if one is attuned to it, like The Rainbow Fish.

In Rainbow, a fish with glittery scales is the envy of the ocean. Every other fish wants one of the rainbow fish’s scales, but it doesn’t want to give any out and thus doesn’t make many friends. The rainbow fish is seen as an uncharitable misanthrope, naturally, until it speaks to an octopus who advises him to essentially give up his property to the other fish. This will lead to some personal peace for the rainbow fish. While I can understand the motivations for charity or sharing on a personal level, it’s a little dislodging to think of others having a moral claim to the actual pieces of an individual’s body.

Or take The Selfish Crocodile. The titular character uses the threat of force to keep all the other animals out of his river. When he gets a toothache, a mouse removes the offending tooth, they become friends, and he eventually stops being a jerk enough to let everyone into the river. Not terribly collectivist outright, until you get to the line, “The river belongs to everyone!”. I have no problem with the idea of sharing but not with the idea of automatic collective ownership, but the four year old mind isn’t capable of parsing the nuances of the ethics of ownership.

Does this mean I’m going to stop reading these books to her? Course not! Instead it’s a great opportunity for discussing the idea of peaceful, voluntary exchange. For instance, if (very important “if”) the crocodile actually owned the river, or a part of it, he could satisfy demand for its use in exchange for something from which he could benefit. He could charge continuous dental services from the mouse (the crocodile did wonder what would happen if he got another toothache). If an animal thought they could benefit from the exchange, it would agree, and both parties would gain from the agreement.

Again, discussing books is much better than just reading them and leaving your kid to draw an uninformed conclusion without the gain of working through alternative ideas. It never hurts to explore other ideas, especially if you don’t agree with them. There’s no need to toss their well-written books, and a possible learning experience, aside just because of that.

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I Heard Jesus Smoked Cloves

I received my copy of Hipster Christianity that I won from Mike Duran. When I unzipped the FedEx box, that one part from Handel’s Messiah echoed somewhere from the side of my house.

You may recall that I won one of his handmade crosses a few months ago. Didn’t hear any Handel when the package arrived, or anything really, but Mike might have it in for me. In the good way.

I will read this and write up a review soon.


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Wizard Needs Food…Badly

On a non-literary note, I did some tidying up on the site, most noticeably in the graphics department. It’s 8-bit time! After listening to some Anamanaguchi I redid the “jd” logo in the corner, jiggered the icons (and the content) on the About page — and made all the images one sprite file. I also streamlined a lot of the code and, using Yslow as a guide, I got my grades from 92-99 out of 100, depending on what page you’re on. I do get interference from the “Share this post” widget, so I may find a replacement or workaround.

Visually, other than the logo, nothing drastic has changed: still no ads, no color palette hemorrhaging, no gradients or reflections or overblown graphics, no distracting piles of WordPress widgets about what my wife ate for breakfast.

The result of all of this is just nice, clean livin’, like a recovered cokehead who wasn’t really a cokehead to begin with. The page loads much faster (I often get under half a second on the generation time that you see in the footer) and is less resource intensive. But sorry folks, I’m still not doing any IE6 optimization — the site is still readable with that “browser”, but not ideal.

Design and usability geekery is done. You can wake up now and read about an interesting new high school curriculum or figure out what’s going on here.

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