What’s needed around here is a good definition of the word cool. We all know what is intended whenever we encounter it in a sentence, but a clear understanding nevertheless remains elusive. One individual is successfully cool. Another makes the attempt, with tragic results, and even a lowly junior high student knows to roll his eyes. Someone else simply doesn’t care about being terminally unhip, and continues attending square dances in frilly dresses. So what is this thing called cool?
Since the fall of man, our affairs have been governed by the antithesis between righteousness and unrighteousness. When God pronounced enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent, He was determining the interpretive grid for understanding all of human history.
Sinful men must reckon with the fact of this antithesis, and they attempt to do so in various ingenious ways. For example, secular conservatives acknowledge an antithesis between good and evil, right and wrong, but then try to define those terms according to their own arbitrary standards. Good is understood in national, or economic, or racial, or tribal categories, and evil is that which threatens the nation, economy, race, and so forth.
In contrast to this, secular liberals try to pretend that there is no antithesis, and that we are all one big happy family. Let us all hold hands, and envision world peace. The only barrier to the realization of this utopian glory are those miscreants who continue to insist that there is too an antithesis. Thus the only evil is to maintain that there is such a thing as true evil. In sum, conservatives tend to misplace the antithesis, while liberals tend to blur and deny it. For the secular conservative, racial and national boundaries are fairly stable, and so they provide a fairly good counterfeit of God’s unchanging absolutes which draw distinctions. For the liberal, the pretense that we are all “saying the same thing really” is a comfortable imitation of the biblical injunction to love one another.
In contrast to both conservative and liberal, the category cool represents a postmodern attempt to establish a relativistic antithesis. In this view, the human race is divided into two categories: square and hip, or, put another way, cool and uncool. Unlike the false conservative antitheses, the boundaries keep shifting and the rules keep changing. And unlike the liberal view, there really is an avowed antithesis between those who meet the standard and those who do not.
The standards of cool are enforced with a hardline cruelty, but at the same time the standards which are enforced are transient and evanescent. Woe betide the hapless person who shows up at some cool event decked out in the wrong clothes, pants hitched down to the wrong place on his thigh, body pierced in the wrong place, or hair spray-painted the wrong color. He is ostracized faster than you can say retro-groovy. But the standards really are transient; he might have been all right if he had shown up forty-five minutes later.
The thinking Christian deals with all this the same way he deals with any other confusion. He may find himself dismissed as uncool, or accepted for a time, for some arbitrary reason, as sufficiently cool. But the accolades of the unbelieving do not concern him. When the right-wing wants to recruit him for some tribal war, or when liberals want him to help celebrate humanity, he is aloof. In the same way, the temptation to be dubbed cool should be dismissed as just another invitation to climb into a world which defies the antithesis which God established. To all of this, he stands apart.
But alas, this is the response of the thinking Christian, and so it is not what the modern evangelical world does. The tragedy of our time is that the Church currently wants to be cool, and for a host of reasons, as long as it remains recognizably Christian, cannot be. This is because the relativism is really a pretense. All forms of unbelief participate in the antithesis which God established, which means that every false antithesis is really at bottom a rebellion against God. That being the case, the unbelieving cool will not admit our entry just because we figured out a way to imitate the Calvin Klein logo. They will not rest content until the name of God is openly blasphemed among us, which is perhaps not too far distant.
One man is cool and changes his persona every other day, now this and now that. He may be imitated by the nerd who also changes what he does just as swiftly, but the nerd cannot be received into the realm of the cool simply by being just as transient. A brief walk through an evangelical bookstore — take care to look at the music, teeshirts, and bumperstickers — reveals us to be a fairly large population of ecclesiastical nerds. For some bizarre reason, contemporary Christians think that a profound theological statement is being made if we come up with Tommy Hellfighter shirts. Get it? Get it? Tommy Hellfighter?
Such copycatting is not the result of the evangelical world mocking the pretenses of the cool. It is really nothing more than the desperate desire of an very uncool little brother who wants to “grow up” so that he can do all the things his debauched older brother has gotten himself into.
The only way out is to return to the real antithesis, the one established long ago in the Garden.