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Monday, January 11, 2010

Those Northern Liberties Hipsters


An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer about the Eastern Orthodox churches in the Northern Liberties section of the city got me thinking about hipsters and religion, among other things. In that piece, writer David O’Reilly quotes some Northern Liberties residents who say they have no interest in going to (or visiting) any of these unique churches because organized religion isn’t necessary for spirituality anymore. That stuff, the feeling went, belongs to an older time and to an older generation.

Reading O’Reilly’s piece, I couldn’t help but envision 2,000 years of Christianity being made irrelevant by the invention of the Blackberry, Liberty Lands, or Sunday brunch in a chic new neighborhood restaurant.

What the hipsters seemed to be saying in this Inquirer piece is that the new religion of Northern Liberties is the environment, and that “living” that religion amounts to sprucing up Liberties Land, planting new trees, or discovering new doggie day care centers. The hipsters seem to agree that this is not an age for pie in the sky, for priests in gold vestments who wear funny hats and kiss icons, or for following somebody else’s rules. The New Age is all about finding the truth within as long as it does not hurt anybody.

Ah yes, the truth within: My truth is not your truth, but hey, that’s okay. We are all the same, all religions are the same, everything’s on an equal footing, and one truth is as good as another. But is that really true? If all truths are the same, you mean to say that there’s not one truth that stands out as The Truth?

One thing’s certain, and it’s this: the hipsters didn’t invent “doing your own thing” when it comes to spirituality. That was my generation, the baby boomers. When I was 20 I walked out of a Catholic Ash Wednesday service. My exodus was meant as a slap in the face to my mother, who was with me at the time. In my mind I was demonstrating my new found independence. “I believe in the Church of Man,” I told her later in the car, “a higher spirituality. Heaven is here on Earth.”

But if heaven is here on earth, why can’t we fix the economy, leave the doors of our houses open when we go to work, or pick dollar bills off money trees? The concept of heaven on earth is a fantasy that never seems to make the transition to real life. Put all your faith in Man, or humankind, and chances are eventually you will be sorely disappointed.

I did feel sorry for these Orthodox and Eastern Catholic priests who told Inquirer writer David O’Reilly that their Northern Liberties churches are not attracting any of the local residents. These are the same residents, after all, who claim to have an interest in everything arty and esoteric, from casino politics to micro breweries to trolling the streets on First Friday’s for a monthly infusion of art and crafts. They’ll talk about Tibetan monks, take up Hindu or Transcendental meditation, go Vegan, tattoo their body, but still nothing compels them to sample an ancient liturgy that once caused ambassadors from the court of Kiev who visited the Aghia Sophia in Byzantium in 987 to exclaim, “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth.”
The Orthodox churches must take part of the blame for this. Visitors to these churches can sometimes be made to feel unwelcome. When I visited Saint George’s Greek Orthodox Church in Center City some years ago, an old woman approached me in the vestibule and stated rather emphatically, that “This is NOT a Catholic church!” It didn’t help that she then asked if I was Greek, as if an Irishman had no business soiling the province of Orthodoxy.
For a Church to be vibrant and successful, wouldn’t it be wise to purge itself of too strong an ethnic identity? The keyword here, I think, is universal. If these NL churches want to attract the local population, they should opt to be more than just ethnic enclaves. But they should not, as one hipster commented on, make themselves “more relevant” and “attractive” by staging environmental sermons or trying to compete with local activist organizations.
After all, have these hipsters ever heard the quotation from Scripture, “Render unto Caesar….?”
Reading the Inquirer article, it was easy to feel the priests’ resentment of NL residents. I got the feeling that a couple of the priests came very close to suggesting, albeit in a joking manner, that the hipsters should go out and create their own church, a Northern Liberties Church of the Dog, or a Northern Liberties Church of the Environment, or a CasinoNo chapel of the Delaware River Rite. In the Church of the Dog, for instance, hip congregants could show off their dogs, sing dog mantras, and sip Starbucks coffee while periodically playing with their Blackberries. Then they could all head out for a communal brunch. I’m stereotyping, of course, and for that I apologize, but I am hitting on a few general truths. (By the way, I’ve got nothing against dogs, or the concept of relative truth— a hot Johnny Brenda’s band as one’s temporary personal messiah-- I just don’t like stepping in dog poop while making my way in the neighborhoods).
While I don’t pretend to have even half the answers, I do know that should that awful Mayan prophecy come true in 2012, people won’t be running to the Church of the Dog, or to the Church of the Environment for advice and solace, but more likely than not they’ll be knocking on the door of that priest in the funny hat around the corner.

Thom Nickels

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