This is the point — well, mostly — that Daniel Siedell makes in an October 30th post at the Patheos blog “Cultivare.” Siedell writes about the “evangelical hamster ball,” an analogy for what is often referred to as a bubble — the way in which evangelicals tend to wall themselves off from the rest of the culture. Siedell says that evangelicals who care about the arts live with the “illusion that that we’re in [culture], ‘engaging,’ ‘transforming,’ or being ‘faithfully present.’ But the reality is that we are completely irrelevant and cut off from it.”
These are strong words, and I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I’ve considered this same problem, in a post here at Patrol two years ago in reference to Mark Driscoll’s habitual inconsistency problem when it comes to “engaging” culture. My conclusion was that evangelicals should stop trying to engage, and just accept that we are part of culture. So, I think Siedell’s observation is dead on.
I read Siedell’s piece last night right before I went to bed, and then, as if divinely ordained to prove Siedell’s point about evangelicals and culture, a piece at The Gospel Coalition titled “The Hipster in All of Us” appeared in my Twitter feed this morning. (In truth, Siedell’s piece is nearly a month old, and the “hipster” thing was published two days ago, but still.)
Anyway, the TGC piece, written by Mike Cosper, “pastor of worship and arts” at a church in Louisville, Kentucky, addresses the irony versus sincerity debate that started with Christy Wampole’s article in The New York Times two Sundays ago, and has been making its way around the internet ever since. I contributed my two cents over at The Atlantic last week, stating the thesis of my soon to be released book, which argues that irony is not the ethos of our age as Wampole suggests, rather a “New Sincerity” moment is upon us.
Scores of other writers reached similar conclusions, ringing with almost unanimous dismissal of Wampole’s ideas about irony. Most recently, R. Jay Magill, Jr., author of a book about sincerity, in fact called Sincerity followed by a really long subtitle, added a great deal of historical context to the conversation. In short he echoed what my mother always told me — I think she must have read it somewhere — that there’s “nothing new under the sun.”
So, with all of this out there for anyone to read, it baffled me that Cosper would jump into the fray and use Wampole’s incorrect thesis about irony and hipsters as an opportunity for some thoughts about how to reach this lost bunch of irony-driven lackeys. Add a touch of Neo-Reformed commiseration — he writes, “there’s a little bit of a hipster in all of us” — and that’s just what he did. And, in so doing he showed once again why evangelicals consistently fail at reaching outside themselves — they have no idea about what is out there. They live wholly inside Dan Siedell’s hamster ball.
Here’s the thing, if you’re so removed from culture that you will take any opinion that confirms your bias as gospel truth (see what I did there?), you’re never going to reach anyone. I can imagine that Pastor Cosper, already a little leery of those he perceives as hipsters, read Professor Wampole’s essay in the Times and thought to himself, why yes, that’s exactly the problem, irony is the ethos of our age as embodied by hipsters, and then he quickly devised a ministry plan for witnessing to those lost, ironic souls. But Wampole was wrong about “the ethos of our age,” and then Cosper, in running with her misguided assumptions and adding some pretty clueless observations of his own, was doubly wrong.
To his credit, the response he came up with to the misperceived irony problem is the very thing I argue that he and Wampole are missing about our culture’s more likely ethos (though identifying such a thing is probably impossible), namely sincerity. Yes, sincerity is the appropriate answer to ironic detachment, and that is exactly why it began to take hold, over a decade ago, in popular culture. Isn’t it just like evangelicals, always late to the party, but still so eager to join in on the fun.
This is how you fail. If you think of yourself as outside of culture, if you stay rolling around in your hamster ball making occasional plans for how you’ll bring outsiders in, you’ll fail. You, like Mike Cosper, will look for evidence that confirms your bias but you’ll inevitably misread it and be wrong, and in your defeat you’ll grow ever more weary of the world you’re trying to reach. This is a fruitless pursuit; in the end, you’ll just keep rolling around in circles, bumping into walls, and being kicked by kids to the point that your plastic orb existence gets so scuffed up and filled with your own pellet-like excrement that it becomes nearly impossible to see where you’re going.
I think maybe I took the metaphor a bit too far there at the end, but you know what I mean.
Jonathan D. Fitzgerald
Jonathan D. Fitzgerald is editor of Patrol and author of Not Your Mother's Morals: How the New Sincerity is Changing Pop Culture for the Better. Follow Fitz on Twitter.
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