Lewis Against Hipsters — And Those Who Despise Them

Small Talk — 2013 National Conference

The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C.S. Lewis

The title for my small talk here is C.S. Lewis Against the Hipsters — And Those Who Despise Them. And since these are called small talks, I must be brief, which means I only have time for a few hipster jokes and hopefully something helpful for all of us. Why did the hipster burn his mouth? Because he tried to eat pizza before it was cool.

Who Are Hipsters?

Now, in raising the question of hipsters, it immediately provokes the question, what do I mean by hipster? Who am I talking about? And as I prepared for this talk, I repeatedly felt myself grasping for a useful definition. I could mention the obsession with staying ahead of the trends, of doing things before they’re cool. I could talk about the odd indie music or foreign films, the strange desire to drink nasty beer like Pabst Blue Ribbon, the instinctive recoil from anything “mainstream”, the self-important sense of irony, and, of course, the thick framed glasses, V-neck T-shirts, and other distinctive clothing that most of us have come to regard as some sort of hipster uniform.

Which reminds me, why are hipsters so thin? Because they have skinny genes. Now, the problem with all of these traits and descriptions is that each of them would no doubt be disputed by someone who would self-identify as a hipster, if you could actually get them to admit it. And since what I really want to talk about is Lewis, I’m going to leave aside the question of definitions and just say the same thing that the Supreme Court Justice said, which is, “How do I know what a hipster is? I know one when I see one.”

So bracket the question of what I or anyone else means by hipster and let’s talk about Lewis, and something that he thought was one of the permanent mainsprings of human action, something that appears in both his fiction and non-fiction writing, and something that I would suggest is deeply relevant for hipsters (whoever they are), and for those people who have a particular enmity toward them. I’m referring to what Lewis called “the desire to be in the inner ring”.

Pressing into the Inner Ring

Lewis describes this phenomena in the essay by that name, but it also makes an appearance in the people of Calormen, in The Screwtape Letters, and as one of the main temptations confronted by Mark Studdock in That Hideous Strength.

So what did Lewis mean by “the inner ring”? He meant the spontaneous, informal, and unavoidable hierarchies and groupings that shape so much of human life. Inner rings, unlike traditional hierarchies of office or position, are fluid, meaning people are always coming into them and coming out of them, sometimes without even knowing it, even though there are no formal admissions or expulsions.

Lewis said that you know that you’re inside one when you spontaneously find yourself referring to some unidentified group of people as “we” or “us”. And you know that you’re on the outside of one when you spontaneously refer to some unidentified group of people as “they” or “them” or “so and so and his set.” If we were using modern vocabulary, we’d probably say something like a clique.

Lewis recognizes that inner rings take various forms, but he’s very concerned about those in the grip of the lust to be on the inside of an inner ring, and that there’s a longing that merely wants to be on the inside to be part of “those who know”. And that’s why I used hipsters as my launching point since almost everyone would admit that one of the common features of hipsterdom is the desire to be cutting edge, to be ahead of the game, to be an insider, which ironically in this case means being an outsider, but that’s neither here nor there.

Of course, hipsters would simply be one manifestation of the phenomenon. Those who despise hipsters, those who can’t stand them, those who are enraged that someone with an unkempt beard would wear plaid shirts and rolled up jeans while ironically sipping their fair trade coffee and listening to Mumford and Sons — who have totally sold out, by the way, they’re mainstream — may well be in the grip of another kind of inner ring.

Because the key trait of inner rings, at least the dangerous sort, is exclusion. What unites those who are inside is not primarily a shared love of music or sport or hobby, but the lust for the esoteric, the hunger for that delicious sense of secret intimacy, the longing to be inside simply because it’s inside.

The Problem with Inner Rings

Now, Lewis says that these inner rings are unavoidable, a fundamental feature of human life, but he’s very concerned that we not become inner ringers — one who is chiefly motivated by the quest to press further up and further into whatever rings are accessible to us. And he gives two main reasons for warning us against this lust.

