Essay / Culture

The Heresy of Cool

Coolness is heretical. Or at least the pursuit of it is. This is because an inverse relationship exists between our attempts at being cool and our faith in Jesus Christ. The one struts, confident in his ability to do and say all the right things. The other limps, just as confident in his ineptitude, his missed cues and bad timing.

The professionally cool know the short shelf life of their product and are thus characterized by an ability to be just ahead of the curve. They seem to just be leaving the places at which the rest of us are just arriving. It all looks as effortless as it is actually rigorous. That is to say, it’s hard work being cool. And a funny kind of hard work to boot, because it’s not allowed to look hard.

Now some of being cool is simply a function of liking the right things at the right times. So you have the strange phenomenon of someone’s dad being suddenly, surprisingly cool this summer in plaid shorts — last year’s joke at the 4th of July BBQ is this year’s hipster uniform. Plenty of times we happen to like an album, only to find that doing so puts us in with the in crowd. This is accidental coolness.

But there’s that other kind, too, the kind that — admit it — you really care about. And let’s cast the net wide. This is not just your kid’s problem. It’s yours, too. And, okay, mine. I say all this in self-incrimination.

In this second sense, ‘cool’ is shorthand for ‘liked’. Most of us work ourselves into exhaustion trying to be this kind of cool. It’s an ‘if only’ issue. ‘If only they like me, everything will be okay.’ And there’s the heresy. We continually face a choice: will we seek to establish ourselves by being cool, or we trust that God has established us in Christ? It really is that simple. In John 12, we learn that there are a group of synagogue leaders who were believing Jesus, but they stayed quiet, as they loved the approval of people rather than that of God. Again, not a question of degrees. It’s an either-or. In Christ, God has revealed his death-defying love for sinners. When I prefer to be cool, I nonchalantly let him know that I’d prefer the love of a fickle mass of opinion jockeys instead.

There’s an irony to cool. In a particularly pitiful season of wanting to be cool (not that long ago, I’ll admit), my friend Linus reminded me that, in its beginnings, cool was anything but. To be ‘cool’ was to be spurned, misunderstood, unpopular. That we can now mass produce and market cool — that is, that we can at once sell people the myth of their own edginess and nonconformity and at the same time succeed at selling everyone that message — is astounding.

Furthermore, what happens when I become cool? What then? I play a desperate game of king of the mountain, knowing that I’m always only one false step from tumbling to the bottom of the hill. Coolness is competitive, you see. Not everyone can be cool. And so for me to be so, I’ve got to make sure you’re not. Or at least not many of you.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is a different game entirely. It brings stability, builds houses on rocks. And with the security of the love of God, we can concentrate on giving love rather than hoarding it. That’s what our obsession with being cool is really about, isn’t it? Hoarding love, all for ourselves, but always in the fear that it might be stolen. Well, when the love you’re given is secure, constant, unmatchable and unquenchable, you don’t worry. You give it away. And that’s, well, pretty cool.

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