First, he says, “Of all the passions, the passion for the inner ring is most skillful in making a man who is not a very bad man do very bad things.” This is what Studdock discovers in That Hideous Strength. It’s that desire to be welcomed by an inner ring that can lead us to make small compromises that set us on a dangerous trajectory.

One of Lewis’s key insights is that we are always sewing seeds of our future selves and if we sow to the inner ring, when we reap or when we are reaped, it’s a good chance that we’ll be reaped as scoundrels and that peculiar kind of scoundrel who wonders, “How did I ever fall so far?”

A second reason for his warning is that as long as you’re governed by the desire to be inside this invisible line, you’ll never get what you want. Inner rings are like onions. As soon as you cross one layer, you discover another one beyond, and given the type of person you are, you immediately lust to be inside that one and the next one and the next one.

And if you were to succeed in peeling the onion the whole way, Lewis says, there will be nothing left. You will have arrived inside, to be sure, just like you’ve always wanted, but you will be hollow and empty since you were made for more than simply being on the inside of nothing in particular. You were made to be welcomed into the shared life of the triune God, which is a very different inside altogether.

Reckoning with Our Own Temptations

So given the danger of the inner ring, both for hipsters and those who despise them, and for all of us really, what can be done? Well, here, I’ll leave Lewis aside and offer some of my own thoughts, which I hope would meet his approval.

First, we must be aware of the particulars of our own temptations. We are all experts at leaning against the sins of others, but we’re often blind to our own peculiar faults. I am entirely ignorant of the current unknown but awesome bands, I’ve never had a drop of coffee in my life, my wife buys all of my clothes, and I would not be caught dead in skinny jeans. So as much as I might want to warn against what I think are real dangers in hipsterdom — like the metrosexual gender bending, the temptation to buckle to cool shaming — regardless of that, I must, as Jesus said, heal myself first. I have to take the log out of my own eye before I go speck hunting behind horn-rimmed glasses.

Second, we must all remember who our people truly are. As many cultural affinities as we have with unbelievers in our respective tribes, we must remember that we have far more in common with fellow members of the body of Christ. So let me make this a little concrete.

This means that a tattooed, latte-sipping, foreign-film watching barista has more in common with a homeschooling, teetotaling, Little-House-on-the-Prairie loving housewife than either of them do with unbelievers who may share their cultural trappings. Both of them should remember that and welcome one another just as Christ as welcome them.

Third, if you should wake up one day and find yourself in one of these exclusionary inner rings, so happy to be inside finally, you ought to, when you realize it, make every effort to blow up those hidden boundaries by genuinely embracing an outsider, however awkward that hug might be.

There’s a great scene in the recent Jackie Robinson movie in which the Southern-bred shortstop, Peewee Reese, puts his arm around Jackie before the start of a game, knowing that his racist friends and family are in attendance, and he says, “Thank you, Jackie, for letting my family see who I really am.”

The Best Remedy

Finally, perhaps the best antidote to being an inner ringer can be found in cultivating healthy, self-forgetful humility that is immune to this lust for the esoteric, this lust for the secret intimacy of being in the know. And I know of no better way to cultivate such humility than by breathing the air of one of my favorite passages in The Chronicles of Narnia. So here it goes:

There were about half a dozen men, and Shasta had never seen anyone like them before. For one thing, they were all as fair-skinned as himself, and most of them had fair hair, and they were not dressed like men of Calormen. Most of them had legs bare to the knee. Their tunics were of fine, bright, hardy colors — woodland green or gay yellow or fresh blue. Instead of turbans, they wore steel or silver caps, some of them set with jewels and one with little wings on each side. A few were bareheaded.

The swords at their side were long and straight, not curved like Calormen scimitars. And instead of being grave and mysterious, like most color Calormenes, they walked with a swing and let their arms and shoulders go free. And they chatted and laughed. One was whistling. You could see that they were ready to be friends with anyone who was friendly and didn’t give a fig for anyone who wasn’t. Shasta thought he had never seen anything so lovely in his life.